There is no room for mediocrity at 10-store branded footwear retailer Footasylum, as its co-founder strives to bring passion and innovation back to the trainer market.
There is a fine line between madness and genius, and some thought Steve Makin had crossed it when in 2005 he co-launched branded footwear concept Footasylum in Wilmslow, Cheshire with his brother David.
After his brother David and David’s business partner John Wardle sold their stake in sportswear business John David Group for £100 million in 2005, the industry expected David and Steve, JD’s then buying director, to retire to enjoy the fruits of their labour. But Steve Makin had other ideas and after 15 years helping to build JD he quit the company and set out to try his luck in the trainer market.
“People ask me if I’m completely mad doing this, but when you’ve spent so long at one of the best and largest businesses in the country you still want to see if you can push yourself. I wanted to progress, and because of my previous loyalty to JD this was the first opportunity for me to try. I wanted to go back to being an owner-driver rather than being in the corporate world,” Makin explains.
He had already formulated the seed of an idea during his final months at JD and so set about researching the market place that would allow him to deliver his first love – product – direct to the consumer in an interesting environment.
“I was trained to look for gaps in the market at JD,” says Makin. “But there weren’t many. There was no opportunity in branded fashion where the likes of USC operate, but there was one gap in footwear – the sneaker and general designer footwear market.
“If you took JD’s Size? concept out, there was no one apart from the odd independent. Office used to be a rival but it had become a mass-market footwear chain which leans more towards the female market.”
Makin was spurred on after witnessing a group of lads buying trainers in a high street footwear chain. “This kid pointed at a shoe and asked for it in a size eight. He didn’t even pick the shoe up or touch the product and that hurt the hell out of me. It was the opposite of what retail is about. The penny dropped – retail was becoming boring and predictable, and product was being allowed to become mediocre because of this.”
Thus Footasylum, “an elite mass-market footwear concept” was born, selling the likes of Y3, Paul Smith, Ugg, Adidas, Nike, Diesel and Emporio Armani alongside sub-store concept Athletic Boutique, which stocks a small amount of premium sportswear and casualwear.
Makin barely pauses for breath during our interview, speaking passionately about product, retail and the Footasylum concept, only breaking off for a few seconds after spotting a man wearing some “interesting Diesel high tops” in his peripheral vision. A glimpse, perhaps, into Makin’s obsessive product hunting and people watching, for which both he and his brother are well known. “We walk the streets because that’s where the real fashion is and where you learn so much about your consumer and footfall,” he explains.
Makin himself is wearing a pair of Nike Max One Safari Quickstrikes and has “a few hundred pairs of trainers” at home, with some stored in his loft.
His enthusiasm for interesting and innovative product led him to develop The Style Council – a group of brands and independent retailers who meet regularly to develop new products, then pool their resources to hit the necessary minimums. However, the identity of members is kept firmly under wraps.
“Style Council is not about exclusivity or being a point of difference for us. This is about delivering the best gear we can to the market place. It gives us economies of scale and the brands are helping us by taking hits on margin or managing minimums so we can create more innovative product and bring it to the market.”
He adds: “We want to become custodians of brands and are working with them from a product point of view. We’re putting pressure on them to develop. Too many of them think that if they have one big break then they’ve made it, but that is a short-term approach. We want to help brands build a platform which helps provide some longevity for the future rather than taking a here today gone tomorrow route.”
This striving for innovation on product forced Makin to step up store expansion in order to boost his buying power. Footasylum now has 10 stores: Wilmslow in Cheshire, Wood Green in north London, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Manchester Arndale Centre, Preston in Lancashire, Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire and Solihull in the West Midlands, Nottingham and Romford in Essex. Last month, Makin added a transactional website to the company’s portfolio, which has expanded Footasylum’s reach to sneaker freaks across the whole of the UK.
The retailer’s untypical store locations surprised the industry, which was expecting Makin to replicate JD’s formula – opening in high-profile sites on major high streets. This was partly shaped by a clause in the JD sale contract which only allows Makin to open a limited number of shops within a certain distance of a JD shop.
However, Makin insists the sites have been chosen strategically. “There is no point opening in Covent Garden or Carnaby Street in London, because everyone is already there. We wanted to open where there wouldn’t be distribution issues with brands such as Paul Smith and Y3 and we wanted to stay under the radar while we built a new concept. We liked Wood Green for example because there was an element of money but also a hard street edge.”
