The iconic British brand is on an international expansion trail as it rolls out stores across the globe and upgrades its collections.
Early in July, a fashion show took place in England's south coast seaside town of Brighton. The parade showcased Ben Sherman's spring/summer 2008 collection for the company's sales teams just as the wholesale collection went on sale.
The show took the iconic British brand right back to its roots, for it was from Brighton that Arthur Bernard Sugarman launched a range of button-down collar "Oxford" shirts onto the wholesale menswear market.
That was back in 1963 when Mods took up the shirt as their uniform of choice and Ben Sherman established itself as one of the key "swinging '60s" labels. Today the brand has come a long way with an international portfolio of stores, full women's as well as menswear collections, and an enviable set of licenses that place Ben Sherman firmly into lifestyle branding.
The relevance of Brighton for the label is that it has just reached a new stage in its international development. After many years of struggling with a somewhat split personality in its consumer perception and collection content inside and outside the UK, the brand has consolidated its fashion lines into one international collection.
While Ben Sherman has achieved niche status as a bridge-level heritage fashion label for both men and women across the globe, in the UK the collection was firmly placed in the middle market—and with a retail distribution to match.
CEO Miles Gray says. "We're upgrading the collection into one global range that will bring more fashion and an edgier personality to the UK collection. And in doing so, we are not neglecting our roots."
The new collection will have a smaller number of retail accounts in the UK as the company cleans up its wholesale distribution. At the moment the count is some 750 accounts in the UK and some 1,750 internationally, in all bringing in about a third of the company's £130 million ($264 million) turnover.
"It's a big thing to drop the lower tiers of distribution in the UK," says Gray, "but we've got to think about the long-term health of the brand." It's a tough call as the UK accounts for half of the brand's revenue.
For Gray, the future of the brand has to be in a market sector that places it "with plenty of clear air between us and the value end of the market."
Growing a Licensing Business
Part of differentiating the brand and moving it away from the vulnerable middle market has been the development of Ben Sherman's licensed product business, which is run from the London office by a team of three, working directly with licensees. The UK and Irish markets have Ben Sherman product in leather jackets, watches, bags, belts and accessories, underwear, suits, homewear, and the newest brand extension, toiletries and fragrances.
In the United States, there is a more limited licensed product range—and all with U.S.-based licensees. Dress shirts and suits are supplied by parent company Oxford Industries and there is also a licensee for leather jackets and headwear.
Gray sees licensing as an important part of the brand to keep developing. "Licensing is already a big part of our business, accounting for a third of our turnover, but is concentrated on the UK market," he says. "Some of the existing more luxury product, watches for example, could be global. But in the shorter term we're likely to develop licensed product regionally—but always keeping control ourselves."
Ben Sherman was bought by the U.S. apparel group Oxford Industries from private equity investor 3i in 2004 in a deal worth £20 million. It now sits alongside Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, Dockers, Nautica, and other owned and licensed brands in the Oxford portfolio. And the investment is taking the business into significant new realms through an aggressive international store-opening program.
On its home ground, Ben Sherman is opening its fifth store, in the Bullring in Birmingham in October, heading toward a target of 15 stores in the UK.
In the United States, the fourth store is opening shortly in Union Square in San Francisco, following up on New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The plan is for 12 to 14 U.S. stores to open over the next two years.
Internationally, the picture is just as dynamic. Ben Sherman already has stores in Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Melbourne, and Manila. In October, stores are opening in Cape Town and Kuwait, and in early 2008, stores are set to open in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Next spring a store opens in Berlin for the first time.
While the company runs its own businesses in the UK, United States, and Germany, the other stores are opened with local partners and, already, retail accounts for a third of the turnover.
It's almost 45 years since the first Ben Sherman shirts hit the UK fashion market—back in Brighton in 2008, the brand is set to feel just as fresh.