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Ben Luscombe

Its short lead times and close relationships with stockists have made Henleys a force to be reckoned with in young fashion, and now its managing director is ramping up its retail presence

Henleys’ head office has had its fair share of bad luck. Tucked away in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the HQ fell victim to a horrendous fire in 2007, and the night before this interview with Drapers there was a burglary.

The blaze almost destroyed the building. Most businesses would have admitted defeat and moved - but not Henleys. Symbolic of the young fashion brand’s determination, managing director Ben Luscombe chose to renovate and expand the property.

After bumper trade last year, Henleys is on track to hit sales of £35 million in 2009 via its wholesale division. As many businesses ditch expansion plans and make redundancies to survive the recession, Henleys is in the process of increasing staff head count and plans to expand its head office space by 4,000sq ft later this year.

Luscombe founded Henleys in 1996 and is eager to name-check the 75 staff at head office, attributing its success to their hard work. “I steer the ship, but they should get the credit,” he says. Before the interview, Luscombe insists Drapers gets a tour of the warehouse-style building and an introduction to almost every member of staff along the way. The open-plan office buzzes with activity and every department, from order entry to management, bustles with trader-style sales energy.

Born in Henley-upon-Thames, in Surrey, Luscombe moved to Manchester aged seven. A self-confessed born trader, he was a fashion agent for various brands for 10 years
before deciding to develop his own shirting brand, which he called Henleys, giving a nod to his Surrey roots.

The business grew and Luscombe says that forging long-term relationships with retailers from the start was crucial to the brand’s development. The reason behind Henleys’ success, he says, is the combination of commercial product on short order at a great margin. The brand was one of the first in the young fashion market to offer short-order product. Henleys delivers 50 weeks of the year and, with 60% of the brand sourced in Turkey, lead times are just 12 to 14 weeks.

The premise of short lead times not based on a cash-and-carry model was something of a novelty back in the mid 1990s, but in today’s market it is an expectation. “We are still faced with dinosaurs out there who expect you to spend millions of pounds on something that might not happen in six months,” says Nick Preston, buying director at branded young fashion chain Republic. “With Henleys’ lead times, it is one of the most flexible brands on the market and is light years ahead of the competition.”

Luscombe says he takes little notice of his rivals, insisting that Henleys stands apart from other brands, and that ‘no’ is not part of the Henleys vocabulary. “This is the entertainment industry and the sooner you realise that the better,” he says. “We don’t say ‘no, we can’t do that’. Our customers want great product on a regular basis, and that’s what Henleys provides.”

Henleys is made up of three sub-brands. Project Deluxe is a design-led street-style range which, since its launch in January 2008, has evolved into Henleys’ best-performing sub-brand. The Premium range comprises foil-print hoodies and ‘bling’ detailing and is a hit with the 18 to 35-year-old core Henleys demographic, according to the brand’s sales team.

The Lifestyle value range consists of zip-through hoodies and polo shirts at entry prices of £8 and £14. Womenswear was introduced in 2002 and accounts for 30% of sales, while the denim range makes up 40%.

The sales team claims that within the brand’s key multiple accounts - Bank, Republic and Scotts - Henleys is up there fighting its corner among the sector’s top denim brands in terms of sales.
Henleys’ success at Republic is something Preston is only too happy to confirm.

“We have seen big growth in Henleys and last year the brand thrashed plan. It’s a multi-million pound brand for us. Henleys is wearable, British lad-wear and its use of colour and embellishment stands out. The beautiful thing about working with Henleys is that it’s not about placing huge forward orders.”

Regular deliveries also give valuable respite to indies, aiding cash flow during leaner times. “Of course the short orders help cash flow, especially when you start out, but I place a lot on short order now as Henleys has grown to become one of my biggest brands,” says Simon Cohen, owner of young fashion etailer Reem Clothing, which has stocked the brand since 2004.
“It helps when you can keep topping up product and Henleys has lots of mid-season ranges.”

Despite the independent sector making a valuable contribution to Henleys’ bottom line, in September last year the brand slashed its indie account base by 25% after the credit crunch stymied its ability to insure orders from some of its stockists.

Henleys scaled back its total account base of 350 stockists by between 80 and 100. “We cleaned up the account base,” says Luscombe. “The profile of some of the accounts was wrong. It costs too much money treading water. We want to be [stocked] in the best retailer in town.”

Although Henleys is a Manchester business, the brand has been expanding out of its northern stronghold and its wholesale heartland into retail. To begin with, Henleys did not venture too far from home and opened a store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre two years ago, but today it has nine stores in some of the UK’s top shopping centres including Bristol’s Cabot Circus and London’s Westfield development in White City, with the retail business turning over £15m a year. More standalone stores will follow and overseas expansion is on the horizon.

“[Retail] allows you to develop your product categories,” says Luscombe. “It highlights where you are weak and where you are strong. Retail will develop but we will wait for the right sites. There will be lots of space [coming onto the market].”

Luscombe is also looking at European and Far Eastern expansion via either distribution agreements or retail, and plans to crack the notoriously difficult US retail market in the future.

Alongside this, building up the three sub-brands into standalone businesses is part of the strategy for 2009. Luscombe envisages standalone showrooms and stores for each, which could increase the brand’s young fashion market share.

Of Henleys’ potential, Luscombe says: “It is massive. Every category does well. Consumers love the brand and that is due more to luck than judgement.”

CV

  • 2002 Introduced womenswear
  • 1996 Founded Henleys
  • 1990 Clothing agent for various brands
  • 1986 Sales rep for clothing brands InWear and Matinique
  • 1983 Sales executive, L’Oreal
  • 1982 Sales assistant, Western Jean Company

Q&A

Who is your fashion mentor?
I have worked with too many great people to name just one.

Which is your favourite store?
I have to say the first Henleys store we opened in the Trafford Centre in Manchester. I’m also a big fan of any shop which sells the brand.

What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
Henleys’ fitted, long-sleeved shirt with contrast collar and cuff. It was revolutionary at that time.

What are the biggest product growth categories for Henleys?
Outerwear, knitwear and denim are the areas of biggest growth, and boxer shorts and belts.

How do you think the fashion landscape will change over the next three years?
You have to be realistic. It is tough out there and the writing is on the wall for a lot of companies. It is going to be a tough year, but we are really confident. Brands in the young fashion market need to have the ability to continually adapt.

Which area of the market do you most enjoy?
No two days are ever the same in this industry. I enjoy the constant evolution of product, working with great staff and great customers.

What has been your proudest work-related achievement?
The development of the Henleys brand.

What is the biggest work-related challenge you have faced in your career?
I would say the fact that every day is a fresh challenge is the biggest challenge.

What would be your dream job outside of fashion?
Sailing a yacht around the Caribbean would be nice.

What are your goals for the future?
The goal is to always strive to do
our best.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Henleys is a good brand but with chains such as Bank, Republic & Scotts stocking it in a big way plus with Henleys opening its own stores , as an independent retailer I no longer see it as a core brand for my store. As for building three sub brands into standalone businesses....I can't "envisage" that happening. Nevertheless, well done to Simon for building the brand to where it is now and good luck for where you might take it. Shame you couldn't have taken a glance at Lyle & Scotts distribution policy and kept the brand at a slightly higher level.

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