On the edge with the elusive Mr Reiss

He's no retail showman, but the man behind the 'affordable luxury' clothing chain is raising his profile on the high street, writes Margareta Pagano
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Catch him if you can but there is one retailer who is still smiling amid the gloom on the high street. He's David Reiss, owner of the womens/menswear fashion chain that bears his name.

The Reiss moniker adorns 76 shops around the UK, and 19 in the world's biggest cities, but it's rare to see or hear of him in the media. Unlike many of his more flamboyant peers, Reiss prefers to keep a low profile, even though he's the last big owner-founder entrepreneur left in British retail.

So it's a treat to track Reiss down at his Rathbone Place office, just off Oxford Street in London's West End, where everyone is smiling, from the receptionist to the pretty young fashionistas rushing up and down the narrow corridors pushing racks of the latest clothes. It's like walking in on a big happy family, and I catch up with the patriarch after a coat-checking session for this autumn's collections. Reiss glides in, dashing and elegant, wearing a smart grey suit (his own label), sharp white open-necked shirt and that honey colour that comes from the good life and the south of France. He's in his mid-60s but you wouldn't think so.

"Coats, coats, coats," he says, laughing. "I've overdosed. Our coats last year were so fantastic, they just flew out of the door. Customers were fighting for them. So this year we've got masses."

Will they still be fighting for them? Won't we be tightening our belts, rather than buying new ones? Reiss shakes his head: "Sure, it's tough out there, no doubt about that. We can feel it too. But we're better placed than many to ride out any downturn in the economy. We're an international brand now, and our overseas expansion is going brilliantly."

So well, in fact, that next month Reiss will move lock, stock and barrel into his new £50m flagship store in Barrett Street, behind Selfridges, on a site once occupied by the London College of Fashion. The 20,000sq ft site – developed for him by the Candy brothers – is home to the men's and women's shops, a restaurant and the new HQ for Reiss, which now employs about 900 people worldwide.

The man at the top is already as hands-on as you can get: he visits branches around the country every day and is actively involved in planning all the new shops – right down to the detail of the fabulous LED lighting covering the front of the Barrett Street store. Soon Reiss will be able to keep an even closer eye on his customers: he's having one of the penthouses on the top floor of the building.

He reckons Reiss can ride out the storm because its "affordable luxury" fashion has a clever niche in the market: way up from the Zaras and Banana Republics of the high street but below the designer labels. So Reiss catches aspiring people on the up, but also on the down when times are tougher, when they forgo Armani. At least, that's the hope.

"Elegant, clean, sexy, refined and edgy" is how Reiss describes his clothes, so it's no surprise that Armani is the craftsman he most admires. Reiss has 20 in-house designers, who scout the world for ideas, pore over archives and watch the street for inspiration. There is no one big-name designer but, as with Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith, Reiss has benefited from good teamwork. Even the snootier end of the fashion world has been forced to sit up over the past few years as its clothes have become edgier and sought-after – like the coats.

By nature a contrarian, Reiss thrives on doing things others tell him he can't – like starting the womenswear chain and moving into the US. "Eight years ago I decided I wanted to expand from men's into women's fashion. Everyone told me I would never make the transition. That did it. It took a few years to get it right, but we've got the balance now.

"Then I wanted to open in the States – you have to be there if you are an international brand. Again, everyone said British retailers don't make it in the US. The moment anyone says you can't do something to me, that's when I set out to prove them wrong."

And so he has. Sales last year were about £70m, up from the £56m in the year to January 2007 when pre-tax profit was £9.5m. He has 95 shops but has plans for 250 in total, with many more in the US. There are also plans for accessory shops and more concessions, and to sell clothes at different "price points" – both cheaper and more expensive – to get Reiss to a new audience.

There are no signs he's slowing down. But Reiss has always been driven, from day one after taking over his father's gentlemen's outfitters on the corner of Bishopsgate and Petticoat Lane in the City of London, in 1971, when he was in his 20s. This was the late flower-power era, and Reiss offered his customers both Abercrombie-style coats and hipper clothes for those visiting the nearby market. "I was lucky," he recalls. "I had two days of trading in one – the City chaps and the trendy."

After that, Reiss and his business partner at the time tried their hand at manufacturing – going to Yorkshire to set up a shirt-making business, while Reiss designed and sold. He bought a prime site on the King's Road, then the only place to be in Swinging London.

What everybody in the rag trade wants to know now, though, is if and when Reiss is going to sell out. "I get offers every day from private equity or others for the business," he says. "I am very open-minded about what happens. Maybe in two or three years' time I'll sell and it could be to a private equity firm. Who knows?" The closest he has come to selling was a couple of years ago after a £150m approach from the US fashion group Liz Claiborne. "What the approach did was make me all the more determined to conquer the US. It made me think, if they want to buy us, then why don't I expand in the US myself?"

Reiss is his baby but, sadly, none of his family – he has three children, Ally, Debbie and Darren (a director of HSBC) – wants to run the business. Nor does he have any intention of floating on the Stock Exchange.

"Staying private means you can take more chances than with a plc," he says. "You've always got shareholders looking over your shoulder, questioning what you do. Being private means I can back my own beliefs. If I want to expand or take a risk, I can go for it."

Away from work he has the same zest. He runs, plays squash and is as hooked on Arsenal as he is on fashion. He may prefer to stay out of the spotlight, unlike friends such as Sir Philip Green of Topshop, but his perfect evening out would be with his family at the Ivy – in the celebrity haunt's exclusive new dining club, of course. His only extravagance is a Bentley – his wife drives a Mini – and he has lived for years in the same house in Hampstead.

But there are signs that Reiss is more relaxed about stepping out from the shadows. He appeared recently in a Barclays Wealth TV advert, and has filmed with shopping guru Mary Portas for a new series of Mary Queen of Shops. While he may have mellowed, Reiss still has an exhausting schedule, travelling abroad to find new sites for about a third of the year (he's in Hong Kong this week). "When you have a vision, it's very difficult to let go," he says. "Building this into an international brand is my passion." With that, he dashes off to the next design meeting.