Twenty-year-old Aphrodite’s passion for menswear grows ever stronger on Wearside.
On September 8, 1994, brothers Duncan and Andrew McKenzie opened contemporary menswear independent Aphrodite in Sunderland. Aged just 18 and 21, the siblings had a vision to create a store where young men could find limited-edition, high-end fashion without having to leave the city.
Twenty years on and the business is going from strength to strength. Consistent investment has seen the trading space grow from 500 sq ft in 1994 to 3,800 sq ft in 2014. To celebrate two decades in fashion, this year Aphrodite invested £250,000 in a ground floor extension to the two-floor property.
The room was unveiled on October 1 at a launch party attended by more than 100 people, including representatives from Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith, along with customers who have shopped with Aphrodite for 20 years. The extension effectively doubles the ground floor to 2,000 sq ft, moving into the space Next door previously occupied by a barber and a jeweller. It houses sports footwear brands Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Y-3 and Saucony, as well as denim, streetwear and outerwear from Nudie, Edwin, Levi’s Vintage, Carhartt and Patagonia.
The space has an industrial feel, with a stripped-back ceiling, exposed piping and heavy-duty spotlights. The walls are a mixture of exposed brick walls and white tiles, which combine with a concrete floor to complete the look.
Trainers dominate the area, displayed on heavy wooden tables and reclaimed railway sleepers positioned on the wall. Jeans are folded on wood and metal shelves, accessible by a metal ladder, or hung on hooks below. T-shirts and jackets are merchandised on rails, with Herschel rucksacks neatly lined up above. The design is in keeping with the rest of the store, which combines flashes of exposed brick with rich walnut wood flooring and silver fixtures.
“We spent a couple of years thinking about an extension and after a really good Christmas we decided in January it was the right time to open the new space for autumn 14,” says Duncan.
Following the extension, Aphrodite has added eight brands, meaning it now stocks more than 40, including Moncler, Stone Island, Paul Smith, Folk, Oliver Spencer, Belstaff, Hugo Boss, CP Company and Vivienne Westwood. Starting at £35 for a Pretty Green T-shirt, prices go up to £1,250 for a Moncler jacket. New additions for autumn 14 include Canada Goose, Our Legacy, Yuketen, Diemme and Dr Martens Made in England, with Norse Projects hitting the store in spring 15.
The previously established ground floor space houses Fred Perry, Pretty Green, Herschel, Paul Smith Jeans, Barbour, Boss Orange and Lacoste. The first floor is dedicated to brands such as Moncler, Stone Island, Belstaff, Paul Smith, CP Company, Vivienne Westwood, Folk, Oliver Spencer and Our Legacy. This floor also features a premium footwear section including Grenson, Tricker’s, Paul Smith, Diemme and Yuketen.
Before Aphrodite, a man in Sunderland in search of high-end, trend-driven fashion would have had to travel to Newcastle, Middlesbrough or as far south as Leeds. Seeing a GAP in the market, the brothers were looking to lease a unit when their father Stuart showed them a property up for sale across the road on Vine Place in Sunderland’s city centre. It was the scope for future expansion that sealed the deal.
Property purchased, the name Aphrodite was inspired by a small town their parents, Anne and Stuart, visited in Cyprus. A logo was designed combining two Greek alpha signs back to back. “We always thought we would work for ourselves, as our dad was self-employed [in waste management and skip hire],” says Duncan. “So we had that work ethic and, of course, we were always into fashion.”
In September 1994, Aphrodite opened with jeans, shirts, knitwear and polos from five brands - Ted Baker, John Smedley, Armand Basi, John Tate and Blanc Bleu. Running a new independent, the brothers had to use their initiative to get brands on board.
“Blanc Bleu and John Tate were based in Otley, West Yorkshire,” Duncan recalls. “Blanc Bleu had an advert in FHM magazine with its contact details. We spoke to the rep and drove down to Yorkshire, where he gave us some numbers of other agencies. We got on the phone and arranged meetings, mainly in London.”
Two years later, Aphrodite was in a position to introduce Duffer of St George, proving an instant hit with customers. Further adding to its proposition were Paul Smith Jeans in 1998, and then the introduction of tailored shirts, knitwear and suits from the PS by Paul Smith diffusion line in 2011.
The store steadily grew its influence as the years went by. “In 2000, we went through an 18-month phase of selling Evisu jeans and Adidas Taekwondo trainers,” remembers Andy. “We were the only people who stocked these trainers, so we had people coming from miles around to get our look.”
The McKenzies shrewdly introduced brands that had a small number of stockists to lend the store limited-edition appeal. Aphrodite is, for example, one of only four Diemme stockists outside of London and one of 18 UK independents selling Moncler jackets, according to Duncan.
Whereas in 1994 most customers came from the Sunderland area, in 2014 fans make the pilgrimage to Aphrodite from Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Durham, Darlington and Leeds, and an international customer base also began to emerge with the launch of a transactional website in 2007.
Investment in online became a real focus for the business, giving customers the flexibility to pre-order styles, buy online and collect in store. For the brothers, investment in online has been one of the most important aspects of business development and this currently accounts for 40% of sales.
From the start the strategy was to connect the store, website, blog and social media presence. To manage this growing side of the business, Aphrodite opened a dedicated 2,500 sq ft online office and photography studio in 2012, across the street. The 10-strong online team contribute to
a permanent staff of 25, including store and online managers.
At the time of writing, Aphrodite has more than 6,800 Instagram followers, in excess of 5,000 Twitter followers and more than 12,000 likes on Facebook. The store works closely with blogs such as Hypebeast, Selectism, Nice Kicks and Sneaker Freaker to boost its profile. The online team, for example, used Instagram to publicise Aphrodite’s collaboration with Sneaker Freaker on a competition to win a pair of Adidas trainers every month for a year.
Aphrodite showcased its 20th anniversary exclusives on Twitter and Instagram, which include a limited-edition Oliver Spencer shirt (£98) and 20 commemorative New Balance shoeboxes. It has collaborated with Barbour on 20 jackets, which feature the Aphrodite logo in the lining (£199), and 20 pairs of Paul Smith jeans (£175), with the pin-up girl print the brand used 20 years ago on the inside pockets. Grenson has exclusively produced 12 shoes and 12 boots (both £325) featuring a red top eyelet, a nod to the Sunderland Football Club colours.
Expansion over, Christmas is firmly on the top of Duncan and Andy’s to-do list, the most important time of year for the store. Looking ahead to their 21st Christmas in retail, they maintain their ethos that customer is king. Aphrodite’s success over the past two decades has been based on a strong rapport with customers, a passion for great product and real dedication.
“Anyone thinking of opening an independent should be prepared to work incredibly hard, know your area and target customer,” says Duncan. “Ultimately you must realise it takes a long time to get to where you would like to be.”