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Pearce urges indies to ‘dig their heels in’

Jeff Pearce, former fast-fashion guru with the Girls Talk mini-chain, brand owner of Tickled Pink and founder of independent retailer Jeffs of Bold Street in Liverpool, shares his fashion memories with Drapers below.

Plus we present the second and final instalment of his best-selling book A Pocketful of Hopes and Dreams, which is published by Penguin Paperback Originals and costs £6.99.

What was the highlight of your career?

Winning the Drapers Independent Retailer of the Year Award in 2002. That night I came out of the closet and told people I couldn’t read or write. Gina [Pearce’s wife] was my writing hand. £50m passed through my hands through the years and I never wrote a cheque.

All my life I had felt inadequate and like a fraudster, and that if people knew they wouldn’t respect me, but the award was the highest accolade I could think of and I felt as equal as the next person in the room, with people like [Sir] Philip Green. [Pearce taught himself to read and write in his 50s. His wife deciphered his writing for the book.]

Do you still keep an eye on the industry?

I retired at 50 but I’ve always loved the rag trade and am always looking at the high street. I once wrote to the Barclay brothers [owners of Littlewoods] as I felt I could do something for Littlewoods. I felt I could have turned the company around. Three months went by so I sent another fax to them saying I needed to move on with my life! I got a reply saying they wouldn’t be needing my services.

Who is doing a good job on the high street now?

Today the high street is run by accountants not entrepreneurs. I remember when the January Sales started the day after Boxing Day. Now there are very expensive neon signs up and down Oxford Street and retailers permanently have a Sale on.

Penny-pinching accountants don’t realise that if you stick with your brand it will shine through and you can ride the storms that way.

How tough would it be to start up as an independent retailer today?

My heart goes out to the ones in it. They are finding it so difficult because of the way the high street is run. Everyone is price conscious but indies should dig their heels in and go the extra mile for their customers. It is purely service that differentiates them from the high street.

Do you have any tips from your experiences?

At Jeffs of Bold Street we used to have a special occasion and wedding department. We would run very personal competitions such as ‘buy your outfit from us and then the best-dressed guest at the wedding gets £300’ or ‘buy your outfit for the races from Jeffs of Bold Street and the best outfit judged by the local DJ wins £1,000’.

We were nicking loads of business from the multiples doing this. I was always coming up with ideas like this.

Who are your fashion icons?

Jackie Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales. Diana did so much for the fashion business in the 1980s and 1990s. Whatever she wore we could sell loads of. Madonna led a swing in things and Michael Jackson I watched too.

I remember watching George Michael on Top of the Pops on a Thursday night in the 1980s singing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. The next day I ordered a load of XL white T-shirts and asked my London supplier to put them on a train from Euston to Liverpool for me to pick up at the station.

In the meantime I found some students who had no money to screen print the words ‘Go Go’ on them overnight. By lunchtime on Saturday we had sold out. Then I repeated it for kids and did a Bad version of Michael Jackson. In total

I sold 250,000 T-shirts and made £750,000 from that idea.

What were your other best-selling pieces?

I was looking for some women’s coats but nothing had inspired me at the factories I used. So I drew a trench mac, found a factory and made some styles similar to Burberry’s classic. It wasn’t in fashion but I bought 50 to sell at £29.99.

The shop staff hated them and we didn’t sell any, so I ran an advert with four girls wearing them and trilbies and holding plastic machine guns with the strap ‘This season’s look’. I ended up selling in the region of 15,000 of them.

What’s next for Jeff?

I’m now halfway through writing my second book. I’m always writing a musical about my life, which I hope to be able to put on in Liverpool.

By the seat of my leather pants - part two

I placed an advert in the Liverpool Echo, which appeared on December 24, wishing all the Girls Talk customers a merry Christmas and thanking them for their support over the past year. And of course the advert was also publicity for our

Sale on 27 December. It stated that, in addition to all the fabulous half-price bargains that would be on offer, we were also going to be selling leather pants, reduced from £70 to £1. If anything was going to grab their attention, it was going to be that.

