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Rhona Blades

The co-founder of womenswear indie Jules B on reacting to the recession, the protection offered by ecommerce and the importance of experimentation.

Sitting in Jules B’s impressive 15,000 sq ft headquarters in Newcastle, you could easily mistake this northern indie for a large multinational corporation. From its well-oiled website, complete with a mobile version, to its in-house design studio with a dedicated team snapping and styling away, the Jules B business model is certainly one to envy.

Launched 26 years ago by husband and wife Julian and Rhona Blades with £27,000 worth of investment, it has grown into a business with an £8m turnover, forecast to rise to £9m this year.

Originally a one-store womenswear indie in the leafy Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, it has expanded into eight stores selling premium womenswear and menswear. It is soon to branch into kidswear in the form of mini Barbour jackets in one of its three stores in Kendal, Cumbria.

Co-owner Rhona Blades explains that a lot has changed since Jules B’s first store opened in 1985. “When we started out we were very naive as to what retail was all about. Obviously we learned the hard way through going around exhibitions and finding our feet. There was nobody there to guide us.”

Blades says the recession in the early 1990s did not have a big impact as the business was still in its infancy. However, she says the latest downturn has caused the business to change its attitude, with the Jules B estate spreading across four stores in Jesmond, three in Kendal and one in Yarm, North Yorkshire.

“The recession has made you rethink your business and tighten all the strings you possibly can, which has been fantastic because there’s an awful lot of wastage there,” says Blades. Buying processes have been adapted and it is now harder to experiment with a variety of unknown labels because every penny counts, she says.

“You can live in a fools’ paradise and just stock mainline brands, wonderful brands, but people are now thinking a little bit harder about how they want to spend their money.” Blades says the retailer now stocks Alice by Temperley, for example, whereas it used to stock the Temperley London mainline, which she decided to drop it as it was not commercial enough. “I’m constantly on the computer looking at sell-throughs, looking at who is selling what,” she says.

Online success

It may have launched in the 1980s, but Jules B has moved seamlessly into the 21st century, with its website now contributing 50% of overall turnover, a figure Blades is hopeful will continue to rise.

“We are actually fortunate that we went into the internet three years ago; the timing was fantastic. If we had to rely today on the shops and everything, then you just don’t know what it’s going to bring from one day to the other,” she says.

Blades enthuses about the team that has been built up at Jules B, and on meeting several employees Drapers senses that enthusiasm and passion in them too.

The dedicated in-house web team is continually working to update the site and the end product could easily rival online giants such as Asos and Net-A-Porter. The website boasts a blog, a range of modelled shots taken in-house for each product, sizing charts, plus a recently launched click-and-collect service.

Ecommerce is not the only armour for Jules B, which is shortlisted this year for three Drapers Fashion Awards. The indie mini-chain prides itself on giving its customers that little something extra. Its menswear stores offer a bespoke fitting service, and its conservatory areas provide a relaxed, unintimidating space in which customers can ponder their next purchase and helpful staff are always on hand with fashion advice or just a cup of coffee.

Blades does not skirt around the tough nature of the current market and highlights the difficultly with discounting on the high street. She says when multiples launch Sales early it spoils it for other retailers, and she suggests there should be a law that limits discounting in between certain dates. However, she is adamant that Jules B will not kick off its Sale this Christmas until December 27, as it does every year.

Blades is positive about retail guru Mary Portas’s governmental review of the high street, because she believes the high street is “dying”, with vacant properties acting as a deterrent to potential investors and out-of-town shopping centres pulling footfall away from the local high street. She believes that those indies still going strong are the ones that keep on innovating and do not rest on their laurels. As far as her own business is concerned, Jules B continues to invest in marketing its own brand image – hosting in-store events, producing magazines and advertising in the local press.

When Drapers meets Blades she is recently back from six weeks “on the road” as she puts it, visiting trade shows, exhibitions and showrooms for spring 12, something she insists on doing  every season.

“I do think there are exciting brands but there are a lot of people who are very nervous in the market,” she says. Despite the nervousness, Blades believes it is key to keep refreshing the brand mix, and Jules B will stock 14 new brands for spring including luxury accessories brand Rachael Ruddick and contemporary womenswear label Day Birger et Mikkelsen’s sub-brand, 2nd Day. “You’ve just got to try to be ahead of the game,” she adds.

Blades says that on the high street today many stores are stocking the same brands as their neighbours, something Jules B veers away from. “Everyone is too frightened to buy into an unknown brand but if you market it and it’s under your umbrella then it’s helping the brand and it’s helping them develop.”

Still experimenting

One of the key ingredients for Jules B’s success is experimentation. “You’ve just got to try every avenue and that’s what Julian and I do,” she says. “What he’s good at I’m bad at and vice versa. We’re like yin and yang. And we’re very lucky to have each other, because when things are good they’re great but when things are bad at least you can actually talk about the situation and your partner understands where you’re coming from.”

Despite being in the industry for more than 25 years, Blades says the duo are still experimenting and learning which labels work well, particularly with the emergence of the website. Some brands will sell quickly in some stores but not others, or sell online but not in store. “Having quite a few outlets has improved the profitability, which has been good,” she says. “But it’s all a learning curve, you’ve just got to get out there and work as hard as you possibly can.”

And Julian and Rhona are certainly staying true to their word and continuing to push the business onwards. As well as exploring the possibility of extending one of its Kendal stores, the duo are also hoping to try something new with the store in question. Jules B will stock the shop almost exclusively with Barbour products due to the popularity of the heritage brand in the area. The plans are still in the pipeline but Blades hopes to have everything in place by next month.

With such ambition on display, Drapers asks if more stores are on the cards, a question which is met with a  laugh from Blades. “I can’t work any harder,” she smiles. 

CV

2011 New website launches

2010 Jesmond stores undergo total refurbishment

2008 Julesb.co.uk goes live

2007 Store opens in Jesmond specialising in men’s casualwear

2004 First Kendal store opens

1986 Jesmond store expands into unit next door and introduces menswear

1985 First store opens in Jesmond, selling womenswear

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