Serial entrepreneur Touker Suleyman talks to Drapers about repositioning his fashion labels, his career and Dragons’ Den.
- The collapse of his first business was an important lesson
- Dragons’ Den has “broadened his mind”
- The future lies in small, online-focused stores
- He is open to picking up more brands
With 40 years of experience in manufacturing and retail, Touker Suleyman is a self-proclaimed “product man”. He says not a single product moves out of his headquarters on London’s Frampton Street before he sees it.
The 63-year-old entrepreneur became a household name following his appearances as a panellist on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den, which he joined in 2015. But in the fashion retail industry, he is better known for his ownership of companies including manufacturer Low Profile, which supplies retailers including Marks & Spencer and Monsoon, Jermyn Street shirtmaker Hawes & Curtis and womenswear brand Ghost. He is also “one of the biggest shareholders” at womenswear brand Finery London, after investing in it in January, and has a stake in handbag brand Huxley & Cox.
Outside of fashion, on top of commercial property ventures in the West End of London, Suleyman manages a range of investments including teething toy Matchstick Monkey and online bicycle market Bikesoup, as well as several that have arisen through Dragons’ Den.
As Suleyman lays on a tour of the group’s headquarters and introduces Drapers to the teams, it is clear he is sharply attuned to what each is working on. Surfaces are heaped with diverse items, from baby products to footwear protection sprays, while dresses hang from nearby racks.
“Dragons’ Den has broadened my mind with different businesses,” says Suleyman. “When I walk down the high street, I go into stores just to see and learn about things I would never have looked at before.”
When it comes to fashion investments, Suleyman is drawn to brands that align with the manufacturing side of his business, are mainly based online, and have a large database and “one or two” stores. This links closely with the strategy for his existing businesses.
Hawes takes a hit
Suleyman candidly admits that Hawes & Curtis has been hit by rising costs, the drop in the value of sterling since last year’s Brexit vote, and the oversaturated shirt market. Its latest accounts show it fell into the red in 2015 after it suffered from “difficult trading” in the UK. Sales were down 4% year on year to £25.6m for the year to 31 December 2015.
To cut costs, it is in the process of trimming its store count by seven – it currently has 21 – but Suleyman is reluctant to go into more detail: “I’m glad to say the business is up [on last year]. Margins are up despite Brexit. But Hawes & Curtis had a tough year last year. We opened a lot of new stores, and each one lost money.”
The brand is now prioritising its international online business, having set up its US, German and Australian websites, while focusing on its new flagship on 34-36 Oxford Street, which is slated to open this month.
Meanwhile, Suleyman is building Ghost’s online and US wholesale businesses. It is stocked at 32 bridal shops in the UK, and has concessions at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. The brand sells direct to consumers via its own site, and has a flagship store on King’s Road in London’s Chelsea, which sells its bridalwear, occasionwear and daywear ranges.
I think the days of having a chain of stores are over
Selfridges began stocking Ghost for the first time at its London flagship and online in April. The department store’s womenswear buying manager, Heather Gramston, says it decided to buy it on the back of growing demand for affordably priced yet aspirational bridal and bridesmaids dresses.
“The combination of quality and price is great,” observes Gramston. “Ghost offers a range of shapes to suit different body types at an affordable price: it’s not a one-shape-fits-all model.”
The aim is to develop both Ghost and Hawes & Curtis into online businesses with “some” retail, rather than retail with a slice of ecommerce.
“I think the days of having a chain of stores are over,” says Suleyman. “We’re very fortunate that we haven’t got a lot of them.”
Suleyman envisages a “revolution in retail” whereby retailers will reject lengthy leases, leading to rows of empty units in prime locations that will drive landlords to create a new breed of shopping centre. “I can see landlords creating 20 little stores, all looking the same – all ‘dot.com’ shops, with video screens and try-ons. That’s the future,” he says.
He predicts Hawes & Curtis will eventually become one of these: “Because it will be more of an online shop, you may well see Hawes & Curtis in [very compact] stores, so they’ll be a lot cheaper in rent, with much less staff.”
Finery, meanwhile, is in the middle of a turnaround. Suleyman estimates that margins will have increased by 60%-75% since he began to get involved in May. This included reducing warehouse costs, cutting nine of its buyers and overseeing its buying function, and slimming down its supplier count from around 20 to four.
“Finery is a lean machine now,” says Suleyman. “It was burning around £200,000 per month before, but within six months it’s not burning anything.”
