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Close up: Charles & Angela Stone, Bandana

It’s no household name, but accessories supplier Bandana is a high street fixture. Its owners are on a roll - and making tracks into footwear.

An unassuming office tucked behind a Tesco store in Finchley, north London, seems an unlikely location from which to run a major high street supplier.

But judging by the scale of the success of Charles and Angela Stone’s Bandana clothing supply business, appearances can be deceptive.

Bandana counts most of the mid-market high street retailers among its customers, supplying the likes of Mint Velvet, Phase Eight, River Island, Hobbs and etailer Asos with everything from scarves and woven bags, through to beaded collars and kaftans.

And as if that wasn’t enough to keep the Stones busy, it is also branching out into footwear for spring 14. “We already do lots of holiday products,” explains Charles. “Things like sarongs, kaftans and beach bags. So when one of our customers asked us if we could do a sandal as well, it just made sense.”

According to Angela, the sandal style Bandana will be producing combines a scarf with a sandal. She explains that Bandana’s foray into the category came about because one of the factories Bandana works with also produces footwear. “We asked him to make one for us as a sample and it looks great,” she says. “If it takes off it will be everywhere. It’s quite exciting really.”

The Stones’ passion is palpable, and is the reason for their long service within the fashion business. Both are self-confessed industry veterans: Charles has been involved since leaving school at 16, while Angela’s father was a production manager for a fashion company and her mother a dressmaker.

Bandana was Angela’s idea. She started it from her garage with a friend in 2000, after itching to get back into fashion following a 10-year spell working in the beauty industry. The business soon took off and Angela asked her husband to get involved about five years ago, when the friend she launched it with decided she wanted out. “When Charles came in that’s when it really started to grow properly,” she says.

Today the company is thriving and, according to Charles, about 40% of Bandana’s sales now come from accessories and 60% from the sale of soft clothing - pieces like dresses, tops and playsuits.

Bandana continues to do the majority of its manufacturing in India, although when Charles came on board it started working with factories in China to produce knitted accessories.

Both Charles and Angela see the relationships they have built up with the factories they use as integral to Bandana’s success. “We try to be important to every factory we work with,” says Angela. “Some of them have been with us since the very beginning.”

And the pair are both strong advocates of the quality and craftsmanship associated with manufacturing in India and China. “There is nowhere else in the world that can produce the handiwork of the factories in India and China,” explains Charles. “Even the top brands and designers, people like Matthew Williamson and Kenzo, they may send their fabrics from Europe but they still get their products finished in India and the Far East, because there’s nowhere else to do that beadwork, the handwork and the embroidery.”

Bandana now employs 15 people in the UK as well as a small team in India checking quality. It looks set to continue growing and is currently recruiting for a new sales executive. “We are looking at about 25% year-on-year growth this year,” explains Charles. “We’ve added four or five quite strong accounts in the last year and we are looking to build on those accounts by getting them to buy into new product categories.”

In the full year to June 30, 2011, Bandana recorded turnover of £2.3m and a pre-tax profit of £91,734.

Charles says the accessories sector has grown substantially in the past two to three years as a result of a tougher economic climate. “People don’t have the money to change their clothes every month unless they go to Primark, but they can put a scarf on, they can get a new bag or they can get a beaded collar and put it on a shirt that they had before,” he says.

Figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel certainly support this notion, showing that the value of the women’s accessories market increased 2.6% in the year to September 30, 2012. And it is scarves and bags, two of Bandana’s key products, which have been the main driver of this, up 8.1% and 10.6% respectively.

“All categories of [women’s accessories] products are in growth except belts and costume jewellery, which are in decline and have been since April last year,” explains Charlotte Wilks, consumer research analyst at Kantar Worldpanel.

However, the Stones assert it is the relationships they enjoy with the high street retailers they supply that is key to the business’s success, even though they do feel the pinch from their customers at times.

“Costs have increased in terms of both raw materials and minimum wages but what hasn’t is wholesale prices,” says Charles.

“Our customers still expect to pay the same or less than what they paid before as they are not getting the footfall, and they have been told to get bigger margins. So we are getting squeezed a bit more. Consequently we have to do more volume and increase the volume to compensate for being tight on margins. We can’t pass on those costs to our customers.”

That said, the Stones like to take a personal approach. “We don’t just make one collection for everyone to pick from. Our design teams work with the retailers and they give us their mood boards so the collections we make complement their clothing ranges as well,” explains Angela.

Asos buyer Hilary Robertson is so impressed with what Charles and Angela produce at Bandana, that she has been buying product from them for over 10 years. “I started working with them when I was at House of Fraser and now we use them at Asos too,” she says.

“They have a great fashion eye and a brilliant understanding of textiles and fabrics, and they offer design as well, so it really is the whole package.”

But it’s not just own label supply that Charles and Angela have an interest in. In 2009 they joined forces with their daughter Alice to launch luxury scarf brand Lily and Lionel. Although Alice is responsible for the day-to-day running of the brand, Charles says that having a branded business has actually helped Bandana: “Alice has developed accounts with customers who are totally different to Bandana, such as Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Harrods and Fenwick.”

Having a presence in these high-end stores has impressed some buyers from multiples, says Charles. “The funniest thing is that we’ve had people go into those stores - Bandana customers who don’t know we’ve also got the brand - and sending us a picture of a Lily and Lionel scarf saying ‘do you think you could do something like this?’,” he says.

“That actually happened three times in the space of two weeks,” Angela proudly chips in.

Although Lily and Lionel operates in a totally different market to Bandana, Charles insists that running a brand is slightly easier than running a wholesale operation.

“The demands on the high street are far greater than those you have when you have formed a brand,” he says. “With a brand it is still demanding but I think it has got different challenges. The high street is more demanding because we have to bring out product every two, three, or four weeks.”

He adds: “At least with a brand we plan a collection and the collections are four times a year, whereas with Bandana it is never ending.”

Relentless it may be, but with footwear lined up as their next venture, it’s clear that Charles and Angela have no intention of slowing down any time soon.

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