Top Man brand director says his suits are for 'hooligans'

Cahal Milmo
Friday 20 July 2001 00:00

A senior executive with the fashion chain Topman was forced to apologise after he called his customers "football hooligans" who wore a suit only when appearing in court.

In an echo of the gaffe-prone jeweller Gerald Ratner, Topman's brand director, David Shepherd, who has been credited with turning around the once flagging retailer's fortunes, said the high street chain was interested in fashion for "beer-swilling lads" rather than the trendy.

The clothing store has recently seen a revival in sales after abandoning efforts in 1998 to persuade British men to stock up on such essentials as the sarong beach wrap or tight sleeveless T-shirts.

But last night, Topman's bosses were fighting a rearguard action to placate customers disenchanted by Mr Shepherd's candour.

In an interview with the trade magazine Menswear, he said: "We've re-evaluated who our customer is and he's the everyday 18-year-old lad.

"He cares about what he wears but he doesn't want to stand out."

When asked to elaborate on this core clientele, Mr Shepherd said: "Football hooligans or whatever. Fitted sleeveless T-shirts were not going to work for beer-swilling lads."

To compound the felony, the board-level director added that one of the only two scenarios in which Topman customers ­ who include football star David Beckham ­ could be seen wearing a suit was in the dock.

Explaining why only 10 per cent of the space in the chain's 329 outlets would be devoted to suiting, he said: "Very few of our customers have to wear suits to work. They'll be for his first interview or court case."

The remarks are the latest in the noble tradition of corporate faux pas where bosses have confused toe-curling blunders with refreshing honesty.

Mr Ratner, a jewellery magnate, was credited with Britain's greatest gaffe in 1991 when he told a business audience that one of his products was "total crap".

Marketing experts warned last night that such comments, which wiped £500m off the value of the Ratners group, were tantamount to "kamikaze retailing" and could be fatal to the reputation of a brand.

One brand consultant said: "The golden rule is to not alienate your customers. Insulting them or patronising them is the last thing you want to do ­ it is kamikaze retailing."

There was little immediate sign that Arcadia Group, the £1.3bn conglomerate that owns Topman and a host of other high street names, had suffered a Ratner-style loss.

Its shares fell by a modest 1.5 per cent. But the company embarked on a rapid damage limitation exercise, explaining that Mr Shepherd, far from seeking to belittle its clientele, had been anxious to show the store's affinity with the archetypal British male.

As well as counting Manchester United's David Beckham ­ whose wife, Victoria, has been seen in the Topman store in the Trafford Centre, Manchester ­ among its fans, the chain has the television presenters Ant and Dec as clients.

An Arcadia spokeswoman said: "David did not mean to cause any offence and regrets it if any was caused ... What he was trying to convey was that there is a laddish element to our ranges and that he himself is a bit of a bloke.

"It is just that he exaggerated a little to make the point."

Mr Shepherd started his career aged 16 as a Saturday boy at the Topshop store in Oxford Circus, central London.

He was appointed brand director in 1999 to help turn around Topman. He is said to monitor trends by touring London's pubs and clubs and is credited with helping Topman and Topshop to report a 200 per cent profits rise and joint turnover of £208m in the six months to February this year.

Sources at Arcadia, which also owns Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, said Mr Shepherd would not suffer disciplinary proceedings. One manager said: "I don't think it's a sackable offence. But I imagine he'll get his leg pulled mercilessly next time he's in the boardroom."

Executives who 'did a Ratner'

Sir George Mathewson, Deputy chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland This top banker achieved the rare distinction of angering unions and corporate executives by complaining earlier this year that a £750,000 bonus was not enough to buy "bragging rights in a Soho wine bar". The National Association of Pension Funds demanded the removal of non-executive directors who had approved the bonus, part of a £2.5m payment to four RBS managers. The bank said it had nothing to be defensive about.

Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin The entrepreneur delivered his own outspoken verdict, in reference to the age of rolling stock being used on his Virgin Trains London to Glasgow service last year, when he said: "They're f***ed." Sir Richard's off-the-cuff remark to The Independent On Sunday was seen in some quarters as an excess of candour. Virgin said he had merely told the truth about rolling stock it had inherited.

Anders Dahlvig, Chief executive of Ikea The head of the Swedish furniture stores admitted what his customers already knew when he agreed with a journalist during an interview in February that its service at weekends was "appalling". This threw his PR team into overdrive as they tried to explain away his comment.

Gerald Ratner, Chairman of Ratners The self-made millionaire who set up a chain of inexpensive jewellery stores bearing his name scored one of the worst own goals in retail history in 1991 when he said on a live televion link that one of his products was "total crap". He also told the Institute of Directors in 1991 that his shops were selling 99p earrings that were cheaper than a prawn sandwich "but I have to say the earrings probably won't last as long". The resulting furore in the media saw about £500m wiped off the value of his branch of the Ratners empire and by 1992 he had resigned as head of the company.

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