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Moss Bros chairman: ‘X-Factor saved our bacon’

Debbie Hewitt, chairman of Moss Bros, spoke to delegates at the Drapers Fashion Forum about the boost to suit sales from boybands, and how the demise of some of the UK’s menswear retailers has benefited the business.

How is trading?

It’s still very tough out there. We’ve done well because of our product, and because we’d had the fortune of some of our competitors disappearing. This time last year Austin Reed and Greenwoods were on high street beside us. Even 18 months ago I wouldn’t have put money on Austin Reed not being there today, it’s such a powerful brand. That’s quite a sobering moment for an executive team – a reminder of what happens if you don’t focus on your customer.

What are your views on discounting?

It’s all about confidence. Once you lose confidence in your brand, that’s where discounting comes in. You have to hold your nerve, especially if you have relied on discounting. It’s very hard to wean yourself off that. It takes time [to shift the mindset]. I do think discounting is part of the world we live in.

You have expanded into the Middle East – why this market over others?

There is a high proportion of expats, and generally the Middle East is in love with British heritage brands. Also, we felt our partners understood our brand. It felt like the right place to go. It’s experimental – we do a lot of testing and learning at Moss Bros. We don’t take anything for granted.

Where next?

Internationally probably Europe, almost certainly not America. It’s an incredibly competitive market. Closer to home, the Moss Bros brand has a stronger point of difference.

There’s also still tons to do in the UK. We’re number three in the suit market, behind Next and M&S. We’re continuing to try and steal share from them. Online sales are growing but there is plenty still to do there, too.

How is the UK menswear market performing?

We’ve been thrilled with boybands, they have helped suits. Casual Friday used to be the thing, but Simon Cowell and the X-Factor saved our bacon. Suits have seen a massive revival, worn in so many different ways. There’s definitely been a dressing-up in daywear. In occasionwear, funnily enough, there’s been a dressing-down – we’re seeing a trend towards more casual, relaxed weddings.

If we look at the profile of the younger customer, hire or rental is coming back in. They are much more inclined to rent lounge suits. But overall, hire is a lot less prominent now in our business. More people want to own their suits for special occasions.

What are your views on Brexit?

My biggest concern is that this country is leading edge on so many things, but we’re going to spend the next three or four years arguing amongst ourselves. My fear is that we’ll lose the plot.

What is your best piece of advice?

I think the most powerful one is: don’t grow old with your customer. I’ve seen so many of our competitors go out of business. My fear for Moss Bros is we aren’t doing enough. I worry about complacency. I think that happened with Austin Reed, and with other brands.

How do you feel about the future of fashion retail?

I think it’s so exciting. I was a trainee at M&S long ago, when we had old-fashioned tills and no changing rooms or credit cards. Coming into the sector at that time you were in a very narrow pigeon hole. Now anyone who comes into our sector can do anything. I’m learning new things every day. I love it.

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