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The Drapers Interview: Living large in Birmingham with Liquor Store’s Phil Hazel

Phil hazel web

The Drapers Independents Awards Menswear Retailer of the Year winner is upsizing Liquor Store at a new location.

When Phil Hazel was 16 years old his parents asked him about his career plans.

He replied: “I want to open a menswear store.”

Today, almost 20 years later, 35-year-old Hazel is living his teenage dream at his award-winning menswear shop Liquor Store on Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade.

Since opening in February 2012, the store has grown into a successful, highly respected reality thanks to Hazel’s unique brand selection and bold, yet considered decisions. For example, in 2015 he added to the original menswear store by opening a separate women’s and homeware shop in a vacant unit directly opposite, almost doubling Liquor Store’s floor space.

I’d describe us as a quality, premium store offering goods that aren’t readily available [elsewhere]

Reflecting the original ethos of the menswear shop, Hazel knew he could capitalise on the growing interest from female shoppers and those wanting to buy into the Liquor Store lifestyle he has carefully crafted via homewares and other lifestyle products. This year Hazel’s success was acknowledged when the store won the Menswear Retailer of the Year prize at the 2016 Drapers Independent Awards, less than five years since it opened.

 PW29540 Liquor Store

PW29540 Liquor Store

And Hazel has even bigger, bolder plans up his sleeve. In 2017 Liquor Store will move to a new home that combines men’s and women’s wear, and homeware under one roof in a 1,950 sq ft store – more than double the two existing units combined.

While it might seem a drastic move to uproot an established store, Hazel believes in his decision: “We’re hoping 2017 will be a key year for us,” he says in his typically modest manner.

Geordie born

Born in Newcastle, the smiley Hazel moved to the Midlands when he was five years old, his family settling just outside Birmingham in Sutton Coldfield.

Fashion was always a passion.

“As a young guy I guess I was very much into clothing. It was always a passion of mine,” he says. “I was all about saving my money to buy the right piece. Not a lot of clothing, but it was things that I loved, would wear to death and really appreciate.”

I just thought I didn’t know how much more I could do in the industry without giving it a go myself

Despite this interest in clothing Hazel found himself studying for a degree in surveying at Bristol university, but dropped out after less than a year, when he quickly realised it “wasn’t for me”, he says, adding with a laugh: “Then I finally thought, ‘I’ve got to find a way into the fashion industry’.”

He started at Birmingham’s House of Fraser working for Tommy Hilfiger as a retail supervisor at its concession in the department store.

“I felt it important not to work purely for House of Fraser. I was actually employed 50/50 so I got to learn about House of Fraser as a business but equally I got to learn about a brand,” he explains. “Basically running their menswear department, so everything from merchandising to selling to training staff.”

Hazel moved on to manage Diesel’s concession at House of Fraser and then on VF Corporation, where he was retail brand adviser for Lee and Wrangler, covering the Midlands. Shortly after he joined an opportunity came to assist the sales team with a capsule collection for Lee.

Hazel was reluctant: “I didn’t see myself as a salesman,” he admits. But he gave it a try and was successful, and a full-time London sales job offer followed.

“I said: ‘I don’t want to live in London at the moment. I’m Birmingham based – I like it.’ But I remember putting down the phone and thinking ’Is this a big mistake?”’ The team at VF tweaked the role for Hazel, allowing him to remain living in Birmingham while covering the Midlands and south-west England as a business development manager.

Liquor Store womenswear

Liquor Store womenswear

Liquor Store womenswear

“It was a real learning curve but [eventually] it felt like I’ve done merchandising, I’ve sold on the shop floor, I’ve dealt with buyers, I’ve seen different elements of stores and how things work. So five or six years into that role I just thought I didn’t know how much more I could do in the industry without giving it a go myself.”

Americana flavour

And so Liquor Store was born. Hazel started by drawing up a list of brands he wanted to target, with plans to “create a store which wasn’t a denim store but had a denim focus”. He had saved some money himself and had a family member willing to invest, and so started by buying almost £90,000 of stock outright.

“With the name, I liked the idea of having something based on heritage and I liked the American prohibition period in the 1920s. And it’s based on discovering, like the speakeasy bars of that period. Liquor Store has that sort of hidden, destination, off-the-beaten track feel about it,” he explains.

The store’s characterful location in the middle of beautiful covered grade II-listed Victorian arcade certainly gives the shop that off the beaten track and “destination store” feel without actually being hard to find, situated between and linking what Hazel calls the main commercial shopping area with business district of Birmingham city centre. Back in 2012 it was a rather unexpected location, though, and nearly half the arcade’s units were empty. But Hazel spotted the potential, and the arcade is now home to a host of buzzy independents and bigger names, including several coffee shops and a specialist whiskey store, which draw in busy passing crowds.

