Having recently launched a new weatherproof raincoat called the MANCMAK, under his Joe & Co Denim brand, which he personally trialled in the heavy Manchester rain, Josef “Joe” Schindler is keeping himself busy online during the coronavirus induced lockdown, which is currently keeping his six stalls at the renowned Altrincham Market shut down.
Singing the virtues of made in Britain, as he always did with his original Schindler Lifestyle shop in Stockport, and his long since gone Josef Jeans brand which first launched in 1987 – with production in the UK before being forced to produce overseas like most others – the menswear industry veteran says he’ll be back to fight another day. He’s dodged a few bullets in his time, but has always reinvented himself, and now lives by the mantra of “Made for the few, not for the many”. This time, he professes, everything will continue to be made on these shores, and he says Britain needs to ramp up its own manufacturing once more and teach production skill to a new generation.
How is business at the moment?
It’s booming! No, it’s shocking really. I’ve got six stalls on Altrincham Market, selling my two brands which are Joe & Co and Northern Couture, but the market has obviously had to close down completely for now. I’m still generating steady sales through the website and social media channels though, and long may that continue.
What is the new MANCMAK product all about?
Under the Joe & Co brand, I launched MANCMAK – basically a mac from Manchester – just before Christmas, working with English Fine Cottons for the fabric. They are still undergoing a multi-million-pound restoration of the old Victorian Tower Mill in Dukinfield, Tameside in Cheshire, to breathe new life into a British industry that used to be the envy of the world. They spin all the cottons yarns there, then send it out for nipping in Leicester before bringing it back in to make T-shirts and sweatshirts. They now make all of our Joe & Co Tees and sweats, which are amazing quality, and they’ve also developed a woven fabric. It’s spun in their mill, then woven in Holmfirth and dyed in Bury. The fabric has similar properties as Ventile, and we’re using it for MANCMAK, retailing at £425. We also work with Ventile through a company in Bolton that makes all of our Joe & Co jackets. Ventile was originally developed at the Shirley Institute in Manchester in the 1930’s and made from the finest 100% long staple cotton. The Ventile version of the MANCMAK is retailing at £475 and comes in two colours – navy blue and camel. It’s a timeless classic that’s handcrafted in small batches. I tested it out on a typically rain-soaked day in Manchester and got drenched like a drowned rat. But, when I took the coat off, I was bone dry underneath. It’s completely waterproof and windproof.
How have you funded it?
We used to use the Kickstarter platform, but what we’re doing now is creating our own platform within our website for pre-orders. You have to give Kickstarter 5% plus VAT, but I can now eliminate that and bring the prices down a bit. So, we’re creating a page where you can go and pre-order on small runs. You pay for it, and wait for it. All the MANCMAK’s come numbered and signed. The problem at the moment with COVID-19 is I don’t think that we’ll be getting back to proper business until September. We’ll have to ride this out, like everyone else, and come back stronger.
Do you have any plans to go back to doing a shop?
In terms of a permanent shop, not in a million years, but we’re looking at doing a pop-up in Manchester, in the Northern Quarter, when we all go back. In fact, it should have happened in April, and we were all geared up for it – to open on the first floor of a womenswear shop called Nola, on a monthly basis. That’s obviously now on hold. I’m not wholesaling any more, it’s all direct-to-consumer. For small runs, there’s no margins in wholesaling. I’m fortunate in that, because I’ve been in this industry for so long, I know my mills and factories and they work with me. Instead of having a 300-metre minimum run, I can have 20 metres of fabric – or what I want and need. Everything is made in the north of England, except my footwear which is made by Sanders in Northampton. They are co-branded as Sanders for Joe & Co. All my selvedge denim jeans are made in Lancashire, my jackets are made in Bolton, my shirts and hats are made in Manchester and my leather goods are made in Stretford. I’ve got loads going on!
How are you promoting it and getting sales in without a physical presence right now?
Social media plays a massive part, as most of my sales come through Instagram and Facebook, apart from the market when it’s open. There’s nothing like Altrincham Market, it’s really unique with so much history. There’s a great big food market in there where you can sit down, eat and soak in the atmosphere and characters. You can’t do that online. It’s a real hub that’s put Altrincham on the map. This is my sixth year of having Joe & Co there, but the market has been there since year dot. The building it’s housed in is amazing, it’s 1800’s.
When did you actually establish Joe & Co?
