Dune’s founder, this year’s Drapers Footwear & Accessories Awards Lifetime Achievement winner, has the shoe business in his DNA
From manufacturing in the UK to importing, and from wholesaling to retailing and etailing, footwear veteran and Dune owner Daniel Rubin has worked across most of the significant sectors of the shoe industry.
Sitting on the fifth floor of Dune’s headquarters not far from Lord’s cricket ground in London, Rubin is characteristically humble when reflecting on being named as Lifetime Achievement winner at this week’s Drapers Footwear & Accessories Awards: “I wasn’t expecting it, but it is very flattering to have your peers recognise your achievements. The great thing about shoes and retail is that you have so many challenges day-to-day that you don’t have the time to look back and see what’s happened, so you don’t realise you have been around for a long time.”
Rubin’s 38 years in the industry is indeed a long time. Bizarrely, his original career choice was as a finance director in the building trade. However, shoes were in the blood for this fourth-generation footwear manufacturer and when Rubin’s father Louis - who he cites as his only mentor in life and business - fell ill, Rubin joined family business Jack Rose London in 1976 making knee-high suede boots for Biba’s Kensington store in London.
“It was incredible; they were selling out every time we delivered from our factory in Stoke Newington, north London,” Rubin remembers.
Rubin’s father passed away a year later. After selling his father’s 50% stake in the business, Rubin continued the family tradition by buying into footwear manufacturer London Lane Shoes based in Dalston Junction, making shoes for the British Shoe Corporation and supplying independent retailers across the UK.
“I spent my time going up and down the country selling to Stylo Barratts and a load of retailers that are sadly no longer in existence - people like Leonards and Tandem,” he says. “These were big retailers with more than 300 shops each and now they are gone.”
Rubin cites the disappearance of specialist footwear chains as the single biggest transformation in the industry during his career to date. Tandem was dissolved in 1996, while later casualties include 185-store chain Dolcis, which fell into administration in 2008; Faith, which had 78 shops and 120 concessions, and went into administration in 2010; and most recently 75-store Barratts, which was put into administration for the third time in November 2013.
“The change has been dramatic. Practically all the big specialist shoe retailers are gone. The distribution has also changed beyond recognition. In the early 1980s, Office was very small and Schuh had only just started, there was no New Look, no Primark - the retail landscape was completely different,” Rubin explains, adding that the subsequent strengthening of the footwear offer in clothing multiples remains the biggest challenge for footwear-only chains.
“The clothing retailers and department stores just carve out a space for footwear, so don’t have the additional big rents to worry about. [A store] like Zara, for example, sells a lot of shoes, but they just put them at the bottom of the racks or in the corner. They don’t have to recover the costs. It was inevitable that sooner or later specialist shoe retailers would find it more difficult. [Stores] have disappeared because they didn’t have anything that special,” Rubin says. “If you look around, there are not many successful footwear retailers that aren’t multi-brand or clothing retailers. Topshop, River Island and Zara are doing a fantastic job. You have to be a really good operator to survive.”
With 44 standalone stores and 77 concessions in the UK, and a further 49 franchise stores across the globe, Dune has gone from strength to strength since its inception 24 years ago.
Rubin puts Dune’s survival down to the product having “something special” for shoppers: “As a footwear-only retailer, you will always be beaten on price, so you have to have a clear idea on who your customer is and a real focus on product design.”
Richard Kottler, chief executive of the British Footwear Association, credits the business’s success to Rubin’s “honourable nature” and his ability to create “fantastic teams”.
It was a business trip to Taiwan in 1984 that encouraged Rubin to take his next step in the industry, moving from manufacturing to importing.
“When I saw what they were doing over there and the prices they were doing it at, I knew the days of making shoes in the UK were limited,” he says.
On his return from the Far East, Rubin sold his share in London Lane Shoes to his business partner Len Goodman and in 1986 footwear import company Browning Enterprises was born. Browning began importing plain pumps from Taiwan and quickly became a £60m business, supplying more than 10 million pairs of shoes per year to high street retailers. Rubin admits he had “a big advantage”, adding: “I knew the customers and the market, so it was quite an easy transition.”
Rubin says that period was the “start of footwear on the high street”. Browning grew from selling plain pumps to importing sandals from Spain, Italy and Brazil, became the biggest shoe supplier to Next and provided most of Marks & Spencer’s kids’ footwear.
“Our customers became supermarkets or clothing retailers. I guess the industry is always chasing a lower price. A lot of Italian shoes started to be made in eastern Europe. The thing about shoes is they are a very high-labour project, ” he says. “There are a lot of processes, so it suits countries with low labour costs. Most production has moved to China as costs are low and their hand-eye co-ordination is incredible.”
Browning was to be integral to the formation of Dune. The office was originally on the second floor of the current Dune headquarters, just off Edgware Road, and it funded the launch of the footwear chain in 1992. Having begun with concessions in Jane Norman, Dune opened its first standalone store on the King’s Road in 1993 in a “narrow, Roman- themed” unit, before stepping onto Kensington High Street and Lakeside Shopping Centre.
“It grew quite rapidly after that,” Rubin says. “Initially, I was still spending a lot of my time on Browning. But you can’t play at retail, so I decided to devote all my time to Dune and building it up.”
It’s clear from speaking to Rubin that retail is where his heart lies: “The reason to get into retail is that you have a brand. We were in control of the distribution, of the product. You start to build your own collections, put your own aesthetic on it; it’s much more rewarding as you’re building not just product but the whole retail concept. When you supply on a private-label basis, you’re doing a lot of the development but in the end it is always the customer’s brand.”
Rubin admits that in the early days Dune was a much “more dressy brand”, and had aspirations of being a “cheaper version of Bally”. The product then transitioned to a much “younger, clumpier” aesthetic, before finding its place in the market.
“After five years we came up with the right aesthetic, which was fashionable but wearable, interesting but not outrageous.
I realised the only way to build the brand was to bring in a design team to focus on product development, and that started to deliver the right kind of results.”
The business is continuing to grow by investing in larger stores and bolstering its men’s footwear and accessories offers. In 2013, Dune implemented a new unisex store strategy by replacing small women’s-only shops with larger footwear stores offering women’s and men’s product, as well as a sizeable handbag offer, when leases on the smaller properties expire. The results saw men’s sales grow 25% year on year, while individual store performances rocketed. The company is continuing to expand its property portfolio at home and abroad following the opening of its largest store to date - and its first shop on London’s Oxford Street - last month.
Rubin’s eyes are now fixed on overseas growth. In terms of Europe, Dune is focused on department store concessions having just signed a deal to house a permanent concession in Galeries Lafayette in Paris.
“International is hugely important for us. We have franchise stores now in places even I haven’t been to, from Estonia to South Africa to Libya,” he adds.
Dune is also expanding Stateside, with a standalone store earmarked to open this autumn in New York’s SoHo. Rubin says: “Our franchise partners’ success has given us confidence that Dune is an international brand, and that opens up opportunities in terms of retail distribution. There are no signs of slowing down.”