Pentland Brands has handed Daniel Morris, managing director of its streetwear brand Boxfresh, the task of taking the label global.
When Daniel Morris met the senior management team at Boxfresh for the first time, they didn’t care that he had sailed successfully through the rigorous six-interview process inflicted on any senior newbie at fashion and footwear group Pentland Brands. All they wanted to know was how long he was going to stay in the job.
“I met them all at the Hoxton Hotel in London,” says Morris. “The atmosphere was ‘Oh God, this is our fourth boss, let’s see how long he is going to stay’.”
Pentland’s Stephen Rubin had been courting Boxfresh for a number of years before he finally sealed the deal to buy the business from its founder Roger Wade at the end of 2005. However, this drawn-out negotiating process must have seemed like a dream compared with the turbulent period post acquisition, when Pentland Brands saw three bosses come and go from Boxfresh in under a year including Wade, who initially stayed on at the business as creative director, but left after eight months.
The high turnover of management left the label floundering and lacking direction. For a time, as a result of the sale and management turmoil, the brand lost its cool streetwear edge and attempted to cross over to become a mainstream young fashion brand, alienating some independent retailers and their customers in the process.
However, last September, two years on from the deal, Pentland Brands parachuted in Morris, who was the former chief executive of teen brand Golddigga and a former managing director of Firetrap.
As Morris’s introductory dinner progressed at the Hoxton Hotel that evening, it became clear to him that the people at the business loved the brand, but craved a more strategic setup to help get it back on track. “The place had been devoid of strategy but for me the passion and the energy stood out,” he says.
“The ideas were bouncing off the walls, but there were too many ideas and too many creative people. I quickly realised that part of my job would be to give them a framework to make Boxfresh become one of the major players again both in the UK and overseas.”
The Boxfresh of Roger Wade’s creation was not about strategy, it was about urban street culture, creativity and product. The brand rode the crest of a late-1980s underground streetwear wave, and then emerged as one of the true British streetwear brands that defined the market in the 1990s. However, the young fashion landscape changed dramatically in the 2000s, with the streetwear tag freely applied to denim, skatewear and hip-hop brands and high street chains such as H&M getting in on the act with specially created sub-brands. Boxfresh wavered amid new competition and it became clear it had to break out of its niche positioning. Big money and sharp strategy was needed to secure it a new foothold in the ever-crowded young fashion marketplace.
Pentland Brands saw its opportunity and bought the business with the intention of making it a global player. The company snapped up Morris, who applied for the job after seeing an ad in Drapers, believing he could deliver that long-held ambition.
Morris was a candidate with a private equity deal under his belt – he was part of a management buyout deal at Golddigga in 2006 before he sold out and left the label last year. Morris is tight-lipped about his short tenure at the brand and will only say: “I made an investment, which was on a good basis, but, unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
His young fashion pedigree from his days running the Firetrap brand for its parent company WDT also boosted his credentials.
Morris says that leaving the world of dynamic deal-making for a desk job was not as much of a come-down as it sounds. “It felt like a natural fit,” he says. “I could have tried to buy another business, but quality of life took precedent. I spent three-and-a-half years buying a business that, for various reasons, didn’t work. Would I want to do it again? No.
“Since then, I have been approached by [private equity] firms asking if I’m interested in new deals and I’m not. I can’t be tempted.”
Industry sceptics, or “realists” as one insists, believe that the label will “never regain its prowess”. However, Morris insists: “It’s not a new brand. It is definitely a new business. The people at Boxfresh believe in where we are taking the brand. It will be strategic, fresher, more optimistic and colourful, but there will be the same passion. I hope that people at Firetrap will be saying about Boxfresh, ‘God, I wish I thought of that’, like I once did.”
Morris’s plan sounds optimistic and positive, but when he took over he made some difficult decisions and it was not a smooth ride. Lifers at the brand left the business following a restructure.
Morris defends his decision to overhaul head office and admits that 70% of the Boxfresh team at Pentland Brands’ head office in Finchley, north London, is new blood. “We had to change the structure,” says Morris. “Certain people who were well qualified within their role didn’t fit the structure. We moved from the East End to the Pentland Brands head office and then set about defining the brand and getting the distribution right.”
The Boxfresh account base was varied at the time of the acquisition. A wide range segmentation comprising core, directional, Ltd Edition and the Vs Collaborative range, meant that there was a bit of Boxfresh for every retailer at every level of the market, from Debenhams to TK Maxx to independents to etailers – not easy to pull off convincingly. Morris wanted to take back more control of brand exposure so he revised the distribution strategy, dropping some accounts. He has also simplified the coll-ection’s segmentation into just two main ranges – the commercial main range and the more exclusive LTD range with collaborative collections running alongside.
