Jack Wills Spring Summer 2011

  1. Rob
  2. March 3, 2011 3:09 pm

Jack Wills – University Outfitters. A “closed shop” brand purely for the young and beautiful?

Look again; in the Jack Wills collection there is, quite literally, something for everyone. One of the biggest brand success stories of the last decade, Jack Wills is going from strength to strength. Such is the power of the brand, and the product, that we’re now looking at a case of “selling sand to the Arabs”. Jack Wills are fiercely protective of their brand and reputation – don’t expect any voucher codes or sale discounts any time soon!

Jack Wills has opened stores in the USA, pitched directly at the typical strongholds of Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. The brand plays strongly on its “britishness” which should bode well across the pond.
From really obvious, heavily branded pieces to subtle tailored jackets and beautiful quality knitwear, Jack Wills is now a “grown-up” brand with a very wide appeal.

Visiting the Jack Wills store in Brighton a couple of weeks back, the brand’s vibrant energy palpable energy was quite uplifting; cool, helpful, energetic staff with proper product knowledge and an aspirational vibe running through the store had the tills ringing merrily on a pretty bleak Sunday afternoon.

Shoppers’ ages ranged from early teens to middle-aged couples, and everyone was trying and buying. The “beautiful people” championed by A&F and Hollister doesn’t seem to alienate those that don’t “fit the mould” any more.

Influences in the Jack Wills collection are as diverse as Polo, Rugby and Rowing – all quintessentially British pursuits. There’s also a nod to British military heritage.

Here’s a few of our favourites from Jack Wills Spring/Summer collection:

Here’s a feature that ran in the UK Sunday Times newspaper a while back – still very relavent:

Jack Wills is not just a fashion retailer, it’s a way of life, it is said. With hoodies for Hugo and sweatpants for Sophie – the Sloane essentials for summer are as popular in Chelsea as in Chelsea-on-Sea: Salcombe in Devon and Burnham Market in Norfolk.
At a price. Those hoodies cost £70 – as do the Jack Wills trade-mark stripey shirts – and the sweatpants sell for £49. The brand, founded in 1999 by Peter Williams, has doubled its sales in each of the past two years, with revenue of £42m last year, trading from 35 outlets.
Now the brand, named after Williams’s grandfather, has set its sights on America. “There’s a great opportunity for us,” Williams told The Sunday Times in his first media interview. “So few British brands have successfully done it. Burberry is about the only one.”
To help his cause, Williams has sent five twentysomething students to drive round the exclusive resorts of America’s east coast in customised blue-and-pink striped Land Rovers, handing out 50,000 Jack Wills T-shirts and “party pants” to young holidaymakers.
The group already operates a US website that sells Jack Wills’ preppy fashion gear. A shop should follow soon, although nothing has been signed.
It’s a challenge that another bastion of British preppiness, Boden, has taken up, helped by first lady Michelle Obama ordering a catalogue from the retailer, which is run by Old Etonian Johnnie Boden.
The plans may be grand now, but Jack Wills had humble enough beginnings. Williams, who worked in management consultancy after gaining his economics degree at University College London, realised he wanted to start his own brand rather than work for someone else’s.
Despite having little experience of the rag trade, he soon settled on the idea of starting a fashion label, figuring there was a gap in the market for an upmarket English brand that presented a similar image to Ralph Lauren, which had taken traditional British fashion and given it an American twist.
After persuading a university friend, Robert Shaw, to help, the pair scraped together £40,000 from their savings and by maxing out their credit cards. “One of the best pieces of advice I have ever had was from a guy at the management consultants who said ‘ get as many credit cards as you can’,” said Williams.
It was just as well he did, because the bank would advance Williams only the £1,000 from his overdraft, something that clearly still rankles to this day. “It’s a miracle anyone starts a business in this country – it’s so difficult,” he said.
The timing was fortuitous – a number of manufacturers, reeling from the loss of big contracts with Marks & Spencer and Next, were so desperate for trade that they were only too happy to produce the small batches of clothes needed for the original Jack Wills collections.
The duo opened their first boutique in Salcombe, reasoning that it was where the privileged students to whom they hoped to appeal would spend their holidays.
Williams and Shaw stayed the whole summer, sleeping in bunk beds in a room above the shop. They made £59,000.
Encouraged by their initial foray, the pair then took over a friend’s shop on London’s Fulham Road in the autumn. It was a less happy experience.
“We got ram-raided on millennium night,” recalled Williams, 35. “We got done three nights out of the first four of the year. That store closed a couple of weeks later.”
By now, Williams had become rather galled as his old management consultancy colleagues became dotcom millionaires. However, he persevered, reopening the shop in Salcombe and trying a site in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast.
It was at this point, said Williams, that they felt they had a proper business on their hands: “We could take money even though we might not have been in the store on that particular day.”
For the first three years, the founders were broke. Not any more, though. In the year to last January, Jack Wills made pretax profits of £5m on sales of £42m, up from £3.4m and £22m respectively the previous year. This year, the company expects to generate £70m in turnover, rising to about £100m next year.
The label uses its stores to reinforce the brand with hand-painted notices and vintage furniture. Its social networking-style website features parties and the polo matches it sponsors.
“Wearing Jack Wills is a mark of class, wealth, even education, and you very much have to be in the club,” according to the shopping guru Mary Portas.
Williams, who went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, now owns 55% of the business, while his partner holds 17%.
They sold down their holdings a few years ago when veteran retailer Will Hobhouse, who built Whittard of Chelsea into a national tea and coffee chain, took a stake in the company and became chairman.
He has since stepped down, replaced by Peter Saunders, the former Body Shop boss, and Hobhouse’s shares are soon to be placed with existing investors. More recently, Inflexion, a venture-capital firm, has taken a 21% stake.
There must be a question mark over how well such an upmarket brand will fare during a recession. The clothes may be aimed at students, but they do not come cheap – the average shirt sells for about £70.
Williams shrugs off such concerns, arguing that people will pay for well-made goods. “We can make all our stuff a lot cheaper.
It just won’t be as high quality,” he said.
Expanding into America is fraught with risk, too, as the many British retailers that have tried – and failed – to conquer it can attest. Robert Clark at Retail Knowledge Bank, cautions that opening in America is a big challenge and worries that the team is not experienced enough to cope.
Commentators have frequently compared the Jack Wills product range with Abercrombie & Fitch, the hugely popular American brand – a comparison that Williams detests.
To many observers, there are points of similarity – both offer faded denim and polo shirts with little animal logos on the chest – a moose in Abercrombie & Fitch’s case, a pheasant for Jack Wills.
“There is some overlap in the product mix,” Williams conceded, before embarking on a diatribe about why the two brands are poles apart. Jack Wills’s strong British heritage, the way it combines tweed jackets with fleece hoodies, and its refusal to open stores in shopping centres, he argues, places it firmly apart from its American rival.
“Abercrombie is a terrific business,” said Williams, “and they have done some amazing things.
Fundamentally, it’s a mass market, mall-based US brand built on Americana. We are explicitly an upmarket, niche British heritage brand.”
The only similarities, he said, are that the two businesses go after a similar age group and are in clothes.
It remains to be seen whether the beach bunnies of America will be convinced, but Jack Wills is going to make sure that it has fun trying to persuade them.

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