Tom Cridland, founder of the eponymous menswear brand, has a £600,000 turnover and enjoyed considerable media coverage thanks to his eco-friendly 30 Year Sweatshirt. But having built his company solely through e-commerce, should he make the plunge into physical retail too?
In his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, 25-year-old Tom Cridland ruminates on the chain of events that have catapulted his brand from a £6,000 government start-up loan to a £600,000 business in just two years.
The Hollywood cognoscenti has embraced Cridland’s menswear brand, with Daniel Craig, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rod Stewart and Ben Stiller all spotted wearing his trousers. Last month, he was interviewed at New York’s Rockefeller Center by CBS News, the latest US media behemoth to cover his brainchild, the 30 Year Sweatshirt.
Such transatlantic triumphs haven’t happened without hard work and pluck, with Cridland sending out reams of emails to Hollywood agents and newspapers alike. And his current plush digs? “The LA Times are doing a photoshoot with us here and we had an opportunity to stay a couple of nights,” he admits. “We return to our other hotel tomorrow.”
Entrepreneurialism runs in Cridland’s blood: his father is the CEO of Lumie, which makes light-therapy products such as bodyclocks, while his first venture was a “bootleg CD business”, aged 10.
But the Fulham-born Cridland’s first foray into fashion came during the 2009 swine flu crisis, when the 18-year-old manufactured satirical SWINE ’09 T-shirts. They made £3,000 in one week, with Cridland averting controversy by donating profits to Médecins Sans Frontières.
It wasn’t until Bristol University that he identified a gap in the luxury men’s trousers market. “Trousers are a frustrating thing for guys to shop for,” he says. “I thought we could inject some personality into them.”
Graduating in 2013, he applied for a £6,000 government loan through the Fredericks Foundation, and set about finding “some world-class seamstresses and tailors”. Armed with a list of factories from the Portuguese embassy, he toured the country (Cridland is half-Portuguese), finding an artisanal family business in rural Portugal that has been producing garments since 1964.
“Finding a supplier is difficult for anybody, but even harder when you’ve had no fashion industry experience,” he says. “But the Portuguese firm had produced excellent textile products for decades. They weren’t arrogant either – they wanted to work with me despite the fact I had no website, VAT number or industry experience.” However, Cridland soon found his loan “wasn’t enough money to start a fashion brand with – it doesn’t even cover the costs of
a stock order”.
From his parents’ home in Cambridgeshire, he raised money for his first stock order by running a pre-order sale on his website. “I put together a mailing list composed of email addresses of every single person I’d ever met, and everybody they’d ever met.” He raised £15,000 this way, launching his brand as an online-only enterprise in January 2014.
“We cut out retail mark-ups and delivered a luxury product you might find on Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue or Bond Street; trousers which would normally cost £200-plus for £85-£90.”
Employing his derring-do again, the 1970s music fan wrote to the representative of Elton John’s drummer, Nigel Olsson, asking, “Does Nigel fancy a pair of trousers?” Olsson replied the following day and was soon seen wearing them. DiCaprio followed suit after Cridland approached his management.
The 30 Year Sweatshirt was launched last June. The £55 organic cotton crewneck claimed to be durable until 2045 (free repair was offered until that time), but also underscored Cridland’s distaste for the fashion industry’s penchant for built-in obsolescence (he occasionally dons his father’s 30-year-old blazer to meetings), as well as unerring faith in his Portuguese suppliers’ handmade stitching.
The notion that a sweatshirt could last three decades was a compelling story, resonating with media and public alike. An Independent article triggered an avalanche of broadsheet press, followed by international titles ranging from the Sydney Morning Herald to the Hindustan Times.
Aside from “getting people thinking about the way they consume fashion”, the acreages of coverage also helped Cridland’s Kickstarter campaign reach its £50,000 target within a month of the Independent feature appearing. “We had to fight for every single piece of press,” notes Cridland. “But it goes to show some decent coverage is a great thing when you’re in e-commerce.”
