Drapers Independents Awards winning Love Brands’ Michael Shalders and Hugo Deane reflect on what sets them apart from other distribution and fashion agencies
At their 1,900 sq ft showroom at Metropolitan Wharf on the bank of the Thames in Wapping, east London, there is a chatty buzz in the background from the Love Brands team of 10. Over coffee, sitting on a long table under low ceilings surrounded by clothing rails in front and a bookcase full of shoes behind, founders Michael Shalders and Hugo Deane chat with Drapers.
Drapers Independents Awards Agency of the Year Love Brands combines distribution – “about 85%”, explains Shalders – and with retail and wholesale consultancy, and a B2B sales platform. Increasing turnover by almost 65% in 2015 year on year, Love Brands is now looking at expansion into European markets while maintaining its original focus: making business enjoyable and professional, and being ”tough when you need to be tough”.
Terry de Havilland
The pair met in 2008 in London at Mexx where Deane was the country manager and Shalders was its UK agent. After Deane’s position was made redundant in March 2010, the two started to discuss the idea of Love Brands. Their combination of national and international knowledge, 25 years of experience each – Shalders in wholesale for Saint Tropez and Desigual, Deane’s in franchising at Mexx and Esprit – and industry know-how gave them a synergy that was unique to the brand agency model.
Now in their fifth year in the business with more than 600 stockists – mostly independents, but also department stores and online – in the UK and Ireland, Love Brands began with Spanish brand Custo Barcelona in 2010. Today it represents 12, including Danish womenswear label NÜ Denmark, UK footwear brand Terry de Havilland, Dutch young fashion brand Circle of Trust and the newly acquired Italian women’s and men’s wear label Stefanel. Online sales represent around 15% of the total, says Deane, “but always in a complementary way to our wholesale channels”.
Talking about the early days of the business, Shalders says, “We had a lot of relevant contacts [internationally], and I knew a lot of sales and fellow distributors – probably more than I know in the UK. We’re dealing with Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. We’ve just started dealing with Germany. So some brands – it could be a UK brand that doesn’t know how to do Europe because all of the currencies, credit limits, and all the practicalities – would rather have one distributor looking after six markets, than six different distributors.”
Because of their past exposure to European brands in all facets of retail, Love Brands can offer a wide range of services to its customers, which include independents and department stores in five countries (soon to be seven with Norway and Spain). On top of core distribution, the agency helps with staff training, finding retail locations and property, in-store promotions, window displays and other bespoke visuals.
Its dedicated team of sales administrators, based in the Wapping showroom, act as a conduit between retailers and brands. They pick up all the day-to-day queries so the retailer has just one point of contact, here in the UK, for all the brands they represent.
What we wanted to say to our partners, to the brands that we’d sourced, ‘We can offer you guys multichannel business
Love Brands also has a B2B wholesale e-shop: a password-protected ecommerce site that allows registered retailers to see live stock levels, reorder and request replenishment top-ups 24/7.
“We offer more than just names or distribution,” says Deane. “If you have a retail platform, if you’re looking to do concessions, if you’re looking to find franchise partners, we know how to do that, too.
“What we wanted to say to our partners, to the brands that we’d sourced, ‘We can offer you guys multichannel business.’”
It was these value-add services that led Love Brands to clinch a key UK sales and distribution account for spring 17: the €200m (£156m) Italian fourth-generation family-owned mainstream women’s and men’s wear brand Stefanel.
“You start dealing with a certain level of brands and that opens the door to more brands in that arena. It’s been little steps for us,” says Deane.
Now, having a retailer stock two or three of their brands is typical: the duo pride themselves on being a “one-stop shop” to view collections. And they do not accept a mark-up of less than 2.8 from retailers.
“Old school” face-to-face contact is crucial too, says Deane: “We believe it’s really important for the sales guys to get out of their bubble and to have a look to see what’s happening, to find out what the competition is, and to go and meet people. It’s important to gain opportunities and see clients, the knocking on doors, reaching out saying ‘Hi, this is what we do’.
“It’s when you sit in a room, and you feel rather quickly, are we going to do business together? That’s so important. Unlike the digital world, we live in the real world, and we actually talk to people and shake hands, and you have to trust each other, don’t you? We want to think long-term sustainable relationships.”
