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The Drapers Interview - Guy Hudson & Paul Lown

The wily pair behind Drapers’ top men’s indie are ready to pounce on the next big thing.

The long autumn 14 buying season is well underway when Drapers heads to Harrogate to meet Guy Hudson and Paul Lown, respectively owner and manager of Lynx, the premium menswear independent.

The duo’s smart buying techniques in 2013 secured them the coveted title of Menswear Retailer of the Year at last November’s Drapers Independents Awards. This was particularly satisfying for Hudson as he has been shortlisted five times in the womenswear category for his original branch of Lynx, which is located just a few doors away from the men’s.

At Pitti Uomo in Florence last month, where the two proved that after nearly 40 years in the industry they are still capable of working and playing equally hard, the awards accolade meant they were in demand from fellow indies. “It was interesting at Pitti,” says Hudson. “A few people wanted to eat or drink with us and it’s like, why is this guy suddenly interested [but] has never been before?”

Their opinions now carry more weight. “Now is the time of buyers, not brand followers,” Hudson asserts. “A lot of people are still making good money turning over a lot of volume, but we’re not brand people. With both of our stores, there’s a confidence about people knowing that if it’s in Lynx, it’s got to be right.”

Lynx works on almost 100% forward order and the duo “feel very inspired so far for autumn 14”. Lown assists Hudson with the men’s buying, while Sue Ashworth has the role for women’s.

“We have the confidence and adaptability to spend time at men’s shows like Pitti Uomo, London Collections: Men, Scoop and Jacket Required and find unique pockets of product that we can’t be compared with. We’re based in a smart spa town and we push the boundary quite far for the average Joe coming through our door,” Hudson says.

This product focus is paying off. Christmas 2013 was better than ever for both stores, with a 9% sales increase season on season for autumn 13 - despite cutting SKUs by 9% - and average sell-through of 73%. The number of brands stocked is being increased across both stores - with around 30 for menswear and up to 55 for womenswear, although about 25% of these may be adjusted seasonally. Men’s favourites include Replay, Hartford, John Smedley, Woolrich and Paul Smith.

Lynx, the premium menswear independent

Lynx, the premium menswear independent

“We’ve got a wicked streak in which we like to disappoint customers,” says Hudson. “But that disappointment is the start of a relationship where [if a product sells out] we can say ‘we’ll let you know next season’ and they come back.”

This confidence in their buying strategy is what caught the eye of the Drapers Independents Awards judges, with one, Anne Furbank, owner of the eponymous womenswear store, saying: “In a very well-contested category, Lynx really stood out. It is evolving all the time, and the fact it had reduced its purchasing but increased its sales made it obvious they know exactly what they are doing.”

Lynx womenswear was opened in 1985 on Station Parade, before moving across town to its current 5,000 sq ft location on West Park. The 1,300 sq ft menswear shop opened in 2003 a few doors away. Menswear in particular has “really gathered momentum in the last five years” according to Hudson, now accounting for 40% of Lynx’s business, although Hudson won’t discuss specific financials.

In the womenswear store, a Maison Scotch concession was opened in December, sitting alongside the store’s other concession, Italian contemporary label Pennyblack, which opened in 2010. “It’s a hard sector, womenswear,” says Hudson. “We now have five competitors in Harrogate in the last 12 months we never had before, including Jigsaw, Whistles and LK Bennett. So we have to cut our cloth and tailor it accordingly.”

This includes playing hardball when it comes to brands. “There isn’t a lot of faithfulness from consumers to womenswear. We won’t keep a brand in store if it’s crap that season,” says Hudson.

Lown adds: “At the end of the day, some [brands] can be tricky about that, but we’re putting our nuts on the line for the product we think we can sell. Even if it’s a buyer’s favourite, it’s a time now where we can make an order that’s of a level we’re comfortable with, so we take the good stuff out of it and walk away if we’re not happy.” For example, the menswear store stocks denim label Denham, but doesn’t buy into its jeans, only the separates.

“Those two can be tough,” laughs one agent (who wished to remain anonymous), who deals with the pair for a men’s tailoring brand. “Particularly Guy, who always likes to give me a hard time. But they’re both very good and we do really well with them.”

Something that won’t be under consideration any time soon is ecommerce, as both Hudson and Lown are adamant they have little interest in it. “I don’t think there’s anything dysfunctional about holding your head up and saying ‘we’re actually bricks-and-mortar and proud of it’,” says Hudson. “There’s a reason to come through our door and that’s because we have product and service. In the height of the season we’ll remerchandise 30% of the stores every seven days.”

So product and merchandising are the key focuses for now, and this has been the cornerstone of both their careers. Hudson started out as an apprentice at Austin Reed aged 16 in 1974, before being headhunted by a small unisex independent called Carnell in Harrogate. “I bought very much hand to mouth,” he recalls. “I had a red Transit van and went round cash-and-carry wholesalers.” Despite initial success, the store closed in 1981 and Hudson began working alone, wholesaling baseball jackets.

“I’ve never been so badly off in my life,” he laughs. “I worked wholesale putting stock into local shops on sale or return and I was working in a hamburger joint five nights a week.”

By 1984, boosted by a successful few years managing a restaurant and a chance encounter with Lown at a menswear exhibition in London, Hudson decided to get back into retail.

“We’d known each other from Leeds,” says Lown. “When Guy worked at Austin Reed, I worked across the road at Cecil Gee.” Lown later opened his own menswear store, Leopard in Harrogate, in 1982. Then he and Hudson decided to open a womenswear counterpart, Lynx. “We decided it could be a good addition to Leopard, with its customers and their wives,” says Hudson.

Despite both being new to womenswear, the business quickly took off. “It was the days of hand-to-mouth and cash-and-carry,” says Hudson. “And I had a history of doing that. Our leading lights were Naf Naf and Speedway and they were really quick at turning over lines, every fortnight or so.”

In 1990, Hudson bought Lown out of Lynx in an amicable split, and Lynx womenswear and Leopard menswear continued as separate entities. Lown eventually sold Leopard in 2002 “after a big, costly divorce” and ended up working briefly for Northern independent chain Flannels, before leaving to work as general manager for now-defunct designer independent Strand in Leeds, under owner David Dalby. “It was more like a party than working,” he says of his three years there. “It wasn’t doing my health any good.”

In 2006, Lown unexpectedly found himself out of work. As fate would have it, Hudson, who had by then opened Lynx menswear, found himself in need of assistance. “Certain people [in the menswear store] weren’t doing the right job for him,” says Lown. “It wouldn’t have lasted carrying on like that, so Guy decided it was worth bringing in an old hand. He tempted me back in by giving me a CP Company jacket. Or maybe I twisted his arm for the jacket,” he laughs, adding: “He probably said I could have a shirt.

The two get on famously, with Hudson describing Lown as “the twiddly guy” when they do their buying. “I’m the one saying no, no, no,” Hudson laughs. “But we’re both product people and it is in a way a pleasure to have to reel him in. We are still so enthusiastic about what we do and offer in the store.”

Next on their agenda is the menswear store’s 10th anniversary this year, along with the opening stage of the Tour de France on July 5, which finishes in Harrogate and about which Hudson says: “We’ve bought anything and everything with a bike on it.”

They’re also looking, as ever, for “the next big thing” after a brand the store had exclusively stocked for the past five years was recently signed up by a UK distributor - although cannily, they won’t reveal which. “If it’s pushed everywhere, we won’t get out of it what we need,” says Hudson.

“So now we have to have the next one waiting in the wings. It’s all part of being an independent. You have to see the ripples coming and be on the other side of them.” Somehow, it doesn’t seem like this will be a problem.

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