Joe Browns is the Yorkshire fashion brand that’s been bucking the trend with its quirky, liberated approach. Stephanie Smith meets founder Simon Brown.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes, the ones who see things differently …”
This quote, which has been attributed to various crazy pegs, including Jack Kerouac and Steve Jobs, can be found on a poster at the Leeds headquarters of fashion brand Joe Browns.
Clothes for rebels, adventurers, non-conformists and free spirits are what Joe Browns is all about. Easy but remarkable, quirky but inclusive, off-duty but ready for anything, they are created to make men and women feel “confident, liberated, individual, excited, and a little cool”.
Founder Simon Brown was on holiday in Wales when he got the idea. “It had been a really hot day and I went to the Ty Coch pub and saw this group of people in the corner,” he says. “Boys, girls, salty hair, bangles on their wrists. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world and I thought if you could bottle that feeling and transmit it ...”
Simon was working for his family clothing business in Bramley, HE and FJ Brown, founded in 1911 by his great grandfather. After Sedbergh School, all he wanted to do was travel, so he worked to get enough money for a one-way ticket to New York. Then he worked his way across the world, building railways in Canada and boats in Hawaii, finishing up in New Zealand before heading home to the family firm. Some of its employees are now among the 120 or so working at Joe Browns HQ and warehousing operation in Holbeck.
Simon founded Joe Browns in 1998 in a small office in Farsley with a team of three people. Now it’s a successful and growing e-tailer and mail order company, selling to more than a million customers.
As with so much about Joe Browns, its headquarters is quite a surprise. On the outside, it looks like a standard out-of-town business unit, but step inside and you’ll find a super-cool environment. Posters of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and the Queen decorate the walls of the reception. In the huge open-plan main office area, there are more posters, plus Union Jack sofas, coloured bunting, a big red motorbike and a drum kit.
The spirit of fun and adventure flows directly from Simon into Joe Browns. “You know the feeling of being liberated, like when you leave school,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter what’s coming next, you just feel good.”
Adventure continues to be part of his life, chiefly riding his motorbikes (he’s got a Ducati Panigale S and an Aprilia Tuono 1100), across Europe and Yorkshire, especially from his home in Menston to Devil’s Bridge in Kirkby Lonsdale. It’s his therapy, he says.
He has been married for 30 glorious years – “make sure you say ‘glorious’,” he says – to retired dentist Mandie (they have two grown-up children, Georgie, 28, and Ollie, 27). Mandie sometimes rides a scooter on their holidays. “We get off the ferries, we never know where we’re going to stay or go or what’s going to happen”
The inspiration for the designs comes from not just from Simon but also from the buyers, including Caroline Barstow, head buyer for womenswear, whose trip to Costa Rica last year has resulted in this summer’s explosion of tropical prints. Adele Tyrell is head buyer for menswear, where the inspiration is “beats, bikes and boards”. Shirts typically cost between £35 and £40. Designs come from in-house or freelance designers who work exclusively with Joe Browns to help create its eclectic, colourful, individual appeal. Manufacture is in India, China, Turkey and Italy. Gross retail sales have now reached £108m, selling direct, and through online and mail order companies including SimplyBe, Marisota, Jacamo, Debenhams, Freemans, Very, Littlewoods and Grattan. “We’re frequently the number one brand,” says Tracey Hepton, marketing director.
The average age of customers is early forties, she adds, with many saying Joe Browns fulfils a gap between High Street stores that either cater for young stick insects or for frumpy old women. From tweed jackets with embroidery and lace to asymmetric tunics, shapes are flattering and easy. Tracey says: “We also have a slightly younger audience who have discovered us online, and they see us as this secret boutique.”
The summer shoot featured here took place in Gran Canaria in February. Like the clothes, the feel is spontaneous. “It’s aspirational in the way of having fun, enjoying life, and it’s very inclusive,” Simon says. “The individuality is very important.”
He adds: “We’ve never taken a decision based on short term profits. It’s based on a proper Yorkshire way.”
Earlier this month, Simon was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the ECMOD Direct Commerce Awards. Previous winners include Johnnie Boden of Boden, Fran Cotton of Cotton Traders and Chrissie Rucker of The White Company.
“I can’t tell you how chuffed I am,” he says. “I am so pleased and so surprised, because it was so unexpected and because it’s a lifetime achievement award – and it feels to me like it’s just beginning.”
See the full summer collection at joebrowns.co.uk