In the late 1980s, Peter Tainton took over River Island’s footwear offer from its concession partner. In doing so, the Drapers Footwear Awards Lifetime Achievement Award winner helped revolutionise the UK footwear sector.
Peter Tainton hasn’t worn “proper” shoes for five months when Drapers catches up with him. Tainton retired from his role as senior men’s footwear buyer at River Island after an illustrious 21-year footwear career at the end of last year and has spent the past few months recuperating from illness and tending his pigs and ducks, sloshing about in mud in his Crocs and wellies on his farm outside Reading.
“I love Crocs,” he grins. Few footwear stalwarts are fans of the rubber clogs, so this is a somewhat surprising statement for someone at the heart of the industry. It’s also hard to imagine Tainton, who is a giant of a man, in a pair of bright rubber clogs, but this contradictory image is a good illustration of his maverick style.
Tainton’s love of “real” footwear retailing quickly shines through as he scopes out the footwear department in River Island’s London Oxford Street flagship and takes in a rail of marked down product, saying quizzically: “I can’t remember having bought that. Although, I suppose I must have done.” He pauses for a few seconds as he ponders what might have gone wrong with that style.
Tainton arrived in England from South Africa in 1986. He left his native country, where he was a buyer with department store Greater Man, to escape the political unrest. “I was terrified. I had a wife and two young children and a trailer of furniture. I’d never even been to England before,” he says.
After arriving in the UK, he took a job as sportswear buyer at Concept Man with owner and founder Leonard Lewis – two years before the Lewis family began converting the stores to River Island. After 18 months he half-jokingly told Lewis he could do a better job of men’s footwear than the company’s concession partner.
It was a bold move, and one which resulted in Tainton and River Island paving the way for high street clothing multiples to take a real stab at selling shoes. Tainton was one of the first of the fashion players to treat accessories as a genuine standalone business rather than an add-on opportunity.
Tainton says: “We were just starting to convert Chelsea Girl and Concept Man to River Island. We had some footwear concessions and I told Leonard ‘I can do better than that’. So he gave me 10 stores to prove myself. I didn’t know anything about shoes or sizes. I didn’t know any factories.”
Tainton set about researching the market and scoping the likes of Shellys and Office, which were then small independent and underground chains, to see what was working in the footwear market.
He says: “I did a lot of listening and picked a lot of brains and polished a lot of egos in the early days. People told me what I needed to know – for example, which suppliers were good and bad. Then I bought three lots of 48 pairs from a supplier in Portugal called Francisco José Da Silva Lusquiños Ferreira. That was my first major purchase.”
Shortly afterwards, Tainton kicked off negotiations to bring Kickers and CAT into the business. His hard but fair negotiation tactics persuaded Stephen Palmer, who at the time owned the rights to distribute CAT in Europe, and Tony Parkin, the then-head of Kickers at Pentland Brands, to test supply a handful of River Island stores.
Tainton says: “I met with Stephen Palmer and that was easy because he was a dodgy South African like me. I messed with Tony Parkin’s mind and ordered three lots of 48 pairs. The theory was we’d never expand Kickers beyond a few River stores. But over the next 10 years we became the biggest branded footwear operator in the men’s market and Kickers went across River Island.”
Both Kickers and CAT owe their huge success in the 1990s to Tainton’s persistence about supply. At one point River Island was doing around £20 million of Kickers per year, selling 10,000 pairs per colour per size. The CAT boot business was “even larger”, and although Palmer will not be pinned down on pairage, it is thought to have been in excess of six figures annually.
Equally, Tainton was blamed for the demise of both brands when he dropped them in the late 1990s. But this was a shrewd move and despite ruffling a few feathers, Tainton had the foresight to focus on the development of own label and licensing well before his competitors got into the action. Although this decision has ultimately meant other brands have since been cautious about dealing with the retailer, something which infuriates Tainton.
“It drove me demented. It’s such a short-sighted attitude not to supply and think that River Island will prostitute your brand. We have protected brands and given them longevity. We looked after Kickers and CAT. The reason brands die is because they don’t develop new product. They got lazy and it stopped working,” he says.
Lazy is not a word that could be used to describe Tainton. His former colleagues and suppliers say that although he may appear outwardly laidback, he worked extremely hard at building the River Island business. Tainton himself says: “I didn’t know what home was. I got about. If we needed to, we’d take the company jet to get to an appointment in the old days. We travelled in style. We’d have fantastic trips and stay in places such as the Waldorf Astoria in New York. But we worked like Trojans.”
This hard work led to Tainton being one of the first in the footwear business to sign a licensing agreement which effectively gave him the power of the brand but control of the product. In the late 1990s he picked up the European licence for Kangol footwear and helped to set up Big Yellow Corporation, a vehicle that would be used to wholesale his Kangol creations, and later his Lambretta range, for which he picked up the UK licence shortly afterwards.
He says: “We took Kangol to the footwear trade shows. It was like a university of brand development for us. We developed the product – branding, packaging and labelling. It helped us to drag our factories into the 21st century – we got them using better materials.”
This experience proved vital when, in the late 1990s, the landscape of footwear retailing shifted dramatically away from big brands and towards the value sector, with players such as Primark.
Tainton says: “About four or five years ago, with the advent of ‘Primarni’, the brands started to taper off. We were faced with an enormous loss of sales from brands such as Kickers, so we came up with the idea to create an own brand and Nushu was born.”
Tainton says Nushu was a huge team effort and he is keen to credit the design and merchandising teams for their part in its success. He goes on to say: “I was never sure our own brand was going to work. I always thought consumers were canny and aware that these things were not ‘real’ brands. But we went to an enormous amount of trouble on the detail and branding and developing soles and printing soles.”
Tainton cites Fly London and Diesel as being his “design school.” And although his jokey “sell me it or I’ll copy it” catchphrase – “better still, sell me it and I’ll do a version of it as well,” he corrects – should get up suppliers’ noses, his straight-talking style means he gets away with a bit of cheek.
Tainton’s ability to “pick the winner” helped Nushu sell hundreds of thousands of pairs a year. Nushu has itself spawned a thousand copies according to Tainton, who chuckles at getting a taste of his own medicine.
“People have ripped us off from Australia to Spain. At one point retailers were ringing us up to see if they could buy the brand. One guy came into our store, bought the whole range and took it back to the US where he was using our styles as samples – taking orders from them and manufacturing them. But we caught him, and he isn’t doing it any more,” Tainton says.
River Island has since successfully introduced two other own brands, Crooked Sole and Style Nation, to capitalise on the trend for canvas plimsolls.
Spend an afternoon with Tainton and it’s hard to imagine him fully retiring. He admits he could be tempted back into the industry if an exciting product development project came along. He says: “Next to my wife and kids, footwear is my baby. It’s what I value most in the world.”
However, he adds: “River Island is unique, it’s one of the few companies that would allow a boy from the sticks to do what I did.”
He sums up: “It was an enormous amount of fun but I got to a stage when I realised there was more to life than shoes. I’m taking some time out, and I wouldn’t want an ordinary job. Working with the best at River Island is a hard act to follow.”