Interview: Surviving the high street with CEO, James Lakeland

In 1992 James took over a tiny showroom in New Cavendish Square with his late mother, where they started making cashmere sweaters for retailers all over the UK. This led to leather, dresses, jackets and the rest is history. After his first trade show at Pure, the James Lakeland Brand was born. Orders came flooding in from Harrods, Selfridges and Fenwicks for his Italian-made women's clothing with a focus on designing for real, yet sophisticated women.

With James's accountancy knowledge, he took advantage of cheap yet prime London property opportunities and bought his second, larger showroom on Ogle Street in Fitzrovia. This enabled James to develop his brand, opening the first standalone shop on trendy Kings Road. Pinner, Bushey, New Cavendish Street and St John's Wood soon followed, as well as concessions in many of the major department stores. FashionUnited recently talked to James on how to survive the current volatile environment of high rents and seeing competitors closing store after store.

Interview: Surviving the high street with CEO, James Lakeland

What is the current state of the high street versus online shopping?

The high street is taking a huge knock from the drastic increase in rents but also extremely high business rates. So much so that names such as LK Bennett have suffered the consequences. The high street is “the heart of the community” and small business owners need more support in this unpredictable retail landscape.

Online shopping is the way forward, but it too isn’t easy to ensure your brand is noticed. I’m a firm believer in brick-and-mortar stores and the presence of a brand on the high street. I still think that women like to come down to the store after a bad day at work or escape the daily routine to rummage through beautiful pieces of clothing.

How do James Lakeland stores ensure to turn a profit in this volatile retail landscape?

Giving customers what they want is the answer to a profitable fashion business which at the moment can be very tricky because of how quickly trends change. Therefore, it’s vital to have a team that believes in the product. Having dedicated staff who understand the collection and loyal customers who have been shoppers of the brand for years ensure a steady flow of sales. The stock is also crucial, so we make sure that not only do we have the main collection but also a line of bespoke pieces tailored for each shop. This creates a buzz and also allows us to cater to a specific clientele.

How important is social media for James Lakeland and do you see any benefits in using it for the brand?

Since the sense of community and face to face customer relationship building is important for us, we use social media to let our customers know of events and promotions we organize at our many locations. This is a way of utilizing social media that I feel is aligned with James Lakland’s belief in building an environment of escape and a fun shopping experience for our customers.

Interview: Surviving the high street with CEO, James Lakeland

What are some challenges you face in the fashion retail business? How do you stay motivated?

Staying motivated is key especially when things don’t always go as planned. Being able to think it through, working towards a solution and learning from previous mistakes is essential.

Fashion is a risky business and there are both highs and lows. For example, I’ve been let down by big department stores that went bankrupt to being on the cover of the Saturday Telegraph, featured in Tatler, Vogue to having Liz Hurley step out in our collection. After 25 years I am an expert at understanding who my customer is and what she wants to wear. I’m still inspired every day to create another new collection, that’s not difficult for me at all. I strongly believe that life is a journey of colour.

I strongly believe that life is a journey of colour.

Who are your customers, what kind of woman is she?

The James Lakeland customer is a woman who understands Italian cut and tailoring. She can be the lawyer who wants to dress sharply without compromising in elegance, the young professional who still wants to feel feminine and young, the older woman who enjoys sophisticated fashion.

Interview: Surviving the high street with CEO, James Lakeland

How important is retail staff and how do you train them to succeed in the current environment?

We have some amazing employees who have been with us for many years. All our staff are trained to ensure we offer the best possible customer service. I feel customer service has lost its way in many businesses, so I’m particularly passionate about offering the best possible service. It’s this personable level of care that brings back shoppers over and over again.

My head office team also provides guidance via a weekly trade meeting to ensure communication is open and available. I myself also spend a lot of time at all my shops – it’s where I love to be the most.

How have James Lakeland shops integrated new technologies onto the shop floor?

Our online platform is going from strength to strength, which is great. We work on our till system, which tracks all our stock. This means that we can place stock where it’s needed and have the option to move it around as well. We have recently just launched our B2B online platform. This enables wholesale customers to buy throughout the year, to catch up on missed orders or sell out pieces they need replacing.

As the CEO of James Lakeland, what does a workday look like for you?

For me, no day is ever the same! Yesterday I was in Scotland with my Brand Director visiting my shop in Hyndland Road, Glasgow. Today I’m in Italy seeing suppliers as well as appearing on Italy TV HSE24 selling a bespoke collection to my Italian customers. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the UK visiting my London Shops and hopefully spending some time with my wife and two girls.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

You have to like yourself first before you can give others the best of yourself.

What do you envision for the future of James Lakeland?

Our vision for the future is to continue to grow as a brand internationally and focus more on expansion in America and the Middle East.

Photos: courtesy of James Lakeland


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