Matthew Murphy: The man credited with discovering some of the hottest names in fashion

Stephanie King meets the man behind b-store, London's antidote to big-name style
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The Independent Online

Murphy hates fashion hyperbole, citing personal peeves that include "opinion-formers banging a drum about designers before they've proven their worth, and the relentless search for 'the next Alexander McQueen' - I wish people would give that a rest". And although Murphy would balk at the aforementioned tag, it's not really off the mark considering that b-store predominantly carries contemporary London designers. Plus he moonlights as a scout for the British Fashion Council, sniffing out prospective talent for London Fashion Week's New Generation sponsorship scheme.

The "accidental" part of Murphy's handle stems from b-store's origins. José Neves, a footwear manufacturer, acquired the shop on Conduit Street four years ago to launch his top-end Buddhahood (hence "b-store") line, and wanted an original flagship concept. Cue Murphy, then 30 years old, being brought on board for his 16-plus years of fashion-retail experience. He suggested placing young designers alongside the footwear, "to give the shoe brand an identity". But, as he says, "then it grew out of control - the clothing was never meant to be as big as it is now".

Now, clothes make as much as the own-brand (read: big margins) footwear. And to such a degree that Murphy plans to capitalise further on his successful fold of niche fashion labels by moving b-store to larger premises on the same street early next year. Even the ricochets of the economic downturn currently being felt on the high street are being dodged by b-store, where like-for-like sales are up 28 per cent this year.

The success of b-store stems from Murphy's buying bravado and obvious keen eye. He stuck his neck out in herding together the initial flock of virtual unknowns. But you only have to look at his start-up roll call to see that his instinct for potential talent is killer. Murphy bought and nurtured Peter Jensen, Roksanda Ilincic, Siv Stoldal and Richard Nicoll from their earliest collections - some straight from graduation. And these designers have individually grown (Jensen is b-store's best seller) to be considered among the most interesting designers in London.

"It hasn't all been glory days," Murphy admits. "In fact, it was a bit of a buying nightmare at the beginning, because I'd approach slightly more established names, such as Véronique Branquinho, and because they'd never heard of the other names involved, they would say, 'Well, get the shop up and running, send us some pictures and we'll see'."

Of course, Murphy didn't have to take so much as a snapshot of the store because things more than ran; they sprinted. "The young designers did way better than expected," he says, clearly chuffed at how things have turned out. The seeming problem at the start actually determined b-store's identity: a place where fashion's new wave is launched and nurtured. By the close of year one, Branquinho was indeed interested in getting involved, as was Martin Margiela. And the two names - Bernhard Wilhelm and Bless - Murphy secretly hankered after also came knocking, and he now stocks them both.

The continuing growth of b-store is both a result of Murphy's homing in on original talent, and of consumers tiring of looking like clones just following the latest celeb-driven trend. "People no longer want to look like everyone else," he says. "They want a point of difference away from the obvious."

And that is exactly how fashion hooked and reeled Murphy in, aged 17. "I got my first job up in London at American Classics, which was a great place during the late Eightiess," recalls the Kent-raised Murphy. "I found this whole world that I didn't even know existed in clubbing and clothes." He swapped his local-disco door-policy shirt and tie for jeans, T-shirt and acid house.

It's just that counterculture that Murphy is championing, while railing against, as he puts it, "everything being too commercial and too readily available - there isn't any exclusivity now". And he's not alone in his viewpoint. Last February saw the arrival of the Comme des Garçons "guerrilla store" - a series of shops that last for one year, before moving on to another location - a statement against the standardisation of retail. Equally, the market-style environment of the Comme-owned Dover Street Market, like b-store, highlights unknown designers, doesn't adhere to seasonal buying, and encourages designers to react with the selling space by creating installations.

Murphy champions young design because he sees it as a lifeline for independent retailers to carve out their own identity. And he feels that there is sufficient London talent for different stores to offer their own style perspective. "There couldn't be lots of b-stores. Everyone stocking the same names is the problem. Department stores now have everything under one roof, and they've gone to other cities, killing off independents that stock the same brands," he says. If department stores are now seen as the supermarkets of fashion, b-store is the antidote to such superbrand behemoths.

But, of course, smaller retailers won't get sales simple by plonking a few young names on their rails. "They need to be prepared to take risks," warns Murphy. "They have to invest time and money to introduce and educate customers to new designers." That's just what he did at b-store. "When I first sold Peter Jensen, we worked closely together, so I could say, 'That trouser worked really well - can we do that again?'. And that helped him to gauge what worked commercially. It was almost like building a brand together," Murphy says. "And with Roksanda, I made a loss for the first three seasons, but I believed in her and now she's doing phenomenally well."

Murphy is now reaping the return on his investment. His was a speculative venture that department stores can ill afford to embark on as every inch of their shop floors have to be accounted for in sales. "Department- store buyers won't risk a young name until it has been pumped by the press," Murphy explains. He does, however, recognise that department stores can be a shopping comfort zone, free from the small-boutique stigma of vulture-like or too-aloof sales assistants.

"That has been one of the great successes of this store," he says. "People might be frightened when they first walk in, but they soon relax in the friendly atmosphere. We've got customers who have shopped with us since we first opened, whom we know by name. And they are the ones pushing me to keep getting new things in, because that's what they are interested in.

"What we sell is individual, but it's also easy to wear. It's fashionable but not trend-led. Some items become people's favourite pieces. They're not dated within a season."

And is there a typical b-store regular? "You really can't typecast our customers because they are all so different," says Murphy. "It can be an Arabic lady; a 60-year-old art collector over for the Frieze Art Fair; or a younger fashion-concerned shopper." Not to mention such well-known inventive dressers as Roisin Murphy and Björk. So, b-store is one big, stylish, happy family. And that's just how Matthew Murphy likes it.

b Store, 6 Conduit Street, London W1,; 020-7499 6628