The Interview: Henry Hales, founder and director, SIRPLUS
From a stall on Portobello Market selling boxer shorts made out of surplus shirt fabrics in 2011 to five London stores today, a growing online customer base and best-selling knitted polo shirts and Cuban shirts, SIRPLUS is brand making some noise – even during lockdown. Founder and director, Henry Hales, reveals how he’s coping with his brand’s shops still shut.
How is business for SIRPLUS right now?
Our website is actually trading pretty well, so that’s reassuring. We’ve been busy fulfilling online orders, but the difficulty is that the stock we’re selling isn’t the stock that we expected to sell so well. People's lives have changed a lot, they’re not going out to the events that they were going out to and they’re not going on holiday, so we’re selling more of the casual clothing. At the beginning of the year, you do your plan, and say you’re going to sell 1,000 of one piece, 500 of another, then all of a sudden that was just turned upside down. It means that certain things that would normally sell really well now, aren’t selling well at all, yet certain things that aren’t normally such big sellers have become our top sellers. Then you’ve got to start having discussions with the factories about changing production to make something different to what was previously planned. That’s just one of many examples of concerns. Then, obviously, our shops are shut, so we’re not making any sales from them.
What are you current best sellers?
At the moment, our best seller is a cream knitted button-through polo shirt, which we also do in navy. It’s a new product, so it’s taken us by surprise. It probably would have done quite well regardless of the lockdown, or maybe it’s the lockdown that’s helping, but it’s been really good for us. We’ve currently sold out of the cream one, but we are taking pre-orders for more, and we are getting a lot of pre-orders online so it’s looking good. We’re hoping we will be able to fulfil those orders by late June. You never really know how many more to get made, you just look at how many you’ve sold, if it’s been featured anywhere or if you’ve got any high-profile people wearing it. Then make a best guess. But, because that one is selling out so quickly, we’re really backing it. Our Cuban shirts are also really popular right now, as are our Nehru collared jackets.
Where are your five stores in London?
The first one I opened is on Portobello Road, on the corner where it joins Golborne Road, having started out on Portobello Market selling boxer shorts made out of material left over from tailors’ shirts. I’d buy the surplus fabrics off tailors. I still do the boxer shorts, as they are now a staple product of ours. The physical store next to the market became available, so I took it on and grew it from there. Originally, I just thought I’d take it on and use it as our office too, thinking it doesn’t really need to be that busy providing it pays for itself and helps our online business. But it turned out to do really well, and I then looked for another store across the other side of town – in Camden Passage, over in Angel. That one has been great too. I’ve tried to go for stores that aren’t on a busy road in terms of traffic, more in charming areas. I then opened in Princes Arcade, Piccadilly, followed by a shop on the King’s Road in September 2019 and, most recently, on Marylebone High Street – though that one is a pop-up with a view to going permanent depending on how it performs, which it’s not at all at the moment of course! We’ve only been in there for five months, and two of those months we’ve been on lockdown. Up until the lockdown it was actually performing well. As much as we can we still use surplus fabrics for our products, most of which come from Italy though some do come from the UK.
Having you been receiving any support from landlords during lockdown?
It depends which! Some have been supportive and others haven’t been. By and large they have understood that we can’t be paying full rent when we’re not trading. If you’re forced to close, yet still made to pay the rent, then all of us would be out of business pretty quickly. What we’ve found is, where there’s a landlord that owns the whole area, they realise that if they’re too harsh on everyone then they’ll just have a whole street of empty shops, whereas, when there’s a landlord that just owns your one shop, he’s more concerned with how much he can extract out of you. So, there’s just been discussions, but most people have been reasonably sensible. At least the government has given us a freeze on the business rates until April 2021. That’s a huge help. Also, I got grants for some of my shops, which has been great, but I haven’t been able to get on the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), or the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) yet. That’s been a bit of a blow, but I think there’s quite a few people in the same boat. However, as we have so far in the main had good discussions with our landlords, and our online store is performing well, I’m pretty optimistic that we should be okay.
