Follow us


The Interview: Ben Farren, Founder and CEO, Spoke

Tom Bottomley
05 August 2022

In June this year, custom-fit menswear brand Spoke, which was founded in 2014, announced the completion of a £5m crowd-funding round on the Seedrs platform to grow its international footprint, particularly in the US where it is seeing 100% growth year-on-year.

The crowd-funding round quickly became the largest Seedrs crowdfunding campaign of 2022 so far.

The US is Spoke’s second largest market after the UK and the brand is now investing in a dedicated London-based US team, with the aim of more than quadrupling US revenues by FY24.

Spoke has also just opened a distribution centre in Germany. The site is being used to hand finish all items for local distribution, and service more efficiently Spoke’s growing business across Continental Europe.

In July, the brand re-released its ‘Jack the Mannequin’ TV advert on ITV 4 to coincide with the Tour de France cycling tournament coverage. The advert first aired during the rugby Six Nations ITV coverage in 2021, following Spoke becoming one of the first companies to secure investment from ITV AdVentures, a venture set up by ITV last year to provide TV advertising in return for an equity stake.

Spoke’s Founder and CEO, Ben Farren, says it’s “highly likely” they will advertise during future major rugby competitions, as it tends to hit the right demographic for the brand, men struggling to find the right fit.

Specialising in legwear, each pair of Spoke trousers, shorts or jeans is hand-finished to order in over 400 size options, covering leg length, waist and build. There is even tapering options for calves. What’s more, Spoke’s proprietary ‘Fit Finder’ machine learning technology can match a customer to their perfect size in just sixty seconds.

The company has also earned a reputation for exceptional customer service, scoring 4.7 out of 5 on review site Trustpilot from over 2,000 reviews. Additionally, the company avoids the issue of carrying excess stock by finishing all orders by hand in its Yorkshire based workshop, though the company’s HQ is in Richmond, Surrey. The result is “a custom made fit, without going to the time or expense of bespoke”.

Applying the same obsession on fit to the upper body, Spoke expanded its offering to T-shirts, polos and now shirts, though its legwear remains the main focus (which also incorporates shorts) as perfect fitting chinos was the sector the brand first targeted when it launched back in 2014, though its denim jeans made a huge instant impact when a pilot line was introduced at the end of 2019.

It’s not all been plain sailing though, as when the COVID-19 pandemic struck there wasn’t much call for men to buy new great fitting chinos when they weren’t going anywhere and were at home on Zoom meetings.

However, benefitting from the changing world of work post pandemic, Spoke is currently trading ahead of target for the full year, with year-on-year gross revenues currently up over 60% on 2021’s £17m. Business is also now some 50% up on pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

Farren talks us through the turbulent times of the pandemic, the success of the TV advert, trading post pandemic and plans following the new investment. 

Spoke menswear

How is business in the wake of the COVID pandemic?

We are experiencing an exhilarating post pandemic recovery, with growth of more than 60% year-on year. As work and going out trends normalise, we’re reaping the benefits.

What are the plans for the new £5m investment?

The money raised will enable us to accelerate our progress in our international markets of Europe and the US, where we are currently growing at over 100% per annum, and progress towards our vision of building the world’s most personalised menswear brand.

The time is now right to invest in the US. We’re more than doubling year on year, and the economics of our American customers are incredibly strong. We are aiming to quadruple sales in the country by 2024.

How would you best describe your ‘Jack the Mannequin’ TV advert and why did you choose to re-release it on ITV 4 for the Tour de France?

‘Jack the Mannequin’ is Spoke’s first network TV advert. The story is that, like many men, Jack isn’t a 'standard', off-the-peg size, and he struggles to find a good fit. However, as a mannequin looking for work, things were proving especially tough for Jack. Then he discovers Spoke, and our custom-fit trousers, and everything just clicks. In the ad, Jack recounts his journey, from being rejected by high street stores to becoming the face of Spoke – a clothing brand aiming to help more men find the right fit. That pretty much sums it up. It's light-hearted, but gets our message across perfectly, and raises brand awareness.