Makin also has unrivalled understanding of tastes and shopping trends by town and city thanks to his grounding at JD. He says, “JD is the closest multiple to an independent. We were locally relevant wherever we could be at JD and that gave us knowledge of all the shopping trends from Essex to Glasgow.”
This unconventional approach to openings has taken Footasylum into heartland indie territory with locations such as Middlesbrough and Preston, but Makin is adamant he is not out to destroy smaller businesses. In fact, Footasylum bought a major stake in Liverpool indie Drome in 2007, because he was so impressed by the retailer’s owners Louise Kavanagh and Tim Keating. The Makin money helped Drome open a three-floor dedicated menswear store in the city’s Bold Street.
“Small retailers are what energise this industry. You can’t beat the local knowledge of an independent. I see Footasylum as healthy competitors to them. Without indies, the fashion industry would go the way of the sportswear industry – lots of discounters plus JD and nothing else,” Makin explains.
Makin is a big believer in retail theatre and the Footasylum store experience is pretty special. The store windows are filled with one-off works of art – the Manchester Arndale shop has an amazing giant mosaic of a Kickers boot on the day of the interview – while stores also regularly hold art exhibitions. Makin actually employs a team of artists to come up with the unique displays that set his shops apart.
In the corner of the Manchester shop is an artist busy customising pairs of trainers which sell for £30 above the usual price. Shoppers jaws drop as they watch him at work and kids come in to hang out at the back of the shop. The customised trainers have also proved popular with Manchester United and Manchester City footballers attempting to “out-bling” each other.
At the Wilmslow store Makin took customisation a step further, bringing in a shoemaker from a factory outside Barcelona who manufactured shoes to order on a sewing machine in front of customers. Footasylum’s stores also sell special one-offs that Makin has created in partnership with streetwear brand Supreme Being. “There are literally six pairs of this shoe in existence,” he says, proudly holding aloft an asymmetric high top with oriental print.
Fortunately the shopfit, which is adapted to suit each location, more than reflects this unique retail proposition. Makin says it was based on “a famous old jail film with a black guy and a white guy and a governor’s office”, although he won’t say the name of the film. “I loved the conflict between the cold raw materials to the stark contrast of the plush, rich materials found in governor’s offices,” he explains.
The Manchester Arndale store features a vast prison-like cage surrounding part of the cash desk area, and raw materials such as iron and untreated wood, which is contrasted with Chesterfield-style leather seating. Ornate picture frames and mirrors adorn the walls, and are sometimes used as props to display the top-end limited edition footwear styles.
The letters in the Footasylum name are also flipped and reversed over the shop door to get customers’ heads spinning. Makin says: “We wanted a quirky, unique element. We wanted to get people thinking. If you make people think then they always want to come back. I also wanted to do things like put product behind glass to force people to reach, feel, touch and get hold of the product, which comes back to what I witnessed when the lads in the high street shop bought shoes without first picking them up from the shelf.”
So could Footasylum be the new JD? “Ultimately we don’t want to be a large multiple again. We want to get back to the grass roots of retail and enjoy ourselves with this. We’ve got our foot on the ball now we are at 10 stores and we are refining the business. The next potential stage is to get to 20 shops to get a bit more scale, but we’ll do it in a controlled manner and when the time is right. People have always asked how many stores do we intend to get to in the medium- and long-term? I’ve always thought this concept has the potential for up to 50 stores, but that does not mean we will do that.”
Makin is reluctant to talk about financials, and says the company is still in its infancy with huge expansion costs built into the first two years’ accounts, but what is clear is that the Footasylum concept is breaking the boundaries of fashion retailing in terms of product, concept and retail theatre. Makin is making his mark on the footwear landscape and has now stepped firmly out of the shadow of his older brother, David.
“Am I mad? I suppose I am in a way,” says Makin. Mad but genius, some might say.
Steve Makin CV
2005 Co-founds Footasylum, which acquires a shareholding in Liverpool indie Drome
2004 Buying director for JD fashion division
2000 Men’s apparel director, JD Sports
1992 Starts as a sales assistant at JD Sports, rising to menswear buyer