Wade himself is on the same page as Morris with regards to the distribution strategy shakedown. He says: “Boxfresh needs to stop trying to be the coolest kid on the block. In the past we tried to hold on to the brand’s cool roots, but if you play that game you are going to lose. As a result, Boxfresh doesn’t have proper distribution channels. The days of it sitting alongside Maharishi and Stre gone. The future lies with it sitting next to Gio-Goi and Firetrap and in being a strong, commercial brand.”
Morris says: “Certain key players at the department store and multiple level, which we thought would make a natural home for the brand, weren’t interested because of our existing distribution policy and that had a big impact with the indies as well. So we came out of Debenhams and JD and reduced our sales to TK Maxx.”
Boxfresh has now signed an agreement to supply House of Fraser, and is hoping to get back into the key branded fashion chains such as USC, Bank and Scotts for multiple accounts. Morris is actively seeking to sit Boxfresh alongside the likes of Firetrap, G-Star, Gio-Goi, Fenchurch, Fornarina and Miss Sixty.
However, will he achieve these adjacencies? USC brand director Jo Bohling says: “Daniel has a strong relationship with USC from his Firetrap days so he knows the requirements to make it work. Boxfresh has been changing its identity in the past few years. New brands have taken their original pitch and place in the market so it will be interesting to see where it sits and its new focus.”
Boxfresh’s collaboration with outerwear brand Barbour, which has run for the past three seasons, has delivered it a decent and credible account base with indies and smaller, cooler players such as Oi Polloi in Manchester, Drome in Liverpool and Urban Outfitters. “We’ve got 125 accounts as a result of the changes in distribution,” says Morris. “I don’t want distribution to be too wide, but I’d be comfortable with 250 to 300 accounts.”
Morris is gearing up to showcase the new look brand at Bread & Butter Barcelona next week and he promises the brand’s stand at the show will be “something of a spectacle”.
As well as hoping to win over the buying contingent from the UK, Morris is eager for the brand to attract more international fans. He has already streamlined much of the brand’s international distribution. International sales currently account for 25% of the business. Morris says there is more to go at in Europe.
He thinks the brand’s Britishness will also translate in both India and China, and plans to open a franchise store in UAE next year. “The thing that really attracted me to Boxfresh and Pentland Brands is that I get to run this brand as if it is my own,” he says. “But the great thing about being part of a group like this is that the opportunities that come through the door are second to none.”
Which is your favourite fashion retailer?
Over the Rainbow in Yorkville, Toronto. Joel Carmen, the owner, is an inspiration, a dynamic retailer who has always been ready to share his views with me, from when I was a junior product manager to today.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
It has to be Firetrap. The product was already on the shelves and the momentum had started. Together with a great team we built Firetrap into what I believe is one of the recent UK success stories – one which we will emulate and surpass at Boxfresh.
How do you see young fashion changing?
I see those brands that have a clear strategy and tight handle on costs taking increasing market share and, unfortunately, the number of brand closures increasing and new brands to market decreasing.
What do you enjoy about working in your particular market?
The diversity and intensity of working at a fast pace with people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds.
What is your proudest achievement in terms of your work?
The nine years at WDT, first as sales and marketing director of Sonetti, Firetrap and Fullcircle and then as managing director of Firetrap. Turnover growth was exponential and it was a great ride.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Going out to the financial markets looking to raise money to buy out young fashion brands. A great learning experience.
What would be your dream job?
Doing what I am doing now in five years’ time. Boxfresh will be established as one of the world’s leading contemporary streetwear brands and the new team will still be together.
2007 Appointed managing director of Boxfresh
2006 Led buyout of Golddigga after six months as head of Mexx UK
1995 Managing director of Firetrap, previously sales and marketing director of Sonneti, Firetrap and Fullcircle
1989 Marketing director of Lee Cooper Licensing
1988 European business development manager, Golden Bear Leisurewear and Jockey
1986 Working in family firm, Astraka
A history of Boxfresh
1989 Founded by Roger Wade, who started sourcing classic sports, vintage collegiate and workwear from the US and selling on stalls at London’s Greenwich and Camden markets with Ben Joseph, Olaf Parker and Sue Denny
1990 First batch of T-shirts sold to independent Bond in Soho, London, and Covent Garden’s The Duffer of St George
1991 Parker and Denny leave Boxfresh to set up Burro
1992 First Boxfresh London flagship store opens in London’s Covent Garden
1995 Boxfresh signs license in the US. Wade moves Boxfresh UK to America’s Laguna Beach
1998 Boxfresh relaunched in the UK
2002 Distribution agreements set up in Japan and Australia
2004 Opens new larger two-floor flagship store in London’s Covent Garden
2005 New offices open in Shoreditch, east London. Boxfresh sold to Pentland Brands
2006 Boxfresh footwear, Boxfresh LTD, and Boxfresh vs Barbour collaboration launched
2007 Morris installed
2008 New distribution strategy introduced and new advertising campaign launched
2009 Next year the brand will celebrate its 20th anniversary