the Priory // a lifestyle or brand // reflections with Vince Clarke
Vince Clarke founded the Priory in 2012 with a modest ambition, a small shop in a coastal town. It's aim, to be a business which offered flexibility and an income to support his growing family. What it became was something else, It surpassed any ideas of what it might be and became a celebrated brand and community.
In this three-part piece Vince narrates his own story from there to here.
‘A bit of background on me first, my start in it was kind of by accident really. So, I used to work for a licensing company just outside Bridlington. At the time, believe it or not, our biggest license was PlayBoy, basically, we use to do bespoke designs under other people’s brands. So, we use to do designs for Kangol, Ben Sherman, PlayBoy, and more. I started within the business in the accounts department and used to look around at all the sales guys thinking what a great job [they had], driving up and down the country, dealing with stores. Anything sold! There wasn’t such a thing as an aggressive sale, there was less emphasis on good product. When you ‘went wrong’ and you bought the wrong product, you’d throw 10, 20 percent off and stuff would make its way out the door.
‘I worked for them [the licensing company] for seven years and from there I moved to a company called VF Corporation, which is basically the largest clothing, footwear and hard goods manufacturer globally. They hold lots of brands you’d know, North Face, Vans, Eastpak, which is the brand I use to work for. I always worked on the sales side, dealing with all independents up and down the country.
‘When I first started, one of the first retails I opened was called As Seen On Screen. The idea being you’d see a purse being used on Hollyoaks and we’d contact the show and say we’ve seen this and we’d like to buy it. It was an e-commerce business. They’d [As Seen On Screen] placed a £6000 order on PlayBoy and I went back to the managing director at the time and said look I’ve been in contact with an e-commerce business, they're gonna be selling products online based off what people are seeing on their TV screens. The Managing Director of the business said 'that’s never gonna work, who’s gonna buy stuff online'. Now that business is ASOS. That is ASOS, As Seen On Screen which was the first retailer I opened and couldn’t get a £6000 credit insurance, is ASOS. We couldn’t get a credit insurance on this customer, As Seen On Screen because it was a new business, a new venture, they were gonna try sell on the internet. Anyway, I think ASOS is now worth somewhere in the region of four billion. It is absolutely massive. It’s one of the biggest.
‘Kind of digressing, back to working for VF, they hold lots of really big brands. I worked for them for four years then I was lucky enough to start a family. We lived in York at the time but wanted to move back home to be near our family for the support. Leanne, my wife, she always worked in retail, she understood it. Obviously, I have always worked in sales and had a good understanding on the mechanisms of retail. So, we decided to move back to Bridlington and launch a retail store which was just flexible so she could work in it and if we needed time we just wouldn’t open. We weren’t really taking it that seriously.
‘So initially, it’s all very much acquiring brands and what not. When you’re first trying to get on the ladder its really difficult because there’s two aspects of it. Your proposition from a brands perspective can be interesting for one of two general reasons. The first would be that its interesting from a brands perspective to sell to said retailer because there gonna do extremely large volumes of product. So, its gonna make money for the brand. The second aspect is that it’s ‘super cool’ and is gonna elevate your brand but you’re not gonna make a lot of money. You’ve got to offer one of those two things.
‘Initially when you have no social presence and you’ve got a store in a secondary location such as Bridlington and you want to spend like a grand with a brand you have to call in a lot of favours. To begin with this was good for me, working in the industry for 9 years prior to opening the store, I knew the lingo, how to talk to people. For me, most things are based on relationships. We had ten thousand pounds and we spent maybe a thousand on the shop to get that ready. Looking back it looked absolutely terrible and there was such a narrow offering of products.
‘So we launched with ten brands, and out of the ten brands we launched with we still actively work with four of them. Carhartt, Fred Perry, Lee and Edwin are the only four we still do. We’ve evolved. For us segmentation with regards to an assorted curation of products was always something we were really passionate about. We understood things, at first people didn’t really understand retail. All industries, how I’ve seen them in the last 5 or maybe 8 years have improved exponentially, the standard of retail in the northern quarter such as Manchester, like all retail, physical retail of products to food to bars. The standards of everything is so high. They're so high because of longevity within ideas. It can be replicated, it can be copied. That never use to happen. For that to happen before things had to be physically seen. So, if I’d found a store in Manchester back in 2002 when I started, you couldn’t really just go on Instagram and see what they were doing, it wasn’t like that. What phones and media have done from a social perspective, is shrunk the longevity of any idea, as they can be copied and replicated very quickly.
‘For us, one thing that we were really passionate and clear in our minds was that we really wanted to champion quite early the fact that we understood consumers, brands and segmentation. If you walk into our shop and we’re trying to sell an £850 Woolrich jacket it doesn’t want to be sat next to a £40 Penguin polo. That customer who buys that [the jacket], doesn’t buy that [the polo]. That was another big thing with regards to segmentation. When we opened the Victoria Mill, we wanted to separate what we were doing from a streetwear perspective. I suppose our journey in the early days, all the money we ever made we invested back into the way we looked. Which can be perceived as quite shallow, but for us to be as we are now 7 years on, have access to the best global brands we’ve got, it had to be done.
‘Back when I started the Priory in 2012, there were a lot of independents that I was dealing with, that are still open today, but are still doing what they were doing. We are quite fortunate that we launched a successful business, we created a brand, we put it on to a platform, then sold it. There aren’t many people who’ve managed to get in and out, build a successful foundation and still have a business now. Our online business in terms of just the Priory not the group, will probably do £2.2 million this year. It’s the best it’s ever been.
‘Brands want to invest and work with retails that could tell their stories and secondly add value. Not just sell gear. I guess as our business grew we were quite fortunate as we weren’t just cool and adding value but were also selling a lot of gear at the same time. Our biggest brands within the business for the last 4 years and probably for the next 4 years are still pretty much main stage brands, but that we buy in more of a curated way or rather in a more progressive way. We get away from the nine-inch nails of any brand. By this I mean, the bread and butter products. Quite often these sell the best and are the most commercial but they are the most widely distributed. There are a lot people further on than we are for commodity products. Look at JD sports, we cross over on products with them, the same can be said with ASOS, End Clothing, John Lewis, across the board. We were always quite aware of our surroundings to buy the brands we were working with. I think within the retail landscape there’s a bit of perception of whether a brand fits. It’s important that all the brands work and synergise together. Both from a street wear and skate perspective and what we’re doing on a menswear front.
‘There was this natural progression, we knew aesthetically at the time there was this drive to invest in bricks and mortar retail, because the whole market place at the time was moving away from that but it’s really accelerating now. When we first opened [the Victoria Mill] was really small scale, on the first day it was amazing. I think we took £1200, I was like this is gonna work. I got told by so many people ‘you're stupid’, ‘it’ll never work’ and whatever. At the time, I had been a big advocate of the town, and I really, really believed that we could make something special....'