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The Interview: Giulio Cinque, Founder and Creative Director, GIULIO, Cambridge and Kingston-upon-Thames

Tom Bottomley
10 March 2022

Established in Cambridge in 1982, 40 years ago this year, GIULIO agreed investment from JD Sports Fashion in July 2019. Founder Giulio Cinque continues to steer the ship as Creative Director. The business now benefits from financial weight, hence the big investment in the Kingston store which opened last summer. It’s the first GIULIO store outside of its native Cambridge, but it has likely set the bar for more stores to follow in the future in other locations. Tom Bottomley caught up with Giulio at the store in Kingston to talk about how he’s created a modern retail environment, and how he is taking the business forward.

How did the investment from JD Sports Fashion come about in 2019?

It was more of a personal thing. Going forward I felt that we would need investment to keep pace with what was happening within the industry. One only has to admire what Flannels have done. I was also noticing the decline of multi-brand independents on the high street, not being able to invest and keep pace. I realised it would take a lot more than one person and significant investment if you’re going to take the business forward. Otherwise, it just slowly deteriorates because of growing brand expectations, such as store environments and brand adjacencies. JD were the right fit for what I wanted to do and we were both very much aligned. I wanted to develop the GIULIO business, including online, and they wanted to develop that luxury part of the market, which they weren’t present in. As a long-standing independent luxury fashion business, I was one of a few that had position in the market in terms of the reputation and image that we had built over the years with brand partners. That was something we both wanted to explore, so it was an ideal collaboration.

Why did you select Kingston to open your first GIULIO store outside of Cambridge last summer?

JD’s knowledge of the retail market place identified Kingston as a potential location, with GIULIO as the ideal fascia. It provided the opportunity to create the new store. To find larger locations in Cambridge is complex and this was a chance for us to elevate our current retail portfolio. The Kingston store is 7,500 sq ft, trading over two floors, and is in a prime location on the main high street, at 51-53 Clarence Street. It was previously a drab looking Monsoon store, but we totally revamped the building.

Giulio

Ground floor womenswear

Did you envisage being next door but one to Flannels on Kingston’s high street?

Flannels opened next door but one on the high street before us, but that was pure coincidence as we had already commenced work on the building. I think we complement each other. We can all co-exist and express ourselves in different ways in the marketplace. Some of the product may be the same, but it is what you actually do in the environment you’re in and how a consumer wants to associate with that product and environment. I think it’s really important to respect brand integrity and provide the showcase they are looking for.

There’s a great belief in the potential of the marketplace in Kingston. There’s a lot of thought that has gone into the process. What has been interesting for me is it’s a different dynamic to what we have in Cambridge. That is what has been exciting about the project. GIULIO isn’t just about Cambridge now, and what a great opportunity to be able to further develop the business – working with experts and a very successful company that is JD.

How did you go about creating the new store?

It was very much about creating a store where people actually want to go to, spend time and shop. We wanted to create touch points in the store. That was the first thing, without even thinking about product. Of course, we’ve got some great product, but so have a lot of other businesses today, it is about creating something special for the location. That’s really where I started to think about what sort of environment I wanted to create. I worked closely with architects to re-imagine the building. The red brick you now see from the outside of the store wasn’t previously exposed. The building was covered in black hoarding. There was no visibility into the store apart from the windows facing the high street. Now we have six large five metre windows stretching right back down to the end of the building, which are single panes of glass - details I wanted to start off with. The idea was to use the backdrop of the outside, inside, so to speak, and incorporate the narrative of day-to-day life creating a sense of theatre inside the store. You can see throughout the store from the outside which produces a feeling that you can already touch the product. Equally, you feel part of the outside when you’re inside, so there’s a real connection and openness about it.

Downstairs in menswear

How would you best describe the interior of the store?

The brief I gave to the architects was that I wanted a gallery-type space. Existing features and materials within the building are contrasted with contemporary fixtures and fittings. We haven’t used spotlights in the ceilings, as that would have looked cluttered and fussy. We used strip LED lighting down the length of the store on both floors, which is one of my favourite details. It adds to the theatre and means one can see everything clearly. The interior of the store contrasts between old and new. The lift shaft, for example, is made out of breeze blocks which already existed. We have left it exposed to give a raw feel. We could have covered it with plasterboard and painted it white, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to bring out the honesty of the building and to use some of the existing elements, such as exposed brickwork, to form part of the backdrop for the product. Why not use it? It would be difficult to recreate that. In terms of product, it’s very shoppable – there is not lots of product on rails. You can see each individual piece. It’s an environment that people will want to go in and discover a particular item, not just a brand.

