TM Lewin CEO Sven Gaede has a vision to transform the renowned shirt maker into a broader menswear outfitter, with a particular focus on casualwear.
From behind the doors of the newly opened TM Lewin store at 268 Oxford Street, CEO Sven Gaede has been quietly plotting his repositioning of the heritage shirt brand. Although only a few doors up from the brand’s old residence on the prime London shopping street, Gaede hopes the move will mark a significant shift in focus, ushering in a new age for TM Lewin.
As Drapers steps into the 3,000 sq ft store, which opened on 16 May, the complete product offering of TM Lewin can be taken in with a single glance. Casualwear takes pride of place at the front of the store, and the brand’s shirt offering is at the rear, where it sits beneath a glass-fronted mezzanine that is dedicated to tailoring.
The new concept displays Gaede’s vision clearly: to transform TM Lewin into a complete menswear outfitter – with a renewed focus on casualwear – and expose customers to the brand’s depth of product beyond its shirting heritage.
Gaede joined TM Lewin as CEO in March 2018, after three years as New Look’s international managing director. It is not his first venture into the menswear tailoring and shirting market, having previously spent five years at Hackett as chief executive. At TM Lewin, Gaede replaced Geoff Quinn, who held the top role since 1993.
It was TM Lewin’s potential beyond shirts that drew Gaede to the brand: “The thing I always thought about Lewin was that it could be so much more than just a shirt brand. What excited me was that you can see the brand has a nugget of authenticity that you can really build on from a product point of view.
“If you get that formula right, as a UK-centric business, you can just blow it out around the world. That growth opportunity, coming from real solid potential and a solid core, is the thing that made it a really easy decision.”
Thomas Mayes Lewin opened his first store on Jermyn Street in 1898. The original shop, on the famous thoroughfare for heritage tailors, is now part of the brand’s 70-strong UK portfolio.
Known historically as a shirt maker, and one of the first to produce the now-standard front-buttoned “coat shirt” design, the brand launched tailoring 15 years ago. It now accounts for between 20% and 30% of sales. Retail prices range from £39.95 for an entry-level shirt to £599 for a two-piece suit.
Womenswear launched in 2009, but remains online only, and a small part of the business.
Although UK-focused, TM Lewin boasts an international presence of more than 100 locations in more than 16 countries, including five own stores in Australia. It also has seven wholesale accounts and additional franchise partnerships enabling the brand to operate in global markets, including South Africa and Malaysia.
We’re on a real mission for people to not just think about us as a shirt retailer, but for them to think about us as a menswear brand.
In its most recent results, for the year to 24 February 2018, the brand reported an operating profit of £73,000, with a turnover of £120m – compared to £109m the year before.
Eager to rejoin the menswear industry, Gaede saw the role as an opportunity to bolster results by transforming the household name in shirting to a broader menswear brand. His plan: expand the casualwear business, increase wholesale partnerships and assert a more strategic international approach.
“We’re on a real mission for people to not just think about us as a shirt retailer, but for them to think about us as a menswear brand,” he explains. “My ambition is that [shirt brands] aren’t the only competitors that we look at. I want us to look at people like Reiss and say, ‘Why wouldn’t we compete with them?’”
When he joined 15 months ago, Gaede’s focus was to expose the breadth of TM Lewin’s offering to both an existing and new customer base.
“It’s about getting the customers that we do have to appreciate us for the breadth of brand that we actually are, relative to what they might perceive us to be,” he says.
TM Lewin launched casualwear in 2012. The offering includes knitwear, casual shirts and chinos, alongside a range of seasonal jackets and blazers. Combined with accessories it now accounts for 20% of sales, but Gaede wants to see casualwear grow to contribute 35% alone – marking itself as a strong competitor to the shirt and tailoring categories.
Ray Clacher, executive vice-president at Trinity, which operates brands including Kent & Curwen and Gieves & Hawkes, warns it could be a risky strategy: “The brand seems to be turning a corner and looking quite fresh. It has moved quickly into the suit market, and can definitely steal market share from the likes of Moss Bros.
