Marc Granditer reveals the ups and downs that helped him build luxury childrenswear retailer Base Fashion into a thriving, Drapers Independents Awards-winning business.
In 1910, Morris Granditer set up a tailoring shop in a small store beneath his flat in Canning Town, east London. More than 100 years later his great-grandson, Mark Granditer, is keeping the family name in the clothing game. What was once “Granditer’s Menswear” is now the luxury childrenswear independent Base Fashion. Mark Granditer has been director since 1990, navigating the long – and at times testing – evolution from a family business to a modern, Drapers Independents Award-winning, multi-platform business.
Since he took the helm as director in 1990, Granditer has carved out a unique niche in luxury childrenswear, shifting the brand gradually away from its menswear roots. In addition to a thriving ecommerce site, which expects to drive 30% of business this year, Base has five stores: three lie in the high-profile hubs of Bluewater, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City, and two regional stores in Romford and Basildon. Of the 60 labels stocked, core brands include Moncler, Stone Island Junior, , Armani Baby and Junior, and Ralph Lauren.
Rough and smooth
The journey to where it stands today has been far from smooth: the business has gone into administration twice since 2008. This, however, is something Granditer does nto shy away from.
“You learn more from the hard times,” he states. “When things are good, you only look at the blue sky ahead of you. But as soon as that blue sky turns grey, you have to take a sober look at your business.”
Despite his family’s clothing heritage, Granditer describes having “fallen into” the industry, more by accident than design. When the original family business was restructured during the recession of the early 1990s, Marc joined his father, Frank, to run the firm, and two years later, Granditer’s Menswear was rebranded as Base, selling menswear brands such as FCUK, Ben Sherman and Nicholson.
Boys’ clothing launched in the mid-1990s, in what Granditer confesses was initially an “experiment”: “We felt there may be a demand for teenage boys who were coming into the store anyway, but found our men’s size small was too big.” Girls’ fashion followed in 2010.
As soon as that blue sky turns grey, you have to take a sober look at your business
For several years during the 1990s business for Base was booming. Stocking big-name brands such as Ben Sherman and FCUK, at one point there were 22 Base stores dotted across London.
“Retail became buoyant,” recalls Granditer. “We had what people wanted and we had a number of very good years.”
That all changed during the financial crisis of 2008: over-exposed to the crumbling economy, the business fell into administration. Thirteen stores closed, leaving the company in a precarious position.
“We had a really unbalanced business,” says Granditer. “Dealing with designer brands for kids and mid-market brands for men. Our menswear was in terminal decline and yet we had a great kids business, but we couldn’t really do anything with it because we were pulled down by menswear.
“I was stuck with a business model that I did not believe in,” he admits. “It’s very difficult when you spend all your hours on something and you wonder why you’re doing it. You don’t see really where you’re taking it.”
In 2013, Granditer put the business into administration once again, shutting down the menswear operation to focus on luxury childrenswear. Four years on, Base is soaring.
“Although I’ve been in the clothing business for almost 30 years, I’ve felt the hunger, the ambition and the drive more in the last four years than I had for the previous 25,” says Granditer.
Do kids want to walk through and see babygrows next to their Stone Island tracksuits?
This revival led Granditer to pursue his fascination with ecommerce. Originally launched in a small way in 2011, online became key to Base’s new strategy.
“Ecommerce needs to be the heart and soul of your business, and the stores are your shop front,” he explains. “It is absolutely the beating heart of Base.
“I personally find it very interesting – you can get very analytical with ecommerce. It really throws an intellectual challenge at you in the way that having a bricks-and-mortar store doesn’t.”
Granditer highlights fellow luxury childreswear business Childrensalon as one retailer leading the way in the online children’s market. Michele Harriman-Smith, CEO of Childrensalon, stresses that the key to succeeding in the sector is through customer engagement and providing a personal service that understands the “culture” of the customer – an approach Base has also taken.
“We have always aimed to provide the same friendly and personal service,” she explains. ”We believe that online is a fantastic tool that should be used to create a convenient, accessible and memorable shopping experience.”
