It is obvious straightaway that this is no ordinary sportswear shop; it bears about the same relationship to the drab high-street sports chains as Harrods' food hall does to Netto. It is kitted out like a gym, in solid black accessorised with steel mesh and zinc, with lockers round the ceiling. Club music blares over the speakers. The changing rooms are shower cubicles, complete with tiles, soap dish, plug hole and stripy shower curtains. And a bank of video screens shows the current collection, modelled in- store, or offers previews of what's coming next. Currently premiering is a tape of the catwalk show of Tom of Finland clothes, a new label that has already created a sensation in New York. Sixteen of New York's top male models parade around in clinging shorts and sculpted trousers; a distracting sight, particularly when they are sporting backless swimming trunks ("provocatively contoured" is how Graham Haines describes this particular label).
Tom of Finland is coming to Sports Locker later this year, and, like 90 per cent of the brands stocked, it will be exclusive to the store. Most of the labels will be more familiar to American visitors than British shoppers; trans-Atlantic names like Verge, LA Sporting Club, YMLA and Body Body. Graham Haines's customers, he says, don't want the labels everybody else is wearing. He prides himself on his sharp eye for the trends that his rivals won't be carrying for months or even years - he was the first, for example, to import now-ubiquitous Calvin Klein underwear and Polartec fleeces.
Sports Locker has carved out a unique niche in the market; others have tried to jump on the elite sportswear bandwagon, and all have failed. "Four or five predators have tried to copy me and fallen by the wayside," he says. "I think the reasons are that we now have such a wide exclusive range that anyone else would be hard-pressed to offer a similar choice. And we have been very focused in what we are doing: we do purely gym and active-wear, we don't do badminton or tennis or cricket or golf clothes." He does offer underwear and club gear, but this, he says, is a logical progression from the active-wear core. "Most of our customers work out by day in the gym and by night they are nighthawks. They go to clubs like Heaven, the Fridge and Trade where there is a strong masculine environment and everyone is very body conscious, so we are simply following through by selling what is really a complete lifestyle."
Behind this cutting-edge trend-setting lies a solid marketing background. Ten years ago, Graham Haines was handling the marketing for new projects for Forte hotels. He frequently visited California, where he noted the extremely high-quality, effectively marketed sportswear business. "No one was doing it here; British sporting goods stores have always been atrocious in their presentation. Women were very well-served by companies like Pineapple and Gamba, but there was nothing for men," he says. He started Sports Locker as a modest mail-order company, using a catalogue modelled by three friends from the YMCA gym where he worked out, advertising in Time Out and Gay Times.
After the second catalogue he had made enough profit to open a shop in Notting Hill, a cosmopolitan area with a large ethnic and gay population. "My gay customers are very much at the forefront of pushing the company forward," he says. "We didn't set out to be a gay shop, but gay men are ahead in gym culture and ahead in style terms too, which is good for me - it means I have to stay directional, constantly be ahead, be new."
Sports Locker made the move into Covent Garden, central London, six years ago. "I knew if I didn't move into town someone would pinch the concept and get in first into a central location." Now, he says, he is seeing a wide celebrity clientele - "actors, presenters, pop stars, everyone from professional men to the kid in the street". Around 20 per cent are women, who appreciate "strong colours, not mints and pinks and pastels, and clothes that are generously cut and well-made," according to Haines.
These customers are prepared to fork out for exclusivity and quality. Current most popular lines include a classically shaped V-neck cotton/Lycra T-shirt by Body Body at pounds 34.99 and gym pants with metallic reflective stripe, pounds 45.99; Speedo trunks with the logo cheekily stamped across the behind at pounds 24.99; or a clubbing outfit of stretch trousers and acetate/Lycra shirt that comes to slightly under pounds 150. Short shorts are currently out - a longer drop to mid-thigh, though still with the vital lycra grip, is de rigueur at pounds 25.99 from Body Body.
Graham Haines's personal style is a little more forgiving than some of the lines he carries - though he is no slouch in the fitness department. "I swim three times a week and work out twice," he says. "I'm not as dedicated as my customers. The business takes up a lot of my energy. I'm getting on and the clockwork is running down," he adds with a laugh. "I'm into comfort."
Sports Locker, 17 Floral Street, London WC2E 9DS. Enquiries and mail order, tel 0171 240 4929. Website: www.sportslocker.co.ukReuse content