I first met Julian Blades in what appeared to be a broom cupboard-cum-closed circuit security space-cum-wannabe dressing room. Intriguingly, all around this tailor-made tardis were fashion pieces selected from around the globe which all screamed sartorial style.
The Jules B store, on the corner of Osborne and Acorn Road, had been a flagship for fashion for over a decade already. It’s founders Julian and Rhona Blades had carved themselves a stylish niche, dressing everyone who was anyone, and I had heard much about them and their reputation for customer service alongside a superb eye for quality and style. The meeting lasted an hour and it proved one of the most pivotal of our 20 years, though Julian Blades may not have realised it at the time. That said, it did not go quite as well as I had hoped. Julian agreed to take advertising in the second edition if the first was any good! Luckily he loved it…
Our conversation switched from commercial opportunities, to eating out, the benefits of living in the North East, and his love of fishing amongst other things. I certainly remember leaving with a spring in my step yet knowing that our first edition would be crucial. That first meeting showed Julian to be an entrepreneur who thrived on pushing the boundaries, taking risks and seeking exceptional quality. Today, some 20 years later, I am walking through the entrance of Jules B’s headquarters – a vastly expanded and more varied business that Julian has developed with his wife and business partner Rhona. It’s a hugely impressive organisation.
This time I am with my wife and business partner, who luckily happens to know a lot more about fashion than I do. We are not in a tardis-like broom cupboard but in an elegant boardroom, in a vast warehouse-cum-office space which houses the Jules B online business as well as a photographic studio, a graphics department and several offices, including Julian’s and Rhona’s. It’s not always been plain sailing at Jules B HQ however, and as with any small business trying to negotiate the vagaries of the fashion industry – or any industry come to that – Jules B has had its fair share of ups and downs. Despite this, they have just won the most prestigious Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award. A huge accolade in recognition of their achievements in the industry. (They have won Draper’s Best Independent Fashion Retailer an incredible three times).
From the one womenswear store in Jesmond, a menswear store soon appeared next door. There’s a third store, recently rebranded as Zen, which acknowledges the changing demands in female fashion and demographics, which is less designer-led and more focused on luxurious, easy-to-wear pieces, also in Jesmond, and three further stores in Kendal. Again, ups and downs have seen shops in Newcastle’s city centre and Yarm come and go, but that hasn’t stopped the Jules B empire from re-building, re-thinking and expanding in other areas.
Unable to expand in Jesmond when he couldn’t buy the next door building, luckily – so it turns out – and of course shrewdly, Julian turned his attention to the internet. Always sensitive to their customer’s ever-changing needs, in 2008 Jules B invested heavily in a brand new website with phenomenal results. Despite the continuing popularity of his stores, the internet now represents an impressive 75 percent of Jules B sales and employs 60 staff at its headquarters.
Julian acknowledges the challenges that running such a complex business presents. ‘We’re fighting the fight every day’, he admits. ‘But I truly believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we still enjoy what we do’. And it’s palpable when you meet Julian that he does get a buzz out of his business. He loves to travel and believes it inspires him. Whether it’s the back streets of the world’s major fashion capitals, or the spice markets in India, there is something to learn everywhere you go.
‘If you’re not curious you’re dead’, he says, as we ask where he finds his energy and ideas. Both he and Rhona spend a lot of time seeking out new labels for their customers, and will trawl every aisle of every exhibition to make sure they don’t miss something. He’s just introduced luxury British brand Holland Cooper to Jules B. ‘We’d been watching the brand for a while’, Julian explains. ‘No-one had really clocked it, so we rang Jade (Holland Cooper) up and she invited us down to meet her in the Cotswolds where she is based, and we just got on. I knew it was the right product for us and our first order sold out almost overnight. I don’t think they could believe it when we re-ordered almost immediately.’ Superior tweed woven in Scotland, combined with the finest suede and leather for luxury tailoring for both men and women. What’s not to love? Certainly the Jules B customer base loves it.
Like so much of the fashion industry, Julian is conscious about sustainability. He’s also taking fur off his fashion floor. He won’t be drawn on the subject of fast fashion but genuinely believes that good clothes are like friends – you need to treat them well and they will last – and often become better over time.
With so much going on it’s hard to imagine Julian switching off, and I’m not sure he ever does but he loves fishing and as something of a self-confessed reclusive, enjoys heading off to the Northumberland coast accompanied by his dogs. He tells the story of how, over the summer, he was fishing near Howick when a school of dolphins appeared. ‘The dogs jumped in to swim with them – and so did I! How lucky are we to be able to do that on our own home turf.’
It’s clear Julian loves the North East. ‘I walk about six miles a day, and I notice all the small changes that take place in the countryside. In fact, I think nature has been my salvation.’ Family is his other focus. ‘My family is everything and I’m so lucky to have a huge extended family in Germany. We all get on so well. It’s just fantastic. Such love is so important – it gives you huge power’. He cites a great day he has just spent with one of his daughters and her fiancé out shooting – just the three of them. ‘It’s fantastic to be able to have that. It was a great day and it’s great to have that important family time’.
With Brexit on the horizon, it might be hard to know how to stay positive in the face of so much uncertainty, especially for a retail business, but looking back over the last 20 years, Julian is adamant that life is much better now than when he started out in the ‘80s, although he laments the demise of men’s tailoring, which he attributes to dress-down Fridays becoming dress-down everyday, and tracksuits and sliders becoming an acceptable as part of any wardrobe. But whilst off-the peg suits may have slid to the back of many workday wardrobes, interestingly the bespoke side of Jules B’s menswear is booming. ‘Clients want something a little different,’ he says. ‘Something that’s just for them.’ Quality, it seems, will never go out of fashion.
’It’s the uncertainty which is the real issue,’ he insists when we ask him about the year ahead. ‘But it’s like everything else. When I know the full facts, I will just get on with it. I make mistakes, but I do learn from them and I go with my gut.’
We finish with a tour round the building. There are hundreds of parcels ready to go out (there are three pick-ups every day) and although it is just before Christmas this is a 24/7, 365 day operation. It’s exciting and inspirational; the Jules B journey continues…