On Christmas Eve I started closing the shop down for the next two days. Overcoat on, shop alarm set, I locked the front doors and was just about to pull down the steel shutters when I noticed a young woman sitting on the ground with a blanket around her shoulders.

I asked her if she was all right, wondering what she was doing there. “I’ll be all right if you’ve got a black pair of size 10 leather pants for just £1,” she said.

I looked at her, still not sure what was going on. “Yes, we will have leather pants for £1 in the Sale, and I’m sure there’s at least one pair of size 10.” “That’s good,” she said, pulling the blanket further up around her shoulders and huddling down into the blanket.

This was frustrating. I wanted to get into my car and home, and yet I was standing here having a conversation with some strange young girl who was sitting outside my shop in the middle of winter with a blanket wrapped around her. “How did you find out about

the pants?” I asked, wondering if the Liverpool Echo had made a mistake and put the wrong date in the advert. “The Echo,” she replied. “Well, when did it say the Sale was starting?” I asked.

“The day after Boxing Day,” she answered.

I couldn’t help myself, this was totally weird. “Well, then why are you here, sitting outside the shop with a couple of days to go before the Sale starts?” “I want to make sure that I get a pair of leather pants for just £1,” she said.

By now it was dark, cold and starting to snow. It was also Christmas Eve, a time when people are usually at home with their families, getting ready to enjoy Christmas.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. I was getting irritated. She was just not listening. Injecting a more forceful tone into my voice, I told her, “I have got 72 pairs of leather pants. Go home now and then come back at five o’clock on the morning of the Sale. That’s all you need to do.”

She didn’t move. “You must be mad,” I finished. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, other than goodbye, and headed off to the car park.

When I drove past the shop 10 minutes later, this solitary figure was still sitting there. She looked so sad, alone on a cold, dark night, with wet snow all around her.

We had a lovely dinner, settling down in front of the fire and watching television afterwards. But hours later, I found myself still thinking about the girl outside the shop. Was she still there? Was she all right? So once Katie was tucked up in bed, I told Gina that I was going back to the shop.

The weather outside was bitter, the snow now turning to sleet. As I turned the corner and got closer to the shop, I could see boxes lined up on the ground outside. Pulling up alongside the pavement, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were now 12 people, all sitting inside cardboard boxes to try to keep warm.

As I stepped out of the car, the girl who had been there earlier shouted out, “That’s him! That’s the owner of the shop. The man I was telling you about.” Suddenly, I found myself being bombarded with questions: Did I have a size 14 in brown? Had I a size 12 in black? Were they really £1? The noise and the commotion were starting to worry me. The last thing I needed was the police to turn up, thinking there was trouble.

Driving home, I spotted a fish and chip shop near the city’s Adelphi Hotel, so I went in and ordered 12 portions of fish and chips and 12 cans of Coke and drove back to give them to the people in the queue, asking each one to go home as I did. Still, no one moved. Finally, admitting defeat, I wished them all a Merry Christmas and left.

There were still two days and two nights to go. How many others would start queueing up? How was I going to cope? What the hell was I going to do? I started to think positively about ways of cashing in on what now seemed to be something remarkable. It was no small achievement, getting people to give up their Christmas holidays to camp outside a shop for three nights and three days, just to buy a pair of leather pants for £1. One publicity stunt had led to this bizarre situation, and here was the perfect opportunity for another.

On Boxing Day morning, there were about 150 people outside the shop, all sitting in a long line, their backs against neighbouring shopfronts. They were all chatting to each other, seemingly enjoying themselves, as if it were a trip to the seaside or some great camping adventure.

Gina and I were too tense that night to sleep much, and it was almost a relief when the day of the Sale dawned. Both of us were apprehensive about what would be waiting for us.

On our way into town we passed the Army & Navy near the Adelphi Hotel and saw lots of people queuing up outside. It was a relief to see that we were not the only shop with a long line of people outside it. But as I drove off down Ranelagh Street,

I found myself almost following this long human chain, around the corner and the whole way down the road, until it came to an abrupt halt - outside our shop! The Army & Navy queue wasn’t theirs, it was ours.

I hadn’t counted the number of people as I drove past, but there must have been close on a thousand.

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