Guide London has taken an independent approach to business to withstand the troubles of a shrinking high street.
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Menswear brand Guide London has grown from one man and a stall to a staple for some of the UK’s best independents. As the future of the high street looks uncertain, the father and sons at the head of this family business have doubled down on its independent strategy to carve out a reliable future.
Guide London has hedged its bets by eschewing large retailers – and the risks associated with them, given the travails of House of Fraser, Debenhams and others – for independents. It has curated a dependable base of partners, and is entering more stockists, thanks to elevated product and a personal approach to business that its owners say will deliver record results for 2020.
East End story
Founder Isaac Benson built a formidable reputation as a salesman at Petticoat Lane Market – home of the famous east London rag trade – in the 1970s. Struggling to find a job, in 1973, Benson borrowed £70 from his sister to buy knitwear pieces from local suppliers, which he sold outside his uncle’s clothing shop on Toynbee Street, east London.
After taking on his own market stall, he opened a shop on Petticoat Lane in 1979 and started to trade under the name Brute. The store offered menswear from brands including Pringle and Farah, but Benson wanted to produce his own label, which he launched with his brother-in-law six years later.
Starting with a small line of UK-made cardigans and jackets, Brute transformed from retailer to wholesale brand. In 1988, it changed its name to Guide London as Benson built up accounts in the UK and Europe.
Guide now has 200 independent stockists in the UK, which account for more than 98% of sales. Profits grew by 8% for the year to 1 January 2019, but it declines to reveal further financial details. There are 22 staff in its head office in Limehouse, east London, and another four in an office in Turkey.
The brand sits at the lower end of the premium market. Wholesale prices range from £18 for a jersey polo shirt to £100 for outerwear. Shirts are the best-selling category, but the brand also offers jackets, knitwear, jeans, jersey, accessories and tailoring. Customers range upwards in age from their late twenties, and come to Guide for detail-focused designs and bold prints.
When Drapers visits Guide in Limehouse, Isaac’s sons, Jack and Richard, reminisce about their retail upbringing – Jack helping out at the store on Petticoat Lane when he was 10, and Richard working at the Guide concession at Topman in Oxford Circus in his teens. They joined the business as directors in 2004, when their father bought out his brother-in-law.
We’re at a point where we can be much more involved in planning and shaping the business to work with the partners that we want
Richard Benson, Guide London
A few years later, the 2008 recession hit. The credit crunch across the UK lasted five quarters, and forced the trio to rethink their approach.
Seeing other mid-market brands closing as a result of “oversupply of the same product in too many doors, too close to each other”, Guide made the decision to elevate its product offering, by prioritising fabric quality. Shirts are now made using pure cotton with extra-long yarns, and tailoring comes in Italian wool-blend fibres. Woven fabrics are finished to give a satin look and “a wonderful soft touch”.
At the same time, it exited successful accounts with Burton, River Island, Next and Shop Direct to focus on independents. This started in the south of England and is now coming to fruition in the north, where Guide is entering more premium stores, including Accent in Leeds and Jules B in Newcastle.
Isaac describes the period of change as “one of the most challenging times” the business has been through, but the new strategy has borne fruit. The brand is positioned to report its highest-ever turnover – although it will not reveal figures – in the 2019/20 financial year. Guide will also open a new head office in Greenwich early this year.
“There is not a type of company that Guide hasn’t been stocked in – from vertical retailers with hundreds of stores, to independents,” says Richard. “Now we’re at a point where we can be much more involved in planning and shaping the business to work with the partners that we want.”
Working with multiple retailers, Richard argues, gives less control over discounting and the ability to position product with premium adjacencies: “We try not to work with larger retailers purely because it’s important for all stakeholders: us, our retail partners and, ultimately, the customers to all see the value in the product.”
Furthermore, with the administrations and insolvencies of high street names such as House of Fraser, big brands lost devastatingly large accounts. When HoF went under in 2018, brands such as Ralph Lauren, Phase Eight and Mint Velvet were owed millions. By backing independents, which have much smaller buys, Guide’s stakes are lower when it comes to closures among its stockists.
Independents are not immune to the pressures facing the retail industry, but Guide attempts to mitigate this by doing everything it can to sustain its independent partners in lieu of government and council support.
