Today, we kick off a new series of editorials on Pulling Threads entitled ‘The Good Old Days’ a look back on the golden era of retail with voices from around the industry. Whilst putting this series together I reminisced on my own ‘good old days’. At the start of my career in fashion during the mid 80’s, independents ruled the industry, there was a new wave of European fashion brands entering and dominating the market place. I was young, buying and managing a store that was at the forefront of this. But every industry has to move forward and the fashion space is no different. We have to constantly adapt, stories of past glories are great, but the question is how do we take this knowledge, passion and experience into the modern world and apply this to businesses and brands starting out, who will have the energy and drive I had in the 80’s.

Times have certainly changed. I am sure everyone who reads this will have a point of view, a story to be told. One thing I am sure we can agree on is there is a big void in the market place for premium mens fashion - I can’t speak with any great knowledge about other area’s - but I feel as though there is a massive opportunity to be taken, we have to believe in the future. I’m sure in 20 years time people will look back on 2024 as ‘the good old days’.

To start the series off, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris Lee. He walked us through his long history in fashion, from Wade Smith to his latest venture START-YARD. Chris touched base on his past experiences, his views on the current state of fashion retail and his vision for a brand that would thrive in todays climate. - Martin Webster [Founder/Owner]

Martin: Chris, can you give us a brief overview of your history in fashion and beyond?

Chris: I got into fashion and sportswear in the late 70's while still into the punk scene and being a member of Eric’s in Mathew St. I remember selling all of my punk records to Backtracks in 80’s because one of them was Messages by OMD, 10 inch. I was 13 then, I bought a pair of Adidas ATP with the proceeds. I then started working at Wadesmith straight from school in Slater St. It was brilliant It felt like I ran to work every day, I didn't once look at my watch to see if we were close to closing. I then grew with the business and became buying and creative director there, buying everything across men's, women's, kids fashion, sports, and accessories. I also designed all the stores and shop fits and came up with all the concepts for Outdoor Athletic, Wadesmith JNR, and ACTIVE WOMAN, which was way ahead of its time, even now. I Then left around 1999 after we sold to Arcadia, became SVP creative director of Reebok globally, started Microzine in London 2003, consulted for DKNY, JD, Ellesse, Fitflop amongst others and along the way went to work for JJB and Matalan, which is another set of stories entirely.

Martin: The good old days, when would you consider that to be in reference to fashion retail?

Chris: Probably late 70's until maybe 2000, possibly a bit later. From its infancy, everything was a bit more new, exciting, and undiscovered. It was full of potential, and there was lots of it. During the late 70's, all the denim brands, Innega, Lois, Lee, Razzy Rebs, FUS, Jesus, King, etc., striped knitwear, polos, fisherman’s jackets, Forrester jackets, Benneton, Pringle, even Slazenger, there was loads of brands, styles, and stuff happening, and it was moving fast, people were hungry for the next new thing.

Martin: I was a buyer for Westside whilst you were Buying Director at Wadesmith, 2 stores side by side. I do feel Westside is not spoken about in fashion history as Wadesmith is. No doubt Wadesmith went on to overshadow any success we had in Westside, though I feel Westside had its moment in time that was a big part of the mid-'80s. Do you feel there was rivalry between the 2 stores?

Chris: Westside occupied what I think used to be Xtremes, which I always used to go into. It had mad punk gear, loads of band button badges, possibly a hairdresser. Managed to persuade my ma to buy me a pair of black clash kecks with zips all over them. I still think of them now. Westside was a brilliant shop, with great staff and should have continued longer. It had some great characters working for them including yourself, Marni, and the 2 owners were great as well, Rob and Frank. I remember in those days it was the turn of the French brands, Chevignion Chipie brands like Ton Sur Ton, Pop 84, New Man, etc., obviously Harold Ian and Rocky were also in the frame selling Ciao and other Italian brands like Issy Crown as well. I never felt a rivalry between us, but I made a conscious decision to stop going in there as I felt uncomfortable that people may have thought I was looking at what they were doing. I was like a sponge then, and obviously, I would be looking at everyone, learning, benchmarking, etc., I remember Rob from Wadesmith asking me to see Irving in Manchester to see what he was doing, on that trip, I realised I'd learnt enough locally and started traveling further afield for influence.

Martin: A lot of people who will read this would never have visited Wadesmith on Matthew Street. I've been describing to the lads in the office here how each floor had its own identity. Did you have a specific strategy to buying for each floor?

