The guy behind Superdry
If you’re reading this article on the train, airport lounge or the office (perhaps on dress-down Thursday), we’d be willing to bet a hefty few dirhams that there’s someone in vicinity sporting a Superdry garment. And if you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade and aren’t familiar with the brand’s much championed logo, try looking for a top emblazoned with some Japanese writing. That’ll be Superdry…unless, of course you’re in Japan – then it could be anything, but it’s probably still Superdry.
At their recent autumn winter launch in Dubai, Esquire sat down with James Holder, who co-founded the style juggernaut in 2003 to talk about the brand rapid ascension, the importance of not following trends and his plans for the Middle East…
James you’ve been at the helm of Superdry since day one, how did the company invent itself?
Well, we started the brand 11 years ago, myself and my partner Julian Dunkerton, I had a previous clothing company and Julian had a previous retail venture called Bench. We struck it off back in the day, and we started Superdry. We saw a huge gap in the British men’s market and that’s how it all began…
There’s quite a heavy emphasis on Japanese lettering on Superdry’s garments, was this Japanese trend something that you and Julian deliberately cultivated?
Absolutely. The three ingredients at the start was firstly Julian’s love of vintage American clothing, from his former successes with vintage Levi and so forth and the approach to vintage american cotton. The weights, everything was a bit fatter, a bit thicker – you could feel the quality and see the difference in the stitching and so on. The second factor was my love of Japanese imagery, an intricacy and attention to detail, there’s no one on the planet better at that than the Japanese. Their approach to these factors is second to none. Thirdly was a shared love for British tailoring, hence the slim fits you see on our design. We combined all of those elements together – at the time nobody had done that – and we ended up with this unique looking product. It started out in very humble beginnings, with some polos and a few t-shirts, but people felt they needed a brand that they knew never existed, if that makes sense. So we tapped into that with a perfect product, perfect price point, delivering amazing quality – always changing, and that’s the reason we’ve grown I think.
Is the Japanese lettering on your products stylised or does it actually mean something?
(laughs) It’s a combination. Absolutely. In the same way you’ll go to Tokyo and see all this broken English. But the challenge we have, is that the branding is graphics based so the Japanese has to look good. It’s all Japanese lettering, but sometimes it may not make ‘literal’ sense.
I’d say our core target demographic is about 18-25, but we’ve always expanded to a bit older than that. Cool 40,50 year olds and so on, especially in the menswear department. We had two defining products that summed up the Superdry
potential, one was our signature windcheater, which we’ve sold something like two million of, the second was the branded leather jacket – a fitted, vintage inspired leather piece. Both of those, even though they were wildly different, tapped into an 18-year-old and a 45-year-old market. It really showed what we could do by being product focused, not trend focused. So all we’ve ever done, is hone in on product. We are ferociously aware of what everyone is doing, but we almost take that away and say “let’s do something different.” Don’t forget, we’re in a provincial location in England, we’re not in Shoreditch, we’re not in Paris or wherever, so we have a different approach to fashion to everyone else. We don’t get caught up in any hype, we don’t get caught up in any trends. What we do do, is stay true to product.
Do you ever feel that you’ve in many ways become too ubiquitous to 18-25 year olds? Where you’re almost so popular and synonymous with that demographic, you lose the edge that newer brands can boast?
If you go into a Superdry store, you’ll find we’ve almost got 200 sub-brands within the brand. So you can have an artisan leather jacket next to some flip flops, it’s all so different and branded completely differently you see. We want everyone to be wearing different variations of what we have. So even if people think they’re the same, they’re not. The order books and the global growth of the brand proves we’re always changing, and we’re not appealing to one demographic, we’re appealing to lots of demographics and we’re offering the best in class. If you truly understand product, you won’t get a better product – pound for pound – on the planet. Although we are massively branded, we have never made anything just for the sake of making money. Every single piece has integrity.
Where do you go for inspiration?
We look for inspiration everywhere, we travel a lot and clothing is always on our radar. But we don’t find this inspiration just from clothing, we do 1000 labels a season and that can come from packaging or whatever, there is no limit to what we look at for design ideas.
Where do you feel could Superdry step up its efforts in the retail market?
Bottom line, you can better at everything. As soon as you think you’re good at something , you’re screwed. There’s massive growth opportunities for us in denim, while we’ve been a very successful tops brand, we never tapped into denim properly. So we’ve recently just tapped in to that market and that’s really exciting, the potential for a branded, successful denim line is huge. At the moment there are the higher end denimsor there are the retail denims, there’s nothing for people who want to wear a brand, at an inclusive price. Footwear is a huge one, fragrance – absolutely, oh and men’s underwear is also going off big time.
Do you not think fragrances have been done to death by brands? That it’s almost too much of a cliche now?
Fragrance is great to have in an airport, it’s a walking advert really isn’t it. What we’d do with the fragrance is completely different to anyone else, what we’ve done with the bottle for example, is completely different to what anyone else has ever done. So it’s something we want to be a part of, it’s part of being a true lifestyle brand, a genuine full concept brand.
You’re sporting the Superdry leather jacket now, do you wear the brand every single day?
The only time I’m not wearing Superdry is for a wedding where I’m in a suit.There are certain things you put on that feels like a second skin, and some of our products you put on and it’s a hair on the back of your neck moment. Things like our new bleaker peacoat or this leather jacket. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. I absolutely love this thing.
What plans does the brand have for this region?
We’re only just scratching the surface of the Middle East market. Because we’re only ten years old there’s still a lot of things we’re learning about, we’re still gearing collections in specific territories. Social media we need to be way better at, it’s a constant improvement. As soon as we have successful collection, the second we’ve done it we’re thinking ‘how can we make it better?’ We never like resting on our laurels, as soon as you do that, you’re in trouble. That’s when a fashion brand goes out of fashion. So Dubai was the beginning for us, we’re expanding in the Middle East in the same way we’re looking to expand in the rest of the world. We just want to have the same impetus as we have in the UK. Whatever we do, is massively important to us, there is no middle ground. We’re all in or we’re not. We think this market is massively critical, so watch this space.