Daniel Le Sauvage, owner of Drapers’ Independent Young Fashion Retailer of the Year Urban Vintage, on the multichannel challenges facing UK indies.
When Drapers catches up with Daniel Le Sauvage, the owner of Urban Vintage in Ipswich, he’s busily preparing for the relaunch of the young fashion indie’s transactional website and also gearing up for the autumn 13 buying season.
Bread & Butter’s autumn 13 edition is due to kick off in the days following our chat, but Le Sauvage confesses he won’t be attending the show, which experienced a 15% dip in UK visitors at the spring 13 event (as Drapers went to press, UK visitor figures for the autumn 13 edition show were unavailable).
Instead, he says he’ll be visiting London menswear exhibition Jacket Required.
“I feel that’s one of the best shows. Pure for womenswear is a good show too, but that’s it for me at this time of year,” he says, explaining that times are tough and he already has relationships with the brands he wants
to stock. He does admit, however, that Copenhagen Fashion Week is on his buying radar, adding that “there’s some good Scandinavian designers coming through there”.
Despite fewer overseas buying trips, he says that with in-season buying now the norm on the high street, there is more pressure to keep an eye on what’s happening in the young fashion market, with trends that tend to come up quickly and “out of nowhere”. He explains that, as a result, more budget than ever is kept aside and trend prediction is vital during buying season.
Le Sauvage keeps abreast of the latest trends by reading the fashion press and speaking to brands and agents, adding that Urban Vintage’s door is always open, and if a brand doesn’t work now he’ll still see it with an eye for the future. “The industry is changing and it’s getting harder and harder, but what I’m really looking for is competitively priced brands with a good margin. There’s some good brands out there which are coming through - good quality, bang on trend.”
However, he says that the need to be more reactive means brand loyalty has taken a back seat to accommodate the demands of customers. “We’re not brand loyal. If a brand has a bad season we will drop it, because we’re a 2,700 sq ft store. To bring a brand in we have to drop someone else.”
Le Sauvage is keen to move the conversation on to his current project, the relaunch of Urban Vintage’s transactional website, and the opportunities the web offers compared with the physical confines of the store.
“With a local demographic you can buy to a certain level, but online you can buy more specialist brands. We can buy the more interesting brands that stay more in tune with trends in London, which would maybe be out of the norm for people here [in Ipswich].”
Drapers gets a sneak peek of the site, which boasts a sleek, contemporary new look. The site represents a “considerable investment” says Le Sauvage, and was designed by IT company Punkyduck, which rents offices above the store. Products are shot in a small studio in the back of the shop, so everything is kept in-house where possible. The site will offer in-store delivery and shipping to more than 172 countries, widening the net of the indie well beyond anything Le Sauvage could have imagined when he opened Urban Vintage in November 2006, after he was inspired by his experiences of retail in the US and Canada while travelling in North America, where the customer is king and service standards are exceptionally high.
His multichannel assault doesn’t stop there. This year, Urban Vintage will introduce in-store technology in the form of touchscreens that will enable customers to browse, purchase, sign up to its newsletter and enter competitions online.
With web sales soaring and even big names struggling on the high street, it’s little wonder Le Sauvage has set his sights on digital. He admits sales in-store have “plateaued”, although won’t elaborate further. However, he’s quick to add that bricks-and-mortar still has its place. “People always like to have the experience of coming into the store to try things on and receiving good customer service,” he says.
Placing his optimism for online aside for one moment, he admits he is wary that with discounting rife across the high street and Sales lasting longer both on and offline, opening up the business to yet more competition might also force him to go on Sale sooner.
“We try and go on Sale as late as possible because we want to try and keep hold of as much margin as we can”, he says. “But every year we seem to be going on Sale sooner. We don’t go on Sale before Christmas, but this year we started our Sale a couple of days earlier, on January 8. However, now we’re focusing on our new website, so we are going to have to go on Sale earlier to be in line with everyone else.”
However, he adds that fashion indies need to stand together to address the issue of excessive and prolonged discounting that has blighted the high street. “Consumer buying habits have changed,” he says. “A lot of people wait for discount and will only buy on Sale. It’s a shame because we all have good products and I think if everyone stood together and went on Sale at the same time, instead of trying to outdo each other, it would be better for everyone. If customers really want something then they will still buy it.
“Discounting in the industry needs to be addressed. It’s very difficult for anyone to sustain a business through constant discounting, because then you have no profit.”
The store - which stocks brands such as Paul Smith, Universal Works and YMC - is in full Sale mode at the time of Drapers’ visit, with shoppers milling about and staff attentively on hand to dish out expert advice. Trade remains healthy.
Denim brand Religion has supplied the store for several years, and its chief executive and creative director for menswear Darren Collins says he has seen Urban Vintage go “from strength to strength” across both menswear and womenswear. He says: “Dan has developed a great portfolio, with brands that complement each other and this has resulted in the store now becoming the success it is today. I’m sure this store will be a contender for many a year.”
He’s not wrong - Urban Vintage finished 2012 on a high, winning the Independent Young Fashion Retailer of the Year category at the Drapers Fashion Awards.
As we wrap up the interview, Le Sauvage explains that winning the award “pulled together all of the six years that we’ve really been working hard on. To get that recognition in the industry really made it worthwhile”.
And with plans to take the business in a more comprehensive multichannel direction, there is little doubt this rising star will continue to shine in 2013.