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The rags to riches story of one man’s fashion life

Jeff Pearce made his name in the fashion trade after turning market stall success into Girls Talk, a fast-fashion retail phenomenon with stores in Liverpool and Chester.

Jeff Pearce made his name in the fashion trade after turning market stall success into Girls Talk, a fast-fashion retail phenomenon with stores in Liverpool and Chester. He was a millionaire before the age of 30 and lived the high life driving flash cars and learning to play polo, until he lost everything when the bank pulled the plug on his Tickled Pink wholesale business in the 1990s recession.

Pearce went back to the markets, determined to repeat his success, and in 2002 he did just that with the opening of Jeff’s of Bold Street, a premium independent dedicated to womenswear. The store immediately started taking £40,000 a week, and in its first year of trading Pearce won the Independent Retailer of the Year accolade at the Drapers Awards.

On the night of the awards, Pearce told his peers about his inability to read or write. Severely dyslexic, he had spent his life hiding his “secret” from all but those closest to him.

After retiring, Pearce set himself another challenge - to learn to write so he could share his extraordinary story in a book. That book was published earlier this month and went straight into the top five non-fiction best-sellers list.

Here is the first of two extracts from his book A Pocketful of Holes and Dreams, which is published by Penguin Paperback Original and costs £6.99.

j See next week’s Drapers for an interview with Pearce and the second extract from the book

Review: A Pocketful of Holes and Dreams

Jeff Pearce’s book is a fascinating journey into the modern history of the fashion trade.

Pearce, who grew up in the Liverpool slums in the 1950s, started life on the markets. He built the business on a fast-fashion model, driving his van to the stock houses of Manchester on a Friday night to pick up the latest styles to sell to teenage girls at bargain prices.

Pearce shares the highs and lows of his fashion career - from his marketing masterstrokes and self-made design hits to his cash flow challenges - and manages to do it with a voice that feels like he could almost be sitting opposite you, recounting the tale verbally.

This book is truly a great read. There is much to learn from Pearce’s business mantras “Never sell to anyone, let them buy” or “Success is in the buying not the selling”, and much to be admired in his determination to succeed.

Jessica Brown, editor

By the seat of my leather pants

It was the early part of December 1982 and I was on my regular once-a-week journey from Liverpool to London with my part-time driver, George, at the wheel. I was looking for good-quality stock for the Girls Talk Sale, which always started the day after Boxing Day. It had to be something different that would make us stand out from the rest of the competition.By five o’clock that day, I must

have visited between 20 and 30 factories all over London, and I had managed to fill three-quarters of the van with pretty good deals. By now, we would normally be heading back for Liverpool, but something was bothering me: there was something missing, and I felt we could do better.

Then it hit me. I gave George instructions to drive us across London to Brick Lane, near Spitalfields Market in the East End, where I’d bought leather trousers before. Brick Lane was not for the faint-hearted; it was a maze of dingy streets and poorly lit, narrow alleyways leading off the main thoroughfare. It was a bit like how you imagined a casbah to be, with doors in the narrow streets leading to small factories. The dark alleyways outside were always full of shifty, slightly menacing-looking characters.

We arrived as it was getting dark, and I soon found myself face to face with Rashid, the owner of the leather factory I’d come to visit. He asked me what I was looking for. “Girls’ leather pants,” I replied, “at a very cheap price. I need them for my Sale.” For regular stock, I normally paid £35 per pair and then sold them for £70. But I now wanted to pay no more than £17 per pair, to sell at £35 in the sale. “Mr Jeff, the raw leather costs me that much!

Are you mad?”

So I decided to use my ace card. Putting my hand into the inside pocket of my overcoat, I pulled out £1,000 in used £20 notes, bundled together with an elastic band. “Rashid,” I said, pointing to the money, “it’s getting late, and I want to finish our business. I am quite serious about the leather pants, so if you want any of that money, show me some cheap stock.”

Grabbing the money off the table, he raised his tunic and stuffed it into a money belt around his waist.

After climbing three flights of narrow stairs, Rashid led me into a small, dark room. In the corner was a pile of leather pants in all colours and sizes, literally just thrown one on top of the other. Pointing towards them, he said, “You can have these for £20 a pair. Good-quality leather, nothing wrong with them.”

The only problem I could find was that all the side zips were broken.

I counted 72 pairs, a real treasure! “You must be joking,” I said.

“£20 a pair when they’re all faulty? They can’t be worth more than a fiver in this condition!”

I had found that starting at the lowest price was often the best way to plant doubt in the seller’s mind and would help me get a price I wanted. “The colours are horrible,” I continued, “and the sizes…,” I paused for effect. “They are all big sizes!” “There’s nothing wrong with them,” countered Rashid, a note of anxiety in his voice. “Nah, nothing good here,” I said, feigning disinterest. “They look good to me.” Once again, Rashid sounded hesitant. “£15 a pair then,” he offered. Putting on a poker face, I looked him straight in the eye.

“No, I’m not interested, and to be honest, I can’t think of anyone else who’d be daft enough to buy 72 pairs of faulty trousers!” Putting my hand out towards him, I continued, “I’m sorry, but if you could hand me my money back, I’m going to head off now. I have a long drive ahead of me.”

Rashid lowered his head to one side as if in deep thought. “Make me an offer,” he said. “£10 a pair,” I replied, “that is my last and final offer. £10, take it or leave it.”

Poor Rashid - his face looked as if he had just received some tragic news. I started to make my way downstairs, still pretending not to be interested, when Iwas stopped by a shout: “OK. Mr Jeff, all right, it’s a deal.” He stood at the top of the stairs, a defeated man.

Within 20 minutes my van was loaded and George and I were setting off for Liverpool. As we turned the corner, I started to laugh. “What’s so funny?” George asked. ‘My mother taught me well,’ I replied.

On the journey home, I’d been thinking, as usual, of ideas that would make us stand out from all the other shops in town. “I’ve had an idea,” I told [Pearce’s wife] Gina now. “Rather than sell these leather trousers at £35 a pair, making a £25 profit, I want to sell them for £1 a pair.” I paused, waiting for the explosion that I knew was coming. “You can’t be serious,” Gina replied, looking at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Nobody sells leather trousers for £1 a pair. Think how much money we could make if we sold them for £35 each - about two-and-a-half thousand pounds! And they would still be a fantastic bargain; half the normal price. You just can’t be serious.”

“Just think of the publicity,” I argued. “Selling leather trousers for £1 a pair would make us the talk of the town. It’d never be forgotten.”

It took a few days, but I eventually managed to get Gina to agree that the loss more than justified the potential publicity.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Just finished this book - it was a great read, well recommended for anyone involved in the rag trade!!!

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