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The Interview: Adam Brown, founder, Orlebar Brown

Tom Bottomley
19 May 2021

Ahead of sharing his best advice on utilising data insights to understand customers and minimise business costs as a key speaker at 10am tomorrow morning, 20 May, as part of Vodafone Group’s #ThoseWhoDare week-long virtual event which began on Monday to help support SME’s, Orlebar Brown founder, Adam Brown, gives an insight in to his business, how it’s grown and how it has fared during the pandemic.

When, why and how did you originally launch the Orlebar Brown brand and with what product?

The idea for Orlebar Brown came in 2005, and we launched in 2007. It launched as the original and best tailored swim shorts for men. Over the years it has grown into a full lifestyle collection based around sunshine, happiness, travel and good times! Everything to do with holidays. At the time I was 40 and looking for a change in my life, and I hit upon the idea while on holiday myself. I had to change for lunch, so the concept was “a pair of shorts you can swim in” – not a pair of swim shorts. It was about a more tailored approach and a product you could wear from beach to bar. We launched with one style in four lengths. All of our shorts are based on a traditional pattern of a men’s pair of trousers, and over 60 elements go in to the making of each pair.

What was a key moment in your brand development?

Daniel Craig wearing our shorts coming out of the sea as James Bond in the Skyfall film (2012) was really a seminal moment for the brand. We could feel the effects of a hero from an international franchise wearing our product. We have an ongoing partnership with 007, and there’s another instalment of that coming out quite soon, hopefully as we lead up to the launch of the new film, No Time To Die. It’s a good fit for our brand, as James Bond has adventures wherever he goes. He’s essentially British, but ultimately international. He wears fabulous tailoring, has a sense of humour and enjoys life. I love all of those shared values.

What’s your take on sustainability?

It’s something we’ve been working on for the last three years. Making shorts out of recycled fabrics and producing them in more sustainable ways is just good housekeeping. One of our straplines is “Holiday Better”, and for us that includes just talking about how people holiday in a different way. I’m very aware that getting on an aeroplane might be contributing to climate change, so it’s about thinking how we can encourage, excite and enable people to holiday better. A change of behaviours would have more effect than how we make our shorts. However, all of our shorts now come from post-consumer industrial waste and from recycled sources. We have targets in place for the next three years for all of our sourcing, whether it’s for our cotton, Merino wool or whatever. We’re also measuring our carbon footprint so, as with many brands, we’re on a journey and it’s absolutely central to everything we do.

How do you best promote your brand and your products?

We best promote our brand and products through everything we do. It comes from our values, our DNA and everything we say on social media, and through the way we talk to our customers through customer service. It’s about instilling trust, and it’s also about vibrant imagery and the colours and fabrics we use. A really strong DNA and set of values goes a long way.

Does social media now play a big role?

Yes, all the social media channels are important – they all have different functions, but Instagram is the one for me that particularly resonates. We have a hashtag, #OBsAroundTheWorld, which engages our customers as they post photographs of themselves wearing our products on holiday. It tells their friends and family that Orlebar Brown is part of that moment. That’s always works incredibly well, because it’s that emotional engagement and that association with a particular activity and doing something with the people you love.

When did you expand your offer in to clothing and accessories?

We did the first three years with just the shorts, then in 2010 we introduced our first T-shirts, polos and shirts. The swim shorts still account for about 35% of the business, but our terry towelling polo shirts and our pique tailored Sebastian polo shirts are very popular too. Combined with our T-shirts, OB-T and OB-V, they are the core products in the whole collection that always perform well.

How has business been during the pandemic and the various lockdowns?

The website has continued to trade very well, but obviously with a lot of our retail stores closed at different times and in different places, due to the various lockdowns and restrictions, that has been difficult. We currently have 35 stores, based in capital cities or in holiday locations, so the likes of London, Paris and New York, but also San Tropez, St Barts and Mykonos. We pick the places where either our customers live, or where they choose to go on holiday. Thankfully, we’ve not had to close any of the stores permanently, and as we begin to open up, we’ve definitely seen people go back into the stores. Once people can travel more freely, that will hopefully mean and upsurge in sales of clothing and swimwear for holidays.

As everything has been put on hold, have you been able to use the time wisely?

I’d say so as it’s given us a moment to step back, and it’s been a time for us to really focus on what we do, and how we do it. We’ve been asking ourselves “do we need to be doing so much?” and “should we be doing less better?” We’ve used the time well to come out as a refreshed brand.

With there not being much call for high-end swimwear during the pandemic, have you had to switch focus?

Last year, perhaps weirdly, our swimwear sales in the UK continued to grow, but obviously categories such as sweats, jersey and polos, which you can wear comfortably at home and not necessarily beach and holiday related, have also continued to grow.

Are you coming out of the pandemic better and stronger having shown a real resilience?

We’re definitely coming out the other side better and stronger. Ultimately, you can do more and be distracted, or do less but be more focused. We’re still a small brand and there’s still so much we should be doing with our existing products. We still have an awful lot to say to our customers.

What is the Vodafone Group’s #ThoseWhoDare virtual event and what will you be talking about?

It’s a virtual gathering of ambitious leaders and disruptive entrepreneurs. I will be talking about storytelling, as the Orlebar Brown business revolves around stories and how we connect with our customers. I will also be talking about some of the challenges we’ve faced, hopefully to help the businesses of tomorrow. Bold thinking helps your business grow, and I think we should all be thinking boldly, especially in these difficult times.

The full schedule for Vodafone Group’s #ThoseWhoDare can be found here

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