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The Drapers Interview: Philip Start

The retail veteran and founder of London independent Woodhouse on why his Mr Start label is moving in a more casual direction.

Philip Start

Philip Start

One thing can certainly be said of Philip Start: he doesn’t stop. Drapers catches up with the 68-year-old in one of his three stores on Rivington Street in Shoreditch, east London. He’s wearing clothes he has designed - a navy blue suit with a contrasting black roll-neck - as he only ever wears his own label. “If I can’t make them work for me, then how can I expect to make them work for other people?” he reasons.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Woodhouse, a menswear retailer Start founded, ran, expanded, sold, reacquired and sold again all in the space of less than three decades. At its peak in 1989, Woodhouse operated a total of 10 stores across the UK and employed more than 100 people. In his own words, the plan was “duck, dive and off you go”.

However, it’s the Start London stores and Mr Start brand that occupy the attention of the north London-born retail veteran’s six-day working week now.

The latter, his most recent venture, is in the midst of a directional change. When it launched as a formalwear brand in 2008, about the time he and his wife, American musician and TV personality Brix Smith-Start, fell in love with and bought a vacant shop on the same street as their existing two, the focus was on skinny tailoring cuts.

Recognising this as an increasingly overcrowded market, Start has since embarked on a mission to boost the brand’s casualwear credentials. He has upped the proportion of casualwear in the 80-piece autumn 15 collection from less than 10% a few seasons ago to 30% of the overall line today. He sees this growing to as much as 60% over the next few years, something the brand’s 14 international stockists - including Fenwick of Bond Street and menswear independent Azir in Hertford - have been very receptive to.

Azir owner Asir Mohamed, who worked for Start in the 1980s in one of his Woodhouse stores, says: “It was great to cross paths again when I discovered Mr Start shirts. I have stocked Mr Start since the launch of my boutique in Hertford almost two years ago. The brand has proved to be a great success and offers my clients a luxury quality staple at a competitive price. Going forward, I am excited about the direction Mr Start is taking.”

Start’s first taste of fashion retail came when he got a job aged 16 working alongside his father and brother at royal jeweller Garrard on London’s Regent Street in 1963.

He spent the early 1960s being inspired by the culture of Carnaby Street and Kensington Market before he and his friends moved to Toronto, Canada, with no plans of what to do there. “We all wanted to do something fun; none of us went to university. In fact, university wasn’t even on the cards when I left school,” he says.

It was there that he realised he wanted to pursue a career in men’s fashion, leading him to describe the experience as his “university of life”. His friend Euan Dawson opened a menswear store called Climax, also in Toronto, in 1965. The shop was not too dissimilar from the ones Start spent his formative years admiring in London, such as Austin’s on Shaftesbury Avenue. Start began helping him out. “It’s then that I realised this is what I should be doing,” he recalls.

Start returned to London in 1967 and immediately took a job on King’s Road, working at legendary menswear shop Village Gate, run by Jeff Kwintner and John Simons. “It was one of those epiphany moments where I realised I loved the job,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get into work every day; I just loved being on King’s Road and selling fashion. I worked my way up until I was the general manager.”

In 1975, aged 28, Start left Village Gate and launched Woodhouse. Within six weeks he had opened his first store on Oxford Street, fully stocked and staffed. “People often ask why I left the business to start up alone, but I can’t really recall my thinking. I just decided I was going to do it and that was it.”

“It was the wrong end of Oxford Street, mind,” he jokes. “It was near Soho Square, but actually the wrong end turned out to be the right end because creative people were there. We just hit the mood of the moment.”

Within 18 months Start had opened a second store, closer to Selfridges. “I thought if we made enough money in one store to open another then we would.” Before long the company was operating nine stores in London and another in Manchester.

Customers were known to visit Woodhouse because of its eclectic brand list. Start recalls how he would visit Italy in the 1980s, bringing back big names such as Giorgio Armani, while at the same time driving around the country looking for small brands at local trade fairs.

Woodhouse was successful for a number of years but as competition increased, Start found the market increasingly difficult. In 1989, he sold the business to Sir Philip Green for about £3m. “I’d had enough. I think you just get to a point where you’ve done it. I had it for 15 years and I’d had enough of it,” he says.

Two years later, he bought the business back from Green for less than he sold it. He is coy about the exact details of the deal but reveals it was in a joint venture with a number of investors, including the then British Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman.

Start ran the business again for eight years, before selling it to Speciality Retail Group for less than the original sale to Green, another deal he keeps guarded. He continued to work for Woodhouse in a consultant capacity until 2002.

At the time, he and Brix moved to Shoreditch from Holland Park and opened and ran a menswear and womenswear shop called Start London at 59 Rivington Street, stocking brands such as Adidas Originals and Helmut Lang.

In 2004 they bought the adjacent store at 42-44, and moved over the women’s offering to separate it from the men’s.

Mirroring Start’s days at Woodhouse, further expansion wasn’t far around the corner - in this case, it was on it. Start purchased the vacant space at number 40 in 2008, bringing the total store count on the street to three.

“At first I didn’t know what to do with it. I just wanted the shop; I loved the position of it on the corner,” he says. “Then, one morning, I was just reading the newspaper and it dawned on me that I should be doing modern tailoring.”

He used the store to start his own men’s formalwear label, Mr Start, and originally sold the brand alongside the likes of Ralph Lauren and Spencer Hart. However, when the Mr Start label began to outsell the third-party brands, the space was turned into an own-label store in autumn 2008, which today provides both ready-to-wear and made-to-measure clothing.

In 2012, Start was approached by Adam Kelly, buying manager of designer, formalwear and accessories at Selfridges, who asked to stock Mr Start in the London department store.

Start’s business success from his Woodhouse days appeared to be repeating itself, as did his thinking. When asked why Mr Start caught on, he simply replies once again: “We caught the moment.”

True to form, Mr Start Woman followed in 2012, comprising shirts in various fits, from tailored to a slouchier boyfriend style, as well as knitwear and coats. Wholesale prices range from £20 for a separate collar to £252 for a coat.

Today, Mr Start is undergoing a transformation, away from the skinny, tailored look that made it popular but eventually became a crowded market and towards a more casual look with tailored elements. One unique piece that personifies this transition is Start’s favourite, the shomber jacket (wholesale £60) - a cotton shirt-bomber hybrid. Wholesale prices for Mr Start begin at £38 for shirts and go up to £325 for an off-the-peg suit.

“It’s one of the hardest things to do to redesign casualwear and make it sit alongside tailoring. We grappled with it but now we feel we’ve cracked it. We got the DNA of the brand; now we just have to develop it. All this heritage clothing is nice, but it’s been done to death. To have to reinvent the archive and think there’s another way to dress you have to dare to be original.”

The next project is a standalone website for Mr Start menswear, currently only sold online through Start London, to launch within the next six months. Start is also mulling a flagship store for Mr Start in the West End by the end of the year. “I’m not going to rush to do anything, however,” he says. “The timing has got to be right. We need that moment.”

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