“I thought if I could earn a living from it, it would be a result,” says Simon Carter, founder of the quntessentially British and bold menswear brand that bears his name, on starting out in fashion. Carter began business selling brooches for men 33 years ago on London’s King’s Road (“this was the 1980s” he offers by way of explanation) before moving into cufflinks, which remain a signature product.
Today, despite never really having a plan at the start, he presides over a fully fledged menswear brand that ranges from those all-important cufflinks to suiting and casual-wear to watches and accessories, which is sold through five standalone stores and various multibrand retailers in the UK as well as in global markets such as Australia, South Africa, Japan, China and the US.
This year he has made a major push into India and in a few months’ time he’ll have 10 standalone stores in the market, having signed a partnership with Indian group Aditya Birla Fashion. Three stores have already been opened (in Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai) and three more will open in December in what has been a quick-fire roll-out, but as Carter explains, the deal was several years in the planning.
Aditya Birla had been buying Simon Carter products to sell through its Collective department stores in India and the brand had gone down well with the Indian consumer. “I think they like the colour and the boldness. I use paisley a lot in my range so there’s a resonance there. Also there is an undeniable connection between India and Britain, you don’t have that same resonance in China for instance,” he explains.
Eventually Aditya Birla approached Carter with the idea of launching stores in the market. There followed a period of negotiation and sorting out “complex issues” such as registering trademarks in India, which took five years to do, but when it happened the retail roll-out was able to be done quickly due to Aditya Birla’s might in the market.
This was just one of the benefits of the partnership model, as opposed to attempting to enter a market with directly operated stores. In addition Carter designs a specific collection for the market, which Aditya can produce. It still retains his distinct design handwriting but is conceived for the Indian consumer from a design and price-point perspective.
Much is made of India’s burgeoning middle-class but as Carter points out it’s all relative. “One needs to understand what that means. What it means is that they can now afford a shirt for $60,” he says, pointing out that in the UK his shirts sell for around £140 and those same shirts would arrive “landed” (i.e. with all the attendant import costs) at around £200 in India.
Once the 10 stores have opened the plan is to “pause and review which bits are working” before rolling out any more, though so far the response has been positive. But Carter won’t be stopping at India. In 2018 he’s got his eye on the US market. “It’s the world’s biggest market, you can’t ignore it,” he reasons.
Not that he has, his brand is already sold in Bloomingdale’s and Dillards but he feels the Americans, who are known for having fairly conservative taste when it comes to menswear, might be getting braver and will respond well to more Simon Carter. “I think now they are ready for strong design on shirts,” he muses, which is just as well since Carter’s current collection includes prints of fish, birds and circus elephants. “They’re a conversation piece,” he says.
From not having a plan to having a fully fledged global brand is not bad going and after 33 years in business, Carter still gets the same buzz he did at the start. “That whole thing of seeing somebody I don’t know wearing one of my products, knowing they’ve seen it and liked it enough to buy it, or they’ve been bought it and liked it enough to wear it, it’s never left me,” he says. Only now he’s just as likely to get that buzz on the streets of Mumbai and Manhatten as he is in Mayfair.
“I love the fact that at the ripe old age of 55 life can throw up some surprises,” he concludes, and one suspects there will be many more surprises to come. Not least in his next choice of print.