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From the archive: The Drapers Interview with River Island founder Bernard Lewis

As we near the 25th anniversary of the Drapers Awards on November 26 at Old Billingsgate in London, we will be looking back at some of the previous winners of the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. We start with one of the earliest winners, River Island founder Bernard Lewis. From the Drapers archive, here is the Drapers Interview with Lewis after his big win a decade ago in 2005.

The empire builder

Bernard Lewis is the winner of the Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award. In a rare interview, the creator of Lewis Separates, Chelsea Girl and River Island recalls seven decades in retail.

Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis

”During the five weeks leading up to the second week of December 1955 we increased from five shops to nine. That took some budgeting as we didn’t have the money to pay for the goods.”

Bernard Lewis, now one of the UK’s wealthiest men, is reminiscing about his early days as an entrepreneur with more ambition than cash.

“So how did we do it? I went into a wholesaler on Margaret Street called M Duke, from whom I bought a lot of goods. It was a Thursday afternoon, half-day closing for us. He was very embarrassed and told me that I had reached my credit limit. So I took out a cheque book and wrote him a cheque knowing it wouldn’t be cashed until Monday, by which time Saturday’s takings would have been in the bank.”

In his office at Chelsea House at Hanger Lane, west London, a desk diary for 1955 is consulted. In precise handwriting, neat charts and lists chronicle the growth of the business that started out as a single knitting wool shop, then became first Lewis Seperates, then Chelsea Girl and most recently River Island.

“Then we opened Tooting, Kilbrun, Nags Head in Holloway, Brighton, Lordship Lane Tottenham, Walthamstow, East Ham, Upton Park…and our 17th and 18th shops were in Hull and Glasgow. That was a big thing to decide to go provincial, which meant national. Glasgow was opened on June 22 1957.”

A conversation with Bernard Lewis is an oral history lesson on the development of the fashion retailing sector in the UK. He’s seen it all, done it all, and more often than not, he was the first to do it.

With his older brother David and his younger brother Geoffrey and Godfrey, he created Lewis Trust Group, one of the largest privately-owned companies in the country, with interests in financial asset management, travel and property, as well as retail. Godfrey and Geoffrey left the business in 1977, but David and Bernard are still actively involved.

Born on February 10 1926, Bernard Lewis always has been the driving force for LTG’s retail interests. His parents ran a fruit shop and he remembers one day being left in charge at the till aged nine or 10. Years later, after being demobbed from the RAF at the end of World War II he tried his hand at the greengrocery trade. His first venture in 1946 was a corrugated iron and timber shack on a bomb site in north London’s Holloway Road. He paid £5 a week on a weekly tenancy, with no security of tenure.

His entrepreneurial zeal – “It never entered my head to work for anyone else” – was engaged, and he added another leasehold greengrocer’s shop on Holloway Road. He was 22 years old. Next came a knitting wool shop, called The Wool Shop, on another bomb site in Holloway, and soon textiles won out over soft fruits.

“There were two things I didn’t like about the greengrocery trade,” he recalls. “First, I had to get up at 5am to go to freezing Covent Garden or Spitalfields market, and second, the product is perishable. However perishable fashion is, and it is perishable today, it lasts more than a day. Once you’ve bought perishable soft fruit, you can buy anything.”

The Lewis name appeared over a clothes shop for the first time in Mare Street, Hackney, east London in 1948. Nearly 60 years later, Lewis still maintains that this was his biggest risk and his eyes sparkle at the memory: “The premium was £3,000, but we could only pay £1,000, so the landlord took a lien over the shop and we had to pay the balance within a year. We needed the turnover to pay what we owed. It was a nervous Friday evening before we opened on the Saturday. If it hadn’t had worked, the family would have been in trouble.”

It did work and nylon stockings, blouses and skirts superseded the knitting yarns.

“I went for turnover and the good merchandise drove out the lower turnover merchandise,” Lewis says, displaying the attitude that he himself describes as “a very single-minded and focused approach to building a business, and creating long-term value”.

In those post-war days of clothing coupons, there were virtually no imported goods and wholesalers in London supplied Lewis’ needs. By the mid-1950s he was frustrated at the lack of control he had over the goods on offer, so he decided to design his own.

“I realised that it was necessary to control the manufacture of what I sold. A chap came in to my office above the shop to sell me some goods. I didn’t like what he had so he said, ‘Tell me what you want and I’ll make it for you.’ I thought, if I could tell him, I could do it myself. So I bought rolls of cloth, I sketched blouses, I bought lace. I found an outdoor maker and he started manufacturing. I can still remember the style number – BB1. B for blouse, B for Berman and one was the first blouse.”

