River Island founder Bernard Lewis talks to his nephew Ben, who runs the business alongside him.
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Bernard Lewis has been a retailer almost since birth. As a young child, he helped out in his parents’ greengrocer and, through years of selling soft fruit, he learned how to price stock, assess what his customers wanted and minimise waste. In the 1940s, he began selling clothing – initially blouses and skirts, and later dresses.
At first, he had a small string of shops called Lewis, which morphed into a number of boutiques with different names, such as Chelsea Girl. But it wasn’t until his son, Leonard, came up with the name River Island in the late 1980s that the chain as we know it today was born. River Island is now one of the UK’s biggest fashion retailers, with a turnover of just over £930m in 2015. Mr Bernard – as he is known – is still involved in the business, which is now run by his nephew Ben. The latter has learnt a lot from his uncle: he describes Bernard as an “amazing retailer” who is “brilliant at taking the complex and making it simple”. Here, they discuss how the business has evolved, particularly in response to the rise of online, and why they always keep the customer at its core.
Ben Lewis: Am I right in saying the first logo for the business was based on your signature?
Bernard Lewis: Yes, when it was called Lewis. But in the 1960s we changed the name to Chelsea Girl. One of my brothers, Geoffrey, had the idea: he opened a shop on the King’s Road and called it Girl. It was when the boutiques were all there, Barbara Hulanicki [founder of Biba] and that sort of thing. We opened other stores and they were called things like The In Scene and Shades, because we had the idea then that a boutique should not be national but individual. But then we realised it didn’t make any difference, because they’re all in different towns. Head office started to call the King’s Road shop Chelsea Girl because that’s where it was, and it stuck. Then, in 1988, we decided we needed to move it on again, and opened River Island.
Ben: Why call it River Island?
Photographer: Roger Bool
Bernard: We didn’t want to tie it to a family name. It was my son Leonard’s baby. At one time he fancied Oyster Island, but I don’t like shellfish, so I didn’t like that. He lived at that time near the Thames and he had a little motor boat, and one day he said: “River Island”. There was a menswear division, which traded as Concept Man, typically in the basement or upper floor of Chelsea Girl shops, and he was running that side of the business at the time.
One of our people said we ought to open a small group of upmarket menswear-only shops. We had a store in a good position in Exeter, so he took that and opened a River Island menswear standalone [in 1988]. We went down to look at it and on the way back I said, “This is good – the customers like it; it takes a lot of money.” I said, “Womenswear is bigger than menswear, why don’t we do some womenswear [in that shop]?” We did and it went very well.
Ben: There was a huge demand, wasn’t there? When the market for ready-made clothing opened up in the 1950s, you were there. Suddenly the economy was improving and people wanted to buy new things.
Bernard: They always want new. We were selling knitting wool and then I saw some nylon stockings with fancy black seams up the back, so I found out where I could get those and sold some of them. Then I saw some blouses in shop windows, bought some of those, and skirts, and it moved ahead. I’m not a fashion person: I’m an operator. We just did what we thought the customers wanted, rather than being traditional fashion people.
Ben: I’m similar – I’m a business person in fashion rather than a fashion person in business. What I like to do is tune in to lots of different things. If the job is to tune in to what’s going on in fashion, that’s what I’ll do. Do you think it’s more competitive now?
Bernard: I think it comes in little waves. There are times when there’s not a lot of competition and times when there is. It used to be good retail operators, and now with online you’ve got it from that channel as well. But there always was and always will be competition.
Ben: I like competition.
Bernard: I don’t! I like an easy life!
Ben: I like it because it sharpens you up, keeps you on your toes. I also think it’s good for the industry. It means that you’ll get the best being delivered all the time.
Bernard: Well, it’s a fact of life. You know, if you get a lull in competition, it’s very nice, and enjoy it while it lasts, but it doesn’t last. What is it they say? Nature abhors a vacuum. If there’s something good going on, people will suss it out and get in there.
Ben: That’s certainly been the case in our experience. Looking back, what would you say has been the biggest change for River Island?
Bernard: Online. It’s absolutely amazing, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s been anything like it in retail.
Ben: You don’t think what happened post-war was as dramatic? Things like the development of chain stores, the offshoring of production, the development of own labels – none of these touch on what ecommerce is doing now as far as you’re concerned?
Bernard: No, all those you could take in your stride. The focus of merchandise sourcing switching to the Far East – you just get out there and do it. This is a different ball game.