Despite waning attendance at trade shows, both men see them as necessary networking events to attend, and Shalders says they always commit to and support them.
As Deane confirms, “We see [attending trade shows] as important. It’s incredibly expensive for all concerned to put on those shows. There’s a huge commitment and investment. If I owned a shop, I would like to get out and just see if what I’m doing is right, and if I’m missing anything, to talk to other retailers. I feel that trade shows are the best way of doing that.”
Shalders adds, “If someone comes up with an alternative, they’d be a very wealthy person!”
While face-to-face contact is a must for Love Brands’ relationships to thrive, the digital world also plays a big part.
Deane admits, “You can’t ignore technology. You can’t ignore progress. You have to embrace it, but at the same time, hopefully influence it.”
“We started quite early with Custo Barcelona,” explains Shalders. “We helped it with its retail presence in Westfield Stratford City, and at the same time, with an opening at House of Fraser online, which was massively expanding its presence. It put a lot of resources into it and was really very clear about making House of Fraser a destination online. It partnered with some really good people, and invested in technology. We gained a lot of experience during that time.”
On a digital platform or when dealing with bricks-and-mortar shops, Deane explains: “You have to be honest and open: about the prices, the margins that we work on. We try to make the brand feel comfortable from the beginning. We sit down and agree on a strategy, agree on a target, agree on a growth of a brand, so that no one is disappointed because it hasn’t been discussed. There are different facets to launching a product in the UK.”
And if it goes wrong?
“When things go wrong – and nothing’s perfect – you have to be able to put your hands up and say, ‘Look, let’s see how we can fix this together,’” says Deane. “The whole conversation is very open, and we have that conversation before we even start selling their product. Obviously numbers are very important to any brand when it launches, and collections are expensive. It’s spending money on marketing, and it’s a return investment. It’s the same for us. Everybody needs to be realistic about what’s achievable.”
Deane adds, “As you grow [as a business], you’ve got to make sure that you keep up with it. [In January] we hired a sales support manager to come on board to strengthen customer service, to really get that right.
”We also have a freelance PR, she works with us in house. She promotes specific brands and our brand with digital, e-flyers, showroom invites, trade show invites.”
Love Brands has partnered with I.Level software – a UK company specialising in the fashion industry, to create I.Level mobile.
“It allows agents to place orders on or offline and sync back to Love Brands headquarters,” explains Deane. “The order can also be emailed directly to the client, and agents can see live stock levels and the status of their orders, including what’s been shipped to give real time info.”
Drapers put us on the map by articulating what we do as a business
Winning the Drapers Independents Award last year has helped Love Brands to upscale, believe Shalders and Deane.
“Drapers put us on the map by articulating what we do as a business. Brands like that and take note,” says Deane. “As a result of that we’ve really started to engage with really strong international brands.”
Shalders adds: “You listen to actors who win awards given by fellow actors. It’s quite nice to know that what we’re doing, we’re doing properly by our peers.”
As part of the judging process, the award was subject to an online vote. In deciding the winner, judges acknowledged Love Brands’ strong marketing and excellent approach to nationwide retailers.
On the future of Love Brands, Deane says, “We’re always open and looking to expand our brand proposition where it makes strategic sense, like taking a product that has something extra to give.
“We want to extend to different sectors, too,” adds Shalders, “We’ve recently gone into footwear, lingerie and accessories, like the Mighty Purse – a wearable-tech fashion bag that has is a lithium battery to charge your mobile phone.
“We’re quite interested in developing relationships with iconic British brands, as well and expanding into other markets. We are also keen on seeing how our digital platform develops for our brand, just offering a little bit of extra service, not to replace face to face, but to complement it.”
With a dip in attendance at trade shows and the creation of things such as iPhone-charging handbags, it is obvious that the fashion retail industry is changing. Love Brands shows, though, that there are a few very important, albeit “old school” considerations needed to run a successful business today: transparency, face-to-face contact, ambition and drive.
Shalders and Deane complete each other’s sentences – they agree to agree. They are “people people”. When asked about the history behind the name of Love Brands, Deane says, “I think that was your idea, Michael.” Shalders nods, “We had a business plan, we knew what we were going to do”. Deane continues, “ And we love what we do, and we knew people would love our brand.” Then, with a look back to his business partner and friend, Shalders finishes the thought, “It just kind of stuck.”