Finery London co-founder Luca Marini concurs: “Touker has a wealth of sector expertise and since he became involved, we have seen a positive impact on margins. He has been very pleasant to work with, too, and is always there as a sounding board when you need him.”
Suleyman is clearly undaunted by the prospect of turning around businesses, perhaps partly because his own career involved a major comeback.
He began his career in 1976 with his own start-up, Kingsland Models, which supplied polyester dresses to C&A. He made his first million in his early twenties – which he lost shortly afterwards, in what would become “the best lesson” of his life.
After a stockbroker advised him to take hefty stakes in retailer Bambers and manufacturer Mellins, Suleyman became chairman of both. However, he had not done his due diligence – it transpired Bambers was £21m in the red, forcing it into liquidation. It tore through his other businesses, which were heavily invested.
“It was like a pack of cards. I lost my house,” recalls Suleyman, who still keeps the accountants’ review of Bambers in his office. “I was devastated. But I always say this – a knock like that is only a result, not the end game.”
He dusted himself off, paid off his debts and, in 1984 with support from his brother, began a small wholesale business, which became Low Profile. It went on to open factories in Turkey, Georgia and Bulgaria. The duo, still business partners, also began investing in property.
When Low Profile began supplying Ralph Lauren across Europe in 2000, Suleyman warmed to the idea of owning a shirt brand. This led to his first major retail investment a year later, when he bought Hawes & Curtis and its Jermyn Street shop for £1, taking on all its debts and liabilities.
“My sourcing background made it very easy,” recalls Suleyman. In the following years he grew its UK store count to 28, although this has since shrunk.
Ray Clacher, who heads heritage men’s tailoring business Gieves & Hawkes, says that, given the scale of rivals TM Lewin and Charles Tyrwhitt, Suleyman has “established a very credible retail proposition” in Hawes & Curtis, producing “quality product with incredible consumer value”.
“He managed to take an old Jermyn Street shirt-making firm from the 1920s which was, like so many famous old names, struggling to find its way in the 21st century. Not only did he create a debt-free business with a decent turnover, he did that in a very crowded space,” adds Clacher.
While he was expanding Hawes & Curtis, Suleyman bought Ghost out of administration in 2008. At the time, it had 33 outlets. He oversaw a comprehensive revamp of the label two years ago.
“What I soon found when I bought the business was it had too many stores, because I bought it through a receivership,” says Suleyman. “It was mostly loss making, and the product wasn’t quite right to its DNA, so I had to change everything.”
Its revival as a heritage brand with a garment-dyed product focus has paid off. While the brand does not publish annual figures, it say its online sales have increased by 95% in total over the past four-year period.
While the entrepreneur is not interested in taking over large fashion chains, he remains open to the idea of picking up parts of businesses that go bust. In the meantime, there is no shortage of contenders for investment.
Enter the Dragon
Suleyman claims he is often stopped on the street by people wanting to pitch ideas.
“I wish there was a way all these people could be heard, and that I had the time,” he shrugs wistfully. “A lot of people approach us directly. There are a lot of cases where I say to my team, let’s help people where we can. It costs us nothing to help. You can’t help in the way they want [with investment], but you can guide them.”
Suleyman has a keen interest in supporting start-ups, as evidenced by his role on the BBC show. He believes fashion start-ups need more help, as it’s the “the most difficult business to get into”: “If you’re going to produce small volumes, you’re going to pay high prices. Getting into business is easy, but getting into fashion and manufacturing is difficult, with the costs [involved].”
Finery is a lean machine now. It was burning around £200,000 per month before. Now it’s not burning anything
He argues that more should be done to help new companies, extending beyond government initiatives to involve more conglomerates: “We’ve got great talent in the UK. The problem is, where does the government start? I think everyone should play a role.
“What we need is sponsored factories, where people can make product for smaller designers. Then landlords should [agree] free premises, energy companies should give them free energy, and insurers should give them free insurance, while retailers should give small brands a chance to show their product.”
Some people in Suleyman’s position might be tempted to retire with their millions – his net worth is widely estimated to be £150m – but he has no plans to slow down.
“I’ll step back when they put me in the grave,” he jokes. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I retired. I don’t really like holidays. I haven’t got a boat, plane or fancy homes around the world – If I’m going to do all that, I can rent. I’m focused on my work and my team. I love it.”
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