Drapers looks back on David Reiss’s 45 years in business, from serving the Kray twins in his father’s shop, to the King’s Road and taking Reiss to global domination.
“Even from an early age, I always had a clear focus and wanted to be successful,” says David Reiss, as he reflects on the long journey from taking over his father’s store in London’s Bishopsgate to establishing Reiss as a household name with a portfolio of more than 160 stores in 15 countries.
It’s been a successful year for the firm, which achieved its best performance ever for the 12 months to 31 January. Sales were up 11% year on year to £124m, and profit after tax up 68% to £13.5m. In April, US private equity firm Warburg Pincus agreed to take a majority stake in Reiss. The investment will underpin its plans for rapid international expansion.
I was 14 when I had my first three-button tonic suit made. I wanted to go out and conquer the world
The new partnership marks a significant change for the premium high-street chain and its ambitious founder. However, they share a long-term vision for the business. “[Warburg Pincus] are really serious players, so the fact they have invested highlights what a good job David has done,” says one menswear industry veteran. “He is very astute to have taken a small business and created what Reiss is today.”
Reiss, now in his seventies, maintains that he has always been driven, even as a child: “I loved sport, I was always out either playing in teams or running. I had tremendous energy.” He also developed a love of clothes at an early age: “I was 14 when I had my first three-button tonic suit made. I just wanted to have that feel-good factor. I wanted to feel good in myself, and go out and conquer the world.”
He was educated at private boarding school Carmel College and enrolled on an estate management course but, at the age of 17, decided he was far too impatient to complete another four or five years of study before entering the world of work. He began helping out in his father’s shop, learning the ropes and gaining the confidence and ability to relate to people that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. He also credits his father with teaching him how to run a business and deal with people. It is ingrained in him to pay bills on time and stay true to his word.
The shop, a traditional gentlemen’s outfitter on the edge of the City, attracted a heady mix of City boys and East End traders. The father of the infamous Kray twins visited the barber at the back of the store every day for a shave. Reiss recalls serving the twins when they popped in from time to time.
After a couple of years, he became a sales agent for a few firms, selling knitwear and loungewear on commission, before deciding in his early twenties to manufacture his own line with a friend. Armed with a loan from his father, Reiss found a factory to rent in Wakefield and set about sourcing fabrics and designing a collection of shirts. His friend agreed to live close by to run the factory, while Reiss was in charge of product design and sales. Before long, the factory employed about 150 people.“It was an extraordinary place to be, because there was a real community spirit. People lived by their wits – they were merchants and traders, real characters,” he says.
But in 1970, Reiss’s father died suddenly. His younger brother took on the running of the Bishopsgate shop, but it was only a temporary arrangement. Reiss knew it was time to return to retailing. Once in charge of the store, he began introducing some younger, more contemporary styles, such as tonic trousers and button-down shirts, which brought a fresh look and sold well.
After a few successful years of trading, Reiss heard about some industrial land for sale in Barnsley and managed to get a government grant to build a 50,000 sq ft factory. He closed it after a number of years to focus on retail, but the experience taught him some vital lessons.
People lived by their wits – they were merchants and traders, real characters
“By then I was on my third retail store, but it opened my eyes to opportunities generally, not just in retail,” he explains. “It also gave me a great understanding of how garments are made, and made sure I had my eyes and ears to the ground.”
The first key turning point for the business came in the mid-1970s, when London retailer Village Gate went into receivership. Reiss made a successful bid for the firm’s shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea.
“The King’s Road was probably the number-one fashion street in the world at that time,’ he says, “and I said, ‘Whatever happens, I must have that store.’
“That sent the competition into panic mode. They started contacting the factories in Italy and France, where I bought around 75% of my collections, to say, ‘You can’t supply Reiss.’ What they didn’t understand was the Italian mentally – they immediately thought, ‘This guy must be someone we should do business with,’” he says with a smile.
Reiss attended his first Pitti Uomo trade show in Florence in 1979. While in Italy, he sourced premium brands for the King’s Road shop. He put a number of Giorgio Armani samples in the window at cost price and filled the shelves with Sirio shirts. It made a statement that he had arrived, and it was a strategy that worked: “On a Saturday, we’d fill up the shelves with these shirts and by 6.30pm they’d be gone. When it came to 2pm, when the pubs closed, the store was absolutely heaving.”
The King’s Road in 1980 was phenomenal – and we became a player
He continues: “The King’s Road in 1980 was phenomenal – it was like nothing I had ever seen before, and we became a player. We had one of the biggest shops on the King’s Road. We were having all these fabulous collections brought in from abroad, which very few people had other than a few of our rivals, and we were making our own suits up, so we had a full collection.
“The traffic, the people, the buzz and the energy of that time was the experience of a lifetime. When you talk about those defining moments of the journey over the 45 years, that was definitely one.”
By the end of the 1980s, Reiss had expanded his portfolio to 15 or so stores up and down the country. However, some of the rents had spiralled, owing to the demand for prime locations, particularly in London. Then, when the recession hit, turnover dropped by about 15%. “You talk about Brexit today, but I’ve been through four or five periods when it was like ‘OK, this is the world we are in now. How am I going to deal with it?’”
As trading conditions worsened, he decided to focus on developing his own label, which had previously made up about 25% of total sales. He knew this would help with margin, as well as creating a unique identity for Reiss on the increasingly crowded high street.
He had a small warehouse behind the shop on the King’s Road, which he turned into a design studio, and began putting together collections to be manufactured in Italy and France.
