Forward planning, communication and understanding the customer are the reasons given by United Clothing’s managing director for his UK agency’s success with women’s labels Sandwich and Stills
The UK is now officially in recession. But despite the widespread feelings of gloom, James Warren is remarkably chipper. His agency business, United Clothing, launched 393-stockist womenswear brand Sandwich into the UK two decades ago and is fresh from a record-beating spring 09 selling season. The company is actually taking on staff in a climate where most are shedding them like last winter’s coat, and it turned over nearly £11 million in 2008. So Warren is not exactly running scared.
Part of the Dutch family-owned VeldhovenGroup, Sandwich, sister brand Stills and newly launched kidswear label No-No are designed in Amsterdam, manufactured in the Far East and Europe, and sold through a global network of more than 4,000 doors in 24 countries. The scale of the business is such that VeldhovenGroup is building an entire village in China, complete with a factory, family accommodation, school and lakes. The group turned over €100m (£94.6m) last year, of which United Clothing’s UK and Republic of Ireland markets account for 20%.
This significant proportion of the business is reflected in the autonomy and flexibility that Veldhoven gives Warren. Fortnightly visits to the Netherlands and early-stage involvement in the design process make him an integral link in the chain. “I live and breathe my job,” he says. “Everything bleeds into it and I am always on the lookout for new ideas. I have a very commercial eye and can always pick out the pieces that will become bestsellers.”
Veldhoven creative director Henriette Daniels has worked with Warren since he started selling Sandwich in the UK. She says: “James is brilliant at fighting for his market and making special requests for the UK. For instance, a preference for long skirts is a UK-specific thing, so James picks certain skirts which we can adapt to suit his requirements.”
Sandwich’s contemporary style for women aged 35-plus is in high demand if its almost 400-strong UK stockist base is any indication. Warren explains: “We sell brands that customers can commit to. In Sandwich we give them the backbone, the nucleus, of their stock. Sandwich has evolved as a brand over the years but it has a DNA, an easy-to-wear identity with fashion nuances, which our customers are loyal to.”
Stills, a slightly more luxurious collection which is sold via 145 doors, uses lots of silks and has a narrower, French cut. Sandwich and Stills have a 20% crossover of stockists.
Sarah Mitchell, owner and buyer at Robe in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, says: “Sandwich is our best-selling brand. It has a following, and customers usually buy complete outfits after coming in to see if we’ve had a new delivery. I can be sure with 95% of my buying that it’s the right thing and will sell.
“With Stills, I tend to stick to eveningwear because it’s the most expensive brand we stock, but it does perform. I can’t fault United Clothing - it is fantastic, friendly and great at following up.”
Likewise, Julia Daw, co-owner of Matchbox in Wadebridge, Cornwall, appreciates the quirky points of difference in Sandwich’s design, along with its quality. “Sandwich sells really well for us, and we’ve been dealing with it for almost 10 years now,” she says. “The company is very helpful, especially with flexible payment terms. The only tiny complaint I’d have is that it is sometimes not keen to take returns.”
Warren is adamant that working with customers on an individual basis is crucial to the business. “We would never presume to tell a retailer what to do or say ‘follow our doctrine’,” he says. “We treat each customer to a bespoke service; what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. Nothing is set in stone for us, so we can hold on to stock for a few weeks if someone needs us to, share sales techniques we’ve learned or move stock around to help our customers.”
United Clothing is freed from the constraints of stock holding because all the distribution for Sandwich and Stills is run from the Netherlands. “There is no money
in stock,” Warren says, “so everything we do is forward order. We never order extra stock for reorders and we do not run flash collections. We have 11 programmes per season and, once they are delivered, we move on. End of story.”
Warren’s survival strategy for the economic downturn is similar to his day-to-day one: “My mantra is to work with each customer as an individual. This is a challenging climate so we have to do more than just provide product. We believe in relationships, we have impeccable sales teams and we offer very helpful credit terms. Shops or product alone can’t change the economy, but the way we sell can always be improved.
“As far as I am concerned, it’s already too late for businesses that haven’t been preparing for this downturn for at least a year and a half,” he adds. “No business is recession-proof, but you can minimise the impact. For more than a year we’ve been having sales workshops to ready our staff, and for the past six months we’ve had weekly credit crunch meetings.”
Warren’s approach is both considered and relaxed. He prides himself on being hands-on and in touch with all aspects of the business, to the point where he has to think long and hard about what his job title is. “I suppose this is quite an old-fashioned company,” he says, “a bit like a co-operative. We don’t really have job titles because we all work together. I don’t really have a structured management technique. If there’s an issue we just talk about it. I buy the biscuits and I can still pack a mean box.”
Former colleague Tim Ormiston, now UK manager at womenswear brand The Masai Clothing Company, is not surprised by Warren’s success.
“When we brought InWear into the UK, Jim was always very good at getting business and at identifying potential,” he says. “He gets on very well with people and listens to what they have to say. He has a great eye and understands fashion very well - especially what the demands of the UK market are - which is essential when you
are working for an international brand like Sandwich.”
Looking to the future, Warren takes a cautious approach, although he does identify opportunities in retail. “As a company we need to move forward, but I am not one for rushing in,” he says, with his typical tempered enthusiasm. “We need to weather 2009 first. But we are looking at some retail partnerships and are keen to work with existing retailers on franchises and shop-in-shops.
“I would like to open and be involved in a store launch, but I am always mindful that wholesalers generally don’t do shops very well. I’d like to do two or three shops wholly owned by us as a signature. But whatever we do won’t undermine our existing wholesale structure and will be done in a controlled, considered way.”
2008 Takes on kidswear label No-No
1988 Sets up United Clothing to sell Sandwich and Stills in the UK
1982 Launches Academy Distribution to import Closed, Katharine Hamnett Jeans, and Ball Jeans
1979 Starts up InWear’s UK business with Tim Ormiston
1973 Sales manager for Inega, the wholesale wing of womenswear brand Jigsaw
Who is your fashion mentor and why?
Sir Paul Smith. He’s always been ahead of the game, great at pushing his name forward and one of the pioneers of marketing. I’ve been wearing his stuff since he had one shop on a side street in Nottingham.
Which is your favourite retailer?
The Conran Shop on London’s Brompton Road. I did a lot of my Christmas shopping there.
I also love the ambience of womenswear boutique Berties in Northampton.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
About 30 years ago I was working with Ball Jeans, and it had a really naff jumper with a giant imitation leather V on the front. We all thought it was great and sold thousands of them. Needless to say, I didn’t wear one myself - I was into Paul Smith at the time.
Which other brands do you admire?
In terms of competitors, Hoss Intropia - I’ve always liked it. I also like a US menswear brand called Eagle, which is very casual, and I always buy
a few bits every time I’m in the US.
What is your proudest achievement?
Learning to snowboard at the age of 54 and doing black slopes two years later. I give myself sets of challenges every year. It’s been a
major achievement to be nominated for Drapers Womenswear Brand of the Year every year for the last four.
What would be your dream job if you didn’t work in fashion?
Definitely working in the music business. I love music and play the bass and drums. But I guess at this stage of my life I’d be working in production or running a record label rather than actually performing. I would also love to have been an architect. My ambition is to build a 1930s Bauhaus-style home.