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The Drapers Interview: Monks & Co's Amy Barker on believing you can beat the odds

Amy Barker

When Amy Barker was told she had no future in fashion she went away and opened a Drapers Award-winning store.

Amy Barker

Amy Barker

Amy Barker, founder of menswear independent Monks & Co

At 23, most people are taking their first tentative steps onto the career ladder or agonising over what to do with the rest of their lives, not opening a Drapers Award-winning independent. But then most people aren’t Amy Barker.

It was after leaving school at 16 and working as a make-up artist backstage at London Fashion Week that Barker decided it was time to pursue her dream of working in fashion and started her own business. Despite being told by recruitment consultants that without a degree she had no future in the industry, she forged her own path, opening contemporary menswear independent Monks & Co in the affluent market town of West Malling, Kent in November 2013.

Impressing the government-funded Start Up Loans Company with a comprehensive 36-page business plan, Barker secured a £10,000 grant which, coupled with £10,000 of savings, was used to fund stock, her first month’s deposit, legal fees and a complete refurbishment of the 637sq ft former bakery site in the town centre.

The store launched with two brands – Religion and Pearly King – adding Bellfield and Hudson a month later. Within a week of launching most of the stock had sold out and Barker knew she was on to a good thing.

Success was, however, confirmed in September when Monks & Co was named best new business at the 2015 Drapers Independents Awards.

“I never thought we were going to win,” says Barker smiling broadly. “I really thought the competition was too strong and we’re a small store. When I found out I was on my honeymoon and I couldn’t believe it. It was overwhelming.”

After two years in business turnover hit £135,000 for the full year 2015, a 15.3% rise on 2014, with sales for the Christmas just gone up 15% year-on-year. During the festive period Barker benefitted from shoppers shunning big destination shopping centres in favour of local stores, with Monks & Co’s drive to create a friendly, one-to-one shopping experience netting an average basket amount of £150.

Wearing a knitted bobble hat, grey coat and maroon skinny jeans, Barker looks every inch the young entrepreneur. She gazes proudly across her shop from the vantage point of a wooden pew (a gift from a customer) neatly positioned in a raised area at the back. Despite being small in size, Monks & Co is packed with personality. The interior design is rustic and masculine, with exposed wooden flooring, brick-effect wallpaper and industrial-style shelving.

Monks and co

Monks & Co

The interior of the Monks & Co store in West Malling, Kent.

The store was menswear only until autumn 15, when Barker added a small selection of Bellfield spring 16 womenswear in the run up to Christmas. Over the festive period sales were split 85% men, 14% women and 1% unisex products such as Homeys Slippers.

“Since we opened we’ve been asked to do womenswear on a daily basis, but we’ve always been hesitant as it’s a completely different ball game,” says Barker. “So we’ve started with a tiny rail.

“We haven’t investigated any new brands, but we will be looking into it this quarter. However, it’s important our female collection reflects our men’s selection. So it needs to be smart casual with a varied price range.”

Menswear is split between 86% clothing and 14% footwear. Launch brands Pearly King and Religion were swapped in spring 14 for Bewley & Ritch and Claudio Lugli, as Barker decided to focus on the 35 to 55 customer.

“When we first opened we thought our target market would be 25-year-olds who live with their parents and have a lot of disposable income, but we were actually getting guys coming in who were 45, so we decided to change the buy. Bellfield is a young brand, but then I get a dad coming in who’ll buy three Claudio shirts and chuck in a Bellfield top for his son.

“Another example would be Luke which we introduced for autumn 14. While it is a young brand, Luke has subtle branding and has upped the quality, which is what my customers are looking for.”

Luke is now the store’s bestselling brand, accounting for 24% of overall sales. Connor Poole, Luke sales representative, has always had a good rapport with the Monks & Co team. “Ever since they first approached us, the focus of the business has been on supporting the local community which fits with us as a British brand.

“Amy quickly realised that she needed to aim towards an older customer, so she started taking our full range, excluding outerwear and shoes. She was proactive and wasn’t afraid to adapt the buy. We have experienced consistent growth since we started working with Monks & Co and I think the next logical thing for them would be to open a second store.”