Throughout the 1990s, the appeal of Reiss’s menswear collections grew and the business expanded. But he was constantly asked about womenswear.“One thing I think you can see is that I’m a purist,” he says, gesturing around his clean yet sumptuous head office at Picton Place in Marylebone, London. “I’ve never liked fashion for fashion’s sake – I’ve always been about selling clothes that people really want to wear and that feel-good factor. You have to have a really clear vision of who you are, and what you are and I think that’s been with me all the way through.”
“A lot of women just like nice, clean fashion that suits them, as opposed to fashion for the sake of fashion and trends,” he explains. “It’s about making people feel a million dollars and timeless pieces – that’s our brand ethos and the way the business is structured.”
So, in 2000, Reiss decided to venture into womenswear, taking little heed of warnings that firms rarely managed to make a successful leap from menswear, and that womenswear was a different, entirely more temperamental beast. He recruited a head of womenswear to start forming a collection, and took premises next to the store on the King’s Road to form the womenswear headquarters.
Reiss prides himself on his clear focus on product. However, he wanted to give the new designer autonomy to create the line without his interference. He had initial doubts when he called in to see the fabrics and colour palette she had selected but didn’t want to micro-manage, so he backed off to let her continue.
“The big day arrived and it was going into 15 stores as a capsule collection, and by then we’d already taken on a pattern cutter and two or three designers, so we had a team. But it hit the stores and, lo and behold, it was a disaster. All my worst feelings were there,” he says. “As soon as I saw it in stores, I knew it was not the vision I wanted it to be.”
We became like a little secret. We were this respected menswear retailer that was playing at womenswear
The designer departed soon afterwards, and the team worked to rectify the situation. Within a year, it started gaining traction.
“We became like a little secret,” he says. “We were this respected menswear retailer that was playing at womenswear, but was actually doing some decent stuff.”
Womenswear now represents 60% of total sales. One of Reiss’s proudest moments was gaining a Lycra British Style Award for best high street fashion retailer in 2003. It felt particularly satisfying to gain industry recognition following a shaky start for womenswear.
“We had to take Reiss international and think in a different way,” he says. “We had to look at the product and the brand – every single aspect we had to move forward.”Another was taking the chain to an international audience with its first store in SoHo in New York in 2005. Reiss agreed a lease on a 5,000 sq ft store. He then took a small team out to Tokyo, which he sees as the most inspirational city in the world, to gather ideas on how to elevate Reiss to a new level.
There, he also gained inspiration for the London headquarters. The building at Picton Place had once belonged to the London College of Fashion. Reiss added an impressive, Swiss-designed bespoke Perspex façade, and there is a large store underneath the office space. “You have to have aspirations and a belief in what you’re doing. Opening the New York store and the headquarters was all part of that bigger picture to become a global brand.”
It’s about making people feel a million dollars and timeless pieces – that’s our brand ethos
Warburg Pincus has ambitious plans for the retailer, and predicts it could become a billion-dollar business over the next three to four years, Reiss reveals. And he shows no signs of personally slowing down, having visited Toronto and New York for store openings the week before our interview, followed by one in Melbourne two weeks after. “They call me the male version of [travel show presenter] Judith Chalmers,” he says, laughing.
Just before I arrived, he was apparently in a heated discussion about “something I’d spotted that wasn’t right” and he claims to never miss a buying day, when he can “walk into a room and say, ‘That’s a winner, that’s a chicken dinner. How many have you put down? Boom. Double that order.’”
This focus on work has helped him to deal with a difficult time in his personal life, after his daughter, Debra, died last year. He is now looking for ways to give back to the fashion industry, focused on helping the next generation of entrepreneurs to take their first steps. Details are yet to be confirmed but he’d like to help people with his experience, particularly in the art of trading.
It has been noted before that, when it comes to hiring and firing, Reiss is quick to decide whether he likes you or not. “It’s true,” he says with a shrug. “You’ll be here either 20 minutes or 20 years.” Passion, ownership, being hands-on and trust are what appeals but, if a person clicks with him, you can imagine Reiss being loyal for life.
I joined David as his first designer and buyer in 1988, straight after doing a degree in fashion. He’d built a mini independent retail empire of 14 stores from one original store in Bishopsgate, mainly on his own, with a few of the staff assisting him with his buying.
I’d won the Smirnoff Menswear Fashion Award in 1987 and he called me at Nottingham Trent Poly several times, as he was determined to meet this “kid”. He persuaded me to go and see him in London at his store on the King’s Road. I was amazed when I arrived – I had never seen a busier shop in all my life. The customers could hardly move and there were 20 people queuing at the till.
He arrived, introduced himself, said hello to the staff, gave them a few pointers and took me upstairs to his office, where I showed him my Smirnoff outfit and two Paul Smith competition suits I’d made. I explained that Paul Smith had offered me a placement, so I couldn’t come and work with him. But he persuaded me that afternoon to go with him to Pitti Uomo the following weekend, stay the week in Italy at the best hotels, visiting the best fabric mills, factories, shops and restaurants in the world. He said, if I didn’t enjoy it, I could walk away and he’d accept that.
David is the most determined man I’ve ever met in my life – charming, persuasive, hard-working, with a vision and very funny. In Italy we had what was possibly the best week of my life. I agreed to work two days a week for him during my final year. He sealed the deal in Luisa Via Roma by buying me a red Jean Paul Gaultier blazer costing £795, so that I would have to continue working for him to pay it off!
From then on, we travelled the world together, putting collections together in England, Italy and Hong Kong. We sold them to all the best department stores and retailers around the world. He allowed me carte blanche, at 20 years old, to create virtually whatever I wanted to. He had unbelievable trust in me. He always had the final say, and we would argue and scream at each other.
But the heat was quickly forgotten as we moved on to the next idea. He allowed me to assist him in every creative aspect of the business, including store design and expansion. I will be eternally grateful for everything he taught me.