Just Consultancies: Branding For Success
Just Consultancies (JC) was formed in January 2012 by husband and wife team, Stephanie, a designer by training, who designed for USC own label also New Look, and Juls Dawson, who originally studied law before going on to run the French Connection concession in House of Fraser stores.
A fashion focus was arguably already in his blood as I learned from meeting up with Juls in their Shoreditch showroom. Having a Romanian grandfather who came over to the UK who set up the Singers Army Stores, the first company in the north to bring in Levis, Wrangler, DM’s and Belstaff to a northern audience and a mother who happened to have a designer clothes shop in Blackpool, might just have had an influence, as he says, “I knew I always wanted to be in the fashion game.”
Where did it all start for them as an agent? Manchester, where a lot of the cool, independent style-setting, iconic brands were launched in the late 1980s, provided the business context. “There is a plethora of importers in Manchester, manufacturing for the high street. We started working with Stylewise, owner of Bellfield, our biggest client and became an agent for them.”
Stephanie and Juls
Working closer to the high street meant, “learning about the value-end of the market”, and seeing the beginnings of what he described as the ”˜Primani’ effect. It was only a question of time before turning these observations into brand development opportunities. As an agency, this translates as finding, developing, creating and supplying the marketplace with what JC actively looks for in a brand: one that is most importantly “accessibly-priced, a key phrase in our business.”
Fashion industry acumen earned the hard way and it seems according to their track record, the right way. Prior to Just Consultancies a decade ago, Juls was involved in the re-launch of GIO-GOI. “We decided to invest in the then defunct GIO-GOI,” a brand that was associated with the Manchester band scene and clubs, notably the Hacienda in the late 1980s. Now owned by JD Sports, they helped take the business at its peak from £8m to £20m with a £25m turnover by third year, a brand that came second in the Times Fast Track 100 list, and won Drapers Young Fashion brand award. “The marketing was amazing. We had muses, people like Lilly Allen and Pete Doherty wearing the brands, at a time when product placement was a major asset.”
Some would argue this particular endorsement furrow is well and truly ploughed, but senior retail buyers are still influenced by the celebrity brand wearer as well as the consumer. “It (GIO-GOI) was very much a logo driven brand. Until streetwear and sportswear had a resurgence two years ago, it’s been a while since logo driven product was so popular. It wasn’t about the brand. Now Hype, Supreme, Stussy are back in a big way, together with sportswear brands.”
Juls sees the subtle changes in brand values as it impacts the high street and business-critical for the product ideas he is developing. Most often in advance of it happening. He wouldn’t be able to do what he does, or sustain the enviable throughput of brand and product delivery Just Consultancies have built their reputation on during the last three years otherwise.
What are the changes already reflected in the buying habits for men’s and womenswear? In a nutshell, “it is acceptable to wear TopShop/ Man and River Island linked with other brands. The mid-market has dissipated and polarization has taken place.” This loosening up of habit and tradition, creating new styling opportunities is very much the forte of this agency – not locked into the past, or forward order business models. But saying it isn’t doing it. It has to be in the vision of the decision-makers of the company to capitalize on these shifts.
Juls left GIO three years ago and set up own brand Friend or Faux. They soon realized “we needed to spin other plates because money wouldn’t be coming into the business quick enough.” The relationship with Stylewise allowed them to launch Bellfield. “Along with the shift in the market, we wanted to offer the branded sector the opportunity to buy product that enabled them to take on the high street from a price point perspective.” One illustration he gave, was the successful distribution of 150,000 chinos at £25 RRP in the shops. “At the end of the day, chinos don’t need to be branded.” It’s also about where the distribution is, “the consumer would probably prefer to walk out with a Selfridges bag than a high street branded bag.”
As a company the guiding principle is quite deliberately not to try to be or own the brands they help develop. This is not to say they aren’t protective of their brands and clearly very proud of their individual successes. But it’s about the discipline of being mentally free to respond to the fast-moving fashion industry without being hamstrung by conflicting loyalties. It must cause a tiny bit of what-if-ing, to see meteoric growths in units sales that they have helped propel in the UK not to have more equity-based reward, but can understand how for JC it really does help not trying to run with the high street hare and hounds.
Bellfield (pictured below left and right) is JC’s flagship brand in many respects ‘global’, men and womenswear, plus footwear and accessories. JC look after the UK and manage the distribution via ASOS.com, House of Fraser, Next Online, Shop Direct Group, Foot Asylum, Ark and Joy. “That’s probably enough names for now” oh, and 250 indies across the UK and distribution in 12 countries outside UK. New project? Boyswear. “Just seems to have a winning ring to it, Boyswear with Bellfield.” And great brand loyalty association – boy’s to men. Apparently so they say, men are far more brand loyal.
Juls is about as down to earth as they come. No fluff, no ego just telling it like it is. What is it that seems to be in his crystal ball gaze that clouds over in other, less performing agents? His received wisdom is to the point. “We identify a gap in the market. We then create a brand to fill that gap.” Where does their perception of the gap come from? “We get approached by tons of brands each day. But there are certain key attributes that make a huge difference for who we work with. Must have great RPP’s. Most important is that it is accessibly priced for the consumer. And be a short-order stock brand. A lot of brands need to be reactive, because the high street moves so quickly. Ninety per cent of brands carry in-season replenishments. This enables our customer to be reactive to trends and weather.” This is the retail balancing act being performed to varying degrees of success in front of our high street enthralled eyes.
