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The Drapers Interview: Juls and Steph Dawson

Juls and Steph Dawson, co-founders of Drapers’ Agency of the Year Just Consultancies, are making the business a one-stop shop for young fashion

A little over three years since Juls Dawson’s last Drapers Interview, and a lot has changed from when he previously opened the door to his young fashion agency Just Consultancies’ Shoreditch showroom. After setting up the business in January 2012, Dawson and his wife Steph - the Just moniker comes from the first two letters of their names - have gone from strength to strength and now have 20 brands on the books, two overflowing showrooms in London and Manchester and 16 staff.

Despite their success, Steph insists they were shocked to be named Agency of the Year at the 2014 Drapers Independents Awards last September: “We were over the moon. The year before we had been shortlisted and didn’t win, so the second time around we didn’t get too excited. It was a brilliant surprise. It was great to have our team and Jul’s parents there to share it with them. It’s amazing to be recognised for our hard work.”

And to keep the momentum going, Just Consultancies is representing a raft of new brands for spring 15.

Manchester-based young fashion brand Native Youth’s womenswear collection is delivered for the first time this month. Wholesale prices range from £7.20 for a T-shirt to £38 for a jacket, and it will go into 70 to 80 independent stores for its debut season, rising to 120 for autumn. “In the US the womenswear line has already signed Urban Outfitters and Fred Segal so we would eventually like to mirror that in the UK,” says Juls.  Just Consultancies has represented Native Youth’s menswear range since it launched in 2012.

Ash Kumar, founder and creative director of Native Youth says: “Juls is very hands-on. In the fast-paced branded arena where [Native Youth] sits he has shaken up the industry and helped to bring the branded sector to where it needs to be and long may it continue.”

The agency’s own slide sandals brand, Slydes, is new for spring 15 and 100 stockists have already signed up, including Asos.com, Zalando and Urban Outfitters. Forty independent stores have written orders and Juls wants to increase this to 150 within three months. “There was a massive gap in the market for something like this. Slides are very on trend and this has been reflected in the massive uptake we have seen already,” explains Juls. Wholesale prices range from £4.50 for simple styles up to £8 for more detailed designs.

Filling another gap in the portfolio is technical menswear brand Foray, whose range starts at £7.20 for a T-shirt and goes up to £32 for a parka jacket. Based in Accrington, Lancashire, the brand looks after its northern business itself, where it has 120 accounts, and has tasked Just Consultancies with building sales in the south of the UK.

Perhaps the agency’s biggest recent coup is securing the account for the first Original Penguin Tailoring and Farah Tailoring formalwear collections. Chinese manufacturer Dayang Group has acquired the licence to produce the collections, which include tailoring, outerwear, shirts and ties, for distribution within Europe for spring 16. Wholesale prices start at £8 for ties and go up to £89 for suits. Stores that already stock the labels are being targeted, as well as some specialist formalwear stores that do not sell casualwear.

“We have seen a massive shift in the younger market towards a smarter trend. You just have to go into Topman or look on Asos to see that the younger guys are smartening up. The amount of space devoted to formalwear in multiples and independents has risen in recent seasons, the younger guys are mixing formalwear with more casual pieces and there isn’t a brand that is targeting that market specifically,” says Juls.

Men’s streetwear brand Friend or Faux is thriving with 100 accounts, but fellow British short order brand Bellfield is the agency’s biggest with 250 UK and Irish accounts for its heritage-inspired men’s and women’s wear. The order book has just closed on the first Bellfield boyswear range for autumn 15, with those signed up including River Island and Footasylum. Boyswear prices are between £4 for a T-shirt and £20 for a jacket.

Mi-Pac, the backpack and accessories brand that launched into the market with Just Consultancies for autumn 12, has expanded its range with totes, weekend bags, wash bags, wallets and bumbags this season, allowing it to pick up more womenswear accounts (purses start at £3.20 and tote bags are £22). A print collaboration with Liberty has also given the Gloucestershire-based brand access to more premium stockists. “It’s a new level of the market for us and a great way for shoppers to access Liberty product at an accessible price,” explains Juls.

Max Baines, Mi-Pac commercial director, says: “Juls was my first call when launching the brand three years ago due to his excellent reputation and strong relationships with all of the major UK retailers. Just Consultancies has a network of agents across the country that ensure we have visibility in the top independent stores nationwide, and Juls is always on hand to offer advice and discuss opportunities for the brand.”

To house its growing cache of labels Just Consultancies is looking for new properties as it plans to double its Manchester Hilton Street showroom space to 4,000 sq ft, adding to the 3,555 sq ft at its London showroom on Rivington Street, Shoreditch. The agency has taken on six new sales agents in the last year to manage the growing portfolio.

