How did accessories brand Paul’s Boutique conquer the mid-price market and make the journey from vintage market stall to Drapers Independents Award winner?
Paul’s Boutique began life in 2000 with a second-hand sewing machine, customised army surplus clothing and a market stall on west London’s Portobello Road. Over the subsequent decade co-founders Paul Slade and Emma Minford, creative and managing directors respectively – and couple now of 17 years – watched their brand soar, and then dip in scale and popularity. A reinvention that began in 2012 culminated in Paul’s Boutique being named Drapers Independents Awards Accessories Brand of the Year last month.
Beginning life as a clothing and accessories brand, Paul’s Boutique was picked up first by Topshop in 2001, then by Selfridges in 2002 and Cult Clothing, the multiple retailer that spawned Superdry. It became a zeitgeist brand of the late 2000s and the bag of choice for many teenage girls.
Known initially for its brash, bold styles, which Slade describes as “pink and bling”, vibrant colours and prints, and heavy customisation with patches and badges, were its trademark. However, by the late 2000s Paul’s Boutique battled against fakes and was branded as somewhat “chavvy”.
Former bestsellers included denim and army jackets, as well as the Maisy tote – a ladylike design with rigid rounded handles, which is still a bestseller. In 2012, the brand embarked on a repositioning, temporarily withdrawing from the UK market, ceasing clothing production and shifting to a more premium, mid-market styling.
The new Paul’s Boutique marks a huge shift in aesthetic, but still captures the vibrancy that made the brand a success. Orders are up considerably for spring 18 – in some countries by as much as 25% – in what Minford describes as its “best season yet”. This has given it the confidence to launch into five new markets for autumn 18.
Paul’s Boutique today favours a more minimal aesthetic: structured shapes are accented with bold pops of print and colour, while a newly designed lightning bolt logo is a recurring motif. Highlights from the 160-piece spring 18 range include the Celine backpack in yellow and the striped Mabel bag.
New styles include the Dixie with blue snakeskin detail and the architectural Tamsin bag. Wholesale prices for spring start at £14 for a purse and go up to £30 for a large bag. Alongside the Maisy, which comes in a vibrant star print for spring, other key sellers include the Georgia long-handled tote and the Bethany top-handle tote.
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Drapers Independents Awards judges praised the brand for “bouncing back” from a tricky period.
“Paul’s did a great job at reinventing itself,” says judge Bobby Lane, partner at accountancy firm Shelley Stock Hutter. “They identified where they were, where they wanted to get to and delivered a clearly successful strategy to deliver the required results and achieve growth both domestically and internationally.”
As a result, Paul’s Boutique is rapidly regaining its fashionable reputation (although it declines to reveal sales and profits). It is stocked in more than 500 independent stores across the UK and Europe, as well as Topshop, Morleys, The Country Boutique, John Lewis and Galleries Lafayette. The brand is also hugely popular in South Korea, where it is sold in several department stores, and where Slade claims “the level of brand awareness is up there with Louis Vuitton and Gucci”.
Emma Minford and Paul Slade
How did you set up and grow the business?
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Paul: I used to customise vintage armywear with patches and neon graphics and sell them at Portobello Market. A buyer from Topshop saw the range and asked to stock the brand. We had been doing the stall for about two years before that. It was horrible, every week we were making a loss. We didn’t have a permanent pitch so I had to go every morning a 4am to sign on the waiting list. Now we’ve been in Topshop for 15 years and we’re one of its best performing concessions.
I remember the first day we launched our range in Topshop, Emma and I hid behind a column to watch the customers shop our rail. The collection sold out in a few hours.
Emma: When we got an order from Selfridges in 2002, I decided to leave my job in publishing to concentrate on the brand. I would say that was our break, they ordered 2,000 pieces in one go. Before that I essentially had two jobs at once. I used to do deliveries to Topshop on my way to work. I’d bring in these two great big shopping bags of product into Topshop to deliver, then go to work, then at lunchtimes I’d go back to Topshop and check on sales and check the rail.
The biggest change for the business was in 2008 when we went into Bank Fashion, a multi brand retailer with almost 100 stores nationally. During this rapid period of growth we launched our website which, in its second year, accounted for £9m turnover.
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Can you tell me a little about the problems you faced with fakes?
Paul: This was our biggest headache. The UK was full of fakes. Even more worrying for the business was the number of counterfeit Paul’s Boutique websites that were set up in China. We would manage to get factories in China closed down but they would re-open almost overnight in a different location. We spent more than £2m in one year trying to protect the brand, which obviously had a huge impact on our business in terms of both resources and financials.
What prompted the decision to reposition the brand?
Paul: In 2012 we reviewed our strategy and decided to focus on markets where we were happy with our positioning and where we had stronger growth opportunities, which led to us pulling out of the UK market. It was a major financial decision to pull out, as it meant losing more than 50% of our business, but if we wanted continued growth it was essential.
Emma: We stopped doing clothing when we decided to rebrand. It had become this beast that we couldn’t control. Half the jackets that you saw on the street weren’t our product. As we decided to focus on international and the main business we had was in Asia, it made sense to focus on accessories. But we definitely will bring them back. ”Paul’s Boutique jacket” is a big search for us on Google, so there is still big demand for it.
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What were some of the steps you took during the repositioning?
Paul: The biggest design focus was the logo. We went straight to a very delicate, subtle logo. But when we first rebranded it was too paired down, it was quite sophisticated but a bit boring. The break was too much, it was like a completely new brand and we lost a lot of customers.
Emma: We still do that minimal side now but with a pop and more of our personality. It was 2012 that we started to rebrand and now five years on I think the British consumer is ready, and we’ve got it right. Our spring 18 collection epitomises what the brand is about.
Paul: Alongside the re-design we strengthened our infrastructure and got a new team on board. We recruited staff who came from a luxury background that could help us elevate the brand. We now bridge the gap between high street and luxury.
Managing director Daniel Morris, former MD at Pentland Brands and Boxfresh, left in February this year after four years in the business – how are things run now?
Emma: What we’ve learned over the years is that no one knows how to run your brand as well as you do. We recognised that we needed some help, which is why we got Daniel Morris in, and he was amazing. Ultimately, we know what is right for the brand and it’s getting the people on board that will then support you in what you want to do.
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Paul: Emma runs the show – simple. I’m the creative one and I’m continually bouncing ideas off Emma. After putting the kids to bed we normally catch up on the day but after 15 years of working together we know when to talk business and when not to.
We are a very close-knit team and everyone mucks in. We owe everything to their passion and loyalty, around 50% of them have been there eight or more years.
Are you concentrating on UK or international now?
Emma: Both. It is the right time to focus our attentions back on our home market but at the same time we will continue our growth internationally. We will be appointing an agency for the UK for autumn 18, and we’re also launching into new territories: Australia, the US, Canada, Middle East and Russia. As well as re-entering Germany and Scandinavia.
Paul: The plan is to have a flagship store in London, but timing must be right. We want to be recognised as a globally recognised lifestyle brand.