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Interview: Jack Wills founder and chief executive Peter Williams

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Jack Wills has been kitting out university students and those seeking a more preppy look for 16 years. Founder Peter Williams, who became chief executive again in August after a two-year gap, describes his vision for the brand.

Peter Williams is walking around the Jack Wills store in Covent Garden, proudly pointing out soft, premium-quality jumpers and jackets, and the Blackwatch range of blazers, T-shirts and shirts launched for autumn 15, which are inspired by traditional Loharron tartan from the Scottish borders. In alcoves above the clothing, stuffed pheasants sit on vintage trunks, further underlining the preppy chain’s British heritage. “I’m a heritage nut, but also I love the rebelliousness of youth culture and that’s what Jack Wills’ DNA is about; taking heritage and youth and putting it together,” Williams explains.

He started the business in Salcombe, Devon, with his friend Robert Shaw in 1999 when they were in their early 20s. The idea was spawned from their experience of university (Williams did an economics degree at University College London from 1993 to 1996). “When I got a job [in a management consultancy] I looked back on my period at university and thought ‘that was amazing’,” he says. “Not because of all the obvious fun, naughty stuff, but because you’re an adult with all the independence of adulthood; yet you’re not a proper grown up with a boss, a mortgage and responsibilities.

“It feels like you’re at the start, and that’s exciting. And when I was 23 or 24, I thought, ‘I want to create a brand that bottles that spirit’.”

Although he had no background in fashion, Williams had worked on a number of brand projects while at the management consultancy, including Niketown Europe. “I got quite inspired by some of those brands. [Jack Wills has] always been a brand-led business; I look at it through a storytelling lens.”

This storytelling approach can be seen in the emphasis on its British heritage. While the majority of its range is manufactured in Portugal, some is made or woven in the UK. Over the years, Jack Wills has worked with British manufacturers including Johnstons of Elgin, Abraham Moon and Fox Brothers. This is something Williams will look at again going forwards, “once I have my feet back under the table”.

Jack Wills’ customer base has not changed since 1999, Williams says. People come into the brand at pre-university or university age and leave after a few years, “not because you hate it, but because you’ve moved onto your next life stage”. But he argues it is not just a brand for 17 to 22-year-olds: “People get very hung up on how old our customers are. I’m 41 and I wear Jack Wills stuff head-to-toe every day.” On the day of Drapers’ visit, he is wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, plain grey T-shirt and a made in Scotland purple scarf, all from Jack Wills. It is a good look on him; although perhaps not one every retail boss could pull off.

Jack Wills founder Peter Williams

“It’s all about the product,” he continues. There are no obvious Sale signs in the Covent Garden store, yet Williams skirts around Jack Wills’ current approach to discounting: “We are generally operating in a more promotional environment, but I think, if you get great product on the shelf, people will pay full price for it. We aspire and always have aspired to be a full-price, premium brand that only clears end-of-line stuff. If we get the product right, that’s what we’ll do.” Christmas is his focus now, and Williams confesses he is excited about the coming months. “Having had a couple of years away from the coalface, I’m back and loving it. I have real clarity and vision about what I want to do with the brand. I wouldn’t have had that without some time away.”

Jack Wills’ turnover grew 2.1% to £132m in the year to February 1, but its operating losses widened due to teething problems in its newly outsourced distribution centre, which have since been straightened out. Williams was reappointed as chief executive in August 2015 after the business decided not to progress with an IPO and his predecessor, Wendy Becker, stepped down. Jack Wills now has 79 stores globally, of which 56 are in the UK and Ireland. Williams is the majority shareholder, while Shaw has a minority stake.

Prices for the Blackwatch collection range from £7.50 for a pair of novelty men’s socks to £298 for a men’s Oxburgh overcoat or women’s duffle coat.

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