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The Drapers Interview: Rajan, Sanjay and Rohina Kumar of Asos and Arcadia supplier Whispering Smith

Whispering Smith is the UK high street’s best kept secret, but now the Manchester clothing firm is ready to make some noise about its own label brands.

Whispering Smith

Whispering Smith’s Sanjay, Rohina & Rajan Kumar

Manchester-based clothing supplier Whispering Smith lives up to its name by playing a quiet role in the success of several high street businesses. Despite growing into one of the largest and most successful importers and exporters of fashion in the UK, selling 7.6 million units last year, it rarely speaks about the 700 retailers, etailers and brands that stock its designs and imports. 

However, Rajan and Sanjay Kumar, the sons of founder Lal Kumar and joint managing directors behind the firm, have no plans to end the year quietly. Alongside Rajan’s daughter, Whispering Smith creative director Rohina Kumar, the third-generation operation is ready to shout about its own label brand, Brave Soul, and the further three it plans to launch into the market by the end of 2015. 

Through the business’s 20 designers based at its head office, Whispering Smith aims to translate key trends into around 1,250 wearable, commercial, quality garments per season for men and women, to be bought off the peg or made to order.

“Through trend forecasting, we speculatively commit to a quantity of something without having a pre-order. That’s how confident we are in our product,” says Rajan. 

An extensive amount of stock is kept at Whispering Smith’s 500,000 sq ft warehouse, just a stone’s throw from Manchester City’s football ground – a slight drawback for the United fans.

Whispering Smith takes a hand-to-mouth approach to supplying. They allow retailers to react to what’s in season and what’s selling, having the stock ready to be delivered in as little as 48 hours. “Buying previously took place months and months in advance, with stores committing to orders. Now it’s all very in-season, especially when the weather is as unpredictable as it has been,” added Rohina.

The split between forward-order and in-season buying in now 50/50 as opposed to 70% forward-order five years ago. Designing, sourcing and delivering customers’ own brand for the likes of Asos.com, Arcadia (they decline to reveal for which fascias) and New Look accounts for 45% of the business. 

“We speculatively commit to a quantity of something without having a pre-order. That’s how confident we are in our product,”

In the year to March 31, 2014, Whispering Smith recorded a £2.2m pre-tax profit, up from £145,000 in 2013, on sales of £43.5m, up from £41.5m the previous year.

The remaining 55% of the business comes from Brave Soul’s seasonal collections, which are sold by around 40 multi-brand and online retailers in the UK, including many of those it supplies to under their own labels.

The Brave Soul own brand launched for spring 13 through Asos with an initial trial order of 11 styles, which increased to more than 150 in the first six months. The range includes basics, knitwear and jeans, as well as outerwear and footwear for men as of spring 14. Wholesale prices start at £2 for men’s vests and reach up to £42 for women’s outerwear. 

In January this year, Whispering Smith opened a standalone store for Brave Soul in Madrid, Spain, where the brand has more than 500 wholesale accounts, a move Rajan says could pre-empt a similar step in the UK.

“The plan is to start franchising this out in Spain, because we’ve got a template. But also [Spanish department store chain] El Corte Inglés has been gradually giving us corners to occupy since 2013. Last year we had 10 and for this year they’ve doubled that to 20. Bringing that over here is definitely something that is an option for us and we think it could work with a few changes to things like the shopfit to suit the British market,” said Rajan.

The foundation for Whispering Smith was laid in 1958 as Gay Style when the brothers’ father, Lal Kapur, began selling clothes at Chorley Market in Manchester before opening a warehouse to start wholesaling two years later. In 1981, Lal’s eldest son Rajan joined the business, which rebranded as the Rajan Group. He helped out in various areas of the business, followed a decade later by Lal’s youngest, Sanjay.  

N1SQ

New brand launch: N1SQ

With an intent to take the business global and a desire to better reflect the company’s scope of operations it had developed over the last three decades, Rajan Group rebranded to become Whispering Smith in 2008. Today the business has showrooms in London, New York, Madrid, Barcelona and Düsseldorf, as well as buying offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and employs around 140 people.

Now the family trio hopes to replicate the success of Brave Soul with three other in-house labels, one of which is making a return to the UK market. 

“A lot of people will remember a menswear brand from the 80s and 90s called Eclipse; it really signified that Manchester era and the Haçienda [nightclub] days. That was us,” says Sanjay. However, he admits he felt the market was soon over-saturated with Eclipse and made the decision about a decade ago to let it lay low. 

Eclipse will relaunch for autumn 15, featuring 24 pieces including jackets, sweatshirts, T-shirts and joggers, and hopes to tap into the existing awareness and Manchester nostalgia attached to it. Wholesale prices range from £6 for T-shirts to £25 for jackets.

Now fashion design graduate and Whispering Smith creative director Rohina is taking the company in a new direction by launching two new brands, Hoxton Haus and N1SQ, through sister business Butt Naked Brands.

“When I joined the business [in January 2014] I thought I love what we do and I’m really passionate about it. But at the same time I want to see us diversify. So it was a case of what can I bring to the table? And it ended up being my branded understanding in terms of development.”

Hoxton Haus is a premium sportswear brand for women featuring 30 pieces, ranging in price from £12 for a sports bra to £75 for outerwear. 

Meanwhile, N1SQ (No 1 Should Question), a premium streetwear brand for men comprising 65 pieces, will offer clothing including jeans, neoprene sweatshirts and cut-and-sew jersey products. Prices start from £12 for T-shirts and go up to £90 for jackets.

“I thought I love what we do and I’m really passionate about it. But at the same time I want to see us diversify.”

Even ahead of making its trade show debut at Seek on 8-10 July, to be followed by Jacket Required in London on July 29-30, a major unnamed high street retailer has already shown interest in offering N1SQ a concession in its flagship London store.

Hoxton Haus and N1SQ will be represented in the UK by young fashion agency Just Consultancies. Just co-founder Juls Dawson, who has worked with the business over the course of 15 years, says: “Whispering Smith is three generations in and, as a result, they’ve got years and years of working with the biggest names on the high street. Their sourcing capabilities are second to none and the strength of the ranges their teams put together are impeccable.

“What Rohina is doing with these new brands, N1SQ and Hoxton Haus, is very exciting. She has brought a fresh outlook to the business and is definitely one to watch. She has looked at the market and seen what gaps they can fill outside Brave Soul. I could easily see both brands being in 150 stores each in the UK within a year.”

While much of Whispering Smith’s attention is focused firmly on the next six months, the long-term vision and a desire to keep the business in the family remains key.

Dr Alistair Knox, chairman of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry, says this ensures “the preservation of home-grown core skills”. “We are supportive of anyone like Whispering Smith who is able to operate a business here in the UK and survive and prosper with manufacturing or supplying,” he adds.

With another Kumar child, Rohil, just months from graduating and lined up to join the business in January 2016, Whispering Smith looks set to continue the legacy that has been the UK supply chain’s best kept secret for more than 50 years. 

@LukeToddUK

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