It was not long before Lewis Separates, as the shops had become, was nearly all own label. By the early 1960s Lewis was buying some Far Eastern imports, but in 1962 he made his first visit to Hong Kong and began to go twice a year. He took on pattern cutters and designers and although he happily admits that in the very early days he would sometimes do a version of someone else’s hot styles – he made it his business to know what was in his competitors’ windows and what was selling – he put his efforts into creating a design and CMT system. That system enabled him to assess customers’ reactions to new styles and, if they were liked, put them into production for quick delivery.

Also, even in the 1950s, he had been analysing bestsellers on a weekly basis through a rigorous manual stock-taking system: “This happened after the shops closed on Saturday. You didn’t go home until the work was done.”

‘Comparative shopping’ and ‘Just-in-Time manufacturing’ had arrived.

Bernard Lewis remembers the 1960s as a decade of further expansion, “just grinding away opening more shops”. In 1965, when Lewis Separates had about 70 shops, they started being converted to Chelsea Girl because “Kind’s Road in Chelsea was the centre of the world”. But the Lewis brothers felt that the boutiques should not be a multiple, so they used other names such as The In Scene and Shades as well.

chelsea girl

chelsea girl

“As we became more organised and realised that boutiques could be a multiple, however, we converted them all to the Chelsea Girl name,” he explains.

He recalls the 1970s as a period of yet more growth and further organisation, of “learning to use the computer”. “During this time we were taking on and training new staff to become executives to run the company. The business was too big for me to do everything myself; I was a businessman, not a fashion expert. We started to have in the company people who were dyed-in-the-wool fashion people,” he says.

But the family was still in the driving seat. In 1972 Bernard Lewis began a relationship with Vanessa Bracey, who had joined Chelsea Girl as a buyer two years earlier. She became his wife in 1981 and they now have two sons, Sam, 20, and Jacob, 18. Vanessa is still product development and image director. Ben Lewis, son of Bernard’s brother David, has been in the firm for nealy 20 years and heads up retail, IT and logistics.

Bernard’s right-hand man in the 1970s was Leonard, his elder son from his first marriage, who had managed a Chelsea Girl shop in Hounslow as early as 1970, at the age of 16. “He did very well becuase he used to chase up the delivery of the bestsellers,” his father recalls. Leonard joined Chelsea Girl full-time in 1974 and by 1977 he and his father were a formidable, hard-working and demanding team.

It was Leonard who introduced footwear, menswear and the River Island concept to the business. Chelsea Man was introduced in the early 1980s, but a trademark dispute with Coventry-based Chelsea Man (run by ex-Village Gate man Sam George) forced it to rebrand as Concept man. River Island, originally a name only for menswear, made its debut in Exeter in 1987. Within four years, as a unisex fascia, it had totally replaced the inconic Chelsea Girl.

Perhaps only Hepworths’ conversion to Next compares to this radical high street name change, but Bernard Lewis underplays the risk involved: “We are fashion retailers. We always move the business along. We never like continuing to do the same thing. Chelsea Girl had a cheap and cheerful image and I knew that was not what was needed for the future. The format changes from Lewis Separates to Chelsea Girl to River Island were not big risks; we tested first, we knew what we were doing. The risk would have been failing to move on.”

In 1944 40-year-old Leonard Lewis was injured in a riding accident and his daily involvement was interrupted. It took about five years for the Lewis family to develop a new way to run River Island to recover from the loss of Leonard. His younger brother Clive, now CEO of River Island, moved over from the family’s investment business for a while, but former Burton director Richard Bradbury, who had been with the company since 1989, succeeded Leonard as managing director in 1988, a position he holds today, working with Vanessa Lewis on taking the company forward.

“Since the early 1980s I had been recruiting the best people to join us as buyers, designers, merchandisers, QC staff,” Bernard Lewis recalls, “We always paid good money because you can’t economise on your people. They liked working for us because in a family-run business you can get a decision quickly. Today we are family controlled, but have set out not to be a family-managed business. Richard does an outstanding job and his team seem to know what they are doing.” He says with a smile. “They’ve got my confidence.”

With a turnover in 2004 of £540m producing profit of more than £90m from 220 stores, and space being added at a rate of 8% every year, River Island has come a long way from the Wool Shop at 478 Holloway Road.

With his 80th birthday approaching next February, Bernard Lewis sounds convincing when he says he is enjoying his business life more than ever, He works every day, including the weekends, when he and Vanessa try to see at least two shops. “The business is always evolving and it’s no good looking at merchandise on a rail in the office. You’ve got to see what the competition is doing,” he insists.

The executive chairman of River Island Clothing Company says he has decided not to retire:” I am as free as a bird. I know more about the business now than I did when I was in the office, grinding over the figures every day. I can visit the shops as often as I like.”

