Chairman and chief executive, All Saints
Walk the length of your local high street and while you’re not guaranteed to see one of All Saints’ characteristically statement stores, you will certainly see its design influence in almost every shop you pass. Go to a trade show, and you’ll spot countless branded collections inspired by the kings of premium cool. Ask an indie what would they most like to stock and the answer, more often than not, is “Please ask All Saints to resurrect wholesale” - it was axed in 2002.
This is a business that is admired across all sectors and one which has stripped back the nonsense that sometimes surrounds this sector to focus on what really matters: pure product design. Its design aesthetic, characterised by offbeat silhouettes, intricate patterns and neutral colours, coupled with dark, quasi-industrial storefits, has marked All Saints out as one of the most interesting retail experiences this year.
Behind it are two exceptional talents: chief executive Stephen Craig, a retailer with brand management knowledge who joined in 2006, and chairman Kevin Stanford, the creative force behind the business who has an incredible nous for design and sourcing, and who first found fame as co-founder of womenswear chain Karen Millen.
Stanford bought a minority stake in All Saints in 2002 before taking a majority stake in 2005.
It has certainly been this power duo’s year, with All Saints’ sales rising to hit £104m and EBITDA at £12.4m. In the fiscal year to January 31, 2010, sales will be more than £150m, with EBITDA circa £25m - it is trading up 26% on a like-for-like basis for the year to date.
Consider this performance in the context of, one, the recession, and two, the fact that the retailer’s Icelandic bank Glitnir collapsed on October 8 last year, leaving the business without credit insurance and working capital and with the restructuring specialists circling, and the weight of the pair’s momentous achievements over a torrid 12 months starts to become clear.
Although Craig and Stanford clearly believe they have brought a new proposition to the UK high street - Craig says “I do believe we’ve changed the way cool men and women dress” - they play down their success, opting instead to give themselves a hard time about what they say still isn’t the finished article at All Saints.
Stanford, who rarely grants interviews, preferring to let his “businesses do the talking”, says: “It’s been a long time since there’s been something new in the market. But we are only 60% of where we should be. We don’t believe we yet have a brand. The danger is sticking labels or logos on crap product and it would sell. We’re only as good as our product. Our shops in the UK are still average and will get much better as we develop.”
Craig adds: “About 25% of our categories are great or very, very good - like knitwear, jersey, graphic prints and embellishment and footwear. That means there’s still market share to be had.”Their approach is certainly unconventional. Most of the design team, including womenswear design director Hannah Coffin, are under 30. Coffin, along with menswear design director Will Beedle, aged just 31, and Stanford and Craig, both of whom are in their 40s, make all of the business decisions and are critical of other models, particularly where an owner-driver dominates a business.
“We’ve got the balls to make the clothes we like and not what trend forecasters tell us to. We have an opinion and we don’t care what colour Prada plans to do next season. People say to us ‘Where’s your colour?’ but show us the average person’s wardrobe, it’s full of taupe, grey and black,” says Stanford. “We were always talking about the customer at Karen Millen. We kept making things we didn’t like. The difference at All Saints is that we make what we like, and it sells.”
Craig adds: “Lots of high street brands are dominated by individuals in their 50s and 60s who have no connection with their consumer. They all think they can save their brands from the difficulties they face. But you need youth and the ability to listen. Our brand DNA comes from our youthful team and the fact we have two ears and one mouth.
“Four years ago, one belt [with the studded All Saints branding] made up 17% of our sales and we just walked away from it. We saw the French Connection FCUK T-shirts - they became a slave to one product group - and we didn’t want that to happen to us.”
Both Craig and Stanford are certainly not afraid to state their opinions, even where those views are somewhat controversial. But it would be wrong to interpret this as arrogance. Their views are born entirely out of the passion they have for the All Saints business and the fashion industry.