Chris: Yes, but it evolved over time. A bit like cells splitting and multiplying, we expanded from one floor with 4 or 5 departments. We ended up filling maybe 10 floors across 2 buildings, in Mathew St. The fashion store, the way I looked at it was the higher you went up the store, the more exclusive or higher priced the products became, the less density of display and the more minimal the decor and fixtures, the lower down the more density of product, faster turnover, more mass appeal and lower prices, I had many different ways in how I would buy and seed product. There was a balanced approach to it. If we were the first onto something, I'd be the first out of it, I would sometimes have the luxury to blanket buy some brands see what worked then focus in later, I would buy colors and styles to piss people off or garner interest, lo and behold it would all sell out.

Martin: Fast forward a few years, you opened Microzine. What year was that?

Chris: 2002. The idea for Microzine came when I was still at Wadesmith in 98/99. Men's magazines had been so influential in the 80's & 90's. What watch to buy, book to read, film to watch, holiday to go on, gadget you should have, i.e., mobile phones. I realised that it wasn't just trainers, fashion, and sportswear that people were buying, and as well as the retailing competition we had we now would have these other sectors to compete with. Arcadia bought us in 98/99 and I proposed this new concept I had been working on to them. At the time it was called ‘MagaZINE’ in my mind. I was proposing they should launch it in Oxford Street London which I think was slated to be an ‘SU214 concept’, whatever that was, but they didn't get it. I then went on to Reebok in the USA, frustrated by the lack of growth I could see within myself, Wadesmith and my new concept.

Martin: I was a big fan of Microzine, the concept, the mix of brands, art, books, I always found something to buy. My thought was you were just ahead of the times, a precursor to End stores if you like. Would you agree and would you ever consider giving it another go?

Chris: Everyone always says that type of thing to me. I think timing and luck and some specific expertise were just not on my side. The concept was, as I've said, based on a men's magazine but I realised a journalist wouldn’t write an article on a product or service unless it had a story. I just wanted to cover stuff that had a reason to exist to me, on the whole. We were always the first at Wades with brand looks and fashions and we pioneered quite a few things in Microzine, brands like Canada Goose, Lyle and Scott, Y3 for example. I could go on quite a bit, but ultimately, we were too early at Microzine, and I didn't have deep enough pockets and social media and the internet as a whole hadn’t totally kicked off yet. As I've said, there are many nuances to this, but maybe for another time. If I did do it again, I'd want it to be a twice a month TV show across all those things I said above, a bit like QVC where you could then buy it all.

Martin: What do you feel the future of fashion retail looks like?

Chris: Right now I'm not impressed with what's going on. Obviously, a lot of the independents have been bought out or closed down and all that remains is the JD group and the Sports Direct Fraser group, no new brands can see the light of day because I don't really think there's much buying being done on those businesses. It's all run by merchandising and they are experts on what sold yesterday, not what could sell well if it was developed for the future. When you have independents you usually have an owner/buyer, and they have much more of an eye to actually develop new brands, plant seeds and take risks, whereas the big groups won't take any risks and when they do eventually get onto something they'll rinse it so much or kill it, a bit like K Swiss. On Running will be next. However, this has also allowed a lot of new brands to come through because of the way the big retailers and also the big brands operate. There we have brands like Rapha, On Running, Gym Shark and a plethora of sports fitness brands that have popped up in Liverpool, a lot of them doing the same job. Some of these brands are bigger than they should be, whilst some are probably at the right size for their rate of growth. There's always a way for independents to thrive and the opposite of the status quo is usually the future, being tapped in locally, being more agile, more hungry. When you can't get the big name brands into your store, you have to seek alternatives. I could go on more & more about this because it's a big issue in the industry, but a part of the problem is you're taking more and more risk, planting more and more seeds and when something does build into something, the big guys jump all over it, you've lost a bit of a banker in your business then. If I still had a store today I would have hopefully designed my own future modern fitness range and training shoe collection. I’d also like to have a seamstress making workwear/utility wear visibly in the store, about 8 to 10 styles, a choice of fabrics, buttons and pockets, where you can slightly customise your garment. I prefer local thought through product and retailers rather than national  brands these days.

Martin: Chris, to finish up, I know you have START-YARD now, do you wanna speak a little about that and are there any exhibitions coming up soon?

Chris: I opened START-YARD just over 2 years ago with my wife Jill. It's basically a shipping container/pod village in an old Cammell Laird warehouse, for startups & small businesses targeted at the creative sector, offering easy in, easy out terms and affordable rents. Anything to make people starting a business that bit easier. We have a cafe bar on-site and free use of meeting rooms and several networking groups using the facilities. We also have many events and exhibitions and an art gallery. The next event is Friday 26th April starting at 5pm, which will include a live painting performance by Daniel Meakin in his exhibition called ‘if walls could talk’ it's free to enter for anyone who is interested. 

Thanks and good luck to anybody just having a go.