Ben Sherman’s Evolution is a Leap of Faith in Leeds

In a city that grasped the nettle in the mid-1990’s and flung open the gates of retail opportunism, it is perhaps typical that Leeds is amongst the first UK cities to show spurts of growth in difficult times.
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In a city that grasped the nettle in the mid-1990’s and flung open the gates of retail opportunism, it is perhaps typical that Leeds is amongst the first UK cities to show spurts of growth in difficult times.

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Since Harvey Nicholls made the ground-breaking decision to open its only other UK store in Leeds in 1996, the city has been synonymous with germinating development and ambition. That the swagger and confidence of the city as a burgeoning retail metropolis has taken a knock in recent years is not unique to Leeds, but the grit and endeavour in taking the brave, initial steps towards recovery probably is.

Leeds can point to Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood opening flagship stores in the city in recent years, and it can point to the enormous Trinity Shopping Complex that is taking shape and is almost ubiquitous around every corner of Leeds city centre. But in times of caution and damaged self-esteem, it is Leeds' rich history of independent enterprise that is the seed for the most heartening tale of economic recovery.

Last Thursday, November 3rd, saw the launch of The Hip Store’s innovative concept collaboration with Ben Sherman, via the 48-year old international brands premium collection of contemporary menswear, ‘Plectrum’; the first specific store for the brand outside of London.

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Plectrum Leeds opening

The Hip Store was established by an 18-year old Everton Campbell in 1987. Fresh from school, Leeds-born Everton set up the store in the city’s elegant Thornton’s Arcade and 24 years later he has the reputation of a visionary maverick, responsible for bringing little known brands into Leeds, establishing them, and ensuring the city’s men-folk stay sharper than your average northerner.

In 1989, just two years after ‘Hip’ was established, Everton met Mark Maidment, then working for Diesel, but now Creative Director of Ben Sherman. The seeds of the collaboration seen today were planted, and 22 years later a store borne purely out of friendship, trust and creative parallels has come to fruition, and stands directly opposite the original Hip Store that Everton continues to run.

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Everton Campbell and Mark Maidment

For Ben Sherman, the Plectrum range is, according to Mark Maidment “…an evolution but with a spirit of revolution”, that being an opportunity to take the brand's traditional values but to look at what is modern. The company wanted a more exclusive range that, through more premium prices, allowed opportunities to design better fit, use better fabrics and better factories, and most importantly allowed the brand the conception of a modern rotation to Ben Sherman.

“We wanted a twist of the DNA so as not to lose the identity” states Maidment as I spoke to him upstairs in the new store, and it is clear that the new range is a more mature departure from the maybe one-dimensional image that people have of Ben Sherman, as being forever identified with almost every popular youth culture movement since the early 1960’s. A ‘Heritage of Modernism” is their underlying strap line, and certainly anyone who has tapped a foot to the continuous wave of young UK bands that have conquered the world over the last 50 years, has probably done so whilst wearing a Ben Sherman garment, such is their unedifying grip on what is youthful, fresh and challenging.

Manchester and Liverpool fashion has still got its roots in a sort of ‘scally’ culture, whereas Leeds is a bit more polished.

With Plectrum, you would assume correctly that Ben Sherman have made a necessary strategic move into a new market to maintain the brands longevity, the catalyst for which was the arrival of CEO Pan Philippou nearly two years ago. But Maidment is eager to stress that the concept of opening a store in Leeds was borne purely from the collaboration with Everton Campbell, not necessarily Leeds flagging reputation as the ‘Knightsbridge of the North’, and that there was no agenda to opening the first store outside of London in Leeds, the concept was developed in an old-school way using raw tools of emotion and passion.

“Everton and Hip are responsible for making men look cool in Leeds, they are responsible for bringing great products from all around the world into Leeds and through osmosis, guys are looking cooler.”

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Maidment continued, “I am London born and bred, but Leeds is a great, cool city with a good history of independent stores…but there was no major strategy, Everton just said one day ‘I’d like to open a store’, so we decided to do it organically, to see what happens. It’s Leeds because of Everton.”

For his part, Everton Campbell is almost self-effacing about his pioneering role in making Leeds a thriving, fashionable city, but, not surprisingly, he is keen to promote it, “Leeds is almost like a mini-London. In this square mile (around the Thornton’s Arcade) you can get any brand that’s worth it’s salt.”

And whilst he wouldn’t acknowledge his part in it, he is clearly proud of the city’s heritage in still being the north’s cutting edge leader in the fashion stakes. “Manchester and Liverpool fashion has still got its roots in a sort of ‘scally’ culture, whereas Leeds is a bit more polished around the edges.” Which is precisely where the ‘Plectrum’ store fits in, a refined departure, not just mimicking the past.

Amid the ornate, Victorian architecture of the Thornton’s Arcade, one of the famous ‘loins’ which leads out onto the pedestrienised Briggate bang opposite Harvey Nicholls, last Thursday’s store launch caused a heaving rush of interest amongst the ‘Beautiful People’ of Leeds. The vibrant hum of a throng of around 200 people could be heard from streets away as I approached and the allure of the store and the ethos was palpable. Drinks were flowing, dance music provided the contemporary quirk that a Ben Sherman traditionalist may not have expected, and a complimentary wet shave from a time-honoured barber provided that authentic Englishness that complemented the concept, incongruous though it was, with virtually every man present sporting a well-cultivated beard.

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So as Ben Sherman dips its toe in new waters, it does so not with the calculated arrogance of an international corporate monster, but with the tentative ingenuity of independent quintessence. Of the stores opened in London thus far Maidment concurs it’s been “…a bit of a rollercoaster, they have had a strong reaction, faster then we imagined.” But of the Leeds collaboration he is refreshingly honest “we are not confident, we are humble people, we hope it will work.”

And in an age where the little man is often faceless and forgotten, it is a restorative concept to see risk, initiative and fortitude coming to the fore in a brand that hasn’t lost touch with the youthful zest of sea change that has forever been at its heart.

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