Azeem and Junaid Ansari built on their sibling bond to create an award-winning menswear independent
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A neon pink Drapers Independents Awards trophy perched proudly on a cash desk provides a vibrant splash of colour in the otherwise understated interior of menswear independent Burrows & Hare’s Westgate Oxford store. The shop, which opened in 2017 and is the second of three, thrums with customers browsing its carefully curated range of men’s fashion, lifestyle and grooming products on the day of Drapers’ visit. Attentive staff – including founder brothers Azeem and Junaid Ansari – are knowledgeably chatting to those in need of help.
Although Burrows & Hare launched less than four years ago, in 2015, this is an expert approach to independent retail – and Burrows & Hare has already picked up the awards to prove it.
The Ansari brothers scooped not one but two gongs at last September’s Drapers Independents Awards, which celebrate the best independents in the UK and Ireland. They took home the prizes for Best New Retailer and Best Store Design, and judges were impressed by the Oxford store’s vintage-inspired décor, complete with antique dressers, industrial light fittings and exposed wood floors, as well as its customer-centric approach.
Burrows & Hare is also in good financial health. The business has been profitable since its first year and both profits and turnover have grown healthily over the past three years, although they decline to reveal figures.
“In a time of increasingly difficult trading, especially for independent retailers, it was wonderful to see such an innovative shop floor and website,” recalls Claire Spencer-Churchill, Drapers Independents Awards judge and co-founder of agency Claret Showroom. “The store stood out to me because of the merchandising, the product the buyers had found, and the general approach to customer experience. In my mind, they were the clear winners.”
A shared frustration about the lack of high-quality men’s fashion led the brothers to pool their collective savings of £50,000 and launch Burrows & Hare, opening their first 250 sq ft store in Oxford’s Covered Market in 2015. The name of the store comes from the brothers’ design teachers when they were at school.
They opened the store because “when we were doing our own shopping, we weren’t too impressed with the selection on offer,” Azeem explains. “Quality was missing. Even with a lot of the big brands out there, the quality wasn’t as good as it used to be perhaps 10 or 20 years ago. After we noticed that, we wanted to change it.”
Both brothers are suitably dapper when Drapers meets them in the midst of the peak festive trading period. Azeem, the older by seven years at 37, is in a tailored black blazer from Burrows & Hare’s eponymous own line, while Junaid wears a khaki jacket from contemporary label ABCL, which the retailer stocks.
Every item is really considered and thought about by us for our customer
The brothers, who together do all the buying, focus on high-quality brands that are known for ethical production and are often specialists in their chosen fields. Working together, they say, is better than working with anybody else, because they can be honest with each other. Both are involved in all areas of the business, joking that they are cleaners, buyers, merchandisers, and everything in between.
Burrows & Hare stocks around 50 brands across clothing, footwear, accessories and skincare. Key labels include Oliver Spencer and Sunspel, alongside footwear brands Tricker’s, Grenson and GH Bass. Grooming accounts for 10% of trade and includes shaving brands DR Harris and Proraso, toothpaste-maker Marvis and razor brand Dovo.
“A lot of the brands we stock are heritage labels,” says Azeem. “Gloves, for example, are from Dents, who have been making gloves since 1777; Brooks Bags started in the 1880s; Sunspel were the first brand to introduce the boxer short to the UK; we only buy loafers from GH Bass because they were the original brand to design the loafer.”
Junaid adds: “Every item is really considered and thought about by us for our customer. Our approach isn’t just: ‘OK, let’s buy everything from a collection’. It has to fit with what our customer wants and needs, or we won’t buy it.”
Own-label has been part of Burrows & Hare since the beginning of the business and currently accounts for around half of the retailer’s overall sales.
The range spans everything from vibrant-hued socks (£16) and cosy beanie hats (£39) to cotton shirts (£75) and overcoats (£399). It is designed by Azeem and Junaid and, wherever possible, manufactured in the UK. The focus is on contemporary pieces that can be worn season after season – jackets, for example, are well tailored and the siblings are rightly proud of the quality of their bestselling duffel coats with traditional wooden toggles (£350), which are made in London. The brand is currently exclusive to Burrows & Hare, although the brothers have not ruled out wholesaling the label in the future.
“[Having an own-label] starts the customer off on the right foot and tells them: ‘This is what Burrows & Hare are doing, this is what we’re about’,” says Junaid. “If we can show customers our own product, alongside other brands that we really love, it gives us credibility.”