Not speaking to anyone, especially the press, was a Lewis family trademark for many years, but Bernard Lewis says the secrecy was deliberate: “It’s difficult now for people to realise how hot we were once we found our successful formula in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were growing so fast there was a rumour that we had won the football pools! We deliberately stayed an unlimited liability company so that we could keep our turnover figures confidential. We even had each shop as a seperate company until the mid-1960s. People didn’t know how good we were, but we did and we had no intention of telling them how we did it. We were the only game in town.”

River Island might not be the only game in town these days, but Bernard Lewis, once a handy inside right footballer himself, can look back and know he had created a perennial Champions League side in fashion retailing.

How others see him

“They were always very agressive and always had the ethos that everything should be done in-house, So, as a buyer, I worked with a designer and a blank piece of paper to get what we wanted. We then went and got it made. I hadn’t worked like that before. It was a good place to work, they are good people and I have nothing but good memories.” – Martin Silverman, a former menswear buyer 1985-1993, now chief executive of high street supplier Pacific Heights.

“When I was selling jeans and T-shirts to Chelsea Girl in 1970s, their order was the one you wanted to show to the bank. They were a great account. They listened, they weren’t prima donnas, and they got behind the merchandise. Bernard was doing the buying then and he was always very honourable, with great intergrity. An offer from him was golden.” – Marshall Lester, fashion entrepreneur, now a director of Hilco.

“Bernard gave me my first order, for braided and hooded melton jackets, in 1971. He was always a hard negotiator, but only ever wanted a fair price. And you knew you would be paid in seven days, so everyone wanted to deal with Chelsea Girl. I often used to bump into him and Vanessa in Miss Selfridge on Duke Street on a Saturday, checking out the opposition. He was always clued up and always had a great eye for commercial product.” – Charles Stone, now head of womenswear sales for 28 black, which runs factories in China.

“The Lewis family only ever visited new sites on a Saturday so they could see what the busiest day of the week would be like for them. The usual Lewis style for lunch was sandwiches eaten in the back of a taxi. What strikes me about Bernard is his incredible attention to detail and fantastic memory.” – Peter Courtney, director of Lunson Mitchenall, a long-time property adviser to River Island. (Peter’s father Terence was the estate agent who let Bernard Lewis his first shop in Holloway; he later became property director at Lewis Separates for about 25 years).

“Bernard Lewis interviewed me for my job and asked me if I’d worked in retail in my home town of Cambridge. I said I’d worked at Michael Barrie. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘they are in the same street as us.’ And then listed in order, the nine shops that were between Michael Barrie and his shop. Now that was impressive. He was always in the shops.

“The company has a reputation for being extremely tough to work for, but the only thing they are tough on is lack of commitment. You can’t coast at River Island, but you are allowed to make mistakes. They really understand design and product development; in fact, they probably know product better than any other company I’ve ever worked for. Working for the Lewises gives you an ear and eye for detail. People stay there a long time.” – Design consultant Joe Baker, menswear buyer and later buying director for Concept Man/ River Island 1982 – 1990.

“We have been working with Bernard and the family for 21 years, designing for Chelsea Girl and Concept Man before the name change in 1988. Bernard is the most astute client we have ever worked for, always keen to hear your opinions and share the design process with a hugely influential input. He is modest and quiet, but I think he is a frustrated architect.” – David Dalziel & Pow, retail design consultant.


Bernard Lewis

Born – London 10 Feb 1926

Educated – Jewish Free School, Northern Polytechnic

1944-45 – Service in RAF

1945 – Works in family fruiterer’s business

1946 – Opens greengrocer’s shop on Bombsite on holloway Road, North London

1948 – Opens ‘Lewis’, a womenswear shop in Mare Street, Hackney, east London

Late 40s- late 50s – Lewis Separates shops open across London and in Brighton. The chain controls its own manufacturing

1957 – Openings in Hull and Glasgow start national expansion

1962 – Makes first trip to Hong Kong

1965 – Chelsea Girl beings to replace Lewis Separates as trading name

1970 – Vanessa Bracey (now his wife) joins Chelsea Girl as buyer

1974 – Bernard’s son Leonard joins family business full-time

1982 – Menswear introduced, first as Chelsea Man, then as Concept Man

1988 – River Island format introduced and replaces Chelsea Girl within three years

1989 – Richard Bradbury joins River Island as director of womenswear buying

1994 – Leonard Lewis injured in accident

1998 – Richard Bradbury made managing director, River Island

2004 – River Island is named Multiple of the Year in The Drapers Awards

2005 – Bernard Lewis and his family are listed at number 83 of the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated net worth of £570m

2005 – River Island opens its largest store (15,000sq ft) in Bluewater


Secure your place at this year’s Drapers Awards, which will be held at Old Billingsgate in London on November 26 to see who will pick up the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by contacting Francesca Verdusco on 020 3033 2660, or Flavio Rispo on 020 3033 2350,


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