With the maxim customer is king, for an agent who also understands the importance of the end consumer’s purchasing habits, the retailer is more likely to be sitting in the king’s chair. An enhanced margin of 2.7 to 3.5 from the traditional 2.5 wholesale/ retail mark-up, gives them great kudos with the retailers they supply. And privileged business leverage. This allows JC to engage with product development leading to (high performing) brand/ retail sales that at any one time is: self-propelled by them as an agency by identification of market gap; developing a brand that answers their key JC criteria of viability; or significantly, being given a brief to fill an identified product gap in the portfolio’s of the retailers they work with.
The retailer of course is happy they have an agent who can deliver to order. And built-into the model is an automatic de-risking of the product deliverable for JC. Axiomatic truism or not: JC has earned the ability to be ahead of the curve, by virtue of being there in the first place.
What business model are they observing or subverting in their path to success, with year on year growth resulting in £20m wholesale business generated on behalf of their brands? Selling within forward order windows that many of the big retailers buying cycles demand is not always easy. It suits particular brands able to shift their production to the critical paths of the department store’s selling cycles, to operate in the six-month windows. For JC It is far more likely to be the vagaries of the fashion industry, the less predictable, frequent shifts in the market that cement their unique business strategy.
“The shift in market from bricks and mortar to online.‘New In’ requires constant freshness – our business model reflects that.” Akin to the non-seasonal Zara, multi-frequency garment model as a winning strategy – always having something new to show. The bigger the retail buyer whose designs JC preview clearly influences stock levels and with it, a further de-risking component. Doesn’t always work, Juls admits, but suggests a closer working relationship towards being able to get it right more often.
Their work with brands encompasses branding, pricing, selling strategy, including who is being targeted from a distribution perspective and all the associated marketing including social media. Most of their brands are new, or new to the UK market at least. (They tend to leave the international promotion of the brand to locally positioned agencies/ distributors).
NICCE London is in its infancy, was in Top Man and now established and guided by JC. A lot of the companies they work with, ASOS.com, Foot Asylum and Top Man for example, are able to engage in more in-depth discussions on strategy and portfolio development as a result of their delivering strong, performing brands. This level of integrated strategizing benefits all elements of the business chain, primarily because it is in sync with an on-the-money supply and demand model. Everyone’s a winner babe.
Juls is however aware of the privileged position their track record has given them in a volatile marketplace. What should retailers be doing to adapt to a 24/7 internet bombardment of the traditional high street sales culture? “It’s true what they say, in every natural cycle of business, in every industry sector, there’s always re-alignment.” His way of saying, the fashion industry will adapt to the most workable solution for economic sustainability of the market, according to the prevailing conditions. But it’s not a dismissive perspective on the utility and value of the retail sector as Dinosaur. “There’s a place for indies, and chain stores, even if some branded chain stores are disappearing for a reason. More and more we see stores being used as showrooms, working in harmony with the internet,” garnering a curiously modern inverted loyalty.
How do they stay in tune with the market? There seems to be a tacit awareness that their core guiding principles work in most conditions, on all platforms, without it being smug. Refreshingly it’s not pandering to trend or platform de jour. “If we are looking at more opportunities in the marketplace, we look for things that are not seasonal, are one-size and aren’t weather dependent.” Sounds simple but deceptively clever, because all the other undesirable variables fall into line as a result. It means they can do “gifting, grooming and accessories, yet be true to the product doing what it says on the tin.” And not distracted by trying to be all things to all high streets.
What’s new and exciting for these guys? Aside from the Bellfield boyswear, there’s Violet Skye, hand-made crochet products being launched next month. From his mouth, crochet sounds eminently plausible and gold. The other interesting development is in tune with the growth in men’s formalwear – the suits, coats, ties, shirts, sold as separates, to a younger audience via Grateful Thread or Devil’s Advocate which have been created hand in hand with suppliers and JC to respond to a gap in the market. This is exciting news.
And for a brand consultancy what is their brand mix? Does it signify anything in particular, or just organic growth according to where their magic wand lands? It’s an impressive list regardless. Not just because of market share, but also because their brands have often been developed from zero and have achieved significant sales in the targeted distribution channels. It includes, Bellfield, Slydes, Mi-Pac, ICHI (Part of DK, second biggest group in Denmark) introducing a 400% sales increase in UK in first year and in 180 indies now. Wåven, Scandi-inspired denim brand (£45-52 price point), launched in ASOS.com, Urban Outfitters and Selfridges, including 150 indies; Native Youth (who just launched ladieswear range) now in Urban Outfitters and ASOS.com and Sneaky Wipes/ Spray for trainers.
By way of throwing the spotlight onto one brand as an example, Juls cited NICCE London and its new streetwear range as the fastest projected growth brand for them currently, with the early signs supporting this hands down. Quietly and resolutely a comfortably numbing demonstration of brand excellence at work.
Just Consultancies is an important touchstone for how the consumer is responding to retail trends through intelligent delivery of what seems to be the right brand at the right time and importantly, at the right price. It’s reassuring to know it’s someone of their calibre that has our UK high street backs covered. And seem likely to continue doing so for a long while to come.
By Paul J Markevicius