Big Interview: Simon Brown, founder & MD Joe Browns

After leaving school at 18, Simon Brown travelled the world before returning to the UK to establish fashion retailer Joe Browns. Retail Gazette caught up with him for an exclusive interview.

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Joe Browns interview Simon Brown
Simon Brown founded Joe Browns in 1998

The carefree spirit of Joe Browns’ clothing range is nothing random. If anything, it stems from founder Simon Brown’s adventurous personality – something he has had since a very young age.

“I left school at age 18 with one A Level and then worked in a factory for nine months,” he recalled.

“I wanted to travel the world so bad. I saved up £800 and bought a one way ticket to New York.

“I worked in Canada building railways in Winnipeg, and worked in Vancouver plastering houses.

“What we wanted to achieve were three things all beginning with the letter “I”: interesting, intriguing and inspiring”

“I also spent a bit of time in Mexico and then ended up in New Zealand playing rugby,” he laughed.

Brown returned to the UK after 18 months of travelling. By that stage, his father had opened a couple of clothing factories in Yorkshire, making items such as donkey jackets and duffel coats.

It was at that point that the seeds for Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit were sown.

“I then started designing and selling clothes. I started in Leeds market, as well as Wakefield and Sheffield,” he told Retail Gazette.

“After that it developed really nicely. We ended up then dealing with Topman. We dealt with everybody you could you could imagine – Next, BHS, Jigsaw, Debenhams, River Island, pretty much all the big ones apart from M&S.”

The inspiration for Joe Browns came when Brown and a group of friends were enjoying a beer at a beach bar in Morfa Nefyn, North Wales, at the end of a long day of surfing.

“I saw a dozen girls and boys having fun,” he recalled.

“They were just free and I looked at them and thought if I could bottle up the essence of what they’re exuding and somehow transmit that into fashion, then that would be the very essence of Joe Browns – fun and easygoing.”

Shortly afterwards, Joe Browns was founded in 1998. It started off as a mail-order retailer before moving to online. In October 2017, it opened its first-ever bricks-and-mortar store in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre.

Joe Browns interview Simon Brown
Joe Browns’ flagship store at Meadowhall shopping centre, Sheffield.

“What we wanted to achieve were three things all beginning with the letter “I”: interesting, intriguing and inspiring – and that’s what we managed to do,” Brown said.

Jump to this year, and Joe Browns opened a second store at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet York.

“The reason we opened an outlet store is to really take the product off the website because people were drawn to the outlet section on our website,” Brown explained.

“The opening was so much better than we thought it was going to be.”

His business has also been enjoying a successful year despite a challenging retail market. Last June, Joe Browns revealed direct sales since the start of its financial year in July 2018 had risen by 17 per cent year-on-year. It also said its debut store in Sheffield reported gross sales of over £3.3 million since it opened.

Big Interview: Simon Brown, founder & MD Joe Browns
Joe Browns opened its second store at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet York this year

However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the northern fashion retailer.

“The first two years of business were pretty damn tough to be honest,” Brown told Retail Gazette.

“We were nearly out of business. Once we found an investor, that’s when the business took off.”

“Catalogue is driving people into the stores and it’s driving people online.”

While many businesses such as H&M are scrapping their catalogues, Joe Browns is embracing it. So much so that its main platform for advertising is through its catalogue division. Brown said that part of the business “never went away”.

“It’s driving people into the stores and it’s driving people online,” he told Retail Gazette.

“People go in the stores for the first time and then get the catalogue as well.”

Like most other retailers, Brown conceded that Brexit uncertainty had him “watching the market”. Despite this, he makes no secret of his ambition to expand Joe Browns – although he admitted it would “never be a chain of 100 stores”.

“We’re very careful and we’re looking forward to the future,” he explained.

“We’ve got two or three other stores lined up at the moment. so that’s very exciting.”

In addition, the retailer launched a 49-piece homeware range in collaboration with N Brown in February this year to expand its offering.

“If we give the customers what they want, if we work our socks off designing both men and women’s clothing, as well as homeware and offer it at the prices customers want, then we should do alright – shouldn’t we?,” Brown laughed.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. It’s great to see a brand that is bucking the trend, making a profit, opening stores and looking to the future.
    It’s amazing what can be achieved by having a range in the right price bracket , good quality, great designs, optimism and a good business plan.
    Long may you prosper.

  2. Have loved Joe B4owns fashion for some years now BUT got to say your merchandise quality is slipping faster than butter off a hot knife. From cut, to fitting, material quality as for trying to get creases out of anything forget get it I’ve send every trick in the book to no avail. Please don’t let quality slip any further.

  3. Loving Joe Brown I don’t have to travel to the shops in Leeds or sheffield as there is fab stockist on the Isle of Wight, Bellissima in Ryde they keep a great stock of Joe’s clothes. Friendly staff, very helpful nothing too much trouble. Great shopping experience and fab clothes.

  4. I love Joe Browns clothing, but as a plus size cannot shop directly from Joe Browns, instead shopping from sites like Simply Be. I’m a bit miffed that we’re ostracised for being larger, but as a rule it works for me. However, I was given a gift voucher for my birthday but couldn’t use it on any other site than Joe Browns, which meant rather than putting it towards a nice top, I ended up buying some socks, which although useful, not really what I wanted.

    • I agree , would be great to have the plus sized clothes available on the JB website too.
      I love the curious and creative ideas. Would be fantastic to have even more voluptuous garments to choose from

  5. I love Joe Browns, however I would like to know more about their ethics and sustainability issues and to see a more transparent approach to their suppliers rights and working conditions and what they are doing to promote fair trade and recycling of materials and waste etc etc.
    Please reassure the consumer that you take long term environmental issues and fair trade seriously for a better shopping experience.
    If this is already in place, please feel free to send the link as other than the modern slavery report I don’t see it. Thanks

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