The plan for 2016 is to do just this, with Barker looking at other affluent commuter towns in Kent. “If we opened a second store I think it would be a mix of both men’s and women’s. Although if the unit upstairs became vacant [which is currently a hairdressers] then we could expand womenswear.”

Following Monks & Co’s first foray into womenswear, Southern sales manager for Bellfield and Native Youth Ben Tattersall sees growth potential. “Where Monks & Co is located in Kent there are lots of women buying for their husbands who might also want to shop womenswear.

“The opportunity is definitely there to branch out to a second store, especially as to show a full womenswear collection they would probably need more space. Monks & Co might be young, but it’s a very well-oiled machine. There’s a lot more clarity to the business than with a lot of indies.”

Monks and co 2

Monks & Co

View from the back of the store at Monks & Co.

Hudson UK sales manager Simon See agrees branching out could be a good move. “I completely see potential for a new store as space is an issue with the current unit. Opening a second store is not easy and it can be a drain, but it would be a good move for the business. Amy has definitely found a winning formula in her area.”

The store typically introduces three brands a year, although it added Raging Bull, Bellfield womenswear, Native Youth and Homeys Slippers for autumn 15. While Luke operates own retail, Barker generally tries to find brands like Claudio Lugli which are not readily available on the high street, so she doesn’t have to worry about discounting and price comparisons.

The buy is split between 60% short order from the likes of Bewley & Ritch and Bellfield, and 40% forward order from Luke, Hudson and Raging Bull. Prices range from £29.99 for Bellfield shirts to £170 for a Bellfield blazer.

“We try to stock six to 10 of each item, so that when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Barker explains. “But we like to get new things in, which is why short order works. With forward order it’s difficult because you get the garments all in one go and have to hold things back.”

Currently sales are split 90% store and 10% online, although ecommerce is growing with sales up 129% year-on-year. The past year has been spent getting the website technically sound, with Barker’s attention now on growing the store’s online identity by developing a content strategy. The plan is to build a blog platform which is not sales driven, but instead is focused on news and entertainment, always linking back to the Monks & Co site.

“I genuinely think having a website is crucial, as it definitely brings new people into store,” Barker reflects. “I get people coming in from Bexley [22 miles away], Bromley [25 miles away] and Beckenham [30 miles away] because they’ve seen things on the website. I have one regular who checks the website every week. I send orders out as far as Scotland and the Midlands.”

As with many indies, pressure is coming from the high street’s persistent discount culture. While Monks & Co only officially goes on Sale twice a year in August and January, it did get involved with the Black Friday discounts.

“I had too many jeans and blazers in, so I offered 15% off over the Black Friday weekend which is nothing compared to the big brands, but for us that’s tackling our margins. This year it’s been really beneficial. Sales increased 35% compared to the same week last year.

“I find the high street retailers really frustrating, because they go on Sale in June, whereas in September I could still be selling short sleeved shirts full price. I wait as long as possible because being the type of independent store we are I feel people don’t expect us to price match.”

From the start it has been Barker’s goal to create a store with real identity that is a brand and not just a shop. Barker felt the name Monks & Co made the store sound bigger and it perfectly fitted the location on the same street as the 11th century St Mary’s Abbey of Anglican Benedictine nuns.

The small but tight knit team now comprises husband and business partner Mike McMillan, one full-time and one part-time sales assistant, as well as an external freelancer working part-time on driving SEO. Barker believes she now has the people in place to extend to a second store, having learnt a lot on her journey so far.

“Opening up my own store has taught me the need to persevere. I didn’t think it would be as lonely as it is to run your own business,” she reflects. “When you work for a massive company you get to work with far bigger budgets, whereas with an independent everything is on your shoulders. However, I also didn’t realise how much people would become advocates for the brand and the huge level of support we would experience.”

As if on cue a man comes into store in search of jumpers for his girlfriend, but one of the styles in question has sold out. Barker springs out of her seat and takes his details, assuring him she’ll give him a call as soon as the colour comes in, the kind of personal touch that promises a strong future for Monks & Co.

To enter the Footwear Awards, which will be held on June 30 at the London Hilton on Park Lane, go to www.footwearawards.drapersonline.com. The deadline for entries has been extended to January 29.

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