The Tour de France started 1 July, and finished in Paris on 24 July, with 21 day long stages. We advertised across the whole period as ITV 4 showed live coverage every afternoon, and highlights every evening at 7pm. Cycling chimes well with our target male customer demographic - into performance clothing and fit. Like rugby, where we have also had great success - advertising during the last Six Nations tournament - our clothing reflects customers’ builds as well as their waist and leg length. Going forward, it’s highly likely we will also advertise during future major rugby competitions with the ‘Jack the Mannequin’ campaign.

The good thing about TV is it gives you extraordinary reach, a different kind of reach to what you get in any other way. It gives you brand awareness at the very top of the funnel, and makes things easier on the likes of Facebook and Instagram.

What was the driving force behind launching Spoke in the first place?

Put simply, I thought fashion was short-changing men as it was failing to deliver on what really matters, fit. I wasn’t from a fashion background previously but it was a problem that bothered me, so I thought a lot of other men would feel the same way.

We can offer 400 size options, where as most brands only offer 30 or 40. But you don’t need to go fully bespoke. Bespoke is a hassle. It makes sense if you’re going to spend over £1,000 on a suit, but it doesn’t make sense if you want to buy a pair of chinos. At the same time, ‘ready-to-wear’ isn’t what it says it is. We’re all tired of taking our stuff to the dry cleaners to get it adjusted. So, our concept means customers get a proper fit, something that really is ready-to-wear. We’ve used an ecommerce model to solve the problem, giving people the opportunity to fine tune the fit without the hassle and expense of bespoke. The Spoke name hints at bespoke because it’s as close as you’re going to get.

Spoke menswear

Where did your inspiration to go direct-to-consumer from the start in 2014 come from?

I was inspired by the explosion of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands in the US. Amongst those were a few interesting menswear brands, and amongst those were some brands that were focusing on fit. So, it’s not like I alighted on something totally unheard of, as there’s nothing new under the sun. However, there weren’t many brands doing the whole DTC thing here in the UK. Even now it feels like we’ve got less competition than I might have expected at this point.

As a strictly online DTC business, how did you fair during the pandemic?

The pandemic was difficult. There were plenty of online businesses that really benefited, and many people approached me thinking that we must have been going great guns because we were just online. But, many people were making jokes back in April 2020 about how they were taking Zoom calls in their pants. And I can tell you for a fact that they were! They stopped buying chinos overnight. It was harrowing, as the bottom just fell out of our market. We instantly lost 60% - 70% of our business.

Painfully I had to let half of my staff go and raise the government loan just to make sure the business didn’t go under. To make things worse, we were about to launch swimwear as the pandemic struck, which was an absolute disaster, though it’s actually performing really well for us now.

I think menswear had a harder time of it at the start of the pandemic than womenswear. Guys were more like, ‘I’m not going out, so why would I need anything new in my wardrobe?’ And they just sat in sweatpants for the duration.

Did you widen your offer as a result?

We did start to do a bit of loungewear, but more importantly we really got in to stretch denim. That bailed us out. About 20% of my business is now denim, but I actually don’t know if that would be the case if it wasn’t for the pandemic. So, we emerged from the crisis feeling much stronger and fitter, because we had a broader range that was more casualised, which was probably the way to go.

We were forced in to areas where we were probably going, but not as fast as we had to act. It actually means we’ve got a really durable range now. We are still incredibly focused on legwear, because that’s where our expertise is, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past eight years and that’s where we understand the sizing game better than anybody else.

When did you initially launch denim?

We did a pilot launch at the end of 2019, and that went bananas. Selling out so quickly was a strong indication that it was a good thing to do. In many ways it was sweetly timed. Firstly, we had already developed the product, and secondly, we’d already proven that there was a market there for it – immediately before the pandemic struck. So, we were able to scale up in denim quite quickly. Whereas, it took me six months to get our loungewear out, which I regret because I should have moved faster on that.

In many ways the loungewear business has now settled in to a steady stream. It doesn’t make a huge difference to the business today, but I think I could have made more out of it during the pandemic itself. Our main piece on that front is what we call the ‘House Trouser’. It’s basically a posh sweat pant in Portuguese jersey cotton.

The ‘Fridays’ drawstring chino is also very casual, was that launched during the pandemic too?

