Ash Kumar’s Native Youth was named Young Fashion Brand of the Year at the Drapers Awards last month. He explains how the “Manchester-born-and-bred” brand has become a bestseller.
It is almost 20 years since Ash Kumar, founder and creative director of Native Youth, was skipping lectures in his final year of a business enterprise degree at Manchester Metropolitan University to learn about the fashion industry.
“It got me in a little bit of trouble,” he shrugs. “But it paid off. I see it as my placement year.”
He finished his degree but his involvement in the family fashion business endured.
Last month, Native Youth was named Drapers’ Young Fashion Brand of the Year for the second year running. Praised for its international growth, strong brand identity and “amazing” marketing, Native Youth has 325 wholesale accounts worldwide, and has been worn by celebrities such as models Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner, and singer Zayn Malik – and all before its fifth birthday.
Drapers meets Kumar at Native Youth’s Manchester headquarters, a short walk from the city’s bustling Northern Quarter. He is sporting a dark red bomber jacket – a prototype from Native Youth’s autumn 19 collection.
“I was shown a sample this morning and I’ve been wearing it ever since,” he says. “I’ll be honest: I’m a product person. I love it.”
Initially launched as a menswear brand in 2013, before adding womenswear in 2015, Native Youth targets 18-to-25-year-olds looking to adorn themselves – and their Instagram feeds – with “affordable luxury”. Wholesale price points for spring 18 range from £9 for T-shirts to £30 for trench coats in womenswear, while menswear ranges from £8 T-shirts to £31 parkas.
“When we launched the brand, I felt that there was nothing very fashionable in the branded sector,” says Kumar. “A lot of it was overpriced, and on the high street it was very cheap – the quality wasn’t there. Nothing existed in the middle. It’s been a great segment to go after.”
There is a market for [gender-neutral clothing] out there
Offering casualwear and workwear in bold, abstract prints and modern cuts, Native Youth’s product also transcends gender: fabrics are used across both men’s and women’s wear, and items are occasionally labelled as unisex. Its first gender-neutral piece, the Apex Parka coat, for autumn 17, sold out quickly.
“It gave us confidence that there is a market for [gender-neutral clothing] out there,” says Kumar. “We feel it’s part of the Native Youth customer, so it’s great for us to be able to build on that for coming seasons.”
Besides gunning for consumers seeking a creative, androgynous look, Kumar emphasises that Native Youth also has “mature,” “cleaner” items for older customers – “things my uncles and dad could also appreciate”.
“Our strapline is ‘youth has no age’,” he explains. “When we launched Native Youth as a menswear brand, we wanted to attract the ‘fashion-forward’ guy and cater for that person. But we also keep a wider scope on the more mature customer, who appreciates the fabrics we use [such as Tencel indigo yarn on jersey] and our price points.”
Kumar says the growth of womenswear has been “phenomenal”, and sales have overtaken those of menswear in just two years – the split is now 60:40 in favour of womenswear: “To be honest, it surpassed even our expectations. It’s been a great problem to deal with. We’ve been selling out of lines and collections to the point we’ve added in injection ranges. It’s caught up fast.”
Clare Serjeant, owner of womenswear, menswear and homeware boutique Fox & Feather in Bristol, praises Native Youth’s saleability: “It is a good seller. We started with menswear in autumn 2013, then added womenswear later, and the sell-through is one of our best.
“The only problem is that we often find we want repeat sizes, but they’re out of stock. Lines often sell through that we can’t get more of. There was one jacket – a shearling teddy coat – that was literally gone [as soon as we stocked it].”
Native Youth and its sister brand, Neon Rose, which offers womenswear to a similarly aged audience, form part of a larger family business: high street fashion supplier Influence, where Kumar learned about buying and selling back in his student days. Influence was founded in the 1970s by Kumar’s grandmother, and is now run by Kumar and his brother Sanjeev, who are both directors.
Neon Rose was founded in 2014 by Sanjeev. It now has 200 wholesale accounts globally, and is stocked by retailers such as Nasty Gal, Asos, Skinnydip, Zalando and Namshi, performing particularly well in Germany, as well as the UK.
In 2016 the company launched two new labels: Influence womenswear, which is run by Sanjeev, and Another Influence menswear, run by Ash. Influence targets millennial women looking for fast fashion, while Another Influence features value-driven menswear.
All of the companies call the north Manchester head office home.
I love the fact that Native Youth is a Manchester-born-and-bred brand
Lucy Ward, Trouva
Kumar quotes the late Mancunian music mogul, Tony Wilson: “This is Manchester. We do things differently here,” he says. “It’s good, [the brands] being from Manchester. Having been born in Manchester, it has a specific attitude and identity.
“And we did do things differently. In 2013 when [Native Youth] launched at our first trade show, we were the only one there that had the current season’s collection, not the next season’s. It confused a few people but it paid off. If buyers liked it, they could purchase it and go live with it then, so we got the name out there in a quicker space of time than if we’d waited for a whole season.”
Made in Manchester
This “Manchester attitude” appeals to retailers, believes Lucy Ward, creative brand director at Trouva, the online platform for independent retailers, many of which stock Native Youth: “I love the fact that Native Youth is a Manchester-born-and-bred brand.
“What stands out for me is that it’s obviously aimed at an urban dweller. It’s a cool style that’s slightly androgynous, but it still has a feminine touch for women.”
She points out that this includes using a diverse range of models, and bringing in new faces: “I also love that they’re using all types of model and influencer. They’re marketing themselves very well and have a strong identity.”
Kumar maintains that this UK focus – reflected in its “designed in England” product labels – remains important for the brand. It also appeals to an overseas audience: more than a third (39%) of Native Youth’s annual sales – which Kumar declined to reveal – are international. Products are sold both online and in store in Japan, Europe and all over North America by retailers including Nordstrom, Hudson’s Bay and Beams.
Currently, wholesale sales make up 95% and online 5%, leading Kumar to focus on Native Youth’s B2C website and social presence in 2017 and next year “without taking away” from its wholesale business.
“Our next focus is to go deeper,” explains Kumar. “We definitely want to concentrate more on Germany and have made a few plays into that market already.
“We also want to look at Italy and Switzerland – we’ve signed on with some distributors in those countries to help us realise our potential there.
“We’re also looking to grow further into the East – China [and adding to its 15 current stockists in Korea and Japan] – but we’ll take things step by step and won’t run before we can walk. It will be a focused expansion.”
I don’t believe you can blame your sales on the weather. It’s about having the right collection at the right time
Could this “focused expansion” spell the beginnings of a bricks-and-mortar store?
“We’ve been approached by a lot of different people,” admits Kumar, who says the location would be a choice between Manchester, London or, possibly, New York. “It’s about working out when the right time is to do it. Who knows – is that time 2018? It’s definitely something we’re thinking about.”
However, with 2018 also comes ongoing Brexit negotiations, which Kumar says has thrown obstacles at the business “one after the other”, including margin pressure and increased import prices.
“I’m all about PMA – positive mental attitude. If there’s a problem, think: ‘What are we going to do about it?’ We’ve offset Brexit by aggressively pushing more on our export side.
“For our buyers abroad, we’ve become a more valuable proposition because of the drop in the value of the pound, so we’re shipping more to the US in dollars and shipping out more to Europe. We’re happy with that.”
Kumar’s “PMA” does not stop at Brexit, either: “I don’t believe you can blame your sales on the weather. It’s about having the right collection at the right time. If you do, your sell-throughs will be strong. If you don’t, they won’t. It’s quite simple.”