People in fashion: Game, set and matches

Wimbledon doesn't seem the most likely place to shop for next season's clothes. But Tom and Ruth Chapman have turned a little designer shop on the High Street into a serious business venture - with the emphasis, of course, on service

THERE IS a certain aggravating temptation that businesses in Wimbledon find hard to resist: that of giving themselves a name that reflects the proud sporting heritage of London SW19. Hence Centre Court, Volleys, Racquets and the like.

But despite appearances, Matches, run by Tom and Ruth Chapman, is different. The name has nothing to do with games, sets and matches; nor indeed with co-ordinating 18 identical shades of beige. "It's to do with how much Tom smokes," explains Ruth Chapman. Tom (a Silk Cut Ultra man) adds firmly and convincingly that they never thought of any tennisy double entendres.

"It is a really cheesy name - we have thought of changing it," adds Ruth reflectively. "We even used to have carrier bags printed with matches." But changing the name now would cause untold confusion in Wimbledon Village, where the Chapmans have carried out something of a coup: they have branches at numbers 34, 37, 38, 39 and 56 in the High Street, two for men and three for women. Not to mention the unisex shop in Richmond, their largest individual branch, and the MaxMara franchise just across the road from it, the first one to open in the UK.

It is a success they did not expect 14 years ago when they started out. These days they stock everyone who is anyone: Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Miu Miu, Dries van Noten, Moschino, Ghost and Gucci, as well as newer names like Saltwater and Asta Barrington. There are 22,000 clients on their mailing list, and around three-quarters of them are prepared to travel across London or from even farther afield to shop at Matches. In fact, Wimbledon, says Tom proudly, "is now a shopping destination".

Both now in their mid-thirties, the Chapmans were in their early twenties when they acquired their first shop in Wimbledon Village, and then, says Tom, "It meant a steep learning curve and making a lot of mistakes. It was a whole different ball-game then. Today, there is much more professionalism in retail. That's not to say we were shambolic or anything. Well, maybe we were a bit."

They were, says Ruth, "stunned" when the business took off. "It was just the two of us in the shop to start, with choccy biscuits in the desk, giggling and giving clients a glass of wine." The wine-drinking has survived, along with the five kinds of beer and the fresh coffee for customers in all of their outlets. The stock has gone upmarket since the early days; but that, they explain, is not the secret of their success.

"Service has to be our primary concern," says Tom. "At the end of the day we can't compete with the stand-alone branches. So we compete in other ways - we offer a very carefully edited selection of merchandise and excellent service."

This manifests itself not only in refreshments but in touches like the Look Book. This contains photographs (encouragingly snapped on real people, and often shop staff) of the entire range they will be stocking each season, so clients can see what will be arriving shortly and reserve pieces. A detailed database makes it possible to notify each customer when the collections they are interested in, and have bought from before, come into stock, saving wasted journeys. New clients are also sent questionnaires asking how they found the Matches service, and filling in the form is enough to secure a discount on their next purchase.

Matches sales staff are trained to mix and match, explains Tom. "You don't feel you have to go out of the shop dressed from head to foot by one designer. When somebody says, `Where did you get that?' rather than giving the label, we hope our clients would say, `I got it at Matches'."

In the stores, there are plenty of comfortable seats for non-purchasing sidekicks (perhaps husbands, if they aren't tempted by the menswear ranges); in the Richmond branch, these are opulent embroidered chairs, squashy sofas and velvet footstools. And there are toy boxes to occupy children. "All our staff are very good at bouncing babies on their knees," says Ruth. "I often end up gathering three at a time on my way through while customers are trying things on."

In fact, she says, all this cossetting tends to backfire, in the nicest possible way. "We have done our best to make it really friendly, accessible, not full of snotty salespeople who are intimidating, and we have a huge volume of people coming through just to sightsee," she says, laughing.

Up to now, Tom has handled menswear and Ruth womenswear; but with two small children already, and a third on the way, Ruth is handing over some of her responsibilities to a new buyer, Bridget Cosgrave (ex-Harvey Nicks). Splitting the work between them, they say, has worked perfectly for the Chapmans. "We used to argue like mad when we started, now we don't talk about work at home," says Ruth. "In fact, now the great part is that we don't come into contact at all," she says, hooting with laughter.

Next season, they say, the story is "grey, grey, more grey" (Tom); "lots of lovely tweedy things in lots of textures and patterns" (Ruth); "lots of cashmere and wools and silks, very nice fabrics" (Tom); "longer skirts and comfortable, soft fabrics, not skin-tight" (Ruth).

So who will be buying what? It's impossible, they agree, to describe their typical customer. "We get absolutely everyone, from people who want to indulge a 17-year-old to very glamourous older women," says Ruth. "These days people wear what they like, regardless of their age. We like to encourage men who haven't bought a designer label before. We've found we can cover a huge spectrum of people, without losing sight of our ethos."

This ethos is set out in the magazine the Chapmans publish each season. It features photos of genuine customers (a handsome looking bunch, it must be said), decked out in their various Matches outfits. "Most of our clients are interesting people," claims Ruth. "Not many of them are sterile and boring. Most of them are people who really enjoy life."

Matches is at 34, 37, 38, 39 and 56 High Street, Wimbledon Village, London SW19, and 13 Hill Street, Richmond, London SW19. MaxMara, 32 Hill Street, Richmond. Enquiries 0181 542 9416

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