This week sees the start of the new academic year and the return of the majority of schools in the UK. Vast numbers of the nation’s school children have not seen a classroom since March and thus the need for new school uniform became negligible. But, after almost six months away, retailers will have seen a huge spike for new school uniform and all the accoutrements that go with the ‘Back To School’ marketing push.
Left - Mendip Craft Youth Black Leather - £46
According to research by Mintel the back to school market was worth £1.16 billion in 2018. This was an increase of 36% on the previous year, when it was worth £855 million, making back to school spending the third biggest retail spending event after Christmas and Black Friday. Parents told Mintel they spent an average of £134 on school uniforms and shoes in 2018, a 6% increase compared to the average of £127 spent in 2017. Collectively, Brits spent a total of £510 million on school uniforms in 2018, up from £395 million in 2017. GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, estimated UK shoppers were set to spend £1.7bn on back to school items in 2019, with the market forecast to grow by 1.5%. This is only slightly outperforming the annual rise in the number of pupils due to population growth.
One of the biggest back to school beneficiary brands was Clarks, who for many years was the go-to source for children’s school shoes.
But, it’s been a tough few years at this still family-owned, British high-street institution, which has seen revenues and profits falling. The latest accounts show turnover to February 2019 was £790million, down 4% from 2018 at £820.4 million. The breakdown of this was UK and ROI contributing £561.1million, Asia Pacific £135.2million, Europe £96.5million and the Americas just £0.5million.
An operating loss of £48.7million was reported, up from £3.7million the previous year.
The brand reported a ‘poor’ performance and cited it was struggling in part due to the weakness in sterling which made its goods sourced from the far east more expensive when paid in US dollars. All of this was all pre-COVID.
Right - Clarks was founded in 1825 by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in Street, Somerset
Founded in 1825 by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in Street, Somerset, where it still has its headquarters, the company has over 1,000 branded stores and franchises around the world and also sells through third-party distribution in 35 countries. The Clarks family still retains 80% of the company spread amongst more than 400 family members. The world number one in ‘everyday footwear’, Clarks sells more than 50 million pairs of shoes every year.
In February 2018, Lance Clark, the head of the Clarks shoe family, largest shareholder and inventor of the firm's iconic Wallabee shoe died aged 81. He was managing director of the family shoe company until 1994. The Clarks CEO at the time, Mike Shearwood, described Mr Clark as 'an immense character' who played 'a very significant role' in the company. He said, “We have lost an immense character who will be forever prominent in our company's history.”
Lance Clark was a leader and his extensive experience gave the company direction and many credit him for the amazing growth of Clarks in the late 20th and early 21st century.
The same year, June, Shearwood was dismissed under a cloud after being accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ including sexist, racist and homophobic comments.
In October 2019, he lost his case for unfair dismissal after taking Clarks to an employment tribunal. Clarks said Mr Shearwood's conduct was the reason he was made to resign, and an employment panel agreed. Allegations were made by the 56-year-old against chairman Tom O'Neil, whom he claimed adjusted the minutes of board meetings.
After much fanfare, in January 2019, Clarks announced a it was closing its new manufacturing facility in Street after failing to meet manufacturing and cost targets. The state-of-the-art factory was originally scheduled to open in 2017 with Clarks hoping to make 300,000 pairs of made-in-England desert boots a year at the facility, and create up to 80 jobs. However, the opening was delayed and the factory only started production in summer 2018.
In recent news, Clarks made the decision not to reopen a ”meaningful" number of its 347 UK store estate once the government-mandated lockdown ended. As part of the “normal review” the retailer decided not to renew the leases on a small number of stores as they expired in May 2020. An exact number and locations weren’t announced. It had already closed 56 stores in 2018/19. In May 2020, Clarks announced 900 roles were going globally with 108 of those redundancies at its HQ in Street, Somerset.
