Me And My Partner: George Treves and Sean Thomas

George Treves and Sean Thomas met 15 years ago as ski bums in France, and started selling their own printed T-shirts and sweatshirts door to door. Today they have 11 White Stuff shops nationwide, a mail-order catalogue and 70 further outlets, including Harrods

G
eorge Treves: We met one year when I was a catering student who wasn't attending college much during the winter. Sean had some floor space in his flat in Meribel and I managed to negotiate a few square feet to sleep on. I could only stretch out completely by opening the fridge door and putting my feet where the vegetables were.

G eorge Treves: We met one year when I was a catering student who wasn't attending college much during the winter. Sean had some floor space in his flat in Meribel and I managed to negotiate a few square feet to sleep on. I could only stretch out completely by opening the fridge door and putting my feet where the vegetables were.

Towards the end of season, we were sitting around talking, looking for ideas about how we could earn money out of skiing and being in the Alps. When we came up with the idea of T-shirts, I can't say we sat down with a business plan and calculators, thinking, "This is a huge business opportunity", but we did see that the prints on most resort-oriented sweat-shirts were very obvious, things like downhill skier motifs, rather tacky. We thought it would be better to do something more abstract. We had been talking about Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Black Stuff, and that's how we thought of our name, White Stuff.

Back in England we decided we really would do it. A friend came up with a design inspired by Ralph Steadman. At the beginning of the following season, we printed 100 T-shirts and Sean headed out to the Alps. I was still at catering college, so I stayed in the UK. He sold them very fast and the rest of that winter for me was taken up with trying to maintain a constant supply of T-shirts and sweatshirts to keep up with the seemingly insatiable demand. At the time we had no intention of turning it into a long-term business, but at the end of the season we had made a substantial amount of money from what we saw as a lark.

The next winter, we expanded into other resorts. Even then, White Stuff was more of a fill-in, a "let's do that again for the winter". We were pretty relaxed about it and it just evolved. We weren't very driven, to be honest. During the summers Sean was earning money as a driver and I was surviving by working in bars and decorating.

The brand started to gain Alpine kudos at a grass roots level; it had an aspirational value for holidaymakers who had seen ski workers wearing it, and our sales season on season grew. To offer more variety, we started manufacturing to our own design, which was an interesting learning curve for a not-quite hotel manager and a ski bum. The world of clothing manufacture is, to say the least, a stony path.

All the while, the office was still my bedroom. In 1991 we decided to open a shop, took on a small shop in Clapham, London, and moved the offices into the dark, damp basement below.

The shop was really an adjunct because we had also started to make money through promotional clothing work. That work grew tremendously, but it could be quite stressful.Those years taught us one very simple rule: don't chase cheap production labour around the world; deal with good, reliable factories and pay more for it. In 1996 we sat there, probably in the pub, and one of us said: "In 10 or 15 years' time, what are we going to be able to sell? A promotional clothing business? No." We both realised that the value was in the White Stuff brand, and therefore we had to concentrate on pushing that forward. White Stuff was growing and had this cult reputation, so we decided to expand the retail side, start a mail-order catalogue and wholesale it to some third-party accounts. In 1998 we did our first business plan, in which we clearly marked our objectives and said how we planned to achieve them ... all to be achieved out of cash-flow. We have always agreed not to borrow from the bank and "reinvest, reinvest". Fortunately, neither of us aspires to fast cars and yachts. That's not what makes us tick.

A strong back-office team capable of seeing the expansion through has allowed us to concentrate more on the creative areas. Both Sean and I have strong opinions on design aspects and we don't always agree, but the middle ground seems to have provided White Stuff with the right look and personality. We haven't had a proper argument in all the time we've known each other. We're more the silent disagreement types.

We could have grown the business far faster and ended up seeing it purely as a money-making venture, but I suspect that would have been at the expense of the integrity of the brand. It's important to us that we enjoy what we do and are proud of it. We are ambitious, but not at any cost. We both have young families and they are too important to sacrifice for financial gain. Hopefully, at this stage, we can get back to doing more of what we set out to do 15 years ago: skiing.

Sean Thomas: During my time in Meribel, I started off working for a tour operator as a handyman. Skiing was a fairly élitist sport at that stage. Although I was paid a pittance, I got a ski pass and board and lodging, and if you were keen, you got out on the hill.

I quickly realised there were other ways of making a living and spending more time on the mountain. I teamed up with a couple of mates and we called ourselves the Ski Doctors, going round chalets, picking up skis, servicing them and returning them that night. It went very well until the locals dug in their heels.

We had a very small apartment designed to sleep four. That year it held up to 11, of which George was one. He was your eternal student who spent as much of the winter skiing as I did. The idea for White Stuff came from a drunken evening towards the end of season, as we discussed how we could earn money and support ourselves while pursuing our passion. On our return to the UK we sourced some screen printers and T-shirts, which I later took out to Meribel. I was the salesman, and used to go round the chalets and bars. The first batch went quickly and we wanted to build up more capital so we bought some sweatshirts, all of which I sold in about two days. That enabled us to print more shirts, and carry on selling.

Over the years that followed, the promotional earnings which began to come in from drinks companies fuelled our growth, although later that work shrivelled to almost nothing as we realised we wanted to grow the brand.

Our strength came originally from the fact that White Stuff was a workers' brand which wasn't widely available. We got into ski-wear because we were both sick and tired of our ski-wear falling to pieces. We decided to put something together that was simple yet durable. More recently, a lot of growth has come from womenswear, which accounts for about 55 to 60 per cent of our sales.

We deliberately didn't grow the business quickly, but it was more through lack of knowledge and business acumen than anything else. Over 15 years, it hasn't been a get-rich-quick story. Six years ago we started the catalogue business, but we got to the stage about 18 months ago where George and I realised that we had almost run out of expertise to grow the business further. We began to invest heavily in our back-office team as we felt it was the only way to get to the next level, and I think now we have an infrastructure that will serve us to grow for the next 10 years.

Last Christmas was a tough one for every retailer. In a situation where sales slump generally, brand strength is the way through. We are fanatical about fabric, production and attention to detail. Our core market is the 20 to 35-year-old, but we have hopefully created a lifestyle brand that's not a one-season wonder and isn't high fashion-led.

We've had a few designers in, but they don't know how George and I work and nobody has really been able to contribute much to what we do, hence we continue to design the range. Currently we sponsor several sports teams including a skiff team, at the most extreme end of dinghy sailing, and the UK wakeboarding team, a sport which is akin to snowboarding on water. We're trying to get our name out to the sports that we love.

We're both still absolutely passionate about skiing. I think George got a little disillusioned with it for a while, but lastyear on a visit to Chamonix he was reinspired. If youth was on our side and we had no commitments, we would bothprobably spend a lot more time in the mountains. It is whereour tale began.

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