The Sussex indie is as passionate about his charity as he is about menswear.
Matthew Hansford took over his family’s menswear business, Hansfords of Chichester, in 1990, starting from scratch in the industry. He is a committee member of The IMC Buying Group, an organisation of independent retailers who combine buying expertise to maximise margins, and is always present at the group’s seasonal trade shows.
Your grandfather founded Hansfords in 1908. Were you always planning to join the business?
I had no intention of joining; I had never worked a day in the store before I took it over in 1990. I worked in marketing in London and then set off to South Africa to play cricket and coach squash when I was 24. Then my father became ill and I offered to come home and help run the business for a few months - that was 25 years ago.
What are the biggest changes in menswear you’ve seen during those 25 years?
The demise of many British suppliers and the dominance of European ones in the middle to higher end of the market. It’s a shame, but there are fewer British suppliers left to work with. Those who invest in design and quality seem to come predominantly from Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. There are, of course, those who buck the trend, such as Gurteen and Magee among others, but when I started 25 years ago, 75% of goods were from UK suppliers and 25% from Europe. Now that has reversed.
How involved are you on the shop floor?
Not as much as I would like to be. I’ve always enjoyed serving customers and I find it vital to be close to them to make good buying decisions. I only get that real feedback by being on the shop floor, so I try and make sure I spend time there every day.
What is your strangest customer-related story?
A man came in and complained about a hat he said he had purchased from us. Although we held the brand, we had never stocked that style and we knew it had come from a competitor as it had a hand-written price tag while we have barcodes. He did not want to be told that and was adamant we were in the wrong, so we refunded the money just to keep the peace. He got home, found his receipt and called to apologise and thank us for being so understanding. He’s now one of our best customers.
How did you find the spring 15 buying season?
I really enjoyed it. We have had a particularly good 2014, so I felt very buoyant and hence spent far too much. I visited Pitti Uomo [in Florence] which I always enjoy, although I find it difficult to buy much as the sizes do not work for my customers. It is great to get inspired by what’s on show there, though. I do buy a few accessories and have tried a few beautiful linen shirts from [Italian label] Mosaique for 2015. Most of my buying is done at
the IMC show [near Silverstone]. It was incredibly busy [in August] and I found the Meyer, Oscar of Sweden and Falabella ranges to be very strong. The whole show was buzzing; it was great to see all the retailers and suppliers being so positive after a tough few years.
Do you prefer buying for summer or winter?
Winter. I enjoy buying tweed jackets and coats and knitwear; they are far more interesting. It is great to get the accessories and product mix just right for the crazy month of December.
Do you prefer single-breasted or double-breasted?
Single. I don’t like to feel ‘hemmed in’.
What would your dream brand be like?
Quality European-made garments with a classic fit but interesting design and colour. We find all too often that the interesting designs are made in a modern, young slim fit. We aim at the 40-plus age group who demand a good-fitting garment and rarely enjoy a close slim fit. There is a huge market of people who want to be fashionable but comfortable too.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing independents?
Confidence to keep going in tough times. So many of us worry about things we have little or no control over: rent, rates, recession, competition from the internet and discounters. In the end, we need to stay positive and spend our time and energy putting great clothes in front of customers and giving them a good environment to shop in.
What would you like to see more of from brands?
That they understand what the UK market needs, rather than offering the same range that they do to Europe, which often does not suit what we want.
And less of?
Opening their own stores online in direct competition with retailers. The internet is undoubtedly a big part of all of our lives and a web presence is vital, but clothing will always have a place on the high street. I would like to see all brands working with the retailers rather than trying to compete with them.
What about your interests outside the industry?
I run a charity focused on Sri Lanka from my office above the shop [in the UK], which feeds more than 1,000 children every day at 26 schools, including three we have just opened for disabled children. See Extracover.org.uk
When are you at your happiest?
Sitting in a remote jungle school in Sri Lanka.
What is your top business tip?
Enjoy your business.
- Read more My Fashion Life interviews at Drapersonline.com/people/my-fashion-life