A 30 Year T-shirt followed two months later, with a lower price-point, which led to Cridland (by now living in London) packing and shipping clothes from his father’s Cambridgeshire warehouse.
Cridland still only has two full-time employees, himself and girlfriend Debs (“She does the finance – I’m not good with numbers”). The final product in the 30 Year Collection, the 30-Year Jacket, premiered at February’s London Fashion Week, which coincided with a Tom Cridland pop-up store on the King’s Road in London.
Even though he admits the retail experience did “stretch” the company, he also found it “creatively rewarding”, forcing him to consider what would happen if it launched a physical retail outlet alongside its blossoming (projected turnover: £600,000) e-commerce business.
This month’s panel will help him decide…
Tom Cridland asks our board of experts: Should I set up a physical retail store or just rely on selling my brand through e-commerce?
‘Bricks versus clicks’ is a familiar debate for retailers. I love shops because they allow your customers to experience your brand values in an authentic sensory way, and I can see why a purpose-driven entrepreneur like you is drawn to opening them. However, the expense and complexity of adding shops to an e-commerce-based model shouldn’t be underestimated.
I think you should be realistic about whether pursuing a new avenue to market is really the best use of your currently limited resource. At this early stage your time might be better spent on improving the current operation and developing the product range.
The business has got off to a flying start and the issue will not be a lack of ideas but the question of which ones to focus on. The key will be to establish a sustainable model and infrastructure to enable constant growth over the coming years. In due course I can see that your brand would translate into a great physical customer experience, but I would caution you to think about whether now is the right time for that step.
Sales director, Crockett & Jones
Physical retail is a long-game strategy and is all about ‘location, location, location’. Without huge investment, you cannot force retail expansion. Therefore you must be prepared for steady, honest growth – so long as your strategy and product is right. Patience is not usually part of a modern day sales and marketing strategy, but it is deeply rooted in ours.
Retail is not for the fainthearted but the rewards can be great. It is hard and expensive work that, if done correctly, can cement your business into the history books. Bricks and mortar is the original way of retailing and some might say that online selling is not retailing, it is just selling. With 11 shops, we believe in destination retailing. It provides us with a platform to offer unrivalled service to our customers and gives our staff the perfect opportunity to build long-standing relationships. Can both work together? Absolutely. Do many people go from online to retail? Probably not, but given your approach to running your own business, you sound like the kind of person who would relish the day-to-day challenges that retail brings.
Managing director, Deakin & Francis
All brands need a flagship store, particularly if you are going to cut out wholesale. However, Tom, you are setting yourself a challenging goal as you’ll need to hit high targets in order to cover the overheads of a store.
Remember that your brand needs to evolve. Our brand is 230 years old and, like us, you need to make sure you provide a consistent customer experience whichever retail channels you choose – ensuring you stay on brand. Try to keep your image fresh, your content engaging and product innovative to ensure you retain and attract customers.
It can be easy to focus on the product – but a challenge can sometimes be to remember to promote your core business strengths. Our quality, service and craftsmanship have all helped us build a reputable brand. To stand apart from the competition it is important to promote your core values and remind customers why they should shop with you.
Our website and store need to inspire consumers and guide them through their buying journey. For online this has meant making our navigation easy and interesting, while in-store this means offering great, personable customer service. On a personal note, I would love you to open a store as I would like to buy
a pair of your trousers!
Thanks so much to Sally, Philippa and Henry for their advice, as well as their kind comments regarding the good start we’ve made. I have always been inspired by American brands such as Harry’s as I make Tom Cridland a direct-to-consumer brand that sells online only – cutting out retail mark-ups and passing on savings to customers. A physical retail location under this game plan would simply be a small ‘field house’ – a chance to showcase our brand in a physical space. While our London
pop-up demonstrated that, creatively, we’re more than ready for the challenge of bricks-and-mortar retail, I agree with Sally that we have more to focus on for now, namely establishing ourselves as the go-to brand for sustainable fashion worldwide.