Award-winning independent Master Debonair is driving rapid growth and bringing a fresh approach and dapper flare to menswear.
Walk down Commercial Street in east London, past the red-brick buildings and independent coffee shops, and you will come across menswear store Master Debonair, blending perfectly into its trendy surroundings with an eclectic, dapper charm.
The menswear retailer has come a long way since it scooped the award for Best New Business at the Drapers Independents Awards in 2017. Then, it had just one store, proudly located in the small town of East Boldon, near Sunderland in the north-east of England. It expanded to London last November, and plans to open in the north-west in the coming months as part of a wider retail rollout.
Founded by Simon Whitaker in February 2016, Master Debonair’s modern take on heritage suits predominantly in bold tweeds, paired with eclectic shirts, and details such as pocket squares and pocket watches, has successfully tapped into a well-defined menswear niche. Drapers’ panel of judges described it as a “very impressive and interesting business”, and praised its strong financial results.
Whitaker will not disclose profits but says sales for the current financial year – ending 1 July 2019 – are expected to hit £2.5m. A team of 28 now works across the two stores, and the head office and warehouse in Boldon. Master Debonair is close to securing its third location in the north-west, and there are plans to expand the East Boldon store to more than double its current retail space.
In the pipeline
Alongside all this, Master Debonair is developing its eponymous own brand to be sold exclusively in the stores. The first two own-brand suits launched in mid-January, and the collection will grow throughout the year.
When Drapers meets Whitaker at the London store, he is in the midst of a whirlwind of meetings and buying appointments for the own-brand offer. He is impeccably dressed in an identifiably Master Debonair style – a tweed blazer and waistcoat, jeans, smart honey-toned brogues and a flat cap. Heavy silver rings are stacked on his fingers, which are covered in an intricate web of tattoos.
Before the launch of Master Debonair, neither Simon nor his wife and business partner, Eve Whitaker – who is creative director of the business – had any experience in the retail sector. Whitaker trained initially as an engineer, and later moved into sales and marketing. Before founding Master Debonair, he was the sales director for a large European business and communications company.
“I’ve worked in a number of different industries and I’ve not had any [previous] experience in any of them,” he laughs. “But I know how to work with people.”
The idea for Master Debonair was sparked in late 2015 when Whitaker’s father passed away.
“He was really debonair. Every day he’d go into the office in his three-piece suit,” says Whitaker. “I was looking at tie clips and pocket squares, and wanted something a little bit different to wear to his funeral. I couldn’t find anything.”
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Whitaker began by buying a small selection of men’s accessories and built an ecommerce website in the evenings after work. Despite his lack of experience in fashion, from the outset he had ambitions beyond selling pocket squares. With his sales training, he built a comprehensive business plan and sales forecast, and secured a bank loan.
Using this funding, the Whitakers travelled to Birmingham trade show Moda in January 2016 to buy their first full range of suits, shirts and shoes – Marc Darcy was among the starting brands – and the Master Debonair website launched at the end of February 2016. Soon after, in response to requests from customers to see the stock, the Whitakers turned their dining room into a showroom. Their three rottweilers – Harry, Poppy and Rosie – looked on from the garden.
Whitaker says Master Debonair’s aesthetic and styling quickly resonated with an existing sector of the menswear market: “I think there was a desire for a good couple of years for the particular look we offer. I’ve been dressing like this for the past 10 years, and a lot of other guys have as well. But men have found it really difficult to find a style that they love. We’ve made the look more accessible.”
He adds: “We saw some traction straight away, but the thing that really worked for us was setting up our Facebook page, posting inspirations and styles I liked. When we went live, we saw sales straight away.”
Whitaker’s stylistic stamp has helped to win brand fans.
“They have managed to get their personality across to customers on their social media platforms very well, so when customers arrive in store, they have not come to browse, but to buy into the personality and the product,” says Richard Benson, director of Guide London, which is stocked at Master Debonair. “Personality counts, and the team at Master Debonair have it in spades. It has been exciting to see how their business has developed and grown.”
Just two months after launching the website, in April 2016, the first Master Debonair store opened in East Boldon. It stocks brands including Marc Darcy, Guide London and London Brogues, and prices for a suit range from £170 to £230.
We took a lot of inspiration from places we like to visit and stay
Designed by Eve, the store is now the cornerstone of the business, and customers travel from as far afield as Aberdeen and Brighton to visit it for the personalised customer service and unique brand proposition.
“We took a lot of inspiration from places we like to visit and stay, not shop,” says Whitaker. “We got inspiration from hotel lounges, bars and restaurants, rather than looking at other retailers.”
“The shop was really designed around an experience and a destination. We will travel to places if we love them, and that’s what we’ve found since we opened the shop. It’s all about the experience. The product is almost secondary – the experience comes first.”
