Julian and Rhona Blades tell the rollercoaster-ride story that led them to win Drapers Independents Lifetime Achievement Award today
“It’s a bit of an addiction,” smiles Julian Blades referring to Jules B, the Newcastle-based premium “mini-empire” he started with his wife, Rhona more than 30 years ago.
The route to winning this year’s Drapers Independents Lifetime Achievement Award has not been smooth. But what stands out about the husband-and-wife team is, despite setbacks – including threats to the business and Julian’s recent battle with cancer – they are as passionately “addicted” now as they were back in 1985.
“That’s the secret of how we’ve got so far,” says Julian. “Together we’re very strong. We support each other and get through what people on their own might not. And we have an almost telepathic mindset. We go into showrooms separately and pick out 90% of the same product. We’ve done it again and again.”
This June, Rhona attended Florence’s Pitti Uomo menswear show alone, as Julian was too unwell to travel.
“Everything she bought back was ‘yes, yes, yes’,” he says.
“I passed the test,” adds Rhona with a wink.
Retail is detail. The smell, the temperature, the music – it’s all about that in store
Nevertheless, they confess to “daily barneys” – “We’re two Leos, so what do you expect?” shrugs Rhona. At their Newcastle headquarters their offices are side by side but deliberately separate.
Rhona oversees womenswear, and Julian menswear. When asked which is bigger, Julian answers: “It’s 50:50.”
“It used to be more ladies,” interjects Rhona, adding: “We’re a little bit competitive.”
“The thing that consistently impresses me with [Jules B is their] absolute passion for good product,” agrees Doug Thomas, founder of menswear sales agency Reef Agencies. “No sooner has Julian stepped in the showroom, he is touching and trying on garments. He loves the industry and is as enthusiastic about it today as when he started.”
Bricks and mortar are still key to the business. In fact, the pair opened their latest store just last year. There are seven altogether. The three womenswear stores in Jesmond in Newcastle, Kendal in Cumbria and Yarm in North Yorkshire sell brands such as Rixo London, Self Portrait and Baum und Pferdgarten.
The two menswear stores in Jesmond and Kendal stock brands such as Corneliani, Belstaff and Barbour. And the two Zen Wardrobe womenswear stores in Jesmond and Kendal focus on comfortable, wearable shapes in soft, relaxed fabrics from labels such as Oska and Crea Concept.
Much like their owners, each shop is full of character, be it original features, statement architectural details or special fixtures. When Drapers visits the Jesmond stores the duo light up, pointing out new products and introducing me to staff.
“Retail is detail,” says Julian, straightening a row of hangers. “The smell, the temperature, the music – it’s all about that in store.”
The whole business has become very analytical and data driven. You’ve got to know all your KPIs to nearest decimal point
And yet, what has helped them survive as many other independents have closed is their penchant for innovation and risk taking.
“Julian and Rhona’s strengths are their focus on quality and their understanding of brands’ DNA,” says Guy West, co-founder of British men’s shoe brand Jeffery West, which has been stocked by Jules B for 20 years. “I’ve seen the business continually evolve. This adaptation and evolution has underlined their success, and is the reason why they remain at the top of what we all know to be a very difficult retail climate.”
“Jules B is one of the best dual ecommerce and bricks-and-mortar retailers in the country,” adds Lee Burtenshaw, account manager for Barbour. “Jules B has flourished over a period of time where they [have moved] with the changes in retailing.”
Getting online early in 2007 put them at an advantage, but they have smartly and quietly transformed Jules B into a multichannel operation. The website now accounts for 70% of turnover.
“The whole business has become very analytical and data driven,” says Julian. “You’ve got to know all your KPIs to nearest decimal point.”
The pair met in Newcastle when Rhona was a 27-year-old recent fashion graduate turned lecturer at the local arts college and Julian was a 22-year-old self-employed Germany-based fashion agent for Barbour.
“I had a girlfriend who was a student of Rhona’s,” says Julian with a smirk. “I was back in the UK and I decided to ask Rhona out platonically. Eventually we started a relationship.”
The pair bonded over talk of the fashion industry and, after just 12 weeks, Julian suggested they go into business together. Investing £14,000 each and with no previous experience, the first Jules B store opened in the leafy area of Jesmond – the “Hampstead of Newcastle” – at 54 Acorn Road, where it still stands.
“If our daughters did that now, I’d go mad,” laughs Rhona.
Menswear was added a year later, when the store expanded into the neighbouring building as the pair’s quirky style created a point of difference in the north-east. Relatively unknown brands Nicole Farhi womenswear and Hugo Boss menswear were the foundations.
They married in 1990, and had two daughters, Haley, now 27, and Natasha, 26.
Starts and stops
By 1990 and with characteristic entrepreneurial spirit, they decided to give the nearby Newcastle city centre a shot, opening a new store. It closed in 1993, but they tried again in 1995.
The second store was impressive, bagging them their first Drapers Independents Awards – Womenswear Independent and Overall Retailer of the Year – in 1995, but it was not profitable enough and closed in 2000.
