As many High Street fashion brands struggle, one designer name is celebrating 25 years of style success. Stephanie Smith talks to James Lakeland.
Long before the advent of social media and fashion influencers, James Lakeland was busy creating a name for himself. “Ever since I was young, I wanted to have my own brand and my own name,” he says. “That was always my dream, and people said ‘oh, that’s never going to happen, you’re never going to be able to do that, it’s so competitive’, and I just didn’t care. I just said, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to’, and that’s what happened.”
This year, James celebrates the 25th anniversary of the launch of his eponymous label, which is a firm favourite with elegant Yorkshire fashion lovers (it’s stocked at Julie Fitzmaurice in Harrogate, Browns of York and House of Fraser, and launches at Debenhams this month).
Keeping up with the customer and her changing needs and wishes is vital. James says: “The massive change at the moment is that absolutely no one wants to look frumpy or old over 50, 60 – forget it. How our mothers used to dress or grandmothers, that’s just gone out of the window. Now people want to wear clothes that flatter them, that really suit them. And it’s difficult because you’ve got to make a collection that encompasses all of that. We’ve got grandmother, mother and daughter buying from us.”
To cater for the generation game at James Lakeland, there are options of sleeve lengths, for example, and flattering wrap-around styles that suit every shape. There are also styles, cut and details to appeal to a variety of sartorial tastes, from those who prefer to keep it plain and classic to those who want something “a little more racy”, and those who seek a fashion edge.
James was born in London, but then moved to Italy when he was a month old with his parents, who owned a manufacturing company supplying top brands with leather, suede and fur. He moved back to the UK when he was seven. Aged 15 or 16, some 35 years ago now, he started making clothes to sell at Camden Market. He says: “Me and my sister would cut these jeans and sew them and put safety pins in them and badges and drawings and different fabrics, and we sold them to singers, to Boy George, Marilyn, Depeche Mode. It was very trendy at the time, very fringe, not like it is now. You had a stall and you sold unique pieces and all the singers loved them.”
Yet fashion design was not the path James first struck out on. He studied Social Theory and French at Warwick University, followed by a Masters in Political Theory. “I know, not exactly what you would expect,” he says. “But when I was 15 I worked for Benetton in Hampstead and then literally every holiday I used to work in Selfridges, and at Liberty.”
After university, he worked for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, translating in French, Italian and English for ministers at the EEC in 1992.
“I was doing an accountancy course, which I found terrifyingly boring, and I had two weeks off and went to Italy to translate for some shows in Milan, and then I ended up staying there,” he says. “I got headhunted to work for a design company in London, which is where doors opened for me. I worked at Harrods and Selfridges and Aquascutum and Burberry.
“I got a lot of retail experience, particularly in Selfridges and in Liberty, and from that I understood what women were buying. I absolutely loved selling and I sold to women of all sizes, to a size 8 lady and then a size 22 lady, and it was never about if she was small or big, or this or that. It was how the clothes would look on them, and I thought, you know what, I could build a collection around different ages and sizes. That was the always the secret.”
At the age of 25, he set up his own business in his own name, having taken a tiny showroom in New Cavendish Square with his late mother, from where they started making cashmere sweaters for retailers all over the UK, building to leather, dresses, jackets and then full collections. Orders came flooding in for his Italian-made women’s clothing with its focus on designing for real, yet sophisticated women.
Along the way, he took advantage of cheap prime London property opportunities and bought a second, larger showroom in Ogle Street, Fitzrovia, then his first standalone shop in the Kings Road, followed by ones in Pinner, Bushey, New Cavendish Street and St John’s Wood, as well as concessions in department stores.
In 2013, with cash flow tight and rents rising, he sold the Ogle Street building, giving himself a much-needed cash injection, then bought the freehold for his seventh standalone shop, this time in Glasgow, taking his overall shops and concessions to over 30 worldwide. In 2015 he bought and opened the HQ of James Lakeland Ltd in East Finchley, where he is today. Now there’s a new website and the brand sells via HSE24 Italy and soon on TV in Dubai.
Keeping it niche and creating organic growth has been the survival mechanism for the brand, he says. Today James Lakeland turns over £6m and is still a family business. James’s wife, Michelle, runs one of the stores and they have two daughters, aged nine and 16.
Some customers have been buying James Lakeland for more than 20 years. James says: “People come back to buy our trousers every year, the same with our coats – they are very well made, with great, great tailoring. So we offer something that you can’t find on the High Street, but which is more affordable than the high-end designer brands.”
This autumn/winter collection is a very special one. “After 25 years of doing collections, this is the luxe one,” James says. “We’ve got exclusive prints made in Italy. We’ve got this mustard-coloured faux fur which no one has – it’s absolutely incredible. Then we’ve done this floral print which goes into leopard. We’ve done our own prints, our own fabrics, very exclusive but very wearable at the same time.”
As ever, flexibility is key to creating the collections. “My customer will buy a pair of our stretch trousers to live in every day, through to an outfit to wear for her daughter’s wedding, to an amazing dress to wear to that meeting with a lawyer,” he says. “That’s exactly who she is. It’s multi-functional. She could be going to work, to an event, it could be the weekend, she could be going out to dinner.”
Keeping clothes for best no longer exists, unless it’s for a very special wedding, James says, adding: “Best is now.”
James Lakeland is at Julie Fitzmaurice in Harrogate, Browns of York, House of Fraser and Debenhams online.