Less than two months after Kate Middleton and Prince William tied the knot in Westminster Abbey with 2 billion people watching, the couple stepped out for a day at the Epsom Derby. Wearing a white dress, jacket and fascinator, the new Duchess of Cambridge’s outfit drew attention—but mainly because of the pair of nude patent leather L.K. Bennett Sledge pumps on her feet.
The shoes quickly made waves across the internet and became known as her go-to pair; she brought them on overseas visits and wore them at engagements throughout the United Kingdom. Middleton started wearing more of the brand’s designs, including a tan leather clutch and a pair of patent wedges.
Soon enough, L.K. Bennett became synonymous with the Duchess of Cambridge.
But even such royal company couldn’t keep the brand going. Last Friday, the brand announced its intention to file for administration—essentially, bankruptcy—in the U.K., according to The Guardian. (L.K. Bennett has not returned Adweek’s request for comment as of press time.)
It’s quite a turn for a brand that, seven years ago, seemed ripe for global success. In 2012, shortly after Middleton debuted her pumps at the derby, the brand’s international sales grew 65 percent. That same year, it opened its first New York outpost and a U.S. ecommerce website. Later, L.K. Bennett expanded into markets like Russia and China with brick-and-mortar shops. Throughout this time, the aforementioned Sledge heels routinely sold out online.
L.K. Bennett was the prime example of the “Kate Effect”—the phenomenon when an item would sell out right after Middleton wore it—and on a larger scale, what a truly powerful celebrity endorsement could do for a brand.
“They went from being a relatively unknown brand in the UK to being on the very front pages of newspapers where Kate was wearing them,” said Amanda Dishaw, who runs the website What Would Kate Do? and has been chronicling Middleton’s sartorial choices for years. “They leveraged a handful of instances of Kate wearing their products into this global expansion campaign.”
It’s not difficult to understand why L.K. Bennett tried to take advantage of its royal association to propel the brand into a new sphere. “When you get an endorsement like that, it allows you to elevate,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for NPD, told Adweek.
But part of the reason for L.K. Bennett’s initial post-Middleton success was because the brand isn’t Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo. It was a high street label, a Britishism that describes an affordable retailer likely to be found on a city’s main shopping drag, such as a J.Crew or a Zara. Though undoubtedly a cut above the H&Ms of the world, L.K. Bennett was still an accessible brand—which in turn, made royal fashion accessible, too. The Sledge pumps were the perfect combination of high and low; priced at just under $300, they were expensive enough to be a significant purchase, but still attainable to many. The brand was the pinnacle of affordable luxury: getting something that felt and looked exclusive and high-end at a reasonable price.
But changing brand perception can be a tricky business. As L.K. Bennett grew and expanded, the brand began to change, zeroing in on luxury and seemingly attempting to shed its high street label. (When the news of the company’s administration filing broke, customers took to Twitter to complain about the brand raising its prices after Middleton started wearing it.)
The real risk comes when change arrives too quickly. Slow and calculated growth is key. “We’ve seen so many brands that get hot, chase after the business, get so big and then they lose that momentum,” said Cohen. “It creates a risk of being a short-term brand.”
In L.K. Bennett’s defense, it’s hard to plan for slow and calculated growth when you’re hit with a massive boom in publicity that you didn’t see coming, highlighted Dishaw. “The danger is that you get all this media attention, and you’re not prepared to handle it,” she said. “You don’t have the supply chain, and you agreed to back orders or preorders, and then you’re just scrambling to fill it up in any way possible.”
But while L.K. Bennett was able to capitalize on the moment, it couldn’t make it last. “[It] only leveraged those particular products and never really introduced to consumers to the larger brand ethos or what their brand actually stood for,” explained Dishaw. “There’s only so many pairs of nude Sledge shoes that a woman needs in her closet. They weren’t introduced to the other products … because there was no real sense of belonging or brand value.”
Perhaps L.K. Bennett wasn’t able to educate consumers about its brand values because it wasn’t sure of them itself. As Dishaw said, “They just never really defined who they wanted to be, other than a very big and profitable company.”
Figuring that out will be key for L.K. Bennett if it wants to survive, particularly because it’s not getting the celebrity exposure it once did: Middleton has rarely been seen in their designs since 2015.
“They got that lightning in a bottle, that gift from above,” said Cohen. “Now they have to actually earn their ability to be able to sit there, sustain their popularity and drive it on their own.”