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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Don’t write off independents just yet

Lauretta Roberts
06 August 2021

In spring 1995 I stood outside 201-203 Linthorpe Road, on the main shopping street of Middlesbrough, thinking I had never seen a fashion shop like the one I had come to visit on behalf of Sportswear International magazine.

In a long terrace of archetypal Victorian commercial buildings, it was very easy to spot. It was the only one that looked like it had molten metal flowing down its brickwork, a Gaudi-esque folly on the banks of the River Tees.

The interior was no less extraordinary. The 1,500sq ft ground floor displayed no straight edges. Instead its walls and ceiling looked like a limestone cave. In contrast, the 720sq ft first floor was edged in mock-medieval panelling.

It made a spectacular spread in the July 1995 of Sportswear International, the pan-European trade mag for the jeans, casualwear and street fashion markets.

This was Psyche, Mark II, the creation of Steve Cochrane, who had opened the first incarnation of his business – called Psyche Attire – in 1984 about 100 yards away at 215 Linthorpe Road.

This had been preceded in 1982 by Sliced Tomatoes, his first shop in nearby Redcar. It was named after a classic Northern Soul track, which indicates the cool crowd the then-23-year-old local lad wanted to serve.

The third and largest version of Psyche sits about 60 yards away from the shop I visited, at 175-187 Linthorpe Road. The former Uptons department store, which was rebuilt after the original was bombed during the Second World War, was converted into a Psyche superstore in 2003.

Steve, who described himself to me at our first meeting as an “obsessed perfectionist, obsessed with interior design”, became a regular winner of retailing accolades, notably a clutch of Retailer of the Year Awards from Drapers when I was editing the title.

Times change, however, and now Psyche’s large windows display yellow banners for a Closing Down Sale. In early August the 40,000sq ft store will be shut for several weeks for a major refurbishment before re-emerging in September as the latest branch of Flannels, Mike Ashley’s premium fashion chain.

Psyche Store

After being wooed by Ashley and his team for three years, Cochrane sold the business and the building to him at the turn of the year. The pressures of lockdown forced 61-year-old Steve to surrender his independence.

In an unexpected development, however, the Flannels Group offered him the role as head of kidswear, a category he has sold well in Psyche for many years alongside the adult fashions. As a result of his new responsibilities, Steve has had little to do with the final season of his store.

Coincidentally the existing Flannels store in Middlesbrough, at the far end of the town next to Ashley’s Sports Direct and House of Fraser stores, is to be converted to a Flannels Kids, so it will come under Steve’s control.

I met up with Steve in Middlesbrough in late June and found him in very good spirits. He joked that his new role for Flannels is the first time he’s worked for anyone else since he did a stint on the oil rigs to raise money for his Sliced Tomatoes shop almost 40 years ago.

With many of the leading independent fashion stores now in the camp of Mike Ashley and Flannels or part of JD Sports network (they were also courting Steve about Psyche), I reflected that the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was UK editor for Sportswear International, was something of a golden era for UK indies, especially those in the jeans, casualwear, streetwear and fashion sports areas.

This was long before online selling and before big brands began opening their own stores. The period was the tail-end of the time when some continental denim brands were the hottest properties in town. It was a period when every major city and many minor towns had their own hot fashion retailer, whose shop was the place to go to be in with the in crowd.

I flicked through my stack of Sportswears to remind myself of some of the multi-brand indies I featured more than 25 years ago. How many of these do you remember?: Aspecto (Manchester and branches), Cruise (Glasgow and branches), Dogfish & Catfish (Cambridge), Dr Jives (Glasgow), Eternal / Western Jean Co (Leeds), Gasoline Alley (Thurrock & Croydon) Life Authentic Dry Goods (Manchester, an offshoot of Neil Prosser’s original Flannels group), Limeys (Nottingham), McKenzie (Newcastle-upon-Tyne & Leeds), Mr Americar (Brighton), Ricci (Liverpool), Richmond Classics / Sussed Out (Bournemouth), The Consortium (Bournemouth), Triads (Middlesbrough), Westside (Liverpool), and Westworld (Cardiff).

And who recalls in central London American Classics Junior, American Retro, Avirex, Grip, The Komodo Shop, Low Pressure, Mash, Sign of the Times, Slam City Skates, and Zee & Co?

I know a few – very few – of them are still trading, still independent.

Despite the differences in location, size, date of foundation, market niche and brands sold, what I remember about these businesses is the vision, passion and drive of the owners. Not all of them lasted too long or won any Drapers Awards, but they made fashion shopping an interesting, stimulating experience.

Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about?

That is why I remain hopeful and quietly confident that fashion independents will continue to survive and thrive in the UK. There will not be as many of them as previously and their business life might not be as easy as it was (if it actually was ever “easy”).

Yet I am sure there will always be enough creative and passionate people like Steve Cochrane, who named his shop after the Greek goddess of the soul.

Such people, who possess the true soul of a retailer and trader, want to create a unique shopping experience. I believe there also always will be enough people like me who want to spend money in such an environment.

The fashion train keeps a-rolling.

PS For an interesting gallery of Steve’s shops over the years, including his amazing Gaudi-esque creation at 201-203 Linthorpe Road, follow this link.

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