Left - Scooter Speed Kid Black Leather - £48
Clarks is now under the leadership of Chief Executive Giorgio Presca, who joined in March 2019, six months after Mike Shearwood stepped down. Presca has more than 20 years' of experience in managing and developing global premium brands, previously leading Golden Goose Deluxe Brand, and was chief executive at Italian footwear brand Geox between 2012-2016, which is more relevant to Clarks’ market. Presca has also worked at Diesel, VF Corp, Citizens of Humanity, Levi Strauss & Co. and Lotto.
The vast majority of parents wouldn’t have bought any school shoes between March and August this year. That would mean a huge demand in one go for new school shoes. Currently, online, Clarks’ children’s shoes - boys and girls - range in price from £36-£58. This is often more than what parents would spend on shoes for themselves. They are willing to pay more for a pair they feel with last.
When you consider young children’s clothing and shoes don’t include any VAT - everything under the maximum size an average child will be on their 14th birthday - then the margins are big.
Clarks has had a difficult few years and has become somewhat rudderless with a lack of direction and leadership. The expensive factory debacle and the distraction of Shearwood’s tribunal would have had an effect. Clarks doesn’t include a breakdown of its children’s shoes within its figures, but it is no doubt considerable. Over 70% of Clarks’ turnover is from the UK and ROI and much of this will be the school market. With not much recent innovation in its adult ranges, the children’s shoe sector will be incredibly important to them and this will be make or break time. Without this back to school boost Clarks could be in serious trouble and they’ll be praying they all stay there wearing out those new shoes.
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Is there ever a perfect time to launch anything? Warehouse, the women’s high street brand founded in 1976 by Jeff Banks, is launching menswear this week. The traditional British men’s high-street has been in the doldrums for quite some time since the skinny suit was replaced by the branded tracksuit. So, the question is, does this ambitious new launch signal the start of a potential menswear renaissance or will it be simply too difficult in a segment that has seen other well known high-street brands crash and burn?
Jonathan Munro, Warehouse Menswear designer says, “We feel strongly that there is a gap for a well-designed sustainable brand at a great price point. We wanted to build on the success of the womenswear line, marking a new chapter in the brand’s history and fulfilling what we believe, is a gap in the market.” he says. It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time Warehouse has done menswear. They had menswear in the early days of Warehouse so they are not promoting this as a first.
Left - Warehouse Menswear SS20
The main focus is, the fashion word du jour, sustainable. The new range will be sold online via the Warehouse webstore www.warehouse.co.uk and through host e-tailers and retailers; The Idle Man, Zalando, JohnLewis.com, Next and the Australian retailer Myer. Price points range from £15 for a 100% organic T-shirt, up to £189 for a recycled polyester content suit and £229 for the chrome-free suede jacket.
“The core of the range is made up of high quality wardrobe staples that should last season-after-season, balanced with breathable cottons and linens in a wearable colour palette.” says Munro. “We have a great range of printed shirts, from monochrome geos to abstract hand painted illustrations which are all designed in-house. Key pieces include our heavy twill overshirts and slim utility trousers.” he says.
“Fashion needs to become more sustainable for the good of the planet.” says Munro. “100% of the range includes sustainable fibres such as organic cottons which use less pesticides and therefore less pollutants, recycled polyesters made up from salvaged plastic bottles and eco viscose which is derived from renewable wood sources.”
What will Warehouse Menswear add to the British men’s high-street market? “Sustainable clothing for the modern man who needs his clothes to last and work for him every day.” says Munro. “We know women buy clothes for men and we also know men buy clothes for themselves - it's aimed at whoever wants to buy it.” he says. “We are holding a pop-up store at Protein Studios in Shoreditch, running from the 2nd – 7th March. This is to allow customers to see the range first hand, interacting with the materials and learning more about the sustainability messaging which runs throughout.”
What does the future look like for Warehouse Menswear? “Our main focus will be to continue to research and develop new ways of working with sustainability in mind, supported by the knowledge of what the Warehouse Menswear customer is looking for in a sustainable clothing collection.” says Munro.
