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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.

‘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....'

‘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…’

‘We closed the store, maybe now six weeks ago. It was for two reasons really, the first main factor was what was going on with the town [Bridlington], our instore business went from about £700 000 to around £400 000 a year, local authority infrastructure works made access to the Priory really difficult over an extended period and secondarily for logistical reasons.

 

‘So, we’re now part of a bigger organisation called Internet Fusion and our biggest platform, which they bought just after the Priory, is Surfdome. Surfdome have always been very big on sustainability. This whole sustainability thing I’d never been educated enough on, that would be the right answer. Never cared enough about it really is the true answer. As I’ve got a bit older, in the last two or three years, it’s something I’ve become really conscious of. Now we’re part of a group where it’s the centre of everything they do. I mean you can have a look on Surfdome’s YouTube channel, on their you can see some of the stuff there doing. We had a brand day the other week where we specifically talked about plastics and the way in which goods are coming into our business and the way we’re fulfilling goods to the customer. There’s so much packaging and crap around products that nobody even wants, so you get it as a consumer and you don’t want it. That’s the exciting thing for the Priory now. It’s sad that we’ve lost the retail stores, but we’re now part of a bigger group where there’s [are] economies of scale. We’ve never been more prominent and visual from an online perspective.

‘From a sustainability point of view the wider group is great, we run the second most sustainable distribution house in the country, we use a grey water system, all our electric is from Solar PV, it has a heat retention system and a zero to landfill policy, which is incredible. To have a business that as a group turns over something in the region of £125 million a year and nothing’s going in landfill. The disposal of plastics is on every business’s tongue, whether that’s because they truly believe in it, like it’s in their DNA, (like it was with Surfdome) or not. For a Surf retailer plastic in the ocean is a massive issue because their customers care about it.

 

‘Back with the Priory, for me what made it such a success was one hundred percent identity. We created a brand. We created a language, both visual and written. Continuity with that is now the challenge, we wanna carry on from an online and social perspective. I think if we didn’t build those foundations and stay true to who we are along the way, the message would have become very lost. Ultimately I think the business was built around family. Most people started with us when they were young. It’s incredible how people have grown with the business, they’ve grown as individuals, doing what they’ve always done but they’ve grown and developed. Comes back to identity and personality, which are the two big things for me.

 

‘Under the new business, I oversee everything with a Priory perspective, but my main role now is as the brand development manager. I look at things across a brand and category level across all our areas. At the minute it’s a hybrid role between… I still do an element of buying, going onto next year I’ll properly be looking at 20 brands, but I’ll be looking at them across the group. I mean we’ve got retailers from with a pretty even gender split, outdoor retailers like Country Attire, then we’ve got Surfdome. So, you’ve got brands like NorthFace and I’ll look after that from a consumer and segmentation base across six websites that are very, very different. I think my strength is… I don’t mind looking at spreadsheets and what not, but I’d much rather be looking for products. I much prefer trying to understand what we’re doing from a direction and consumer stand point.

‘Internet Fusion as a story is a completely different thing. So basically they were three young lads, it’s almost like a Silicon Valley story. So yeah, they were three young lads at Bradford University who imported two or three scooters from China (I think), listed them on a website and sold them, bought a few more and sold them. They started when the scooter boom was the first time around.They used to have the stock in the dorms, and yeah, like I say InternetFusion now  about £125 million.

 

‘Looking back I would do it again, absolutely. Weirdly sat here today without a little bit of a burden of running the retail stores it definitely now feels easier on me. I would encourage anyone thinking about going into retail to think long and hard about it. It’s really, really difficult. If we’d done what

we’ve done over the last seven years, ten years earlier we’d be incredibly wealthy because it was a lot, lot easier. It was difficult, but it made us perform to the standard which we did. Without a doubt, we’d be sat round a very big table today if we had started earlier. I one hundred percent believe that.

 

‘At the moment within fashion you’ve almost got… it feels like the industry is shrinking, there [are] more brands than ever before, there [are] fewer retailers than ever before but the retailers there are, are bigger than ever before. Also compounding those three aspects you’ve got brands now that have e-commerce people who used to work for an e-commerce business like ASOS. Let's say they go work for... Dr Martens. They're going ‘we can show you guys how to sell to the customer’, so you’re not buying from the Priory which is buying from Dr Martens, you’re buying direct from Dr Martens.

‘There will always be room for multiband retailers, but it’ll only be the best ones. It’ll either be the best ones for user experience, main stream retailers or uber cool ones with access to great products. Any of the wishy-washy ones around the middle without the scale it’s gonna be really, really, tough. Really, really, tough. That’s how businesses have to evolve, they’ve got to talk openly and honestly.  When Internet Fusion approached me about buying the business there was nothing in the last five or six years which made me feel that the next five or six years would be any easier. So, it was like, I think we’ve got to do it. That’s how we reached that decision. We could see the change in the market place. My gut feeling is that in five, maybe ten, years time, of course there’ll be Amazon, there’ll be ASOS, there’ll be End Clothing, JD Sports, Sports Direct. I mean Sports Direct already own Flannels, Cruise, Van Mildert. So you’ve got these really good retailers, I mean, most people wouldn’t know if you went into Flannels and saw all this luxury clothing, high end brands, like Gucci, X Y Z  that actually if they took the time to read the bank statement, that the £700 they’d spent on those Gucci slippers, they’d spent at Sports Direct. That’s where it gets a little bit scary now and we’re part of that.​​​

‘The reason that we went with Internet Fusion was because as much as we wanted to work with a business that would give us the logistical power we also didn’t want to stifle everything we are about. There are other businesses I know which have been bought by bigger businesses and its stalled what they were trying to do. It’s not been easy, even from a Priory perspective, I mean let’s say we get a delivery from a small-scale brand which is super cool, and we need to get it online quick and the box comes into the warehouse, there’s no swing tickets on it, there’s no bar codes and its not been booked in, then, 25 pallets of North Face turn up and there’s ten different, well selling products there, which one are they gonna check in first, obviously the North Face gear. That’s where it’s been particularly challenging for the Priory. We’re a smaller website which is part of much bigger group. Sometimes, because of what we’re trying to achieve on the group level you have to have priorities.

 

‘For me, personally I don’t think the Priory has ever been better than it is now. One thing we’ve really trying to do is… we’ve got to keep that… we’ve got to stay real.  That’s always been paramount to the business, that we feel real. We should still feel real going forward.’