The bar side of things has been something that I’m personally excited to do

As you enter the original menswear space, which currently accounts for around 70% of the business’s sales, its huge wall of denim immediately demands attention, running the length of the space. More than 15 jeans brands are on display, ranging from top seller Edwin, Lee, Nudie Jeans and Levi’s through to names such as APC, Hiut Denim Co and Kojima Genes, with a focus on raw selvedge styles. Bestseller Red Wing dominates the footwear wall, alongside Clarks, Fracap and Saucony, among others. Exposed brickwork, worn wooden floors, and a range of quirky furnishings and decorations create the store’s unique feel: cool but not too cool, sleek but not too sleek.

The Liquor Store

The Liquor Store

This ethos and look is reflected in the womenswear store across the arcade, which is equally denim driven but also houses the wider womenswear range alongside Liquor Store approved homeware, stationary, books and magazines.

The decision to expand into women’s and homeware came in 2015, after growing numbers of women started to visit the menswear store and even purchase for themselves. Hazel jumped at the chance when the space opposite became available.

“It’s still in its infancy,” says Hazel of his womenswear section, which accounts for 30% of sales.

And the stores remain the focus. Liquor Store’s transactional website was revamped eight months ago, and accounts for 15% of sales, but “is not a priority”.

Eclectic mix

Across both stores brands such as YMC (You Must Create), Wood Wood, Oliver Spencer and Norse Projects sit alongside Patagonia, Pendleton, Sunspel and Folk. It is this mix of classics and something a bit different that has set the store apart. For instance, Hazel’s newest introduction is under-the-radar brand Orslow – a Japanese label of handmade denim pieces – which will be joined by the likes of Albam and MH by Margaret Howell for spring 17.

“We want to offer a spectrum of choice, so I’d describe us as a quality, premium store offering goods that aren’t readily available [elsewhere],” says Hazel. “That’s the key for us: to have things as a point of difference.” He certainly succeeds.

“The product mix and selection from each brand really makes this store stand out as one of the best stores in the UK,” says Charlie Warren, European sales director at Edwin, who has worked with Liquor Store since it opened. “It has established itself as a key partner for Edwin in the Midlands [and] it’s developed into one of the best independent denim retailers in the country with a strong presence of Japanese denim brands that we are proud to sit alongside.”

We’re a clothes store, but we hope we’re a lot more than just a clothes store

“We’ve worked with Phil for about four years and it’s been amazing to see how he has developed Liquor Store over this period,” adds James Woodford, sales manager for UK and Ireland at Nudie Jeans. “His attention to detail along with his ethos to introduce progressive product as well as classic everyday staples is a fundamental element to Liquor Store’s DNA. He’s created a true denim destination in the country’s second biggest city.”

Liquor Store womenswear

Liquor Store womenswear

Liquor Store womenswear

Lee’s UK and Ireland country manager, Damien Ladwa, echoes these views: “In a short time Phil has built strong partnerships with top brands and local businesses, which has helped to define Liquor Store’s identity. Phil is a modern retailer and clearly understands what is needed to succeed in today’s market.”

“Phil is a brand advocate of everything in his store. Not only does he want the best for the store but also for the brands he carries and in that case, he is a true business partner,” adds Chris Dent, sales director at agency CED, which sells Red Wing. “The brand adjacencies within it are excellent and he has let the Red Wing brand grow to such an extent that it has become a destination store for us, outside London.”

No limits

Hazel will not reveal figures but does say that menswear has grown year on year, but admits “in the size of the space we’ve got, the amount of staff we can put in there [Liquor Store has two full-time and three part-time staff], the amount of product we can put in there, I think we’re sort of at the maximum of what we can achieve in that space.”

This is what sparked Hazel’s decision to uproot the store, moving to within “spitting distance” to a new development at The Grand on Birmingham’s Colmore Row, where he hopes that growth will be achievable.

Hoping to open by late February, he says: “We’re not massively looking to add new brands and really increase what we’re doing product-wise but what we want to do is make more of the products, which we feel sometimes get missed, and showcase everything a bit better.”

There are also possible plans for the new two-level 1,950 sq ft store to house an actual liquor store, creating what Hazel calls a “speakeasy bar” for customers – an idea about which Hazel is particularly enthused: “The bar side of things has been something that I’m personally excited to do because it’ll become that little members club for our customers. To have something a little bit hidden, on that speakeasy vibe, fits in with our ethos and it’s something a little bit different to what’s out there.

“And that’s what we are at the end of the day: we’re a clothes store but we hope we’re a lot more than just a clothes store.” Cheers to that.

 

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