Ever restless, another project appeared. Julian had been playing the stock market and decided to invest his profits in something safer. He had heard a business called David Kerr was up for sale, along with its property.
Located in the north-west town of Kendal, two hours from Newcastle, they bought it and set up a new Jules B. Soon they expanded into the property next door, and eventually the building opposite.
In 2001 they launched another fascia, Conservatory, which was renamed Zen Wardrobe in 2016. Zen now accounts for 30% of overall turnover.
“You also opened another shop, [a streetwear-inspired menswear store] called Fish [in 2003], remember?” points out Rhona.
“Oh yes, I forgot about that one,” says Julian. “That was failure. We’ve had our share.”
Threats and opportunities
It is clear, as the pair unravel the complicated story of their three decades in business, that they have grabbed every opportunity, seeking out gaps in the market and having the chutzpah to try new things – although, ever humble, they admit they have not always worked.
When a deal fell through to buy a neighbouring building to their Jesmond shops to create a Jules B “mega-store” they decided to “try something different, and think outside the box,” says Julian. Having noticed footfall gradually dropping in their stores, they took Jules B online in 2007.
“My philosophy was: if I spend 10% of what I perceive my turnover is going to be on marketing, let’s see how it goes,” says Julian. “And sure enough, on that simple equation we started investing and online grew quickly. That’s when I realised that was where the future was at.”
What we look for now, for the internet, is things that sell in volume
Initially online was buoyed by the pair’s entrepreneurial tendencies. Julian came across Italian watch brand Toywatch and started to sell it online. An instant success, he set up a Toywatch website (toywatch.co.uk), and turnover rocketed to £2m a year.
“Toywatch weren’t very happy about it initially, but we became their biggest individual retailer,” he says.
Eventually the Toywatch trend faded and Julian sold the web domain to the brand. But the experience taught them a lot about online, and the profits helped Jules B invest and expand digitally. “It dragged us forward into digital and accelerated growth,” he says.
Today, the digital operation is impressive: there are UK, US, Australian, French and German versions of the site. The UK currently makes up 78% of online sales, followed by the US and Germany.
Online accounts for 70% of turnover, and 60% of the 110-strong team are digitally focused. An in-house photography studio enables the display of 5,000 items from 70 womenswear and 50 menswear brands.
As always, the pair are pragmatic: “What we look for now, for the internet, is things that sell in volume. So you take one picture, and you sell 2,000 of that product, rather than take one picture and sell six of them,” says Julian. “If you put it into simple terms, to photograph, describe and put a product on the site costs about £70 per SKU. So it’s important that you can sell a sensible amount in order to cover that cost.”
While their online channel was rapidly growing, the pair took their biggest blow to date, as accounting errors were uncovered in 2014 that threatened to close the entire business.
We stripped the business right down to the bare bones. We had to look at every single area and where we could better it
A trading update at Companies House revealed a £916,000 over-statement in its financial performance, as a result of mistakes by a former in-house accountant. The deficit was made up of more than £714,000 worth of over-valued stock, £480,000 of under-stated trade creditors and an over-statement of nearly £75,000 for provisions for sales credit notes. The prior-year adjustment, paired with a £546,000 loss relating to 2014, resulted in a total loss of £1.46m for the year to 31 January 2014.
“It was the worst thing ever,” says Julian. “We went through a year – an annus horribilis – when the stress was unbelievable. We worked all our lives, from £14,000 each, to build up a little empire and suddenly we stood to lose everything.
“It would have been so easy to give up, but we decided to fight. And we did it, one little bit at a time.” Both are still visibly devastated by the experience.
I’m at every trade show, hunting. You have to find the next big brand
Jules B’s sudden growth was part of the problem, they believe: “We were always thinking ahead, thinking big and getting on with doing our job, and we expected everyone else, especially our accountant, whom we trusted implicitly, to be doing theirs,” says Rhona.
As well as investing nearly £1m of their own money, the pair made some big changes to save the business, closing a store, and setting up new systems and infrastructures.
“We stripped the business right down to the bare bones. We had to look at every single area and where we could better it,” she says.
They also point to their staff, who stood by them, and their “fantastic” suppliers, who got them through the difficult times: “They believed in and supported us. Without them I don’t think we would’ve made it,” adds Rhona.
We went through a year – an annus horribilis – when the stress was unbelievable
Although they still maintain that the business has a “long way to go”, it was back in the black by April 2016 and is slowly starting to expand again. Most recent Companies House filings show, for the 12 months to January 2017, turnover was up 20% to £9.7m, and pre-tax profit was £239,000.
Even after the setbacks, Julian still has a twinkle in his eye when asked about the future. Although guarded, he reveals: “It would be silly of us not to go into childrenswear at some stage. I’m really excited by the future.”
“We’re excited, as we still have the same drive,” adds Rhona. “That’s why I’m at every trade show, hunting. You have to find the next big brand. That’s the challenge for me. I still enjoy the cut and thrust of it all.”
“It’s like a big game. We all like to play games, and we like to win, even with everything that we’ve been through,” says Julian, smiling at his wife. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Jules B: 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'