As part of our series in partnership with Luxury Briefing Magazine, we talk with leaders in retail — from founders, to designers and beyond — to get their insights on the future of the industry.
In this issue, Hero CEO, Alistair Crane talks to Archie Hewlett; the 23 year old Founder & CEO of London-based footwear brand Duke + Dexter, which despite building a brand for a millennial audience, is opening physical stores.
Tell us a bit about where it all began
When I finished school at 18 I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I worked in property recruitment for a short time. After that, I had to decide whether to go down the corporate business route or start my own thing; I didn’t see any middle ground. People always ask ‘why shoes?’ and to be honest I don’t really know how they came into play; I have no experience in fashion and I like shoes but it wasn’t an obvious choice initially. It all started with the velvet slipper: although I would never wear them but they fascinated me and I was curious about the style. From velvet slippers, we moved towards a more general loafer and then we opened the floodgates, explored materials beyond velvet and moved to nubuck, suede, needlepoint, linen, canvas and even pony hair.
So what is Duke + Dexter?
In terms of the brand, it’s very British. We orientate it around a quintessentially British sense of style and there’s also a big focus on craftsmanship.
We started producing in Italy, which, for a company starting with zero money, was a pretty stupid thing to do! We’ve always looked for quality and as soon as we could we moved to making our shoes by hand in England. The Duke + Dexter customer is someone who wants to be unique but also wants to take inspiration from old-school styles with a British twist. Wearers also have an understanding and respect for quality footwear. Demographically speaking, I would say customers include anyone between the [age] range of 18 and 40 (and sometimes 40-plus).
And you’ve got some celebrity customers, haven’t you?
Yes, that’s right. The first and biggest was Eddie Redmayne, which came about thanks to my mum, who suggested I get in touch with him. We sent a letter through to his agency at the time and they said there’s no guarantee he will wear them but you can send a pair through if you like, which we did. It was a couple of months before the Oscars so I’d completely forgotten about it, and then on the morning after the ceremony I woke up to see the picture of Eddie on the front cover of the news and instantly recognised his shoes! The credibility factor that Eddie’s ‘Oscars moment’ gave us was great. Since then it has been a case of stylists getting in touch on behalf of their celebrity clients and we have also achieved a strong social media presence, which is a very useful communication tool.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury is a rarefied concept; it’s about offering that exclusive element with premium quality.
You recently opened your first store in Covent Garden, London; how has that been and what’s the idea behind the store?
It’s been good, really good. We opened in November last year and our biggest concern was to get past that initial launch and push the brand as much as we could from the start. I think the biggest surprise for me — and it’s such a positive one — is that I always thought it would be very infrequent in terms of sales and perhaps a bit erratic, but we have been extremely fortunate from that point of view and sales are generally very consistent week on week. We’re very fortunate to have this consistency because it makes it easier to plan. We don’t want to get complacent though, so we’re always looking to mix things up in-store and we keep the design fresh. Our aim is to create a space that represents the brand and gives off a personal feel rather than just an outlet solely for buying.
Why did you decide to open a store when you built the business online?
There were a few things. I’ve always worked on a contingency basis, so whatever we’ve done, my outlay is that when we open a store, we need to be able to still survive as a business even if we don’t sell anything. Fortunately, we were in a position where we could afford to open a store and that really drove me to do it in terms of the credibility factor. As we started to get copied more and more we needed to find a new way of stating this is ‘who we are’, and from a personal standpoint,our website — which started before the physical store — was our store front and that was the way of representing the brand. The other element of course, is shoes themselves. People want to try shoes on, particularly if you’re pushing a premium quality shoe at a slightly reduced price point. Some of our customers can afford any styling and any design, so they’re looking more to buy into the brand and the quality of product, which was the rationale behind the store opening. I chose Covent Garden because of how global our client base is; it’s such a tourist spot and at the same time Soho is home to so many of our UK-based customers.
Today, digital helps us to compete with the bigger brands authentically, through producing quality content and keeping things fresh
How do you manage the balance between the multichannel customer and those who shop in-store?
We run them as different accounts to a large extent. Using digital marketing, we are able to promote the site, targeting anywhere in the world, so our site is almost like a portable shop. In-store we have to make the most of the opportunity of people passing by. We’re very lucky to be on a street that has a great footfall, so it’s just about pulling people in. The balance tends to come in terms of how we approach them, not cannibalising the different customers across channels. For example, the store has its own Instagram handle — separate to the brand’s main Instagram — where we post behind-the-scenes shots of the store and offer a window into the brand. They work together but should be kept separate.
Are you seeing a different type of customer online to those who come in-store?
We have lots of people who come in-store after going online and vice versa, which is a large consideration factor for us. Often international customers come into the store when they’re on holiday but then buy online because they don’t want to carry shoes back with them, which doesn’t help in-store sales. We’ve seen a massive uplift in UK sales in-store, whereas online that’s not the case. Around 15 per cent of our online sales are UK-based, whereas in-store we’re at about 60 per cent UK transactions. We have lots of customers of different nationalities, which is great to see. Online, the US is our biggest market by some way, followed by the UK, but we’re also selling to clients in the Middle East, Australia and Canada all the way through to Scandinavia and central Europe.
How are you keeping a consistent customer experience across both physical and digital?
The biggest factor from that side of things is service. Regardless of what we’re selling, or whether it’s online or in-store, the service has to be the same. Email queries have to be answered in an instant; I used to handle those queries and passed the responsibility onto someone else at the last possible moment I could because they are so important. It’s the same instore; we try and be as personable and friendly as possible and also explain to people what we’re all about as a brand.
You grew up as a digital native. How did ‘digital’ help you kickstart Duke + Dexter?
Massively! I started with a certain amount of my own money and I took a loan, very luckily, from my parents. I had around £9,000, £7,500 of which I put into stock. It left me with £1,500 to finance the entire business. The only way we could have done that was through digital. Social media played a huge role. I built the website myself, which wasn’t great back then but it did the job. I spent so much time on social media myself; Instagram was significant then, about three or four years ago, but people were still getting used to it. Today, digital helps us to compete with the bigger brands authentically, through producing quality content and keeping things fresh. We would never have had the budget to match those brands so it’s been extremely important for us from the start.
Where does the inspiration come from for each new shoe and how do you stay up to date with, or ahead of current trends?
We don’t have a ‘designer’ as such; rather we sit down regularly with the team and pull together everyone’s different insights. We bring the Customer Service Team into the design process too, as they’re the ones closest to the customer. For example, with our Cheetah design, the Customer Service Team told us that clients were asking for a red option, so we acted on that feedback. We always look to find new points of inspiration; we have a ‘design-your-own book’ in-store for customers, which exemplifies the versatility of the shoes. We get everyone involved in the process and then I will go through the options and work with our craftsmen to see what’s feasible.
What you’ve been able to achieve in such a short space of time is fantastic. What drives you?
I’m never satisfied. It was a huge milestone once the store was opened, but in a matter of days I was looking forward to the next step and how to make the store better. I wanted to create a lifestyle brand, then when we created the brand it was about building a business, and then to compete against the biggest brands and build the best team we could. All these goals give me drive.
It’s been a whirlwind two years. What’s next for Duke + Dexter?
The biggest factor for us is to play on the global stage. We love the store and we’re going to add lots of different touches to it, but building that global element is key. I also want to build the team and always work with the best people. I love the team we have and just want to build on those strong foundations. Our goal is to be one of the biggest and best brands in the world.