Retailer, etailer, art dealer, manufacturer – the boss of Matches is a busy man, but he finds time to describe how he built an internationally renowned business.
Matches founder and managing director Tom Chapman does not relish talking about the past. “Oh, do I have to?” he asks when Drapers takes him back to the beginning of the designer fashion emporium’s story when it was a one-shop boutique in Wimbledon Village, south London, 21 years ago. And no, he didn’t celebrate the company’s coming of age; it has only just occurred to him that it is 21 years old and besides, he “can’t bear things like that – I don’t like looking back”.
Chapman has enough to keep him occupied in the present and the near future, such as his art collaboration with one of the original YBAs (Young British Artists) Abigail Lane, the relaunch of the Matchesfashion.com website, the possibility of some new stores and the revamp of Matches’ own label, Freda, under a new designer (a “household name” apparently, but he’s not saying who).
But the story of how Chapman – then a 24-year-old catering college graduate with a few years of working in London’s hospitality industry under his belt – started what was to become not just one of the UK’s pre-eminent fashion boutiques but one of the world’s is worth retelling, even if he doesn’t really want to do it.
The first thing Chapman learned during his brief career in hospitality was the importance of customer service and making the right impression “in the first 10 seconds”. The next thing he learned was that working for someone else wasn’t right for him. “I’m a bit of a control freak,” he confesses, “and I hate being told what to do.”
So when a store became available near his home in Wimbledon Village in 1987 he and his sister Susie decided to open a clothes shop, even though neither had any experience of retail. “It was the 1980s and rents were cheap; you didn’t have to spend three quarters of a million opening a store then,” he says. “We painted the shop ourselves.”
Just before the store was due to open his sister decided to relocate to Bournemouth, leaving him to work out the ins and outs of retail and fashion on his own. He schooled himself with the aid of trade magazines and trips to merchants in France and London, and was advised by friends. Before long he met his future wife Ruth, who had experience of fashion through working at Jaeger. “I convinced her to come and help me out,” he says. Ruth took over the buying of womens-wear, while Chapman concentrated on menswear. “The first two years were a real learning curve – very hand to mouth. We had to learn the hard way, but that’s the best way. And my God, did we learn fast,” he says.
Little by little the pair became more adventurous with their product, and a turning point came when Ruth returned from a buying trip with cashmere jumpers that retailed for £150. Although costing a small fortune in the late 1980s, they sold out. It was then they realised that if they had the right product and sold it in the right locations, price was not an issue.
A period of steady expansion followed. After two years a menswear standalone was opened in Wimbledon, followed by a first franchise store, for MaxMara, in 1992.
In 1997 a new Matches branch was opened in another affluent area in the south-west of London at Richmond-upon-Thames, followed quickly by a Richmond MaxMara franchise store, another Matches menswear store in Wimbledon, and its first designer diffusion venture, Matches Spy, also in Wimbledon.
By this stage Matches had gained a reputation as a destination for high-end fashion (brands included Prada, Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu) among affluent suburbanites who preferred not to travel to central London. But it was the opening of its store on Ledbury Road in London’s Notting Hill in 2001 that really sent the company’s reputation stellar. Matches went from being a friendly neighbourhood boutique to a designer retailer of national and international significance, with frequent appearances in the style press. “At that point the business attained a strong direction and we needed to change the way we were working; we were surrounded by the press and it was a really exciting period,” Chapman says.
Five years after the opening of Ledbury Road, Chapman entered into a franchise agreement to launch the first Diane von Furstenberg standalone store outside the US (he now runs three) in what was to prove to be a seminal moment for both parties. The tiny shop, nicknamed “the one-rail store” at DVF HQ in New York, generated acres of press column inches when its opening coincided with London Fashion Week in September 2006, and the likes of Jade Jagger turned up to the launch. “When we opened, the offer consisted of a wrap dress and that was it. We gave Diane a forecast of £1 million in the first year and she said ‘you will not hit that, trust me’. Yet in the first year we took £2m – more than the whole of her European business then,” Chapman recalls. Now the DVF collection contains everything from footwear to swimwear, taking in separates and suiting along the way, and Chapman is a trusted confidante of von Furstenberg.
“I have watched Tom’s business grow as mine was growing too, and our partnership is a great one,” says von Furstenberg. “I believe Tom’s success is due to the fact that he loves and truly understands fashion, but he is also an extremely astute businessman and retailer. Tom and I are partners; we have a common goal – success in what we do. We now both have great people to make it happen.”
His great people is one thing Chapman is happy to talk about. In fact, you are more likely to see quotes in the national press from his valued fashion director Bridget Cosgrove than to read the words of Chapman. “When people ask me about fashion I say ‘ask Bridget’. I don’t consider myself an expert in fashion, I’m a retailer,” he says. But he is a retailer who cites John Varvatos and Lanvin as his favourite brands to wear.
Cosgrove heads up a 10-strong buying team and there are 240 staff employed in the Matches empire (including three who “change light bulbs and paint walls”, so he doesn’t do that himself any more). The buying team’s razor-sharp eye for fashion, merchandising and outfit building is nowhere more evident than in the latest store – yes, he added another one at the start of the year – in London’s Marylebone High Street.