How are you looking ahead to AW20?
With some difficulty, but we’re trying to focus on the products we sell well, which are less seasonal than some of the others. We’re just looking to make the products that people want, and we’re not really being too experimental, though we do have a lot of cool things coming out. We’re not haute couture and lampshades on torsos, we’re just doing great quality clothing that people like to wear. So, they’ll be more, and improved, shirting and some nice chore and work jackets in different fabrics. We’ve also got some really great loungewear, because people are obviously buying a lot more of that at the moment, such as dressing gowns and some interesting pyjamas. Then there’s new accessories coming, like scarves and beanies, and a new puffer jacket, which is quite exciting.
How will your fabric sourcing be impacted?
I suspect that, because we make with a lot of surplus fabric, and a lot of companies will be cancelling their production orders, we should be able to get some good fabrics. I don’t think the prices will be that different, I just think they’ll be more of it. We’re looking for different wools, cashmere and cotton.
Now that the government has announced June 1 as a potential re-opening date, will you be working towards that?
We will definitely work towards that. We currently have five shops in London, so we’ll probably start with one shop and then take it from there and try to figure out what’s safe - taking it one step at a time. If we think we’re able to trade safely, then we will certainly open. In terms of the first store to re-open, I think that will probably be the one in Marylebone because we’ve not really traded there for long, so it would be good to try to experiment with it. Then the King’s Road store because it’s usually quite busy there. The last one to reopen will probably be our store in Princes Arcade, Piccadilly. I suspect that Central London will be quieter, and they’ll certainly be fewer tourists.
How have you been keeping in touch with customers during lockdown?
We’ve recently started doing Instagram Stories and we’re generally being more active on social media. We’re trying to send out more newsletters, keeping them as relevant as possible. We’re also keeping our customer service strong, and keeping our normal online channels open to make people aware that, whilst the shops aren’t open, we’re still in business and still trying to look after them as best as possible.
What are your expectations for trade once you are allowed to re-open?
I think it will be quieter and trade will be significantly down, but then we could be surprised. We might find that perhaps bigger shops can’t manage the restrictions and social distancing measures effectively – so they may decide to stay closed. That could be to our advantage. We’ve certainly seen people gravitating more towards independent brands and retailers online, so hopefully that will happen in the stores as well.
Regarding employers’ guidance on re-opening workplaces, the government states “workplaces must be safe and COVID-secure,” so what actions will you be taking?
We’re going to be having a strategy meeting soon, and we’ll look to having a queue outside the stores, only letting one or two people in at a time, depending on which shop it is. We’re going to have in-store customer appointments too. And we will be putting up screens in the stores for the sales guys to be behind. We’ll also maybe have shorter trading hours, and we’ll have regular communication with all of our store staff to make sure they’re all doing okay and they’re all very aware of the regulations. In terms of customers trying things on, we might have to have two products on the go at any one time, whereby one is tried on and the other is put on hold and essentially quarantined in a quarantine area in the shop. There’s talk of that anyway. We’re still trying to work out our plan and what’s best. We might have to say that people can try on specific garments, but others they just look at.
How will you be communicating the safety aspect to customers?
We’ve got a graphic designer who will be doing some signage. If somebody was to book an appointment, we will communicate with them how we are operating via email. Otherwise, people who come to the shop will see a big sign outside saying we’re adhering to the government’s safety policy, so please respect others and keep two meters apart, queue behind the line and that sort of thing.
Did you have any other plans this year that you’ve had to put back?
We were actually looking at another shop in London, so we might be putting that on hold, though the landlord might be very happy to give us a great deal! I pick specific pockets of London that appeal to me. Before I started SIRPLUS, I actually studied real estate at university, which has been a help when dealing with landlords. You’d think fashion would be completely different coming from a real estate degree but actually everything from design, law, investment and planning – there’s lots of synergy. It’s a completely different skill set but, believe it or not, there’s a lot of crossover.