Originally ‘The King of Cufflinks’, Simon Carter moved into men’s tailoring and ultimately reigned supreme at last year’s Drapers Awards.
Hang on a second, I’d better just go and see how this customer is,” says Simon Carter, the man behind the eponymous men’s tailoring label, before we start our interview.
We were locked out of his store in Shepherd Market, in London’s Mayfair, when we arrived but it’s alright, Carter has a set of keys and is more than happy to man the shop himself while the manager is on a break. It’s an interesting scenario to witness: how often do designers in Mayfair serve customers in their own store? But that’s Carter for you. When we finally sit down, it’s over an enormous piece of carrot cake, which he insists we share, declaring: “My answers will be muffled by sugar intake.”
Affable and charismatic, Carter is on good form, still on a high from winning the Menswear Brand of the Year award at the Drapers Awards last November. “The award was like checking your speedometer and realising you’ve done 100,000 miles,” he says. “It was a realisation of the fact I have been doing this for nearly 30 years. We’ve come on a lot.”
Indeed, the company turned over almost £1.8m in 2013, a 3.5% increase on the year before, and has a global retail value of about £12m, Carter says, when you take into account its seven standalone stores, wholesale division and licensees. Carter co-owns the company with his business partner Wendy Carter, who is also the financial director.
“I feel like the recession has been a really good thing [for the brand] because of all the changes I’ve made,” he says. “We felt the middle market squeeze going on very hard and I think anything you had that you might term a commodity product, such as a plain white shirt, a customer might happily have bought from us a year before the recession, but now they’re thinking ‘I’ll get that from Marks & Spencer’.”
In response, from 2007 Carter began repositioning the top end of the brand at an even more premium level and, in 2010, introduced West End by Simon Carter, a cheaper sub-brand. Anything that sat in between and could be considered “basic”, or too plain, was cut from the collection. Wholesale prices for West End range from £8.50 for cufflinks to £92 for a suit, while the mainline ranges from £8.50 for collar stiffeners to £155 for a suit. “We probably axed 10% to 20% [of the mainline] over the first few years of the recession,” he says, while the average mainline price point was raised 20%. “I think it’s an old adage that when the floods come, the higher up the hill, the safer you are. I don’t suppose Gucci ever noticed there was a recession.
“It was about less, but better, among sophisticated consumers,” he muses. “Of course, at the other end you’ve got people lugging bags and bags of stuff out of Primark to put into a landfill six months later.”
That’s not to say the brand has overstretched into the fashion field. “I think we’re with the market,” Carter says. “I’m doing kipper ties for autumn 14, inspired by [the film] American Hustle and they are seriously directional. But that’s exceptional. What we do is current and right for the brand but I don’t want people to be chucking something out in a year’s time because it’s no longer fashionable.”
Carter is certainly doing something right. At the start of the recession in 2007, the brand had only two shops, one in Covent Garden, which is no longer open and one in Toronto, Canada. In 2009, the Mayfair flagship opened, followed by another store on Lamb’s Conduit Street and a franchise in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, in 2011.
The Crystal Palace store opened in London in 2012, along with another franchise store in Ilkley in West Yorkshire, while the most recent opening was in Blackheath, also in London, last November. Carter plans to open another two this year, with East Dulwich and Reigate in Surrey at the top of the wish list.
“It’s like we picked the most random places,” he laughs, when Drapers questions his unusual store portfolio. “The brand’s DNA is about doing something slightly unusual or unconventional.”
He bases his decisions for store openings on places he finds himself spending the most time in, and this has paid off. “I remember when we opened in Crystal Palace it was just starting to get smart,” he explains. “When we opened, people were bringing product to the tills and asking ‘Why have you opened in Crystal Palace?’ I said: ‘I think the answer is in your arms.’”
The others have all come from what Carter simply describes as “conversations”. The Toronto franchise store was opened by the brand’s Canadian agent Cedric St Louis, while the Wendover and Ilkley franchises were opened by separate former employees and associates of Carter’s licensee PB Tailoring (owned by parent company Bagir). As Carter says himself: “Why wouldn’t I say yes?”
