The Interview: Ben Farren, founder and CEO, Spoke
Ben Farren is an entrepreneur with no background in fashion and retail, but a lot of conviction. He launched Spoke in 2013, and he seemingly spotted a gap in the menswear market for trousers, particularly chinos – and now jeans – in such a wide range of sizes that it’s almost impossible not to find the perfect fit. It seems to have struck a note with a lot of customers who were more often than not in between sizes offered by most brands and retailers.
To date Spoke has raised $7.4m of funds, sales have grown six-fold in the last three years – with 15% of revenues now coming from international sales, particularly America – and there are now 36 members of staff at the Spoke offices in Richmond, Surrey, to deal with the growing demand. Farren talks us through the journey so far
What’s your background and when and why did you launch men’s legwear brand Spoke?
I used to be a management consultant, and I ran a financial tech mobile money application start-up in Africa. I have no business making clothes really, and there’s nothing in my background to suggest I would end up here, which is not to say I don’t quite enjoy it. But it was undertaken because I thought there was a business opportunity and because I understood the problems as a consumer, especially with regard to fit. I became increasingly pre-occupied with challenges I had with my own wardrobe, and also the explosion of direct to consumer businesses in America. I thought to myself, how hard can it be? So, I ran a pilot in the summer of 2013, and sold 200 pairs of trousers. It was one flavour of chinos, navy blue.
What was your thinking behind it?
I thought there was a customer opportunity and a product opportunity. Fashion short-changes men, it’s in thrall to womenswear which is 78% of the market – so that’s what fashion brands are solving. They walk straight past us to our wives and girlfriends and supposedly talk about things that we don’t really care about. But I think guys do enjoy the feeling of scrubbing up well, looking well put together and stepping out in some decent threads. They just want it sold and explained to them on their own terms, and I thought it was about time someone did that.
You graduate from disposable clothing on ASOS, and then maybe find yourself on Mr Porter, and you see say a £9,000 Gucci man-bag and think what am I doing here? In the middle you have a bunch of staid old fashion high street and catalogue brands and I just thought it was a space that was ripe for disruption.
It was also a product opportunity, because If you ask the guy who I’m talking about what he cares about, nine times out of 10 he’ll end up telling you about fit. He’ll say fit comes first, and it’s incredibly hard to find. Traditional retail can’t deliver on it. We all know what it’s like to walk out in a pair of trousers that’s a centimetre too short and swinging round our ankles, and it literally puts us off our stride. But the reverse is true if you find something that fits like a glove – you’ll go back and buy three more pairs in different colours. As well as our website, www.spoke-london.com, we also regularly use traditional mail order catalogues, offering new products, colours, fabrics and so on, which generates more repeat business as well.
Why do think that traditional brands don’t deliver on fit?
They don’t deliver on it for really good permanent structural reasons. If you spread your stock across lots of stores and stock rooms, something has to give. And the first thing to give is sizing. I used to feel the frustration of being in the size gaps. I’m six foot and 78 kilos on a good a day, so I’m pretty average and yet, because I’m a 33- inch waist, not a 32 anymore and not a 34, I could rarely find anything that was bang on. And if you multiply that by a 31-inch leg, not a 30 or a 32, then the problem only gets worse. So, it felt to me, that for somebody who was pretty average, I had an awful lot of trouble getting clothes that fit me. Add to that I had to visit the tailor at the dry cleaners all the time to get clothes altered so they fit me properly. If you want to talk about a lightbulb moment, then that was really it. It wasn’t where we should be at in 2019. So, I thought that with a digital storefront and a 21stCentury supply chain we could do better.
Trousers are horribly underserved, so in all of that lies the genesis of Spoke. It’s half an outfit and it deserves attention. There’s a big customer constituency, segment or whatever you want to call it, we call him Jack, who wants to scrub up and doesn’t want to try too hard – or look like he tries too hard. He understands that fit is the key thing and loves it when he gets it. That’s our customer. Our returns rate is low, and we have a very high rate of repeat business, which is really the underpinnings of our business.
Where did the Spoke name come from?
It comes from the idea of being virtually bespoke. We found a sweet spot between ready-to-wear and bespoke, which is a pain because it takes too long, requires multiple fittings and is expensive. There’s lots of reasons not to like bespoke, and lots of reasons to resent ready-to-wear. We wanted to find something in the middle, so we called it Spoke. It started out as a working title, and like a lot of working titles it just stuck. Almost, but not quite bespoke, is pretty much exactly where we are pitching it.
You have now implemented a similar focus on fit to the top half, with polo shirts and T-shirts, but will legwear remain king?
