Style revival: The return of Connolly
Isabel Ettedgui, owner of the celebrated London shop, recounts its distinguished history and the story behind its new Mayfair home
I first came into contact with Connolly in the 1990s. I knew about the company already, of course, as Connolly upholstered everything from Rolls-Royces and Jaguars to Concorde and the QE2. Connolly leather was even used to cover the seats in the House of Commons.
I was working in magazine publishing when my husband's company, Joseph, was asked to launch a chair design competition using Connolly leather. During this process Joe and I got to know the Connolly family and creative team quite well. A little while later I set up an advertising and marketing agency, and Connolly was one of my first clients.
It became clear to me that Connolly had the potential to be a brand that did far more than just its core business of upholstery. Understanding this vision, Connolly took me on as creative director, and in 1995, I persuaded them to open their first retail store in London.
The shop was a converted stable in a mews just around the corner from Hyde Park. We really played on the motoring heritage, but also brought in a whole range of retail goods – wallets, bags, knitwear, shoes, belts, anything that seemed to fit the Connolly story. The shop was very much off the beaten track and we really weren't sure what the response would be, but people got it straight away.
In 1999, my husband Joe bought the retail side of the business from the Connolly family. We then opened a big store on Conduit Street. With this store we transformed the business with a much broader selection of men's and women's ready-to-wear clothes alongside the leather goods.
With a much more prominent flagship, we instantly got a lot of interest from abroad, particularly from the Japanese market, where customers are keen on good-quality leather and heritage brands.
In the early 2000s, we began to really develop our international sales strategy. Then in 2005, Joe sold his interests in Joseph, the business he had built up from the 1960s, meaning he was able to put a lot more of his time into Connolly. In 2009, however, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and as he became seriously ill, we decided to close the store when the lease came to and end. Joe died the following year.
I kept the Connolly trademarks and was approached a couple of times by people asking whether I either wanted to sell the name or go into business with them. I wasn't sure at first what I would do, but I think deep down I knew it was just a question of finding the right location to relaunch the brand myself.
I bought the Clifford Street location two years ago. It took a year to get planning permission – it was really tough, and there were many times when I thought, "Ah, forget it." But instead, I focused on developing our range of knitwear, tailoring and automotive leather. And with a great team of designers and architects, we got there in the end, and the shop opened in November.
With the big shop on Conduit Street, I think we lost a bit of the intimacy of the old mews shop. Clifford Street used to be a house, and it is important for me that the building retains some of that original feeling, as I want people to feel that they are coming into my home – that's the way I like it.
It is very exciting to see it all happening again, going in a different direction but maintaining the history: it is the reincarnation of Connolly. I think Joe would have approved.
ISABEL ETTEDGUI – the widow of Joseph Ettedgui, the founder of the Joseph retail empire – is the owner of Connolly, which has launched a new flagship store on Clifford Street in Mayfair; connollyengland.com