Online sales at Base’s website - basefashion.co.uk - are set to make up 30% of Base’s total sales this year, but the aim is for 50% online within the next two.
The website is slick, well organised and simple, but what Base does differently from other retailers is smart in-store and online integration. This was recognised last year, when it won the Drapers Independents Awards prize for Best Independent Multichannel Operator.
“They were using really unique methods that allowed them to talk to their customer,” explains awards judge Bobby Lane, partner at accountancy firm Shelley Stock Hutter. “Not only had they showed really steady growth and grown consistently over the past few years, they were also engaging innovatively with their customers. Their strategy to get to customers was strong across all channels, really the definition of a multichannel business.”
This approach led the retailer to focus on brand identity and continuity across channels.
“When I talk about integrating stores and online, it’s a bit more subtle than having big screens in store,” explains Granditer. “Customers do have the opportunity to buy from the website while in store if we don’t have the sizes or styles. But the integration is more about using the stores to get customers aware of the brand.”
One way this is happening is through the “Face of Base” competition. Customers were invited to go into the store and have their photos taken by professional photographers. The winners of the competition, which runs twice a year, become “the face” of the brand in online and in-store imagery. Scroll through the website or walk into a store and all the retailer’s campaign shots feature real customers. This particularly impressed the Drapers Independents Awards judges, who praised Base’s success in driving engagement by taking the unusual step of targeting children rather than their parents.
Base’s novel approach has also proved a draw for brands.
“Base is a local hero account for us,” explains Paul Ellis, head of marketing and brand communications for Brand Machine Group, which licenses Lyle & Scott kidswear. “What’s really nice is the way they talk to their customer, that ‘kidult’ age range, talking directly to them rather than talking to the parents. They’re very specific with their targeting, online and in store, and the brand is positioned thoughtfully in both. They also have a really strong brand mix, which we are pleased to be a part of.”
Currently, physical stores continue to drive most of Base’s business, and this year Bluewater and Westfield London were kitted out in a new, fresh shopfit. Stores are now divided into Base Junior (ages 0-8) and Base (ages 8+), to create a “cool” store space for its young customers.
“Our core market is the older kids. When you try to mix baby clothes with older clothes, is that cool?” he asks. “Do kids want to walk through and see babygrows next to their Stone Island tracksuits?”
While Granditer demurs on the best way to describe the store’s aesthetic – “I hate the word cool. The word ‘cool’ isn’t cool, is it?” – the Base stores embody a sense of youthful vitality. Bright lighting, industrial fittings, slick branding, pops of yellow and a brand mix that oozes fashion kudos: Gucci, Kenzo, Versace and many more, all combine to give a playful and urban feel to the store, setting it apart from other retailers targeting the same sector.
“What we’ve tried to do is differentiate ourselves from all those other kids businesses,” he explains. “We’re more urban, we focus on the older market, although we do start at age zero and we’ll never lose sight of who our core customer is.”
Marc Granditer, Base Fashion
Their relentless consumer focus is proving a success, and Granditer estimates that year-on-year sales growth at the business hit 20% in 2016/17, driven largely by ecommerce.
“They have identified a gap in the market that they want to fill, and they’re very loyal to that,” explains Paula Fowler, director of fashion for Associated Independent Stores (AIS), and judge at last year’s Drapers Independents Awards. “They are really focused on what they have set as their end of the market. They don’t diversify from their core customer, and they are completely focused on that – it gives them an edge.”
While Granditer is cautious about further store expansion – “I’ve had my hands burned in the past” – the future looks bright for Base, with online expansion in the UK top of the to-do list: “The kids that shop with us in Westfield Stratford City and Westfield London are the same kids that live in inner city Birmingham, Manchester or Cardiff. Not all of them know who we are yet, but once they do, we should be the go-to company in that market.”
Granditer is insistent that the trajectory of the business has been far from flawless. Nevertheless, his pragmatic business focus honed in trickier times and the wisdom learned from three decades in retail ensure Base will retain its strong standing in the industry for years to come.