The pair learnt the retail ropes at a young age by watching their father, also an independent businessman, as children.
“We learnt from our Dad, who also ran independent menswear shops in Oxford and then went into wholesale and manufacturing,” Junaid adds. “We wanted to get back into retail because we like talking to people. You don’t get the service in stores that you once did, so for us it is really important that we talk to the customer and give them that experience.”
And that traditional approach to retail paid off. The success of the duo’s first store attracted the attention of glossy new Oxford shopping centre Westgate. A second, larger 840 sq ft Burrows & Hare store opened in the retail development when it threw open its doors in October 2017, the only independent business in the 800,000 sq ft centre.
“We had such a good response from the first store that we were asked to open in Westgate, because it turns out some of the directors were customers at the Covered Market and were impressed with what we were doing,” Azeem says.
The Ansaris’ burgeoning independent empire expanded still further in November last year, when they opened a third, 1,100 sq ft, store in the Birmingham Mailbox shopping centre. It made sense because of its relative proximity to Oxford and increasing investment in the area, which is bringing businesses to the city.
“Where we are in the Mailbox, we’ve got the BBC headquarters just upstairs and HSBC has moved into a new office just around the corner from the shop,” Azeem explains. “There’s a lot of businesses shifting to Birmingham and I think [new high-speed railway] HS2 has a lot to do with that. It is bringing people to the city.”
Melanie Taylor, head of retailer relations at Mailbox owner Milligan, tells Drapers: “Burrows & Hare’s focus on high-quality products and provenance, alongside the team’s knowledge and passion, really resonates with our customers and perfectly complements our existing mix of fashion retailers.”
Azeem and Junaid have taken Burrows & Hare’s fairly rapid expansion in their stride. Their approach is to take any hurdles as they come – they laugh that their best advice for opening new stores is that “you can never be too organised.” However, moving to their first location outside of Oxford has meant slightly tweaking the offer to better suit the local customer.
Our eventual goal is around half a dozen really good stores
“It is about picking up on local vibes. Now we’ve opened in Birmingham, even though broadly the customer is the same, there are some differences. We find that we have more of a corporate client at the Birmingham store, so we’re tailoring the shop to them with a slightly smarter edit. In Oxford, for example, we attract some of the student population who buy brands such as [Danish waterproof brand] Rains, whereas in Birmingham they might not buy as many colourful backpacks.”
Although there are no new Burrows & Hare stores planned in the immediate future, the duo have not ruled out more bricks-and-mortar stores, and take a “never say never” approach.
“Our eventual goal is around half a dozen really good stores, which people can visit and really understand what we’re trying to do,” Azeem says. “Opening a store in London would never be off the cards, but it would have to be the right place. In London, you could be just off a really busy road and end up with a totally dead store – you end up paying just to be in the right postcode.”
They are also battling with the question of whether to expand Burrows & Hare’s offer to include womenswear.
“A lot of our customers are women buying for their partners or their sons or whoever,” says Junaid. “Loads of them ask when we’ll be doing womenswear and it is always something that is at the back of our minds.”
Azeem adds: “On the other hand, we get customers saying that it is good to see a shop that just caters for men, who can be a bit neglected on the high street. We don’t want to dilute what we’re doing, so it’s something we’d have to really sit down and think about.”
More immediate goals include improving the digital offer, which sells clothing, accessories, footwear, grooming and gifts. Although Azeem and Junaid estimate that 10%-20% of sales currently come from ecommerce, they add that the online arm of the business has not been a key focus until now.
The website was redesigned in the latter half of last year and the brothers used the 2018 festive trading period to talk to as many customers as possible about how to improve user experience online. They also plan to launch a Burrows & Hare app to help strengthen the digital proposition over the next 12 months.
“We want to put a real good push behind the website this year,” says Junaid. “We know that there are customers who are using the website to research products before coming into the store to try things on. A lot of our customers are using the website as a kind of catalogue, which is great, but there is more we could be doing to take it one step further and push purchases online.”
Bolstering own brand is another key ambition. Burrows & Hare launched its own range of vegan men’s skincare, which includes a facewash and face scrub, this month. To help grow own-label fashion sales, Burrows & Hare will expand its shirting offer to include more styles and relaunch its denim range with new washes over the next 12 months.
At a time when even high street giants are beginning to flounder, there is no doubt that independent retail is a challenging place to be. But Burrows & Hare shows that a high-quality, considered offer, distinctive store design and focus on service will always find an audience.
Replicating an award-winning menswear retail formula