Constant change has been the mindset of Middlesbrough indie Psyche’s managing director for 30 years – his latest brainwaves are a store revamp and a college diploma.
Luckily Steve Cochrane’s passion for fashion is a little stronger than his musical ambition. Had it not been for the lack of success enjoyed by his punk band, then Middlesbrough department store Psyche might never have made it to the grand old age of 30.
“I was a singer in a punk band and it didn’t get anywhere,” he recounts. “I used to design the clothes that everyone wore in the band and our girlfriends used to make them. I decided I’d rather do that because the band wasn’t going to get anywhere. So I did six months on an oil rig to get the money together and I [then] got a tiny little shop.”
Fast-forward to 2012 and three decades down the line the 35,000 sq ft store is the toast of Middlesbrough.
For anyone not fortunate enough to have visited Psyche, allow Drapers to paint a picture. The grand three-floor indie on Linthorpe Road brightens up the Northeast town’s bleak centre with its gleaming black fascia, and stands in stark contrast to the fast-food takeaways that line the surrounding streets.
Inside, the scale of Psyche rivals that of a chain department store, yet it has all the personality and theatre of an independently-run business, with branded sections decked out to the highest of specs and cheery staff on hand to help customers.
Psyche – pronounced with an emphasis on the ‘e’, so ‘Psychee’ – has an enviable reputation within the industry.
One young fashion brand manager said it would be difficult to come across someone more passionate about the fashion retail industry, something which rings true in the way an exacting Cochrane walks around the store. He twists swing tags around and realigns clothes on rails to ensure the shop floor looks just how he wants it.
“I absolutely love [my job]. I live it and breathe it,” Cochrane explains. “My missus has to force me to go home each night. It’s very challenging and constantly changing.”
In fact, the store has seen a great deal of change over the past 24 months, having undergone a significant redevelopment with a host of new branded shopfits.
“In a recession you do one of two things,” says Cochrane. “You either batten down the hatches, stop advertising, cut your stock levels back, cut your staffing levels back, or you do the exact opposite, which is what we’ve done. We’ve upgraded the store, increased our stock, we’ve gone up to 64 staff from 56 this time last year. We’re spending more on marketing than ever. And it seems to be working.
“I want to partner and work very closely with all of our brands and suppliers because we’re in this together. It’s in their interests for us to grow what we’re doing. They are pushing like mad when we’re in the buying appointments for us to increase our orders,” he says, before adding: “That’s fine, I want to do that and I’m desperate to keep growing.”
And Psyche is certainly growing, with turnover up 16.8% on last year so far and turnover of just under £5m forecast for this calendar year.
Cochrane has worked with brands to give them “free rein to express themselves” in the store. The new shopfits include a World of Paul Smith shop-in-shop and refreshed branded areas for labels including J Lindeberg, Pretty Green and Original Penguin.
Hugo Boss is Psyche’s biggest-selling brand, with the store stocking its Boss Black and Boss Orange lines for men and women, plus its Boss Green menswear collection. Bernd Hake, UK managing director of Hugo Boss, calls Psyche a “key” customer having supplied the indie for 30 years.
“[Steve] offers customer service that in Middlesbrough and the North is not easy to get. He understands brands and he knows what the customers want. He offers more than 100 brands across menswear, womenswear and kidswear in a premium environment that is great to shop in.”
Despite seeing success with the brands he already stocks, Cochrane says he is always on the lookout for new labels and frequents trade shows including Pitti Uomo in Florence, Bread & Butter and Capsule in Berlin, and Jacket Required in London.
“You’ve got to be researching product like never before because it’s so easy [for customers] to compare online. Your product has got to be amazing and you’ve got to have fantastic marketing to raise awareness to make sure people think of you. All those things have got to be miles better than they ever were.”
Cochrane’s optimism aside, he readily admits his 30 years at Psyche have not been without fault, and concedes that if he were to go back in time then he wouldn’t have put online on the “back burner”. “I did take the internet a lot more seriously in 2000, but once the dot com bubble started to burst I lost interest and didn’t regain it until about 2007/8. By then we’d lost so much ground to everyone else and it’s proven difficult to catch up.”
Although Cochrane believes the internet provides an opportunity for phenomenal growth, he says there are other threats casting dark shadows over the industry, with early discounting one of his main bugbears.
“I wish it was legislated like it is in some European countries like Germany, where you’re not allowed to go on Sale before August 1 or January 1. Instead they’ve gone for a free market and let market forces drive the economy.”
Up since the wee hours following an appearance on local radio to talk about parking problems affecting retail in the area, Cochrane chats animatedly about the issues facing the high street as he drinks his fourth coffee of the day at just 11am. Cochrane says the high street is under great pressure and he agrees with what retail guru Mary Portas has said about having a more “joined-up approach”.
“We need more consolidation,” he adds. “The majority of employment in the UK is in retail and it’s not given the credit it deserves – it should be more prestigious to work in a store, rather than it being derided and looked down on.”
Cochrane suggests that business skills should be taught in schools, with lessons on how to deal with banks, rents, rates, staff issues and training. “It’s mental. You have to learn it the hard way by making mistakes. Why don’t they teach that instead of humanities or biology or political history?”
So he has taken the matter into his own hands by teaming up with Middlesbrough College this year to create a diploma in fashion retail. Psyche enrolled six members of staff from its Middlesbrough store on the diploma, named the Psyche Fashion Retail Diploma, which covers team management, visual merchandising and trend forecasting.
Next on Cochrane’s agenda is an in-store restaurant in collaboration with Middlesbrough College, set for early next year. And five years down the line, he has plans for a Psyche hotel, with funding and planning permission already in place. “It’s a long-term, high-risk move, but at the same time it’s fun and exciting and it gives me a buzz doing stuff like that.”