The Interview: John Bright, Founder, The Good Neighbour
The Good Neighbour menswear brand was founded in 2017 by former Debenhams, ASOS and Jabong buyer, John Bright, who believed there was big gap in the market between mass produced fast fashion and premium menswear brands.
His question was, where was the middle ground offering clothes that were made to last, but didn’t cost the earth? The Good Neighbour provides updated wardrobe staples with a focus on fabrics that are ethically and sustainably sourced. Conscious of trends and quality, the products are designed to be worn across seasons.
Initially sold direct to consumers from a website, the business has been mainly grown with a series of pop-up shops across London “neighbourhoods”, largely through online marketplace for available retail space, Appear Here. The Good Neighbour brand name came about through that approach, having originally been called Centre Front – a name Bright wasn’t really sold on.
His current three-week pop-up at 147 Stoke Newington High Street in London is in its final week, culminating on Sunday 5 June, though Bright is already on the lookout for another location, with a summer seaside venue a possibility. The pop-up strategy appears to be working to get the brand out there to a wider customer base, as Bright explains.
After being a buyer at Debenhams, ASOS and Jabong, why did you decide to launch your own brand?
I always had the idea in the back of my head for a range that sat in between fast fashion and premium brands, but it was only when I left Jabong and had a bit of time off that I felt ready to launch. Plus, I didn’t have the security blanket of a job at the time to stop me launching. Initially I self-funded the business from savings, and after a year I got a small amount of investment from some friends, but I am the sole owner.
How did you come about the brand name?
Originally the brand was called Centre Front, but I was never 100% happy with that name. Once I started doing pop-ups and realised how the local neighbourhoods were a better fit for the brand, ‘the good neighbour’ evolved as a name and just felt right.
Who designs the ranges for The Good Neighbour?
I design the collections. As most of the ranges are quite simple pared down styles, the majority of the design process is in fabric and colour selection, which I have done for years as a buyer. In terms of design influences, I’m a bit old school and tear out images from fashion magazines. That gives me my first overview of global trends and colours for the next season.
My main influence is seeing what people are wearing when I’m out and about. When guys are in my pop-ups, it’s a great way to get a sense of what they are wearing in terms of fits, silhouettes and colours. These are my customers, so I want to take inspiration from what they are actually wearing.
Who is your real target audience?
When I started the brand, I would have said 28-40 year old guys, but from being in the pop-ups it’s really more like guys in their mid 30’s to mid 50’s. They have moved on from fast fashion and want to buy clothes that last, feel comfortable but also still look good without being flashy. They like to shop locally and not have to go into traditional high streets. I feel these guys are into their neighbourhood, and they might have kids or pets and prefer the ease of being local. So, when I’m planning the ranges, I have this guy in my head.
What’s the brand’s pricing like?
I started the brand believing there was big gap in the market between mass produced fast fashion and premium menswear brands. There wasn’t really a middle ground offering clothes that were made to last, but didn’t cost the earth. For the quality and make of the range it is fairly priced, with organic cotton T-shirts at £36, organic cotton sweatshirts at £65, sustainably sourced jeans at £95 and our bestselling cord jackets at £99. Shirts will also be arriving soon at £75.
Why have you seen pop-up shops as the best way to introduce your brand?
Initially the brand was online only, but I found it quite a struggle to get noticed, unless I was prepared to spend a huge amount on digital marketing. When I tried my first pop-up in Stoke Newington in 2019, I had no idea how it would go, but the reaction was great. I realised if I could follow that model in other areas it would be a perfect way of people finding out about the brand, while also being able to try on and see the range in person.
Physical spaces have become really important, as online is really face-less. In the store, I meet all the people and can think about next season. It really gives more insight and is a lot more fun. Not only is it more fun, but I can collaborate with local artists and help small landlords fill empty spaces, even if it’s just for a few weeks. I’ve also discovered that many local neighbourhoods have more of a buzz than traditional high streets.
Pop-ups are also a great way to get the brand name out to the public without being tied into a long-term rental contract. Guys get to try the clothes on and feel the fabric, as a result they know that the range is well made, fits well and uses premium fabrics.