A lot of the brand’s development has come from Carter having more of these conversations, with the initial move from accessories into clothing also having started as such. “The whole clothing thing was a bit of luck,” Carter says, explaining how he initially sold the licence to London tiemaker Frank Theak & Roskilly in the 1990s, before granting the exclusive worldwide rights for suits and shirts to London-based PB Tailoring in 2002 and launching Simon Carter clothing with House of Fraser.
“I have a certain loyalty to House of Fraser,” Carter says. “At the time we were only known for our cufflinks [in the store], the ties had done quite well but it was a three-party conversation [launching clothing] as PB Tailoring needed a big anchor stockist to hit the minimums. So House of Fraser gave us a five-store trial and we’ve remained partners ever since.”
It is the brand’s point of difference that has kept House of Fraser reordering, says its junior brand buyer Emily Cowburn. “[Simon Carter] is synonymous with colour, character and class,” she tells Drapers. “It delivers quintessential British tailoring with a fun and quirky twist.”
As far as overexposure is concerned, Carter is pragmatic, as the aforementioned department stores only stock the accessories, although Fenwick will stock its clothing from autumn 14.
“It’s an interesting question,” he says.
“I think we’re seen as a kind of counter brand, but at what number of [own] shops do you move from that to being an all-out blinking multiple? I don’t have the answer to that. I think we could sustain about 20 of our own shops in the UK.”
What the brand has found difficult is recruiting independent stockists (it has 29 UK wholesale stockists). “We’ve really tried hard over the years to grow it,” Carter says. “There’s a perception that because we’ve been in House of Fraser so long, everything we do is in there, but I have 300 SKUs in my accessories range, for example, of which House of Fraser carries about 18. I think there’s a threshold to get over with the independent buyers. That can be a frustrating comment because we’ve got a huge range and there really is something for everybody.”
Julian Blades, director of eight-store Northeast independent Jules B, buys the brand’s accessories and exclusivity is at the forefront of his mind when looking at the range. “As far as independents are concerned, it’s offputting when a lot of larger multiples stock a brand, especially when they are online, which is where you sell the majority of your accessories,” he tells Drapers. However, he adds: “[The brand] does a top-end range not so freely available in the multiples.
It’s a refreshing alternative to the likes of Paul Smith. The product is sophisticated and [Carter] is a very personable chap
to deal with, so it’s nice to support somebody like that if you can.” Blades does not stock Simon Carter clothing at present, but says he will keep an eye on it for the future.
Outside the UK, Carter is looking for new opportunities. “We are very close to signing an eight-store deal for India,” he says.
“And we have five licensees [for accessories, ties and shirts] in Japan and we’re working on recruiting another two this year, one for socks and one for formalwear. We’re also having initial conversations with a big would-be partner about a sort of master franchising and licensing roll-out for Korea.”
The brand wholesales to about 30 countries, of which Australia is the largest, with that country’s department store David Jones taking larger orders than House of Fraser. One territory that Carter has misgivings about is China. “I’ve been cautious about China because it is full of European brands that have had problems,” he says. “I don’t think it’s quite the El Dorado that people make it out to be, but in the past two months I’ve had four really serious approaches about China and we will definitely be taking that further through the course of this year.”
Carter also has a private label division to his business, supplying cufflinks to Next, as well as a few other customers for whom the company makes “very high-value product”, though he is reluctant to name them.
Overall, it’s not a bad achievement for a man who started out studying immunology, before the punks on the King’s Road in 1980s Chelsea attracted him to the fashion business.
A stint as a soft furnishings buyer for department store Fenwick led to him setting up his own brand in 1987 selling pewter brooches and he has never looked back.
So would he change anything about how things have worked out? “I’d do everything exactly the same but I’d charge twice as much for it,” he declares. “When I look at the quality of what we do against some of the international super brands, it stands up.”
His confidence in his product, we can’t help but feel, is not misplaced. And the Drapers Awards judges obviously agreed.