The clothes firm that’s royally in fashion fashion

David Reiss is something of an anomaly in retail. For one, he is still smiling amid the depressing high street conditions. His Reiss fashion chain has reported a 43 per cent rise in UK profits this year to £13.1 million and the head honcho believes these are the most exciting times in the group’s 40-year history. Founded in 1971, the brand, which sits in the affordable luxury category of the market, is in the midst of an ambitious assault on the fashion retail world. Mr Reiss plans to reach 250 global stores within the next few years, if not sooner. There are currently more than 100 Reiss sites, including the recently opened one in Bloomingdale’s New York flagship store. Mr Reiss, 68, tends to keep a low profile and despite being one of the last owner-founders left in British retail, rarely appears in the media. Until recently that is. In May, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wore the £175 ‘Shola’ dress from Reiss for her official meeting with the Obamas at Buckingham Palace. When the photographs pervaded the papers the following day the Reiss website received over six million hits and the surge in traffic caused the server to crash within hours. The dress promptly sold out both online and in store. The Reiss name became a global phenomenon and the man at the helm was thrust into the limelight. The public had however already started to take note of the brand in December last year when the Duchess wore Reiss’s ‘Nannette’ cream-coloured dress for her official engagement portrait with Prince William. She wore the dress again during their Canada tour in July. “Kate has been a customer of ours for years but nothing could have prepared us for this,” says Mr Reiss. “It was phenomenal. The amount of people who contacted us from all over the world was incredible, particularly from franchise partners wanting to open stores. We were inundated.” Mr Reiss was on a flight to Moscow when the pictures hit the papers. “It was bizarre. When I landed and turned on my BlackBerry I was bombarded with messages. It was only after a few minutes that I realised what it was all about.” He continues: “It has been amazing for global brand recognition. Overnight we became part of history. You can’t put it into monetary terms.” In 2005 Reiss launched an attacking expansion plan, targeting 250 stores in six years. While the recession “delayed proceedings for a while, plans are very much back on track.” In fact, with emerging markets, Mr Reiss believes there is even more opportunity today. “When the world started crashing about three years ago we decided to put everything on hold. We took a cautious approach. But now we are planning to really take advantage. We see huge opportunities across many new markets as well as growth in existing ones.” He adds: “What holds a lot of people back is getting the brand established internationally. But when people know it before you open, it makes an enormous difference to what you can achieve.” Reiss, which also counts Samantha Cameron, singer Beyonce and actress Anne Hathaway among its clients, has 120 stores worldwide. Markets include Russia, Denmark and the Middle East. Israel? “Not at the moment but we are open to all areas.” The group, which last year won the Drapers Retailer of the Year award for the fourth time, ahead of Sir Philip Green’s Topshop, will soon be opening stores in Hong Kong and Moscow and is in discussions with franchise partners for planned sites in the Ukraine, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Australia, India, Germany, Spain and Holland. The picture however is not so pretty for the rest of Britain’s fashion retailers, which have been hit by the sales slump that has gripped the UK. According to reports, an average of 20 stores a day have closed this year with clothes, shoe shops and jewellers among the hardest hit. Statistics from accountancy firm PwC show that 375 retailers went bust in the second quarter of 2011, a nine per cent increase on the same period last year. Mr Reiss says he has not been surprised by the victims. “People are much more discerning now about how they spend their money and you have to keep moving forward as a brand. If you don’t have that sense of uniqueness or give customers what they want, you are going to struggle. You have to be adaptable and understand your customer. It’s a tough world out there.” How has he managed to stay ahead of the game? By “sexing up” the brand. “About two-an-half-years ago I called my staff together and said: ‘I want to sex up the brand.’ I wanted to make everything much sharper, more luxurious, identifiable and special. That’s what you have to do today.” In 2009 the company launched its sub brand Reiss 1971, aimed at a slightly younger customer than the mainline. It has also widened the Reiss price bracket. “We want to have more choice at both ends. We feel that’s where there is a big void in the market.” A Carmel College old boy, Mr Reiss was destined for the fashion world. He started work as a fashion agent in 1965 before taking over his late-father’s tailoring shop in London. “I had this entrepreneurial spirit and I suppose retail was in my blood.” Forced to learn the business quickly, he turned it into a contemporary men’s fashion store and began importing lines from abroad. Within a few years, he had opened four more branches. A turning point was in 1980 when he opened a flagship store on the King’s Road. A further 10 stores soon followed. The company has since transformed to an aspirational mixed-gender brand, bridging the gap between high street and designer. Is he close to his fellow retail veterans? “I’ve known Philip (Sir Philip Green) for 30-odd years. Our paths always cross and we talk but we don’t go dancing together. I know lots of people in the industry who I would like to feel are good associates but we are a private company and I’ve always been quite private about how I run my business.” Yet he is refreshingly open about the company’s near-sale a few years ago. Reiss faced a £150 million approach from a major US brand. “We got into talks and they were very keen.” But Mr Reiss got cold feet. “I woke up one morning and decided I had unfinished business. The timing wasn’t right.” Would he sell in the future? “Never say never. I want to take the business as far as I can then maybe I will wake up one morning and decide it’s time to let someone come in and drive it further.” This looks unlikely to be anytime soon however. Mr Reiss is as passionate as he has always been. “These are the most exciting times in my 40-year business career. There is so much opportunity. A “product man”, he spends four months a year travelling for work and even visits stores when on holiday. “My wife accepts that I never stand still. “I have very strong energy levels and love what I do.” He appears just as enthusiastic when it comes to pursuits outside of work. An avid sports fan, he is a diamond club season-ticket holder at Arsenal. He goes running and plays tennis and golf. But he “doesn’t want to finish up on the golf course just yet.”

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