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The Drapers Interview: Jason Gerrard, Without Prejudice

Drapers’ Menswear Brand of the Year Without Prejudice is eyeing international expansion and its first UK store.

Jason Gerrard, co-founder and chief executive of Without Prejudice, is humble about the brand’s recent Menswear Brand of the Year triumph when Drapers visits its busy headquarters on Kimberley Road in Kilburn, north London. Having beaten names such as Original Penguin and Farah to land the prize at November’s Drapers Awards, he says the recognition reaffirmed the label’s ethos - to not be prejudiced by a label but let the product do the talking.

“When you’ve worked hard to get the product and brand to where it needs to be, getting recognition from the industry - and Drapers in particular - is amazing,” he says. “It makes you think you were right to remain committed to that path. There are seasons where the collection goes very well and seasons where it doesn’t. In those moments, it is easy to move away from what you set out to do originally, so the award really crystallised all of our hard work.”

Far from taking his foot off the accelerator, Gerrard is pushing the business, which he founded with his brother Russell in 2006 and now takes
the lead on, into its next stage of development: retail expansion.

By 2016, Without Prejudice plans to have its first full-price standalone store in the UK. The label, which opened a cut-price store at London Designer Outlet in Wembley in October, is looking at regional towns as a retail testbed, before expanding into London.

“We want to have a standalone store in the UK, not necessarily a flagship London store, but something slightly off-pitch. There are some regional towns that are really exciting and would allow us some feedback on the concept before venturing into London. You can do all you can, but without having a store you can never give people a complete picture. We are of the belief that the 35- to 40-plus market is eager for a new formalwear shopping experience compared to what’s out there now on the high street, so that’s where our energy will be focused.”

Gerrard says Without Prejudice fills a gap in the “middle- to better-end formalwear market”. “We recognised a niche; no one was bringing out new formalwear for a younger market. Everyone was launching casual brands like Superdry, but the formalwear market had become like a uniform for work. We launched Without Prejudice on that opportunity. We are unique in our end of the market as we will only produce in Europe, using Italian fabrics, and our mills are Ormezzano, Zignone and Marzotto in Italy.”

Without Prejudice already has seven concessions in House of Fraser and is adding another three this year, including one in Guildford this spring. “HoF has been very bold in taking on and giving life to new brands. The team there is open-minded to giving new brands the space and visibility they need on the high street,” says Gerrard.

Kevin Rogers, senior menswear buyer at House of Fraser, says Without Prejudice just delivered its “best season yet” in the department store: “Its success is very much down to a strong brand identity, a modern in-store concept and, ultimately, great quality, trend-led product.”

Retail currently makes up 40% of sales - comprising its HoF concessions, LDO outlet store and online - and the other 60% is from its 60 wholesale accounts, which include Norton Barrie in Bolton and Wilmslow in Cheshire, Black’s in Stafford and David Aitchison in Solihull. Gerrard sees this flipping to 60% retail and 40% wholesale by the end of 2015 as Without Prejudice makes a “conscious decision to be master of its own destiny”.

The retail push will expand abroad, with a deal to open franchise stores in the UAE now in “advanced discussions”. “By the end of the year, we will have at least one store open [there]. The fashion scene in Dubai in particular is phenomenal,” Gerrard explains.

Without Prejudice is already creating a name for itself internationally through its wholesale channel. After first attending menswear trade show Mrket in New York three years ago, it now has 15 stockists in Canada and three in the US. Germany is next on the list, though Gerrard can’t confirm which show the brand will exhibit at yet. “Germany is the market I would like to go to next if we go to Europe. I know the market very well and it has a very strong indie base,” he adds.

Despite the focus on retail development, he insists that independent stockists remain the “lifeblood” of Without Prejudice. “Independents were the first to be adventurous and try that new product when we launched, as they are expected to have that point of difference. It was their belief that gave us the momentum to push forward. The journey isn’t just us as a product; without the vehicle of indies supporting the brand that road can never be travelled. You can’t do it on your own. It’s the people who buy the product with their money - the retailers - who have to believe in us and the product, and see us through those odd seasons where things don’t quite work out.”

To serve its core accounts better, Without Prejudice is streamlining its wholesale account base in 2015, moving from 60 stockists to 50. “In order to service those who are supporting us properly, we have to come away from those stockists who are just playing at the brand. It allows us the time and energy to focus on those retail partners. Strong with few, rather than weak with many.”

He won’t reveal which stockists will be dropped, but says wholesale growth will come from those that remain buying deeper into the collection because it is the “strongest” in several seasons.

Online now accounts for 20% of total sales. Gerrard says it will continue to grow year on year but has no final or ideal figure in mind. In 2014 overall turnover was just shy of £3.5m and is expected to grow to £4.5m in 2015, although he declines to reveal profits.

Gerrard says his relationship with independents is based on long-standing connections and mutual trust built up during his many years as a fashion agent. He started his career in men’s formalwear aged just 18, joining the family business Favourite Ties, which was founded in 1952 by Walter Koby and at the time was one of the largest tie suppliers in the UK.

In 1989 the company took on a German suit brand called Bäumler and made its first step into the agency world. In 1994 the tie business, while still part of the company, took a backseat and Geko Fashion Marketing was born. As well as Without Prejudice, today the agency, led by Russell Gerrard, represents men’s tailoring brands Red Eleven, Bäumler, Dormeuil and Florentino.

Without Prejudice was set up in 2006 as a shirt brand selling to independents. Gerrard says creating an own brand came from wanting to gain more control over the business: “When you represent someone else’s product, no matter how hard you work to build the brand in the UK you are always at the whim of the parent company. If they change anything that isn’t commercially viable for the UK market the work you’ve committed to for so many years can be wiped out in a season. You have no control on that and it happened on a number of occasions in the past.”

For autumn 15 the 12-strong Without Prejudice team, including head of retail and wholesale Alex Foley and two designers, is taking the label back to its origins with a “fashion-forward” collection. The 115-piece range is a third smaller than last season and features bold printed shirts, slimmer jackets and details like contrasting lapels.

Gerrard says: “For autumn we have come back to our roots. We have been a lot more adventurous and fashionable in what we’ve done. We’ve taken more risks in terms of cut, fit and fabrics. I’m more excited by this collection than I have been for a long time.”

He believes the brand had become too swayed by the opinion of stockists in the past. “We were guilty of doing something I never thought we would; the collection was starting to move to what the indies wanted it to be rather than what it set out to be. At the end of last year we stood back and looked at what we were doing and realised we were in danger of becoming too classic or losing part of the DNA that made the label fun, interesting and exciting.”

The range is now “more focused” with 50 suit options, 25 jackets and 40 shirts. Wholesale prices for suits range from £133 to £158, shirts are £36 to £79 and jackets between £91 and £116, all on a three-times mark-up.

One former stockist said while she loved the brand, it was “too out there” for her customers. “The product was fantastic and we thought it would do really well, but it was too fashion forward for our shoppers. What the guys are doing is great though.”

However, Gerrard counters: “Without Prejudice doesn’t want to be a day-to-day brand for a normal suit. For that shoppers can go to M&S. We will never do that. A label that reads ‘The Truth Within’ inside every garment speaks of the integrity of the item.

“For us, it’s about creating a point of difference. We believe no man wants to stand out from the crowd but they don’t want to be part of the crowd either. It’s a hard balance to find. Without Prejudice has always trodden that path between being different enough to be interesting but not different enough to be ridiculous. We have found that balance perfectly for autumn 15.”

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