Was the idea to engage younger customers as well as more mature?

Yes, introducing younger consumers to a retail experience. We must remember clients in their twenties today have been shopping online most of their lives, and they are expecting the same energy they’ve had living on their devices for the past 10 years. The idea is to find a connection within our space through the feel of the environment, the design, the layout and the music. Somewhere with a cool vibe where customers want to visit, spend time in and experience the emotions of physical retail rather than just buying online. Our more mature client is used to the constant desire for innovation and newness, and has trusted and continues to follow the GIULIO experience today.

What other store design features are there?

I wanted the environment to be changeable, so fixtures and rails are predominantly freestanding and can be moved around however and whenever needed. Changing rooms are singular objects looking like furniture pieces, rather than standard boxed in changing rooms. They are spacious with seating, and customers are able to come out into a larger area of the store where larger mirrors continue to shield one from the shop floor. Customers are able to share the space. The idea is for clients to live the space, another important touchpoint. The three downstairs changing rooms are constructed from hot rolled blackened steel which has been lacquered - a very impressive furniture item. We also have a large LED screen in front of the changing room space where we can show short films and showcase brand assets. It creates movement within the space. The free standing in-store speakers, which I first saw in a showroom in Italy, are another very cool feature and touchpoint. We also have stunning marble payment desks. When one enters a wonderful showroom its inspirational, there’s been a thought process in the creation, and I wanted to emulate that within the store environment. Especially as we are hopefully emerging out of the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now very much about how you can excite the consumer within the retail space.

The first floor has an airy loft space feel to it with amazing high ceilings, and again with big windows letting in lots of light. I wanted to maximise the beauty of the building. The first floor is also where we have our chill out area, which has plenty of seating and a large silver pod shaped changing room which is perfect for our more personalised shopping service. We can even prepare a selection of pieces to be ready for a customer’s arrival. The chill out area covers 600 sq ft, so it’s also a space where we can promote product launches. It’s a luxury environment to complement the luxury product.

The "Chill Out" area

How would you best describe the product mix?

Our product mix is a showcase of our extensive library of designer brands. We are unable to showcase absolutely everything we do, but there is a carefully curated selection of product. We also wanted a slightly different narrative in Kingston compared to the Cambridge store. It is not just about the everyday brands that form the basis of the business, as we wanted to take that a step further. We partner with many amazing brands, but then we wanted to introduce newness as part of our developing narrative – brands such as Homme Plissé Issey Miyake, Lanvin, Marni, Casablanca, Amiri, Dries Van Noten, 1017 ALYX 9SM and A-COLD-WALL*. We wanted alternative adjacencies to most retailers. It is not a “men’s downstairs” and “women’s upstairs” set-up, we have both offers on both floors, though each obviously have their own areas. We want men and women to be able to shop the space together and not have a total separation. The front of the ground floor is predominantly menswear, but you discover an extensive women’s selection further inside. The way I see young couples shopping today is together. The downstairs offer has more of a luxury streetwear leaning.

Our women’s selection includes a select mix of brands, such as Moncler, Jil Sander, Marni, Dries Van Noten, Alexander Wang, Off-White and Palm Angels. There is a synergy between the men’s and the women’s offers. Our intention is to represent men’s and womenswear collections from the same brands where possible.

Is your womenswear offer growing?

Womenswear is indeed now a big focus for us. Giulio is predominantly known for menswear, and has traditionally been a 75/25 split with womenswear. The intention is to get closer to 60/40, men’s to women’s. On the first floor, we present Vivienne Westwood, Herve Leger, JW Anderson, Jil Sander and Khaite in the mix, and in the chill out area there’s also a selection of women’s sneakers from brands such as Axel Arigato, Golden Goose and Veja.

The first floor women's area

Who does the buying?

My brother Joe, who has worked with me from the start, is the Head Buyer, with a recent addition of an assistant buyer. We have also recently hired a dedicated womenswear specialist. It’s a small team, but it’s growing. I do less of the buying myself these days, but I’m still very much involved, as one would expect from an obsessive.

Would you say it’s all high price investment pieces in the store?

