Northeast premium indie Van Mildert stole the show at last year’s Drapers Awards by scooping three prizes, including Independent of the Year. But its managing director and menswear buyer refuse to rest on their laurels
Such is Cyril Williams’ dominance of northeast England’s fashion scene that even Drapers’ taxi driver from the station to his head office is in awe of him. Yet for a man whose reputation precedes him, Williams (on the left of the picture) is initially withdrawn during the interview. It’s only after subtle coaxing from menswear buyer and right-hand man Reece Hutton (pictured right) that the “legend” of the Northeast comes to life.
Some find him intimidating, others say he drives them mad because he is so demanding, but everyone agrees that Williams is driven, passionate and highly respected. “We dominate the Northeast, in the mid and premium markets,” he says of his and his brother Eric’s fashion empire, which includes 17 stores - premium mini chain Van Mildert (five shops), which Williams bought in 2005, middle-market fascias Box Clothing and Tucci, and RTC, an agency business in the north for brands such as Firetrap.
It’s Williams’ honesty and bullishness that allow him to make such bold statements. “Cyril is very important in the Northeast and has such a stronghold in that area,” says Simon Poole, managing director of menswear brand Luke, which is stocked in Van Mildert. “If you want to do business in that part of the country, you have to deal with him.”
Together with Hutton, Williams is calling the shots as far as Van Mildert is concerned. When the recession hit last year and the pound struggled against the euro, Williams and Hutton made the tough choice to drop some long-standing European brands. “It was a commercial decision and there was no negotiation,” says Williams. “There is no point being in business and not being in profit.” To which Hutton diplomatically adds: “But we only pressed pause. We were very honest and transparent with the suppliers and, because of the economic situation, had to do what was right for the business. We all shook hands [at the end of the meetings].” The decision paid off, with sales at Delima, the registered company for Williams’ businesses, which he started in 1988, up 6% to more than £10m and profits of more than £500,000.
In the past two years the pair have streamlined Van Mildert’s brand portfolio, favouring bread-and-butter brands such as Barbour (“100% sell-through for autumn 09,” says Williams), Evisu and Stone Island over more fringe labels.
“In a recession, people want proven brands and proven quality,” says Hutton. “Van Mildert benefited a hell of a lot from the knowledge we already had of the middle market [from Tucci and Box Clothing], and of the commerciality of how those businesses are run. [In the premium sector] you can become very blinkered - it’s all about image, all about the next coolest brand, about [talking up] sell-throughs.”
Williams and Hutton both believe there are still too many indies unwilling to cut through the vanity sometimes associated with premium and luxury fashion to embrace commercial fashion too. In fact, Williams is one of the few in the industry willing to stick his neck out and say this is why fellow premium indies Cruise and Flannels - or “dinosaurs”, to use his words - ran into financial difficulties. “I don’t believe they made the necessary changes five years ago,” he says. “The premium sector is not what it used to be and premium shoppers aren’t the same either. They will shop on the high street and they will shop in Van Mildert.”
Hutton adds: “We used to deal with the Italian super brands and they had a huge hold over how you grew your business and how your budget was split. I’m surprised some people are still trying to drive that kind of business when you see the new generation of consumers who are oblivious to that product.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Williams’ portfolio. The Northeast has been more affected than other parts of the UK during the recession, not least because of the 1,700 job cuts at steelmaker Corus, which confirmed late last year that it would cut back production at its Teesside Cast Products factory in Redcar. “Not only is there a recession but the biggest employer in Tees Valley is Corus,” Williams explains. “Van Mildert hasn’t been affected as much as the other fascias because people with money will always have money. Tucci and Box Clothing, in particular, were more affected because they’re volume businesses, so we had to look at margin protection. But every brand must make a profit and we have such a stronghold in the area that we’ll ride out the recession.”
As it happens, Williams is already eyeing up expansion for the business as a whole via new store openings and possible acquisitions. “We’ll be making some announcements in a few weeks and we will go where we need to go, [in the UK] whether that’s north, east, south, west, who knows?” And he’s not afraid to make bold steps, having bought Tucci out of administration in 2005 from former owner Capi.
But for all his tough-guy talk, there is a humility to Williams - an “empathy”, according to Pan Philippou, former chief executive of World Design & Trade, which owns Firetrap, and now chief executive of Ben Sherman - that makes him appreciate both sides of the business, and the role of suppliers in his success.
“We will grow organically and hopefully the brands will support us - their support is key,” Williams admits. “I’m very single minded and I’m determined to be successful. And I’m a great believer in being challenged.”
The industry as a whole can expect more challenges from Williams, who says the business is “only 30% of where we want to be. We haven’t achieved anywhere near what we want to achieve.” If “owning” the Northeast represents only a third of the pie, the rest of the country had better watch out.
Who is your fashion mentor?
CW I’ve worked with many talented people including Asbed Momdjian at WDT, David Douglas at Gio-Goi/USC, Ben Luscombe at Henleys and Carl Brewins at Republic. Outside the business, Celtic FC manager Tony Mowbray and Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough FC chairman. All these have one thing in common: desire, determination and integrity. Closer to home my wife, and my brother and business partner Eric.
RH Anyone who knows me knows how much of a Dries Van Noten fan I am. My introduction to fashion retail was selling his product and it was the first collection I bought when I was a junior buyer aged 19.
Which is your favourite shop?
CW Louis Vuitton.
RH [Designer boutique] L’Eclaireur in Paris and [Swedish designer etailer] Très Bien. In the UK, Liberty never fails to impress me and I love the fact it manages to retain the cobbled street contemporary indie feel in a truly conceptual department store.
What is the best-selling brand you’ve ever worked on?
CW Menswear brand Soviet in the early 1990s.
RH For sheer volume, the Barbour Chelsea jacket - the numbers are quite unbelievable.
What is your proudest achievement?
CW Business-wise, winning the three Drapers Awards.
RH Winning the three Drapers Awards and doubling the business’s store portfolio in an economic decline. Personally, my children Rebecca and Ronnie with my partner Sara.
2009 Van Mildert wins three Drapers Awards - Menswear Retailer, Young Fashion Retailer, and Independent of the Year
2007 Williams buys Van Mildert
2005 Williams buys Tucci out of administration
1988 Williams sets up registered company Delima with his brother Eric