I think that the single most important thing for any new brand is to try to be famous for something, and to understand something really, truly, properly and in a reasonably deep and fundamental level. And, also to not get distracted by the siren call of every other category out there. That’s something we’ve stuck to pretty well over the last six years. But it is true to say that we have made our first foray above the belt with a line of polo shirts and T-shirts recently, and it’s provided some light relief as I’m pretty tired of photographing crotches!
But, fundamentally that’s a side hustle, a hobby which helps us to dress a guy head to toe for a photo shoot. And it’s nice to bring some of our fit methodology to the top half as well as the bottom half, but legs are complicated. They are unlike any other part of the body and they are where the action is. So, we see it as our mission to solve legwear. We now do everything from denim to smart dry-clean only wool slacks and everything in-between. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of styles and fabrics. It’s a big playground. We’ve also now added shorts.
Are chinos still the main driving force or are jeans now a main focus?
With denim selling so strongly for us now I don’t know if chinos are going to remain as dominant as they are for much longer. We made a beautiful denim jean and it took us 18 months to develop it, and now we are offering different washes, fabrics and cuts. We’re also now looking at using some great Japanese mills in the next six months. But, at the moment we literally can’t make enough denim to stay in stock.
I think so many people have found themselves in a default rut when it comes to jeans. They have been buying their jeans from the same big brands, like they always have, just because they have found out which ones fit them the best. But, I think it’s possible to create a brand that actually resonates with them in a more meaningful way, and also perhaps fits them better than those ones they’ve been wearing for the last 10 years. I think there is a real opportunity in denim for us, and the early sales have been eye-watering.
How do you manage to offer such a huge size range?
Well, it would be terrifying if all 200 sizes were ready to go off the shelf! So, we finish the trousers to order with a team of seamstresses in our warehouse in Yorkshire – predominantly finishing leg lengths. So, actually all that is required is that we run to something like 35 different waist and build combinations. We do lots of waist sizes, including all the odd numbers and we do three different builds – an A, B and C – for different hefts through the seat and thigh area. Our production is predominantly in Portugal and Romania, with some in Italy. The starting price for the chinos is £89 and the jeans are £119. It’s all direct to consumer, we don’t do any wholesale at all, though I don’t completely rule that out.
But really the only way you can offer our size range is by finishing to order and consolidating all of your inventory in one place. If I spread that thinly across lots of wholesale accounts, I’m never going to be able to offer the kind of size range that makes us distinctive. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of working with a retailer that we really admire, say a Liberty or Selfridges, maybe on a concession basis – or just take a rail, because I would love to be associated with them, and I can see the marketing value of that.
It’s something that, in time, we may explore, but the volume for us is always going to be online, because there is really no other way to solve the fit issues that we understand. We’re selling 10,000 pairs a month now, and we’ve got over 100,000 customers. In the early days, paid social media – particularly Facebook and Instagram, played a big part is building the baseline of customers, but we’re not so reliant on that now.
You’re now working with referral marketing experts Mention Me, how does that help to grow your sales?
Mention Me amplifies sales because it supports and encourages referral. So, if you buy from us, you’re encouraged to tell your friends about us, and you’re going to benefit with a discount and so are they. To the extent that there’s a steady stream of new customers and your able to amplify that and get a multiple of those customers by using the Mention Me campaign. It’s that whole ‘tell a friend’ concept for each referral that comes through that ends up as a sale. So, if you use a referral code that is given to you through the Mention Me programme when you make a purchase, they make a small commission. Mention Me is great, it’s a really well-run company with smart software and it has a great impact. Also, there is nothing better than a friend referral.
Do you have any plans for own standalone bricks and mortar retail?
I think that ultimately retail is going to be an inevitable development for this business. The jury was out about five years ago as to whether direct to consumer businesses needed a retail presence or whether they could exist entirely virtually. But I think that most people have now concluded that some kind of retail presence makes an awful lot of sense.
It’s hard to argue that you’ve truly completed your brand unless you’ve explored some form of physical space. You could do stuff in a store that is so much more vivid and real that you’re ever going to achieve in somebody’s news feeds.
So, I think that some sort of home-based flagship shop is where we can explore some of the lifestyle that we fit in to – and deliver a better fit in person. It will happen in the next 12-18 months, most likely in London because a lot of our customers are here and we’re here.
One of the reasons that people have concluded that retail matters in 2019, amidst what is supposed to be a retail apocalypse, is that actually what a lot of the direct to consumer brands are finding is it’s a great customer recruitment channel, lo and behold! In turns out, store fronts are a great way of advertising your brand, and recruit new customers, many of which may have encountered you online but have not been ready to take the plunge.
I hold out real hope that retail could be a very efficient customer recruitment channel for us. I’ve been holding off, because I think focus is the single best discipline you can bring to an early start-up, and the minute we start operating in a physical space a bunch of new complexities will come in to our lives that we hadn’t even begun to consider yet, and it might blow our minds. But I’m excited to do it.