As we near the 25th anniversary of the Drapers Awards on November 26 at Old Billingsgate in London, we are looking back at some of the previous winners of the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. Today we feature New Look founder Tom Singh. From our archive, here is the Drapers Interview with Singh after his big win in 2009.
The modest New Look entrepreneur is the pioneer of fast fashion on the high street. As he picks up the Drapers 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, he reflects on his 40-year career.
When Tom Singh was five or six years old he got his first taste of fashion retailing. He travelled around farms in Somerset with his grandfather, taking samples of bib and brace overalls, floral crossover pinnies and wellington boots to the farming community. As they placed orders, Singh would run outside to the van to pick up the stock.
“I know everything there is to know about wellington boots,” he quips.
This month, New Look opened its 1,000th store, 40 years after Singh founded the business with the first branch in Taunton, Somerset. It now has stores in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Middle East, as well as about 540 shops in the UK. It commands the largest UK market share in women’s denim by volume and also leads the way in young women’s footwear.
New Look’s massive success can be almost entirely attributed to Singh and the vision he had in 1969, when he opened that first store with a £5,000 loan from his parents after graduating from the University of Wales.
Quick off the mark
“My ethos was always to deliver fast-reaction product at a great price,” says Singh. “But I didn’t have a particular vision of where I was going when I opened that first store. I never imagined we would achieve the success we have.”
Singh is best known for his knowledge of product and sourcing capabilities. The fast-fashion model he first developed in the 1970s changed the shape of the UK high street, forcing rival retailers to push for shorter lead times and better prices for consumers, and to develop catwalk copies.
Singh modestly adds that he doesn’t believe he has a particular skill for knowing or understanding fashion. He says: “I was always more interested in understanding what the customer wants. You just build up knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t.”
Singh’s achievements are huge. He has an estimated worth of £315m, according to The Sunday Times Rich List, yet he remains grounded and is surprisingly shy – and is certainly without the ego of some of his contemporaries.
At 14, Singh completed his first real “buy” when he was sent by his family to source £500 worth of men’s trousers from a wholesaler in Birmingham for the family business, by then a shop in Wellington, Somerset. Singh familiarised himself with retailing there too, working in the store at weekends and after school.
Shortly afterwards, 17-year-old Singh, his brother and his cousin started working the markets, eventually moving into fashion, buying from the UK’s first cash and carry wholesaler. “We bought quick-response product when the wholesalers in London started to be reactive with women’s fashion,” he recalls. “We sold things like crimpoline dresses.”
From there Singh went to selling fast fashion in the original New Look store in Taunton, recalling that he sold 30,000 deckchair-striped polyester dresses – serious volume from one store, and testament to Singh’s ability to pick a winner.
In fact, Singh puts New Look’s success down as much to its suppliers as his own talents. “We developed a very loyal supply business,” he says.
Singh began sourcing in India more than 25 years ago. He was one of the first high street fashion chains to cut out the middle man and one of the first to head to China to source cheaper product.
It was then that he began having input into telling suppliers what to make.
“We challenged the suppliers to do things in half the time. It was just a matter of changing accepted lead times,” he says. “When you have long-standing relationships with people, they are open to doing different things for you.”
The business grew quickly, first to 12 stores and eventually rising to 40 after Singh merged his stores with his parents’ shops in 1982.
In the mid-1990s the business hit difficulties when the competition began to catch up. “It was a shock to the system. I’d taken my eye off the ball and we had a less successful period,” he admits.
However, Singh quickly refocused the business and, with 50 successful shops, floated the company in 1998.
He subsequently privatised the business with private equity firms Apax and Permira in 2004, in a deal worth $1.4bn (£836.2m at today’s exchange rate). This, he says, was one of his proudest moments. “It was a validation for me in terms of the value of the company,”
Singh has since developed an interest in learning about various non-fashion businesses, including renewable energy firms, leisure projects, property and infrastructure firms.
He is also a keen philanthropist, particularly helping people in India. “I’m very interested in agriculture and crop yields and keeping people on the land. I’m also working with a cotton producer in India on producing cotton without pesticides in a fair-trade way,” he says.
His interest in New Look and the wider UK high street has not waned, though. “The relative cost of fashion is much lower than when I started. There is much more competition and the customer has massive choice,” he says.
“It’s much harder for entrepreneurs now. More of the high street is dominated by multiples. It’s hugely important that we have independent retailers, though. Once every high street starts looking the same, it will affect people shopping. Smaller, niche brands have something different to offer and there are a certain proportion of people looking for something different.”
He adds that New Look has a wide appeal. “Although people think of us as a young fashion business, our average customer age is 27,” he says. “Success is about picking the right trends.”
Singh clearly retains a passion for New Look, despite relinquishing an executive role in 2006 to become a non-executive director. Sources say he remains on hand to offer advice and regularly meets with the management.
While speculation grows that New Look will attempt a sale or float next year, Singh, who holds a stake of approximately 22% via the Singh Family Trusts, implies he is unlikely to exit completely, largely because he believes there is significant growth left in the business.
“The management team has strength and depth. The business is in capable hands and there is a huge amount of potential growth for New Look in the UK. A lot of our stores are too small for the markets they are in and we can probably double our retail space over the next five years,” says Singh. “International growth is also a focus and the website is a fantastic success and is growing dramatically, even though we had a later start.”
He adds: “New Look can’t prosper without offering the right fashion at a good price. It will keep to that formula.”
That Singh had the vision to break the mould and first create that formula 40 years ago makes him this year’s winner of the Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award.
2009 Opens 1,000th store
2006 Completes refinancing
2004 Leads privatisation of business with Apax and Permira
1998 Floats New Look
1995 Sells 75% of the company to BZW Private Equity and Prudential Ventures
1988 First store opens in France
1982 Merges stores with those of his parents to create 40-store chain
1969 Founds New Look in Taunton, Somerset
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