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.
‘When I started the business I had a conversation with a gentleman [involved within the industry] and he said ‘you’re far too late to the party. You’ll never be able to make it work online’. Anyway, we got involved in ‘the party’ six months after starting by launching our first online platform. I remember our target was to sell between five and eight units online a week and we thought that if we did that we’d have made it. Fast forward five years and we were doing up to 900 units a week and we still haven’t made it. It was all relative to the amount of investment we were putting back into the business, the direction we choose. If I just wanted my wife and then Leo, who quickly joined me after opening the store, just to look after those members of staff and selling ten units online and £2000 out of a 600 square foot shop a week, we would have made money.
‘We quickly established within the industry that there’s a little bit of cock waving that goes on. That I guess is healthy, its natural progression, it’s an evolving market place. You’ve got friends in the industry and they're like ‘we’re doing this now’ and ‘we’re selling this much online’. It became a natural thing to get involved in. The difficulty with online is that you have to come at it from two angles: you’ve got your organic and rich content which drives traffic and there’s a legacy to it, i.e. you retain that customer, which you really should do if your service is up to scratch. The next aspect is PPC, which is google, if you want people in your shop you’ve got to
pay for it. It got [to] the stage whilst we were really growing where it actually became harder. It became harder!
‘We were growing way too fast, the natural progression was to buy more and more. Sometimes you’d be getting close to the month’s end, you’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got cash flow promises to brands, the only way sometimes to meet those cash flow problems is to sell products more aggressively or more cheaply than you otherwise would. You then get to the month’s end and you’ve diluted your margin by 5%, then you’re back at zero. In some months we actually lost money, in January and September pretty much every single year, especially in the early days when our business was predominantly in store. I mean we didn’t probably tip the scales 50:50 until year three, where we were doing more online than we were doing in store. Up until recent times 85% of a business was online.
‘So yeah, when the Victoria Mill came up in the middle of 2013, after 18 months in business, my original business partner had been bought out, just leaving me, Leo and my best friend. We had to buy it. This is when Leo became a really important part of the business. I was good commercially, I had a good rough understanding of aesthetics, or at least I knew the importance of it but Leo was an out and out creative. He really understood how things looked and how things needed to look, in terms of the logo, the branding, really the concept of the Victoria Mill, it was really Leo’s brain child. It was just that it needed someone who was good with people, who could pull everything together, it needed me. It worked perfectly!
‘When we took the Mill on it took us six months to get it ready. A lot of hard work, I think we did it on £20 000. A terrible amount of paint, if you saw the building before, all the floor was like green, it was a wooden floor, a lovely wooden floor, that had been covered the most horrible green paint, layers and layers of it. All the exposed brick work had been covered up by slat wall, which is what you found in most retail businesses back then. I mean the building was a two hundred year old mill. I was like ‘what we doing here Leo’ and Leo was like ‘we need to get the floor sanded’. This was a prime example of me and Leo. ‘We need to get this floor sanded’, ‘really, really Leo, can’t we just cope and see how we get on first, can’t we prove the concept and then think about it’ and he was like ‘no, the floor definitely needs sanding, 100%, we need to get the floor right’. And that was Leo’s eye for it, he understood the importance of the place and it all coming together and looking right, as a finished product. Whereas I’d be inclined to cut something out, not go 110, and go like 85, but the difference between the 85 and the 110, with the 85 you may has well not even have started. That’s why it worked really well in the early days.
‘When we first launched the store, I’ve got to say we were so early on to it, you know, we’d identified that retail was becoming boring, very dull, we’d identified that it needed something more interesting. We did that initially,
it seemed really clear, men’s clothing, coffee shop, barber shop, perfect. So, you come in, buy clothes, have a coffee, get your haircut. That’s happening everywhere now, even go to the extent of Liberty’s in London. So, you now go into Liberty’s, go into the basement and you’ve got Murdock’s, that’s a barber shop. We had a barber shop in our shop before Liberty had a barber shop in their shop. Even with the way we decked it out, we went for that very minimalistic look, white walls, rich wood and scaffolding battens. Now, every coffee shop you see up and down the country or wherever, you’ll find, or even most retail stores you’ll find one [scaffolding battens].
‘I can promise you when we did it we were really, really, early… I mean at the time we considered a side business. Leo and I were actually gonna launch the scaffolding batten company, because we got that much interest in the fixtures we’d built for the store, ‘this could be an off shoot’. Sitting here now, four years after the event and seeing how much scaffolding batten product there is out there we probably should have done it. We’d have probably made more money out of that than we did out of the shop in the end.
‘Some of the best brands… some of the more premium brands we’d stocked initially took such a long time to get going. It was all an educational process for the consumer more than anything else. We had to say, ‘Look Tom, I know this Wood Wood shirt is 20% more expensive than any other shirt here but it’s probably 40% better’. Like for like you’re getting a good product. We went through that educational process. We did it through sharing knowledge more than anything else. That’s always been at the core of everything we do. We never got involved in quick bursts and fades, we could have made a lot more money with a lot of other brands along the way. But we always wanted to stay true to what we believed in and who we are.
‘Even like now, we’ve just finished buying for Spring/ Summer 2019 about two months ago, with what’s going on with Off-White and Virgil Abloh and everyone having taping with prints. All of a sudden you go see any brand - whether it be a traditional menswear brand or an Americano based brand or a jeans wear brand - and you’re like ‘do you actually think everyone’s gonna be wearing this in the mainstream next spring? Cause I can tell you they’re not. There really, really not’.
I think that’s what as a buyer has become more and more apparent. You really can’t just go out there and not consider what you’re doing. Not only on a product level, obviously, but on a category level. You have to question yourself, ‘What [are] we doing on knitwear? Who makes the best knitwear?’ and then making sure there’s not too much duplication. Assortment of products across all categories have to be considered now more than ever. I mean, the other thing is, I suppose, previously if you went wrong you could get out of things. Now it’s harder and harder.
‘The Mill was a real natural progression, Oakley who had the coffee shop left us after two years and then we turned it into a bar, which added a whole level, a whole new level of social aspect to the space. We had the best times, and everything worked well hand in hand.
‘So yeah, when we launched the bar, it added a whole new dimension to the place, not exactly a health one from a personal perspective, having your own bar might sound cool, but yeah, it’s not easy at times. It’s quite tempting, you know, to say, ‘go one, we’ll have a quick beer before we leave’. It was great for us and the lads but yeah it changed the feel of the place…’