“However, I think it needs to be careful. TM Lewin fundamentally is a shirt company that has moved into tailoring – which it has the right to do. Whether it has the right to move into a soft casual area, I don’t know.”
Another menswear industry executive agreed: “I’m sure [Gaede] is not overlooking shirts, but I’d still want to focus on that. It’s a specialised market and because the internet allows everyone to access everything, the way to mark your territory is to be outstanding in your specialist field.”
Gaede maintains that growth for TM Lewin’s casualwear offering is not coming at the expense of its core categories. He says it has recorded “double-digit growth” since the start of its fiscal year in March but declines to give more details.
“Our customer is one with a dual requirement of needing to refresh a suit every season, but also needing to complement that with some things they can wear either for occasions or dress-down Friday,” he explains. “Our journey is not to fit you into five-pocket denim jeans – our journey is to kit you out appropriately for pretty much any workwear occasion and social occasions beyond that.”
This summer, TM Lewin plans to introduce its most casual categories yet: a small range of five shorts styles and 10 polo shirts at prices yet to be revealed, to test their “credibility” among the brand’s current offering.
Gaede admits this is a “big deal” for the brand: “It seems like a very small thing to do, but for a brand like us it is quite a big step. What I don’t want us to do is go off and do something that people say doesn’t make sense, but I think our customers trust us now.”
With male shoppers much more loyal than their female counterparts, Gaede also understands the importance of capturing a male customer from an early age. An effective technique for the brand is to target sixth-form students and university towns in the lead-up to graduations and end-of-term black-tie events.
“We’re also exploring going into some younger wholesale partnerships,” says Gaede. “We have 70 stores in the UK, we have a great online business, but from a younger customer’s point of view it’s a little bit intimidating to come into a TM Lewin store. Maybe their dad shopped there or someone they knew who was a little older, so they may not feel it’s necessarily the coolest place for them to go.”
It would mark TM Lewin’s first venture into UK wholesale, although Gaede declined to reveal any further detail about potential partners.
We need to customise to specific markets in order to be able to drive growth harder.
Internationally, the brand has franchise partnerships in 16 countries, including the Czech Republic, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Ghana. It opened its first store in India this month, with a further four to follow before the end of the fiscal year. With over 100 stores internationally, and five operational websites delivering to more than 90 countries, TM Lewin has sizeable global reach.
Gaede acknowledges, however, that the business had previously been somewhat “latent” in its approach to international. Now, with the international remit under the control of John Scott – who joined as international director in September 2017 – the brand is looking to expand first into European countries such as France, Belgium and Sweden, where it has seen online success.
“There’s a heritage to the brand. It’s a Jermyn Street address that is real – it’s not just something we stuck on, and there is a lot of credibility to the brand that travels really well,” says Gaede.
“When we look at where our online business tends to migrate to internationally, it certainly is the European sphere that is at the top of the list. Asia is an interesting market, but would require a partnership of some sort. We’re also building our online business in the US. It grew really well last year, and we hope to build on that success of being a pure play online player in the US market.”
Total online sales account for a sizeable 40% of the business, but there is a further programme of development to drive this growth outside of the UK. Despite its global ecommerce reach, Gaede wants to improve the brand’s understanding of each territory.
He says: “We need to customise to specific markets in order to be able to drive growth harder, and understand customers in a way that we now understand the UK customer database. We don’t language translate at the moment – everything is in English. Therein lies an opportunity.”
In addition, the company is in the early stages of experimenting with artificial intelligence to assist customers with personalised picks, fit technology and implementing the levels of customer service available in store online.
Store experience is so important to Gaede that he held Dragons’ Den-style auditions for its new Oxford Street store staff.
“They had to convince [a panel of TM Lewin executives] that they really had their heart and soul set on wanting to work in this store,” explains Gaede. “It helped people feel that this was a really special place to work, and an honour to be able to be part of what is an important milestone for the brand.”
After just over a year at the helm of TM Lewin, Gaede has mapped out a strong, albeit slightly controversial, course for the brand. Yet, despite the caution of his industry counterparts, the chief exec is confident his repositioning will see the heritage brand thrive in what is a competitive corner of the menswear industry.