There is an obvious consideration towards commerciality – there has to be. Core brands are an important element of the business, and continue to be so. The manner in which we deliver them is not obvious and always takes into consideration the message of the brand. As well as the higher end luxury designer brands and products, there are also more accessible price points in the store. There are brands such as thom/krom, AMI, Comme des Garçons PLAY and Y-3, which we have partnered with for some time. It’s about getting the brand mix right and relevant to your consumer. GIULIO has historically created a client who appreciates luxury brands, and that continues today. Though, there is a misconception that just because it’s a designer branded product it’s going to be expensive. People do buy into luxury brands at a price they can afford. They start where they feel most comfortable. It’s part of their journey with a brand. We build clients through our dedication, constantly researching newness and relevance within the industry. We are very fortunate in that we have a wide range of clients. Consumers are excited to be associated with the GIULIO experience.

Do you still get a buzz from the business?

I have been in business now for 40 years, and people may ask why do I still do it? It’s because of the love for what I do, and our customers feel the same. They grow up with you. We constantly challenge our customer, and that attracts new and younger customers. Popular brands with our younger customers presently are Balenciaga, Gucci, Fendi, Moncler, Canada Goose, Stone Island, C.P. Company, Off-White, Kenzo, Casablanca, Y-3, AMI and Palm Angels, but there are emerging brands and designers they may not have heard of to discover. The key is, product is well presented in an incredible environment. The consumer journey is seamless, and that’s the way it should be.

Stone Island menswear on the first floor

How important are the staff and the service levels?

We have a high level of staff – people who really know their stuff. We want them to engage and make the customers feel special regardless of what they are spending, whether it be £10 or £10,000. There is a different approach to the standard shopping experience. We want it to be much more of a personalised experience. Our staff are very knowledgeable, and there’s a big focus on that. We want the customers to spend time in the store and we want them to really experience the environment, and our staff are very much on hand to help and inform. It’s not just about the product, it’s about trust and a sense of belonging. That’s important to me. We obviously need to do well in business, but it’s the way we deliver the experience. That has always been very important to GIULIO.

You’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of GIULIO this May, but will you have any reference to that in Kingston where you are only just getting established?

It’s an interesting one as a lot of people won’t know us from Cambridge, though we do introduce them to our history. There has been the odd person who is aware of us as they have been students in the past at Cambridge University, but are now living within the Kingston area. Not having long been open in Kingston, we are not really able to go big on us being 40 years-old. We will get the message over somehow, as I think that will help with the trust we’re building in the area, and it will mean we can establish that trust quicker. It is new to people here, but there is a story behind GIULIO to tell. And a pretty good one at that!

How has the Kingston store performed so far?

It is still very early days as we have only been open 10 months but it’s been really positive and we have already seen some great results. I’ve been really encouraged. Nobody has the right to be successful somewhere new instantly – it is a building process, and opening during a pandemic is not the best time to gauge. Kingston is a very different place compared to Cambridge. What I have liked is the different types of people. It is a very multi-cultural location, which is brilliant. We have the desire and passion and believe we will do well here. Consumer habits have changed as there has been a huge shift to online shopping which the pandemic really accelerated, but people still want to connect with a real person in a retail space. There is a much bigger thought process that goes in to how that looks and feels right now. I would like to think we do our best to deliver a seamless retail experience from the product to the execution and level of service.

What about your online business?

We still sell through Farfetch, with whom we partnered with very early on – about 12 years ago now. Farfetch is such a great platform, its global visibility is second to none. We did not have our own website when we started out with Farfetch, so it really gave us a reach we did not have before. We introduced our own online business about eight years ago, but the amount of investment required to do a decent job was not in our capabilities at the time. However, since the JD Sports Fashion investment, it has become a huge focus, though I believe physical retail is just as important as it is a much more personal experience. We certainly benefited from a surge in online sales during the various lockdowns. With the great support of our investors, who obviously have great teams in place, our social media presence and online sales continue to grow. What is very pleasing is they are very enthusiastic, because they are working with really great luxury product which is inspirational. I think it’s given everyone involved a real lift.

Is the plan to open more Giulio stores in the future?

Opening in Kingston has really opened me up to thinking there are some amazing places outside of Cambridge, and there are certainly plans to open further stores elsewhere. We want to get it right for each location. We are not in a rush, it is a process rather than just a roll-out. The intention is to grow the business organically, it is a very considered approach and the business has to be profitable. The first step we have taken, by opening in Kingston, has shown the nature of our intention. We need to get this one right, then we can start to look elsewhere.

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