Published On: Wed, Sep 18th, 2019

CLASSIC CANES: DOWNTON delivers celebrity dividend for stylish walking sticks maker | City & Business | Finance

The Somerset-based family business sees demand, especially in the US, surge by up to 20 per cent when Maggie Smith’s dowager countess appears sporting her elegantly crafted support. Now a new uplift is surfacing as Downton’s film version takes to the silver screen, confirming a trend for the company that began during the first ITV series in 2012. “Dame Maggie’s strong, older female role is very positive. The visibility of her cane reflects that, it is far more than a mobility aid. Like any other stylish accessory a beautiful cane be the perfect present or a gift for oneself,” explains Classic Canes second generation managing director Charlotte Gillan, a former Asprey luxury goods expert.

The purely wholesale operation generates over a £1 million annual turnover, selling its 700 traditional and contemporary models, from £15 to £1,500, to 2,000 stockists.

Independent traditional outlets and newer retailers such as mobility equipment providers and garden centres in 40 countries now feature the brand’s walking and seat sticks, folding canes and umbrellas. 

Set up by entrepreneurs Diana and Ben Porter in 1982 with capital they had acquired from working overseas, they invested in domestic woodland sites where improvements offered tax breaks. 

And if you spot shades of Downton in their story you would be right as one plot they purchased had a ruined Tudor hunting lodge which they then converted as a home.

The surrounding British hardwoods – silvery ash, mellow green-flecked hazel and blackthorn trees – proved an ideal source of naturally renewed material for a walking stick business at a time when recession had forced other UK suppliers to close.

“The forestry technique of coppicing, which has great environmental benefits encouraging native flora and fauna, provides the wood for our very British style rustic and traditional walking sticks which we make in our workshop,” says Gillan.

The business, which also sources suppliers for its folding and adjustable metal products internationally, has found new customers as retailing and the public’s tastes have changed.

“When my parents started walking sticks for women were unheard of, they had to make do with uncomfortable, cut down men’s ones,” Gillan explains. 

“In Japan however my mother saw how women had their own beautiful canes and pioneered new designs here that are among our most popular. 

“An aging population has increased the market, the internet has formed communities so people, for example with disabilities and in living remote rural areas, are no longer isolated and can share contacts.

“Today’s older generation are as fashion conscious as anyone else and enjoy making a statement through their sartorial style. Our canes feature much loved works such as Monet’s ‘waterlilies’ painting to our latest edgy skull design that has won a big following.” 

Most recent customers include young men cutting a dash at prom parties who now like to carry a cane.

“Many people have a collection of our sticks for different occasions, rather like shoes, and then they become heritage items handed down to the next generation,” says Gillan. 

Long service relationships figure large in all aspects of the business. Some of the team of 10 staff have been with Classic Canes for 15 years and “great attention” is paid to suppliers and retailers who appreciate the loyalty benefits and fair pricing its wholesale model delivers for them, says Gillan. 

“Sales staff are not on commission and customers are given the best advice on product selection for long term results rather than maximising short term sales.”

She also gives much credit to Mercer Design, the local design agency run by former national news photographer Tim Mercer who assists with Classic Canes print and online marketing. “As a result we are now renowned in the industry for our visual quality and consistency,” adds Gillan.

As both an importer and exporter, Brexit headwinds and uncertainty have heaped on additional pressures. “We increased stock levels last year but nothing happened and are reluctant to do that to our suppliers again who have their own tight schedules and need us to commit irrespective of any leave date coming up,” she says.

“The EU is an obvious export market for us, France and Germany are ideal because they understand and appreciate the British sense of style and have good networks.” 

For all that Classic Canes is seeing its best sales and growth ever.   

Investment comes from retained profits and trade fairs are a major recipient “because there is no substitute for meeting buyers face-to-face who have the opportunity to handle the products in real life. That becomes even more important in times of upheaval,” explains Gillan.    

“Our strengths lie in our team, our inventive designs and being a unique specialist.”

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