Yorkshire fashion retailer Joe Browns AW22 autumn collection launches with beautiful shoot at Bamburgh Castle
Remarkability lies at the heart of Joe Browns. It is a founding pillar, the essence of what this Yorkshire fashion and homeware brand stands for. After all, who wants to be ordinary?
Embracing the remarkable, says founder and managing director Simon Brown, came about when he noticed the remarks that his wife, Mandie, and several of his staff, were attracting while wearing Joe Browns designs.
“I thought, we'll take this word ‘remarkable’, and everything that we do - the delivery, the people on the telephones, everything - has to be remarkable,” he says.
Simon’s own story is pretty remarkable, too. After school at Sedbergh, he worked to buy a one-way ticket to New York, then worked his passage across the world, building railways in Canada and boats in Hawaii, before heading home to the Bramley-based family clothing business, HE and FJ Brown, founded by his great-grandfather in 1911.
While on holiday in Wales, visiting the Ty Coch Inn at Porthdinllaen, Simon noticed a bunch of young people with salty hair and a carefree spirit that he wanted to bottle. And so, in 1998, in a small office in Farsley, Joe Browns was born, first as a men’s fashion brand inspired by “beats, bikes and boards”. Then came womenswear, and later home wares, and now the company has 1.4m customers, buying via mail order, its own website, and retail partners including Next, Very, Simply B, Jacamo, Littlewoods, Freemans and Debenhams. It has bricks-and-mortar stores, too, in Meadowhall and at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet York.
The HQ and warehousing operation in Holbeck epitomises more Joe Browns watchwords, chiefly the Three Is - interesting, intriguing and inspiring - because these are vibrant, exciting workspaces, filled with artworks, vintage finds, guitars and some of Simon’s treasured motorbikes.
At the start of the pandemic, Simon was seriously ill. It was not covid-related and he has since made a full recovery, but his convalescence gave him the chance to reflect. He decided he wanted to see Joe Browns flourish further, and so in July, he brought in Peter Alecock, who joined from JD Sports Fashion, where he was chief operating officer.
“He’s a great guy as well,” Simon says. “He has skill sets that I just don't have. But also, when I was reflecting on things, I thought, I just want to spend more time doing what I love - and what I love are products, Browns and travelling. So far, it's turning out pretty good.”
The pandemic halted planned store rollouts (Edinburgh, Bristol and London were earmarked) but these are back on the agenda, and there are discussions with a franchise partner. “It's a great way of getting the brand out to people, a store, and so many stores have disappeared.”
There is expansion ongoing at HQ with the building of a new warehouse and a new mezzanine floor in the offices. But employee expectations have changed. Simon says: “We have flexible working now. You either had to adapt or die, and we've had to adapt the way we work without losing the essence and the fun. The pandemic strengthened our resolve - it made us realise that we're stronger than we thought. And we're more nimble and fleet of foot.”
This investment is despite soaring costs across all aspects of the business. “The cost escalation at the moment is absolutely unbelievable,” he says, citing freight as well as paper and print - Joe Browns distributes 58 million catalogues and brochures.
Consumers have changed, too. “They want to be more individual,” Simon says. “They want to stand for something. And this has been brought about by social media. It’s an absolute revolution, it's huge. It gives people accessibility and transparency, and it celebrates creativity, which is at the sort of heart of what this is all about.
“Sustainability is at the top of everybody's agenda, and rightly so - 24 years ago, nobody thought about it, and we'd started destroying the planet then.”
Global travel inspires Simon, and he, with Mandie (she is a retired dentist, and they have two grown-up children), is always seeking out places that have something almost indescribably special. While in Tel Aviv recently, he found himself pondering the success of a particularly popular restaurant. “It makes you appreciate what attracts people,” he says. “It was because it was so original and so authentic. It just had something going on that you couldn't touch.”
He loves New Orleans for its heart and soul, and Ibiza for its free living and lack of pretentiousness.
The Joe Browns autumn/winter collections have launched, celebrated with a beautiful fashion shoot at Bamburgh Castle. Womenswear falls into three categories – Modern Boho, Modern Vintage and Kitsch, featuring those striking details that give the brand its edge. Menswear, of course, still offers that ‘bikes, beats and boards’ vibe - and the shirts, as ever, are fabulous.
“Men haven’t bought anything formal for a couple of years, so the shirts are doing well,” says Simon.
Joe Browns is in a good place, he says, adding: “But I am conscious of how difficult it is.”
“When it was small, we used to do everything and it made you feel great. It can’t stay like that because you can’t grow like that, but I was very happy being like that. And now it’s changed and I focus on other things that I still really enjoy. We have got some amazing people here. It’s still really creative.
“We started it to make a few quid and have some fun, and we have fortunately been able to do that. Make a few quid more and have a load more fun, maybe.
“The essence of making people want to feel like those people in Wales, to feel good, is still absolutely at the forefront.”
*Joe Browns is at joebrowns.co.uk and at Meadowhall in Sheffield and at York Designer Outlet.