Celebrity-backed newcomer set to bag £1m sales

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ENTREPRENEUR Martin Penny’s new fashion business is set to generate sales of £1m in its first full year of trading.

The co-founder of the GHD haircare brand is the main backer of Jack French London, an eponymous handbag label run by Jack French and his partner, Dan Smith, a former director at GHD.

Mr Penny, who lives near Ilkley, has invested £400,000 in the start-up business.

The brand has won celebrity endorsements from the likes of Kate Moss, Lady Gaga and Sadie Frost.

Jack French London handbags cost between £150-£250 and are on sale in five John Lewis and 20 Debenhams department stores in the UK. They are also being trialled by Macy’s in New York.

The products feature on ShopNBC, the American television shopping network, and on QVC channels in Britain, Italy, Germany, Korea and Japan.

Mr French often appears on screen to market his handbags. “He’s a bit like Gok Wan,” the fashion consultant and presenter, said Mr Penny.

The company won coverage for its Valentine’s Day publicity stunt at St Pancras train station, featuring a giant model of one of its handbags adorning The Meeting Place sculpture of a couple’s embrace.

Mr Penny said the initial idea for the business came about at a meeting between the three men in London.

He said: “We went to Claridges one evening, had a bottle of champagne and they said ‘We would like to start a business with you, Martin, what do you think?’ I said ‘Yes, why don’t we do handbags?’”

Mr Penny explained: “Girls would buy up to six GHDs. The first one because it just works, it’s fantastic. The second one in case the first broke down. The third one because they had a holiday home or wanted to take one travelling. The fourth one because it had a nice bag and clips and brooches. Five and six because they were pink and purple or a nice colour.

“If girls will buy six GHDs, she will definitely buy enough handbags because a girl can never have too many handbags. And shoes, I presume.”

Mr French is not a classically trained designer, but has a good eye for fashion and has worked with Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin as well as high street retailers, said Mr Penny.

The pair found a manufacturer in Shenzhen, China, and won an order from John Lewis and then Debenhams. Each bag in the collection is named after a district in London, including Carnaby, Camden and Fulham.

The first four months’ trading raised £130,000. The business is on course for £1m this year, said Mr Penny.

He said House of Fraser has approached the company, which is going through the process of upgrading its leather and hardware to increase the products’ premium credentials.

Jack French London has a similar price point to Radley, the UK handbag firm, he added.

“It’s nice to be able to say that we are affordable or attainable as a brand because quite clearly you can pay thousands of pounds for a handbag,” said Mr Penny.

“A very small proportion of that price is reflected in the product. You are paying for the brand. But in a peverse way, that’s what people like.

“People feel good about wearing brands. Something that’s as overtly on show as a handbag says a lot about you as a person.

“Men are the same about different things, like cars.”

Mr French said: “I am so proud of how well Jack French London is doing and the rate at which it is continuing to grow.

“There is a real demand for luxury at an attainable price point and we are pleased to be able to meet this.

“Our tag line is ‘for every life you lead’ and that is exactly what we are about, accessible fashion regardless of your age, background and taste.”

Mr Penny, a chemist by background, founded GHD in Silsden in 2001 with plant-hire specialist Gary Douglas and hairdresser Robert Powls.

The business went through stellar growth and was sold to Montagu Private Equity for £160m in 2007.

Mr Penny launched a High Court legal action against Montagu in November 2011, claiming that he was unfairly ousted in a boardroom coup in 2008.

He and Montagu reached a settlement in January 2012.

Mr Penny, 60, describes himself as “a one man Dragons’ Den” and said he receives two or three approaches a month from businesses seeking investment.

He said he was attracted to Jack French London by the challenge of building a new fashion business from scratch.