It has been shrewd in not working with independents that are in close proximity to each other, to avoid contributing to unhealthy price wars between retailers in a bid to win customers.
Guide has also limited its own-brand retail and ecommerce so as to not cannibalise sales from its independent partners.
It has one “exploratory” retail store in Greenwich, which opened in 2011 as “a testing ground in a local high street”. Richard hopes to open a small amount of stores in select locations that would not impact its independent base, but says this is not a top priority.
“One thing that we felt was very apparent was a lot of wholesalers and brands like us wanted to serve direct to the consumer while still being a wholesaler,” says Jack. “You’d end up competing with your customers, and it was something that just didn’t sit right with us.”
The wholesale business is Guide’s “lifeblood”, says Jack, and will “maintain us for the foreseeable future”. Therefore, its own ecommerce site, which went transactional in 2011, is intended to “highlight” product rather than bring in a large proportion of sales. Product on the Guide website is never discounted, so as not to weaken the retail price point.
Twice per season, the brand sends out stock brochures, so independents can offer their customers the entire Guide range by ordering in specific pieces they do not stock.
“We are very responsive – and see ourselves as an extension of a stockist’s warehouse,” says Richard. “We get a phone call saying, ‘We don’t have a size,’ and 99 times out of 100 they will have it the next day. We try to do things that make it easy for the retail stockist to serve their customer, so that they develop a brand and shop loyalty that is so important for independents.”
This reliability has made Guide a hit with its partners. Forward orders have increased by 15% each year for the last two years.
“We like dealing with Guide London as they are a family business, and all matters are handled in an open and friendly manner,” says Mark Dransfield, owner of Sandersons Boutique Store in Stocksbridge, which started stocking the brand in 2016. “We receive first-class service in terms of deliveries, which are always on time, and if we have issues with any products, they are immediately swapped out.”
The pick of product
Today, Isaac leads on design and Jack handles logistics, operations and finance. Richard spreads his time across merchandising, range planning and product development. All three have accounts they deal with personally.
We don’t try to shoehorn a product into a price bracket. Value is more important than price
Jack Benson, Guide London
Simon Whitaker, CEO of menswear independent Master Debonair in East Boldon, Tyne and Wear, and Shoreditch in east London, has nothing but praise for the “innovative” team, who he describes as “very much as friends, as well as strategic partners”: “They are always there for me when I need them, extremely knowledgeable about the industry, and very forward-thinking in terms of new product development and understanding the consumer.”
He adds: “I can bounce ideas off them if I need a sanity check. We are very new to retail still, so to have that support and knowledge is so valuable.”
As Whitaker points out, new product development is central to Guide’s appeal.
“In previous years, the market was much less selective when it came to fabrics and qualities,” says Jack. “The main consideration was how something looked, not even how it felt. We don’t try to shoehorn a product into a price bracket by reducing quality, and are more focused on fabric composition, fabric touch and durability. We start with a mindset that value is more important than price.”
The spring 20 collection includes spotty flamingo and 1950s pin-up girl motifs, alongside more muted designs for everyday wear. Motifs are carried across all categories, from pocket squares, to blazer linings and trims, to give a complete look.
Cost pressures drove manufacturing away from the UK, but Guide keeps as close to home as possible: 70% of tailoring fabrics are made in Italy and most other product comes from no further than Turkey.
“Guide has begun to work with more premium cloths for shirting, and Italian yarns for blazers and waistcoats,” says Doug Thomas, owner of Reef Agencies, who has represented the brand for 12 years. “They have been able to pitch themselves as an entry price point in many of the better independents. The quality is equal to many of the more expensive Scandinavian and German shirt brands, and the designs and prints are often far more interesting.”
International trade accounts for 15% of sales, and Guide has 40 global stockists as far afield as Japan. The Bensons admit they have somewhat neglected international expansion in terms of growth.
“It’s not as big a part of our business as it should be,” says Richard. “We don’t shout enough about ourselves.” Nonetheless, for now, Guide is focused primarily on its UK growth.
Distinctive, high-quality product and a focus on service for its independent stockists have helped Guide to prosper and avoid the hazards in other parts of the retail sector.
Richard says they are not concerned by the movements of the macro market in the future: “I’m less interested in where the market is going to go. What we want to see is independents moving more to offering service and less to feel bound by the brands that they are stocking.”
The menswear brand banking on independents