In building their business, the couple - who met 15 years ago when Juls “tried to flog” jeans to Steph, who was a designer at young fashion chain USC - has learned through trial and error what type of labels will work.

“We’ve learnt as we’ve progressed”, says Steph. “Some brands have worked and we want to be loyal and to stay with them and then others haven’t been as successful, like the higher-priced, lower-margin, forward order brands [which she refuses to name]. We have a lot of anchors, like Bellfield, Native Youth, Ichi and Mi-Pac, but when we started there was a lot of trial and error. Now we’ve got our formula.”

Juls says the polarisation of the market over the last five years between luxury and value has worked to their advantage: “We are all fully aware the mid-market section has disappeared and there has been a polarisation of retailers and consumers going towards luxury or the other end of the spectrum. We specialise in catering for the latter. Luckily, partly by chance, we moved away from some of the branded mid-market retailers a few years ago as the growth of own labels within those businesses resulted in a bit of an overlap with some of our brands.”

He adds: “Foot flow in those stores was also down so we shifted towards high street retailers like Topman that carry brands, and indies, giving them the opportunity to compete with the high street. We capitalised on that shift in the market.”

Steph insists that although Just Consultancies’ brands are accessibly priced they are not “throwaway fashion”. “The market means a lot of people are looking for less expensive products, but it doesn’t have to look cheap. All of the brands we sell have to keep to that aesthetic.”

There are three sets of criteria a brand is judged by before the agency will take it on, and at least one of them must be met: accessible price point, a strong margin for the retailer, and it must be short order or have a stock service.

“If it doesn’t tick one of those three boxes it isn’t for us,” confirms Juls. “We don’t want to sell brands that are purely forward order with a 2.5 mark-up. “No matter how much I love the product, we’ve tried selling stuff I really like before and I get a free wardrobe out of it but it doesn’t work. We are a volume-driven business.”

Another shift in the market the agency has had to deal with is the continued rise of ecommerce and the effect that ever-faster product cycles have had on brands.

Juls says: “Today freshness is key and the etailers are driving that. The great thing about our brand mix is that most of the labels are UK-based, so are very flexible when it comes to things like price points or range sizes. We’re not as limited as we were five years ago when our main partners were just bricks and mortar. Now options are not limited by floor space, so this encourages newness and trials.”

Having worked in fashion retail for 20 years - starting out as a concession area manager for French Connection at House of Fraser in 1995, moving to Manchester denim supplier Northern Quarter as managing director and then key account manager of streetwear brand Gio-Goi for eight years from 2004 - Juls says the decline in the number of independent stores has changed the agency business.

“We have to be on the shop floors constantly selling. We see every indie at least twice a season so they can replenish and react to weather or trend. In that sense we don’t operate in the traditional style. If you look at our distribution from a few years ago we used to have two or three options in the city centre, whereas now there might only be one or two left in each town. It’s not cluttered like it was but the strongest have survived. You have to work harder to service them but the rewards are there,” he says.

The young fashion market has taken a hit this year with two of the UK’s well-known multi-brand chains suffering crippling blows. In January, JD Sports Fashion-owned Bank fell into administration and Sports Direct put USC into administration, before selling it to Republic and closing its Dundonald warehouse in the process.

With the landscape shifting, Steph and Juls insist brands must find fresh routes to market by trying out new trade shows and thinking differently. Juls explains:  

“This season we did accessories trade show Top Drawer at London Olympia with Mi-Pac - we opened accounts for gift shops at Tate Galleries and National Galleries of Scotland. It’s a whole sector we hadn’t tapped into before.

“We also did the Associated Independent Stores (AIS) trade show in Solihull for the first time for autumn 15 and we found department stores that are right for some of our brands that we’d never heard of before. It’s about finding new avenues to seek out these new partners that don’t affect our current distribution.”

Next on the agenda for the Dawsons - other than the pitter-patter of tiny feet when the couple welcome their first child this summer - is seeking out labels that can fill a hole in their portfolio, alongside growing their anchor brands.  

“We’ve reached a point now where we’ve invested in the team and we want to focus on growing the brands we have. With a lot of our brands we are there from the inception and are the key partner, so we are really committed to them. Where we see a hole or demand for something we don’t have we will try to fill that too,” says Steph.

Juls quips that he is often asked if he will open a shop, as he certainly has the stock in the showroom – also known as “Aladdin’s cave” he says. When Drapers becomes the latest to put the question, with a glint in his eye he replies: “Who knows?”

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