Whitaker’s emphasis on experience extends to the customer service, including styling and fitting advice, and in-store tailoring.
“There’s no pressure on customers when they walk through the door,” he says. “If the product isn’t right for them, then we will suggest alternatives. We advise – we offer that personal service
“I listen to [the team] on the phone, and I wonder if they’re talking to family or friends,” he laughs. “They talk to me about some of the customers as if it’s their own families, and they know them inside out.”
This intensely personal approach was born of Whitaker’s frustrations with the traditional high street model: “I love shopping, and when I go into city centres now, it is disappointing. I find some of the department stores and retailers very wooden. There’s no personal customer service. People shop differently now. They’re going for an experience, they’re going for a day out, and you don’t need to go to a city centre to get that.”
He recalls with horror one weekend during the East Boldon store’s first year of business when a queue of 40 people unexpectedly formed outside before opening: “It was crammed in the shop and I felt as though we were losing that personal service. It’s all about the experience of coming and being in a relaxed atmosphere – and that wasn’t.”
Master Debonair subsequently opened a private showroom in its head office in Boldon to syphon off some of the demand. The space caters to larger group appointments and VIPs, or those seeking a more private shopping experience, and Whitaker notes that it is fully booked for the next two months.
Whitaker says the east London store was “an opportunity we couldn’t pass up” due to the desirable location and surrounding community of stores, and sales are on target. The next store is set for the north-west, and will be even more experiential – an in-house barber, coffee shop and tattooist are all mooted as possible additions, to turn Master Debonair into a “destination for gentlemen”.
Eventually, Whitaker hopes customers across the UK will have no more than two hours to travel to a Master Debonair store. He plans to take the shop count to six over the next four years, focusing on “destination” locations – not town centres.
Despite struggles on the high street, the unique proposition and niche style of Master Debonair is allowing it to continue to grow, as consumers increasingly hunt for a personalised, individual experience – which Whitaker is delivering.
Whitaker is also sharply in tune with the world of ecommerce. A new website launched in February, with improved functionality for shoppers. While Whitaker notes that the costs associated with running a multichannel business are “substantial”, online sales have continued to grow steadily since launch, and now make up around 30% of total sales. The plan is for online sales to outgrow store sales within three years.
“We will continue to massively invest in digital,” says Whitaker. “We’ve really developed the functionality of our size guides – they’re more interactive and can predict your sizing. We’ve also developed a new system for our inventory and warehousing. It’s about how everything flows through the business, so that everyone can see stock, know where stock is and know if we have the right stock in.”
Alongside retail growth, Whitaker is focused is on building Master Debonair’s own-brand offer. He says the business will always include third-party brands as part of the mix, but the aim is for 50% of the offer to be own brand in three years’ time – allowing Master Debonair to offer exclusivity in an increasingly crowded market.
“I could see there were other independents coming into the market that looked a lot like us,” Whitaker explains.
The resulting offer ticks the same stylistic, price and quality standards as Master Debonair’s third-party brands. The first two suits – in a charcoal Prince of Wales check (retailing at £220) and a navy check (£199) – took almost two years to develop. Additional suit styles are set to launch in June and September. The shirt range launches this month. Suits are manufactured in the Far East, and shirts in Europe.
Whitaker says he is “delighted” by the brand’s initial performance, and plans for category expansion are well under way. Footwear is next on the hit list, followed by an own-brand casualwear offer, which Whitaker hopes will be in stores within 12 to 18 months.
Tailoring is back in a big way. The spring 19 season is returning to elegant and classic menswear
With the move into casualwear, Master Debonair is primed to capitalise on general menswear market trends towards more tailoring and smart-casual styles.
“Tailoring is back in a big way,” Fiona Firth, buying director of Mr Porter, told Drapers earlier this year. “The spring 19 season is returning to elegant and classic menswear in a way we haven’t seen for a while with the tailoring trend embracing a casual, relaxed approach.”
A small range of third-party, branded smart-casual items from three newly introduced brands are set to launch in stores and online for spring 19, and more will be introduced for autumn 19, in response to demand from customers.
“It has to complement the main offer,” stresses Whitaker. “It’s really that smart-casual look. Not out and out casual: gym, trainers and joggers. But polo shirts, chinos and that kind of thing.”
Thanks to his unconventional route into retail, Whitaker has managed to bring a fresh approach, and is not afraid to do things a little bit differently to the norm.
“When I have worked for some big organisations in the past it takes so long to change anything or make decisions,” he explains. “If I feel as though we can make a decision for the right reasons, we’ll do it and we’ll test it. Obviously, we can’t go too far with it, but we’re not afraid to make some different decisions.”
Whitaker embodies Master Debonair’s style, charm and humour, and has the kind of enthusiasm that makes the best independent retailers shine. His personal passion, calculated daring and drive have set the foundations for an award-winning business.