I originally started it up when I had the shop in Stockport in 2008. I went to Berlin, and got involved with a company called Commonplace, and they made me 20 pairs of jeans in Japan. They flew out sales-wise, so I registered the name Joe & Co as a trademark in 2008. But then we had the crash and it completely wiped us out. I fell out of manufacturing, and the business. I shut everything down and started chauffeuring for my brother for a living. But I still had the passion for the business, it’s in my blood, so I got involved again out of love – in about 2012. Denim is something that has always been integral to me, ever since I bought my first pair of jeans in the underground market in Manchester in the 1970’s, a pair of Lee Riders. I had Josef Jeans originally, up until 1999, which were made in Preston. At one point, I was making and selling 50,000 pairs of jeans a year – all out of Preston. And all my shirts were made in Manchester at the time as well. Then everyone started going down the poverty line of cheap labour and going to China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It changed the whole game, and not for the better. I had to follow suit because of pricing, and started getting jackets made in China. A rocky road.
How important do you think British manufacturing is going to be going forward given the current climate?
I think it will be massive. The problem is, we currently haven’t got the infrastructure because we sold all our manufacturing off and sent it all out overseas. For now, we’ve hardly got any manufacturers in the UK, it’s mainly sweatshops, but that needs to change. It’s coming back, very slowly. The government needs to build a proper manufacturing infrastructure again, and get people back on the machines. It’s going to be expensive to do, but the beauty about it is you can control it more. Everywhere I go, I’m no more than 40 minutes away from a factory I’m dealing with. So, if there’s a problem, I’m there. The skills need to be brought back, and it’s got to be paid for by the government with grants. In terms of sustainability, what I do is timeless – you can wear it in 10 years down the line, and probably love it more. I don’t do fashion, I do product, and product to the highest spec you’re going to get. My shirt maker makes bespoke shirts, and I get 15-20 shirts made by him every week. They start at £135 retail, and they are worth every penny. I get him to make workwear shirts and over shirts – working with twills, Ventile and cottons, luxury fabrics and even some camouflage.
Do you go in to Sale often like so many these days?
I don’t have a Sale, and never had done since I’ve had Joe & Co. I don’t discount anything or do “offers.” All my business is in the UK, bar a few drips I get from the States, Australia, Holland and a handful of others. I’m concentrating on the UK to build it up, then I’ll spread it slowly. I’m not greedy, I’m just hungry. Retail is finished as we’ve known it, so it will be the strongest and those offering a point of difference who survive and thrive. There’s always been a desire for quality product, it’s the prices. You have to create your own little niche and build your brand slowly. Anyone can throw tens of thousands at a brand and make it work, but then they get greedy, sell it everywhere, and then nobody wants to buy it anymore because everyone’s wearing it. If you keep your product desirable, then you will succeed. Everybody wants something they can’t get too easily.
How do you see the retail landscape panning out this autumn/winter?
I think a lot more shops are going to go. I really do. They’re all on Sale now and discounting is going to get even more prevalent. There’s plenty of retail businesses falling deeper in to trouble now in the UK. The businesses go ‘bump’, but then they find a way to open up again. Then they go on Sale again to get the quick bucks in. For me, they’ve got no integrity. You get the likes of JD Sports and Sports Direct who buy up all the independent shops, but then they monopolise all the brands. They buy the stores to get the brands. Then, when they get them in for a couple of months, they stick them in the Sale, because they can afford to. When you’ve got an independent selling the same brands up the road, they are then forced to go in to Sale because everyone else is. Then your margins drop, and when that happens and you’re having a bad week – you’re making no money. You’re just turning stock over cheaply to get money in. It doesn’t work. I think independent retailers have got to go further afield to get brands in that are more obscure and build on that. When it’s built to a certain level, and everyone else starts to buy it, then you’ve got to go and find something else. Too many are lazy, being an independent you need to stay on your toes and always offer something different. That’s getting harder, I know, especially with the online threat, but the sharp operators will always be exactly that. I guess it will weed out the ones who think they can just get a particular brand in and sit back and light a cigar. Retail isn’t like that anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. You’ve got to think out of the box, keep it simple, keep it quality and keep your integrity. The people will come.
So, what else are you doing that’s “out of the box”?
We’re doing stories, galleries, blogs, videos and even Joe & Co TV for the internet. We’re doing interviews with manufacturers so you can learn how your garments are being made and what goes in to them. We’re even showing how to wash your jeans or clean your shoes properly – especially suede! It’s about being a living brand, with real product, not just a name. I’ve got good factories that work with me, and I don’t take credit from anybody. I’ve learnt my lesson. I’m happy to service my customers with the best timeless garments that they’ll ever have on their back.
What’s the Northern Couture offer all about?
It’s more like a streetwear brand, very casual and based on northern culture, music and bands, with slogans on the T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies like ‘I want to be adored’ and ‘Mancunian Way’. They’re all done on the highest quality T-shirts you are going to get. The quality really is exceptional, and it’s all organic cotton. Rowetta from The Happy Mondays wears them a lot on Instagram, which helps. She’s a big United fan. I’ve even had United’s Juan Mata buy from me at Altrincham Market. His beam was from ear to ear when he saw the red ‘Mancunian Way’ T-shirt. We also did a blue one for derby day, but I didn’t show him that one!