No, we’d actually started with those in 2019 as well, but again it felt sweetly timed because as a work from home trouser they are great – with an elasticated waist and a drawstring. They are supremely comfortable. The idea behind the ‘Fridays’ before the pandemic was having one step to the weekend, a trouser that bridged you between a weekday and the weekend. We got to the pandemic and nobody knew the difference between a weekday and the weekend! But we sold it quite successfully as a work from home trouser. They come in lightweight Italian cotton with a 2% stretch, selling for £110, though going up to £125 for the hopsack version.

What repercussions have you had from Brexit?

Brexit has been hard. Someone said to me you have to behave like a tightrope walker and look forward not down or back. Brexit has not been helpful to us, and it hasn’t been for many people. That’s been felt most keenly in terms of sales into Continental Europe, which were going quite nicely. Margins got instantly ruined by Brexit. Whatever we got told about free trade was just absolute nonsense for orders over the value of €150.

There’s been massive surcharges. So, what have we done? We’ve built a distribution centre in Germany, and we’ve set our margins back to where they should be. It’s a pain in that I have to spend a bit more money on inventory, and two warehouses rather than one, but our volumes in Germany have got to the point where we can justify that.

Going farther afield, why is the US proving such a strong market for you?

Our American customer buys more, has bigger baskets and returns to us to buy more even faster that our UK customer. As a whole in the UK, we see 20% of first-time customers repeat orders within 30 days, so people are coming back really fast. But in America it’s even bigger on repeats, with more like 25% coming back for more in a short period. The train is chugging fast in America for sure.

How do you really get your brand and product out there in the US?

Like most DTC brands, we pay rates dutifully to Facebook, Instagram and Google, and the implications of that are you rely on the algorithm. In the US market, we’ve slightly lost the art of targeting specifically, relying on the likes of Facebook to go and find our customers.

We can look at the outcome of that, and discover that inevitably we’ve got a load of customers on the east coast, in New York and Washington, and on the west coast in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We’ve also got quite a lot in Chicago, Austin, Houston and Dallas, as well as some in Miami. But we didn’t target those places, we were led there by the digital advertising algorithms which took us to them. I think that will change in the next year as we scale up our business in the US.

We’ll probably target each region with a bit more focus, which will allow us to get in to more channels than just the digital channels that we currently operate in. For now,  it’s quite scattered – we just go where the market takes us.

Spoke menswear

What’s really new in terms of Spoke product?

We recently added ‘Tolos’ to our offer, which have the softness of a T-shirt but the smartness of a polo shirt. They are made from Portuguese jersey cotton which is really soft and stretchy and they are now  a personal favourite of mine for the summer months.

We’ve also just launched a golf collection of chinos and polos, called the ‘Condor Range’, which has stretch and technical features. We see big potential for that.

How big is your tops business compared to your trouser business?

We now sell getting on for 2,500 T-shirts a month. I didn’t mean to make T-shirts, that was just a bit of a hobby we started because we thought we could cross over to people already buying our trousers. That’s really still how we pitch them now, as we’re a trouser brand - we know legs. I kind of cap the tops range at about 15% - 20% of what we do, but we do sell hundreds every week. To offer a comparison, in high season this summer we had orders for around 20,000 pairs of trousers (including jeans) a month.

Is having a physical retail presence in your plans?

It was, as I nearly signed a lease for a unit in London’s Seven Dials about two weeks before Covid hit! The consequence of that is I now behave a little bit like someone who’s nearly been runover by a car behaves around cars! Let’s just say, I’m a little jumpy. The idea of being stuck into a five-year lease when you don’t know what the future holds is a little nerve racking.

It's true that there are more flexible terms being offered now, and there’s lots of space available, but it’s the way it will pre-occupy us that doesn’t now appeal. If I opened a shop now, we would all be obsessed about it and it would take too much of our time up.

Retail operations are completely different to anything we’ve done to date and, anyway, we’ve got a lot of exciting opportunities ahead, especially now America is back and growing again. Also, the TV thing is really taking off, and we’re pushing our UK online business further and faster than we ever thought was possible. So, do I now want to tell everybody to down tools because we’re going to open a shop? Not right now is the answer.

However, I will say that this brand isn’t complete until there is a physical manifestation of it somewhere. And probably more than in one place. Our size offering means we needs to be focused on one central distribution centre, rather than spread across lots of stores. I don’t see it ever becoming a 30 store chain around the country, but I can see a flagship store in every major geography we are in, and maybe we will end up with three or four stores in the UK.

Free NewsletterVISIT