As well as doing pop-ups in Stoke Newington, you’ve also tried places like East Dulwich, Crouch End, Hampstead, Clapham and Leyton, how do you decide where to do a pop-up next?
I usually use Appear Here, who have listings of available spaces for pop-up shops and events. I have certain target areas that I’d like to pop up in, so if spaces become free, I view them and then decide whether to proceed. Generally, I prefer to be in true London ‘neighbourhoods’ such as Crouch End, East Dulwich or Stoke Newington, which have great cafes, restaurants, local cinemas and other independent businesses, but spaces are not always available, so I’m constantly viewing new areas and spaces for potential pop-ups.
You were even involved in a pop-up shop on Regent Street in 2021, how did that come about?
Regent Street was a shared space with another five small sustainable brands. It was organised through the local council who created the space from the empty Moss Bros store. Brands had to apply and six were selected to go in for two months, The Good Neighbour being one of them.
Do you have any plans to open a permanent shop in the future if you find a location that’s particularly successful?
Currently I don’t have any plans for a permanent shop, as the pop-up model allows me to be flexible and get the name out there. I have been tempted once or twice, when a neighbourhood has been really good for the brand and I enjoyed spending time there. Maybe next year I will start wanting to put some roots down in a neighbourhood, as it can be tiring setting up and taking down shops every month.
Does social media play a bit part is raising your brand’s profile, and also awareness about the pop-ups?
I think any brand has to have a presence on social media, but as my target audience are slightly older guys they are not as influenced by social media posts as say customers in their early 20’s.
Social media helps, but usually just to the people who already know or follow the brand. For most people, when they enter the pop-up it’s their first interaction with ‘the good neighbour’. If other local businesses share the posts about us popping up that does help too, as they already have local followings. I don’t use paid ads on social media as I’ve never found they work particularly well.
Your brand was only really just getting going when the pandemic struck, how did you manage to navigate that when physical store presence had become so important?
The pandemic has had a massive impact on the business and there have been moments over the last two years where I didn’t think it would survive. Over 80% of the business is driven via the pop-up shops, so online is a relatively small percentage of the business. During lockdowns sales dried up, but as soon as we were out of lockdown I had pop-ups booked. One upside of the pandemic is people were shopping locally a lot more, so being in the right neighbourhoods really helped.
I still find driving traffic online is hard. I have tried various digital marketing options, but I’ve never got the result I’d hoped for and ended up losing money. Even though agencies promise results, they don’t really deliver.
Are sales all currently direct to consumer, or do you also have a wholesale business?
At the moment, The Good Neighbour is pretty much all direct to consumer, though I do sell to a few small independent shops, such as Array in Stoke Newington.
I would like to grow the wholesale side, though I work on quite small margins, so I don’t have the traditional mark-up that is really needed for wholesale. I am thinking of ways around this, but I would also prefer to keep the wholesale area small and work with other independent retailers until I have the resources to grow.
How do you intend to grow going forward?
That’s quite a hard one to answer, as retail is having such a tough time
at the moment. First Brexit, then Covid and now a potential recession, just keeping going as a small brand is a struggle. Luckily the brand has had decent year on year growth over the last four years, with the exception of 2020. My focus for growth is continuing with pop-ups and ideally having more than one running at peak times, though increasing online sales and adding some more wholesale this year would also boost sales for 2022 onwards.
What other future plans do you have?
I’m excited about a range of summer shirts arriving in the next month, which I sourced from ‘end of roll’ fabrics in Portugal. By using up these fabrics, it means no new fabric has been created for the production, and therefore avoids rolls of fabric potentially going into landfill. Each season I try to make the range more sustainable, whether it be the materials that are used, production techniques or which factories I work with.
Where can we expect the next pop-up?
I’m always viewing new spaces and exploring London neighbourhoods for potential pop-ups, but I’ll also be looking outside of London for the first time, potentially with a summer pop-up by the seaside this year. Watch this space, as they say.