In an immaculate interior, inspired by Chapman’s love of late Italian architect and furniture designer Gio Ponti, luxury labels such as Matthew Williamson are intermingled with uber-fashion pieces from former Armani designer Angelo Katsapis, and with more affordable pieces such as knitwear from Goat or denim from the likes of Made In Heaven. While it is a high-end store, Chapman wants it to be as friendly, welcoming and as democratic as it can be.
He applied this philosophy to his recent art collaboration with Abigail Lane. Lane has produced a range of circus-themed artworks, from enormous prints to cufflinks and cups and saucers, which are displayed in the Marylebone store in an installation called For Your Pleasure. All the pieces are for sale and prices range from £25 for a T-shirt to £10,000 for a Swarovski crystal-encrusted limited edition print. “Abigail is a very credible artist and yet there’s an accessibility, which is important to me,” says Chapman.
The Marylebone store with its modular and movable fixtures and fittings can be turned into a gallery space or a venue for a party as and when Chapman sees fit, and he is already thinking about his next designer collaboration. “For me, it’s about outreach programmes. We can’t, as retailers, sit in our stores and wait for customers to come through the door,” he says.
One key method of reaching out to customers is via Matchesfashion.com, which launched in November 2006 and is set for a revamp. Chapman is tight-lipped about what the revamp might involve, presumably for fear of alerting competitors such as Net-a-Porter.com to his plans, but he appears excited by the prospect.
The online store, which mirrors the bricks and mortar stores’ high level of service and sleek appearance, is already a big business in its own right. Chapman won’t reveal how much it turns over but he will say it is the highest grossing store for womenswear in the portfolio (the most successful store overall is Ledbury Road). “We have some seriously big-hitting customers on our website. Some spend £30,000 a season,” he adds.
But while the web excites him, he has not lost his passion for opening bricks and mortar stores. He is mulling the possibility of a Spy store in Westfield’s White City development in London, which would be a departure from the Matches neighbourhood shopping style of retail. All of Chapman’s stores take on the personality of their locality, such as the art scene in Marylebone, the family vibe of Wimbledon and the eclecticism of Notting Hill. “I want to become part of the community we are trading in – to add to it, not steal from it,” he says. Another potential opportunity lies in Knightsbridge. But he seems hesitant about both possibilities because, he says, “my wife will kill me – she keeps saying ‘no more shops!’”.
Ruth Chapman, however, has her own big project to keep her distracted from her husband’s store obsession – Matches’ own collection, Freda, for which she is creative director. Autumn 08 will be the line’s fourth season, and in September the new “household name” designer will be unveiled.
Chapman is keen for the collection, which includes high-quality basics for professional women, to have its own personality. “We don’t want it to be an own-brand collection that is just a rip-off of another brand at an accessible price; we want it to be a collection in its own right. We need Bridget to go into a buying meeting for Freda and say she would have bought it anyway,” he explains.
The manufacturing process has been an education and has helped to hone Matches’ retailing skills, Chapman says. The team now attends fabric shows, giving it a heads up on trends that bit earlier than the rest of the market. The manufacturing process intrigues Chapman. “It’s been a challenge and I love challenges,” he says.
Retailer, etailer, merchant, art dealer and now manufacturer. No wonder Chapman does not like looking back – he just doesn’t have the time.
Who is your fashion mentor?
The person who inspires me the most is Diane von Furstenberg – we have a lot of contact with each other. In terms of her vision, her life and her reasons for doing things, she is without doubt the person I most admire.
Which is your favourite fashion retailer?
I don’t really shop anywhere else. My wife recently bought some shoes from somewhere else and I said “good God, what are you doing buying shoes elsewhere? If we don’t have what you want in our hundreds of pairs of shoes then we’re doing something wrong”. There are some great stores in the US and I like the service. People say “don’t you get sick of all that ‘have a nice day’?” but at least they say something. [New York department store] Bergdorf Goodman’s menswear area is amazing. Its care and attention to detail is phenomenal.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
There are lots but I remember those [Canadian fur and suede boots] Mukluks – they just went insane. It was one of those things where we sold something like 1,000 pairs in two months and people were screaming down the phone for them. One of the menswear brands which is doing well at the moment is John Varvatos, and another that is a consistent good seller is Lanvin.
Apart from fashion, what would be your dream job?
If I wasn’t doing this I would be lying in an Italian villa on the coast somewhere drinking wine. Honestly, I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I meet interesting people and you never know what the day will throw at you. I love having the ability to want to do something and then be able to make it happen.
2008 Matches in Marylebone opens
2007 DVF, Wimbledon and Mayfair debut
2006 First Diane von Furstenberg fran-chise, Notting Hill. Matchesfashion.com launched
2001 Matches in Notting Hill opens
2000 Second men’s store and Matches Spy open in Wimbledon
1998 MaxMara opens in Richmond
1997 Matches opens in Richmond
1992 MaxMara debuts in Wimbledon
1989 Matches men’s Wimbledon debut
1987 Matches debuts in Wimbledon