Big Interview: George Graham, CEO & founder, Wolf & Badger

George Graham has spent the majority of his career at Wolf & Badger, a fashion retailer he and his brother conceptualised in their own home. The inspiration came from wanting to support smaller brands that didn't have the platform they deserved. Retail Gazette spoke to Graham on his path to success.

Wolf & Badger CEO

Having previously been a strategy consultant at PwC, George Graham knew it wasn’t where he wanted to spend the rest of his career.

The idea for Wolf & Badger came when he and his brother Henry Graham decided, while at home, to go ahead with a brand new retail concept. One that focuses on supporting smaller brands that didn’t have the platform they deserved.

The brothers eventually left their respective jobs and six months later in 2009, the first Wolf & Badger store opened in Notting Hill, London, along with an official website.

However, this was no simple mission.

“No one believed Wolf & Badger would work as a concept”

“It was a considered risk. We’ve been talking and thinking about ideas that led us to the idea behind Wolf & Badger for quite some time and we believed it would be a success,” Graham told Retail Gazette.

“We actually spoke to our father about it, and he basically told us that all of our previous ideas were terrible, but this one he said ‘that’s fantastic, you should go for it’.

“Everyone else said it was terrible, no one believed Wolf & Badger would work as a concept but our father did and he’s a smart man so we trusted him.”

Indeed, Wolf & Badger has more than doubled revenue every year for the past several years. Graham plans on continuing its success by creating a global platform for independent fashion brands to connect with customers and help provide seamless access to designers they wouldn’t normally come across.

The inspiration behind Wolf & Badger came from a combination of experiences Graham and his brother had, one of which was meeting a few different smaller designers who had clothing or jewellery labels. They found they just couldn’t reach their target consumer and the department stores that were previously buying from them were rejecting them because there was too much risk in dealing with smaller brands.

“These brands weren’t being bought, and they had the option of going to a market, like Camden or Portobello, but it wasn’t appropriate for a premium label and it wasn’t really where their brands deserved to be positioned,” Graham recalled.

“However, if they wanted to take their own store, it would cost them a lot of money and we thought, let’s take the best of these brands and let’s bring them together as a collective.”

Having rented a property in Notting Hill at the time, Graham spoke to many different independent brands to gain insight on how to fill the gap in the market. He eventually found 70 designers to begin working with.

“It’s very important to balance work with personal relationships and with eating well”

Starting Wolf & Badger came with many risks, especially since Graham didn’t originally come from a retail background.

“The biggest risk was whether customers would enjoy discovering those brands as much as we thought they would,” he said.

“I remember when we first opened the doors on that first morning, straight away customers started coming in and saying what a unique concept we had.

“We’ve only worked with smaller independent brands that are controlled by the designers or their families, and that’s really helped differentiate us in a very homogeneous retail environment.”

Graham went on to expand Wolf & Badger to New York after launching a store in the city in 2017, and now travels back and forth every three months to check on the business.

“I’m out there in two weeks’ time to take some meetings and chat to the team there and look at ways that we can further improve our New York store but also how we can continue to drive online growth in the US market which has become a very important market to us,” he told Retail Gazette.

Wolf & Badger’s US market now makes up for 25 per cent of its sales, which Graham hopes will grow to 50 per cent by the end of 2019 as “it’s growing at a very rapid pace”.

“We’ve always liked independent designers. It’s boring to do the same thing as everyone else and to buy the same things as everyone else”

The appeal to working with independent designers was initially based on the gap in the market as many weren’t getting enough exposure.

“Personally we’ve always liked independent designers. It’s boring to do the same thing as everyone else and to buy the same things as everyone else,” Graham explained.

“There’s so many amazing designers out there that really deserve a wider audience, so it’s a no-brainer to help expose those brands to consumers.”

When the Wolf & Badger store at Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross opened in November last year, it had huge footfall numbers given was well-located within London and launched in the run-up to Christmas.

“We had stores in Mayfair and Notting Hill and we’ve consolidated those two locations into this 12,000sq ft department store space,” Graham said.

“We’re very well located within the development, so we catch a lot of the footfall of visitors coming into Coal Drops Yard but we’ve also been conscious to drive our own engagement by hosting events everyday.

“We’ve hosted meet the maker events with our brands, particularly on weekends, where different designers would come down and then interact with the customers, take special orders, do testers for the beauty products and much more.”

As well as hosting events to raise brand awareness and explore creativity, Graham also boasts having a unique store layout. For Wolf & Badger’s Coals Drop Yard store, he highlighted the turquoise sofa near the book shelf in the middle of the store.

“We also have places within our store like this where people can just come and relax, hang-out, read a book, grab a juice or coffee from our bar/café, and maybe go up and have lunch at our restaurant upstairs,” he said.

“So it’s more about creating a community space somewhere so that people can enjoy, not so much just a retail environment.”

“We just go about things completely differently, we didn’t come from a retail background, we looked at things fresh”

Graham told Retail Gazette that his aim for Wolf & Badger isn’t just selling product. He said it was more about creating an overall platform for independent designers to develop, grow and thrive.

Wolf & Badger works on a “unique business model”, where the retailer only takes a small percentage of the sales that go through the till. This means the majority of sales goes straight to the brand, making it “a way for them to be able to grow their own direct consumer sales through utilising the Wolf & Badger infrastructure as both a sales channel but also as a marketing tool”.

In recent years, many retailers have embraced sustainability such as the war on plastic. Graham told Retail Gazette that his idea to keep Wolf & Badger free of animal-testing and as a retailer that doesn’t sell or endorse exotic animals, came from his own personal values, and not just because of customer demand.

He also thinks that this may be a reason why the business is growing.

“It’s something that’s always been important to us – no exotic animal skins, no fur, no testing on animals, but also working closely with our brands to look at the supply chain through to how we work as a team and ensuring that we have values around fairness and integrity just within our own culture,” Graham said.

“That all comes from what we’re like as people, but then that also that conveniently resonates with the kind of customer that we attract, an I think it’s more and more important to people over time as we realise how damaging to the environment and to the society so many products that we buy really are and having a bit more of a conscious approach to buying is hugely important.

“Everything that we do is built from the ground up as a new way to connect customers and friends”

“We just go about things completely differently, we didn’t come from a retail background, we looked at things fresh, and we launched during the recession, we launched in 2010, and everything that we do is built from the ground up as a new way to connect customers and friends,” he said.

With a team of 32 in London, and five in New York, Graham he planed on continuing and accelerating that growth.

Graham said he was in the midst of mulling further US expansion and was looking to travel back to New York more often as Wolf & Badger makes “a big push into the US”. The brothers are also working together to look at other international opportunities.

And after nearly 10 years of running Wolf & Badger, Graham said he was “far from being bored”.

“It’s getting more exciting as each month passes.”

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