The washday spin doctors

Rosie Millard meets three brothers who are cleaning up the launderette' s image

I am at the opening ceremony of a large shop just off Russell Square in Central London. Multi-coloured balloons hang from the ceiling; smart-looking business people drink champagne as they listen to the mayor of Camden's speech. The mayor's gold chain twinkles in the light of press photographer's flash-guns, as we all toast the future of a fabulous venture. However, we are not gathered together to launch a snazzy high- class store, or burger joint owned by the Sylvester Stallone/Bruce Willis corporation, though the site is certainly swish enough: thick blue carpets, white walls, shiny chrome ...

No, we are standing in Duds'n Suds, a launderette owned by three brothers from Derry who think they have hit upon a good idea.

According to snappily- dressed, twinkle-eyed Edward Nicell, 36-year old managing director of Duds'n Suds, the launderette business was simply begging to be ... tumbled over. "The industry was due for the same change as video shops were, three years ago. Long overdue, in fact." Mr Nicell looks around proudly; Duds'n Suds boasts 52 washing machines and tumble- dryers, comfy chairs, a pool table, Sky television and a smart-looking snack bar (cappuccino and Danish pastries a speciality). "Everyone thinks that London is the only place you can have brainwaves. But we launched Duds'n Suds in Derry," Mr Nicell says. On the wall behind him is a large poster. It says "Duds'n Suds - Good Clean Fun!"

Mr Nicell and his two co-managing brothers Damien, 30, and Gerard, 25, really believe that going to the laundry can be good fun. "There are about 5000 launderettes in the UK," Mr Nicell proclaims, watching Damien and Gerard move among the crowd, pressing the flesh and cracking jokes. "Most of them are sweaty and smelly. The Dot Cotton look. Something out of EastEnders; all black plastic bags. Ugh! I hate black plastic bags. We bin them the moment we see them."

No black plastic bags then. Or dirty floors. Or lugging dripping washing around; at Duds'n Suds, (which has branches in Belfast and Southsea as well as Derry) you have groovy little chrome trolleys to wheel your washing about in. "There are no ledges to get the trolleys caught on," says Mr Nicell. "You don't have to stoop down to put your stuff in the washer. Everything is at an accessible height."

The idea is that instead of shoving your clothes in a washer, and then sloping off to the pub or mooching around the shops for the next half- hour, you simply wheel your washing about in a chrome trolley, place it in the machine, sit at the cafe-bar, have a cappuccino; and hey! - instant fun for busy students and professionals old and young

"The 30-minute cycle will just fly by," says Mr Nicell enthusiastically. We are at the bar before an impressive array of confectionery and cakes. "Have an Opal Fruit," Mr Nicell says, then he's off about the image of UK launderettes; all women in headscarves and steamy windows. He waves an expansive arm. "We are creating a new image. We have attacked the existing market, and added to it. Even a macho man can be cool at Duds'n Suds. He can put his washing in and then watch the match on Sky TV. Wives will be happy to ask their men to do the washing. In Derry, Duds'n Suds has become a social event. Our staff even get tips, and flowers. Isn't that brilliant?"

With full-time staff, service washes, dry cleaning, a shirt-ironing service, even little gadgets for taking lint or fluff off clothes, - "has it all", right down to competitive prices (£1.80 a regular wash).

"It is a total Quality Clothing Care Centre. We can even separate out your wash. No more grey knickers. Ha ha ha!" Mr Nicell's enthusiasm about laundry knows no bounds, which is not surprising when you learn that he and his siblings, who were at that point only running a wacky half-video shop/half-laundry operation in Derry, went out to Des Moines, Iowa to meet the owner of Duds'n Suds USA, a vast launderette franchise business. There, they convinced the powers-that-be that they could run the entire European market. "We were just three young cubs from the sticks. But they realised our vision was the same as theirs. We negotiated the rights for the UK and Europe - we've bought them outright. Duds'n Suds UK is now a completely independent franchising business."

The brothers are negotiating at least three more sites in London, one in Glasgow, and are conducting meetings with would-be franchisees. The meetings are in Derry, of course, where the head office is. "We just have a regional office in London," says Mr Nicell. "We want people to come out to Derry and do business with us there."

In the future, the Nicells hope to see franchises springing up everywhere, all bearing that strange name.

"Ah, the name ... Duds is an American expression," Mr Nicell explains. "Meaning dirty clothes. Suds is obviously soap-suds." He pauses. "Although as it's me and my brothers running the operation, perhaps it should be Duds'n Studs." His brother Gerard interrupts. "Or Duds'nSpuds. Ha ha ha!"

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