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Sweetenham prepares the ground for a new Republic

The young fashion chain’s new boss discusses his growth strategy and the state of the high street.

A much-needed revolution is sweeping through the UK’s fashion retail sector, according to Paul Sweetenham, the new boss of branded young fashion chain Republic.

Speaking exclusively to Drapers on the eve of taking up his chief executive post this week, he talked passionately about the potential for growth in the market and dismissed fears that the UK high street is dead.

“I think some of the well-known people that have determined the UK high street is dead are people who have run businesses that have got too big and fat – I don’t think it’s dead at all,” he argued. “That said, a financially challenging environment does enable a restructuring of the high street, and there will be those who won’t fare so well and those that grow. But do we have too many shops? I think we have too many of certain types of shops.”

Overcrowded market

This, he added, is a revolution that was started by the sector itself. “Overambitious growth plans – a company getting too big or too many companies going after the same vein. We ended up with a millipede of consolidation,” he explained.

“Far too much emphasis is placed on the people who are doing it badly, which is a sad indictment of what remains one of the biggest employers in this country, with some fantastic retail businesses.

“Ultimately, I don’t think retail gets enough support from government, bearing in mind how high it is on the list of people that generate income in this country. I think retail could be encouraged and supported in a much bigger way in terms of employment, planning, legislation, and in terms of helping restore inner cities – the most powerful players in inner-city redevelopment are the retailers themselves.”

This no-nonsense approach enabled Sweetenham to oversee meteoric growth during his last role as the European head of retailer TK Maxx. As one of the senior management team from the beginning, Sweetenham can claim no small credit for building from nothing the behemoth that’s now worth just shy of ¤2bn (£1.67bn).

And it was this, combined with a firm grounding in fashion retail at Burton Group at the start of his career, that no doubt led Republic founders Tim Whitworth and Carl Brewin to trust him with the Next chapter of their retail chain, after they both decided to step away from the day—to-day operation of the business at the start of this year.

Sweetenham said of the move: “I think what everyone focuses on with TK Maxx is where it is today, but at one point it was zero. So I’ve got the benefit of seeing what happens to a business from zero to £200m, then to £400m, and perhaps that makes me suitable for the next stage of growth at Republic. The crucial thing is to be an organised, disciplined retailer, but to never lose that entrepreneurial spark. That is my focus.”

Republic is a different animal to TK Maxx, but growth is very much on the cards, and certainly Sweetenham is no stranger to the type of trend-led product that seems to figure in this growth plan. As he put it: “I’m aiming for a healthier brand mix, evolution, new younger brands, as well as strong existing brands, and also developing ranges with brands that are unique to Republic.”

Distinguishing features

This is a move that will differentiate the chain from operators like JD Sports Fashion and Sports Direct, who have previously been spoken of in the same breath as Republic. Sweetenham is keen to stress the differences and told Drapers he will look to Asos and River Island for his benchmarks rather than those at the more sportswear and streetwear-driven end of the market.

He is also keen to build strong own-brand ranges. “Third-party brands or internal brands are essentially just brands to the consumer – Abercrombie is an own label and most people don’t think of it as an own label. The challenge is staying relevant and refreshing the offer so it doesn’t become jaded or overly linked with one brand,” he explained.

Coming from a business where value was intrinsic, he is keen to avoid the downward spiral of discounting, of which he says: “We have to crack the code of the perfect combination of value and fashionability. It is a code. There are plenty of examples across this country and many other retailing countries where people initially avoid that discounting, but unfortunately if you come back three years later you find them in a discount culture because they haven’t evolved.”

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