Brands such as Whistles and New Look both struggled in the menswear category. Whistles cancelled its menswear range this time last year and New Look removed menswear from its stores in April 2019, going online-only. The rest of the high-street from Topman to River Island to Jigsaw have struggled to compete with Zara and the sports brands. But, things aren’t all doom and gloom, according to a ‘GlobalData’ report ‘The UK Clothing Market 2018 – 2023’, menswear will be the driving force of the clothing sector, forecast to grow by 12.3% over the next five years as greater trend incorporation and newness drives volumes.
A British Fashion Council and Mintel report estimates that consumer spending menswear has grown 5.1% to reach £15.9 billion in 2018. Menswear now accounts for 26% of the total clothing market, whilst womenswear accounts for 51%. Consumer spending on clothing is forecast to rise 25% to £76 billion in the next five years to 2023.
Warehouse’s parent company, the Oasis and Warehouse Group, clearly sees potential in the menswear market having recently purchased online retailer The Idle Man for an undisclosed sum in Sept. 2019.
Right - Warehouse Menswear SS20
So, what do the experts think Warehouse Menswear’s prospects are?
“When this was announced, I’m not going to lie, I was very surprised, to say the least. I understand a lot of people keep on talking about the growth in men’s fashion & grooming, but when we see retailers from New Look to Whistles dropping their menswear offering, it does beg the question, is now the best time to launch a menswear brand extension?
“Additional to this, we have an awful lot of talk on sustainability and buying less but better quality, plus when well known names like TOPMAN are not performing particularly well at the moment, its hard to see a brand not known for their menswear being a success in these difficult, uncertain times. However, maybe this is what the menswear market needs, maybe Warehouse it going to target the ladies buying for their men, but this is an ever increasingly niche demographic. I do wish Warehouse all the luck in the world and hope their Menswear offering is a success, but I won’t be holding my breathe.” says Anthony McGrath, Founder of Clothes-Make-the-Man.com & leading academic.
“It’s certainly a challenging time to launch, but there’s an opportunity for Warehouse where other major high street names are stalling or retracting on menswear. There are multiple challenges for high street retailers; nimble online competition, prohibitive high business rates, persistent economic uncertainty and the fact that many of us no longer choose shopping as a preferable leisure activity. However, in my opinion the current menswear offer from the high street, with a few exceptions, is failing to offer well-made, well priced and exciting product. There’s a proliferation of dull, cheap clothes.
I’d like to see a certain amount of risk taking. Nobody needs another line of neutral, anonymous ‘wardrobe essentials’. Men shop for themselves. It’s not going to work if the strategy is to rely on existing customers.” says Jessica Punter, Stylist & Grooming Consultant, & former GQ Style & Grooming Editor.
“It'll be a tough fight, and depends on their marketing strategy I think. They have a nice campaign video and a pop up shop but is that enough? We'll see. They have an opportunity now to really nail it, to take the market share from the high street brands that don't do it particularly well, but time will tell! I think others failed because they weren't offering a mix of product for different customer groups, so hopefully Warehouse will.
“There isn't a 'good time' to launch I don't think, there's always going to be peaks and troughs in the industry, and right now we're just coming out of a terrible time for retail, so maybe it's a great time! To wait until fashion week or another event is pointless now as we know men don't really shop to seasons or events, they just shop because they need to. I guess it's a good time in the year though, because now is the time for newness, so makes sense from a business point of view.
“Initially, I think it'll be the aimed at the women for sure, because they are the ones going in store and online to buy Warehouse, but if they have a good marketing plan, and get it out to wider audiences, men will slowly show up. Also, I wonder who they are partnering with, if anyone, to wholesale? That'll be really important in pulling in a new menswear customer. It'll be slow, but maybe they might be able to do what others have failed to do!” says Simon Glazin, freelance fashion writer and blogger.
Left - Will it work? Warehouse Menswear SS20
“I think there's space for an affordable, fashion-forward offer now Topman is tussling with Boohoo over cheap sportswear, but Warehouse aren't going to be the ones to provide it. Well, judging from the images I've seen.” says Lee Clatworthy, Fashion Writer.
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