Ben: I’m quite philosophical about it. Something I remember you telling me years ago is that the business is about two things: product and shops. The fuel for that business is cash and people, but it’s about product and shops. When I think about ecommerce, I think of it as a shop: it’s another way of distributing product.
Something I remember you telling me years ago is that the business is about two things: product and shops
Bernard: It’s a very good way of looking at it. Whether it’s going to end up at 25% online or 50% online, there’s still going to be retail. It’s a question of managing the change – looking at location, size and shopfit. We’re more fortunate than most multiples, which have 500, 600 or 700 shops. We have under 300.
Ben: We’ve always been cautious about overextending ourselves. We’re in it for the long run, not to make a quick buck.
Bernard: Another big change for us, in the 1960s, was that we used to produce mainly separates, and then suddenly the mini-dress came in and it was overwhelming. I remember, because I looked at the figures afterwards: in the spring, dresses were about 5% to 6% of our fashion turnover; by the autumn it was 50% to 60%. And that was the mini-dress. Everybody wanted it.
Ben: When did we start doing home production and in-house design, shortening the lines of supply?
Bernard: In the 1940s. I think we were one of the first retailers to design and manufacture their clothes.
Ben: When you talk about the switch from separates to the mini-dress, which would have been around 1965, obviously sitting on tight stocks and being able to turn the tap on quickly for different types of product would have been critical.
Bernard: Well, dresses are easier to produce quickly than virtually anything else. It had to be new every time. I had to change the warehouse over from shelving to rails, because stuff would come in on the Thursday, it would go out on Thursday or Friday, we’d get the reaction Saturday and repeat on Monday.
Ben: I remember you saying that your first experience of perishable merchandise was selling fruit, and that was a good foundation for selling fashion.
Bernard: Yes, soft fruit – strawberries, raspberries. They have got to be sold on the day. When you’re in the market at 6 o’clock in the morning, if it’s going to be a hot day, you’ll sell more, so you’ve got to suss out what quantity and price. You’re taking that decision every day – over a season, hundreds of decisions – quickly. Every afternoon you learn where you’ve got it wrong. You’ve got to know what’s right for your customer. I remember years ago being with a coat manufacturer, and he said: “Why don’t you buy this coat? It’s selling very well for Miss Selfridge.” But I could see I wouldn’t sell it. Even as close as we are to Miss Selfridge, we still have a different customer.
Ben: When I started, I remember there was still quite a difference in bestsellers and trends up and down the country. Today I think that’s very much less the case. The fashions seem to be universal. So the trick is how you interpret those trends in a unique way.
Bernard: It’s a culture. We have always been in design and manufacturing. We must have well over 70 designers now. As I mentioned with the coats, we have a certain take on fashion, an interpretation of it. That, I suppose, is a type of brand, and that’s what customers look to us for.
Ben: If the customer can see that the fashion’s been interpreted in a unique way, the quality is good and the price is more than acceptable, it’s great value as far as they’re concerned. Do you think fashion retail is more complicated today than it was in the past?
Bernard: Oh, yes. But I don’t think that’s just the fashion retail industry – it’s everything. The whole world is evolving. On the radio this morning it said that by 2020 the population of India is going to overtake that of China, and that India will be the third-largest economy in the world. I remember going to India buying clothes and producing a calculator – they’d never seen one before. Everything’s changing all the time, thank goodness!
Ben: You’re right; you should just try different things and be prepared to change. What advice would you give to someone starting in the industry? I guess I’d say take your time and learn, and don’t think you have all the answers.
Bernard: I think the golden rule is that there is no golden rule. Never assume you’re on the right track.
Ben: What would you say are the pros and cons of a family business?
Bernard: We’re very fortunate. Our family has been able to take along with us some wonderful, first-class executives. That’s what I get a lot of satisfaction out of: the company is as good as, if not better than, ever. The reins have been passed across successfully. That is an achievement.
Ben: You are probably the longest-serving fashion retail executive in the country. You started in what, 1948?
Bernard: If you take the word fashion out of it, I’ve been in retail since I was born. I remember being on the till in my parents’ greengrocer’s shop at the age of nine. I always enjoyed it. I used to pack out and pack in. Go through a box of apples and sling out the bad ones. I’ve always been in retail, always been dealing with customers and product.
Ben: I think the length of your career and all the things you’ve achieved is something to be very proud of.
The family history of River Island: Bernard Lewis and Ben Lewis