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The Drapers Interview: Frank Lyman

Womenswear veteran Frank Lyman is building a huge new office for his brand, but he has not forgotten the importance of independents and still gets excited by sales

He may have been in the industry for more than 40 years, but Canadian Frank Lyman shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, the founder of mainstream womenswear brand Frank Lyman Design has a busy 2014 ahead. Firstly, a 177,605 sq ft building in Montreal, Canada, is currently under construction to become the brand’s new head office and will take the business to “the next level”, says Lyman.

It includes a state-of-the-art automated receiving and shipping system along with modern showrooms. The office, which is due to open in the spring, is located close to Montréal-Trudeau airport to help ease access for visitors to Frank Lyman Design’s headquarters.

However, at the heart of the business is its product, which is a favourite among mainstream womenswear independents in the UK. Lyman explains that the brand continuously works to update its offering and for spring 14 has launched a new capsule collection of cocktail dresses and floor-length gowns to provide its stockists with a strong range of “extra special” pieces. Johanne Baron, vice-president of design and a long-time associate of Lyman, is responsible for the look of the range.

The 39-piece evening dress collection, Lyman by Frank Lyman, includes knee-length bandage-style dresses and one-shoulder frocks. Wholesale prices range from £80 for a knee-length dress to £110 for a floor-length gown.

Across both the mainline and the new capsule collection Lyman says the fabric, fit and style of a garment are all hugely important, but that pieces need to have “the wow factor”. He adds: “Personal customers email me around 10 to 15 times a day to say thank you very much for your styling, we love it. That, to me, is better than money.”

The brand now has 3,000 wholesale accounts worldwide including more than 250 UK stockists such as independent womenswear retailers Gilly’s of Burnham Market in Norfolk and Catherines of Partick in Glasgow.

“We are very happy with that number of stockists,” says Michael Black, managing director of Premier Fashions, Frank Lyman Design’s UK agent. “We don’t want to flood the market.”

He adds: “We’ve been working with Frank Lyman for eight or nine years now and what gives the brand the edge is that it goes that extra mile. We support the independents and the brand is supporting us.”

Frank Lyman’s success among its stockists was recognised this year when the label was shortlisted for Womenswear Brand of the Year at the Drapers Independents Awards 2013 in November, something which Lyman says he was hugely proud of. “It’s great to be nominated as competition is fierce,” he says. However, the brand was pipped to the post on the day by competitor Joseph Ribkoff - the company where Lyman spent part of his career.

The brand is a mainstay for independents, a sector that Lyman is firmly committed to. He says it is down to brands to create products consumers will love in order to help retailers survive the tough times. “You’ve got to make goods that are going to sell,” he says. “You’ve got to work at it.

It is very important that these independents make money and I just hope all our competitors think in the same way, as it’s better for everybody. A lot of people only want to help themselves, but if independents sell coats then it helps me, as it helps them pay their bills. If people don’t help independents make money then there aren’t going to be any independents eventually. When somebody tells me they didn’t do well with something it really kills me.”

The brand certainly seems to be impressing its indie stockists. Megan Clappison, sales and marketing assistant at women’s occasionwear indie Wat’s On in Hull, says Frank Lyman Design “ticks all the boxes”, with pieces “designed cleverly” to hide problem areas.

“Once ladies try on the brand’s dresses their figures are often transformed,” she explains. “Hips, stomachs and bingo wings are hidden and covered with the clever designs and waists appear to look twice as small with cummerbunds and such details.”

Stockists praise the brand for its dedication to moving with the times and creating pieces that are both trend-led but also mindful of the needs of their target customer.

And after four decades in the industry it is clear Lyman’s love of the industry is still as strong as ever. “Passion is the number one thing in the fashion industry,” he says. “If you don’t have the passion for the fashion you’re not in the right business. When the office calls and they say we just got a reorder of 12 pieces or 24 pieces that gets me excited. Everything else is dull; the part where they sell stuff is the part that I love.”

Lyman started in the industry aged just 18 as a salesman selling products from the back of a van. “We used to do it all through the year, about 48 weeks a year,” he says. “It was fun and all of a sudden I realised I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, and I decided this was the industry I wanted to be in. The rest is history.”

Quebec-based Lyman doesn’t believe there have been many drastic changes during his time in the industry. He says: “It has changed a bit, but I don’t find there has been too much of a difference. It’s just getting a little faster, with the technology there are emails coming in and people are all over you.

“Retailers want their fashion faster because they are getting pushed by their customers. The customer used to go into a shop and be told they could have a piece in three weeks, but now they say they need it tomorrow.”

One clear change in the industry has been the emergence of ecommerce. The brand has a website but it is not transactional and directs shoppers to their nearest Frank Lyman Design stockist.

Lyman says: “We don’t want to do the other [ecommerce] because it will be intervening with our retail customers. But as things are getting faster and faster who knows what will happen? Who would have thought people would be reading their morning paper on the internet?”

The team has a host of new ventures planned, although Lyman is not able to disclose them as yet. “We are in the midst of creating our new head office and we also launched a perfume [last year]. We are getting into accessories too, and introduced handbags two and a half years ago. We are like a one-stop shop now. We have work to do, but as long as we have work we’re OK.”

Lyman believes that people must work hard to constantly better themselves. He also only employs people who have a genuine passion for the trade and care about the business.

“In our organisation we want people who love the customers and take it into their hearts.”


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