The Adventures of a Menswear Brand

The Adventures of a Menswear Brand
We raised £50,000 in advance orders which gave us money in the bank, confidence and market testing. Simon Middleton

Menswear brand Shackleton began life as a banjo manufacturer before almost accidentally moving into fashion. Here, Inside Retail speaks to founder Simon Middleton about this unusual journey. We began by asking him to describe the brand: Middleton: We make menswear based on and inspired by imagery and the story of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. He’s our inspiration and his granddaughter is part owner of the business. In clothing we started with knitwear that replicates the types of sweaters worn by Shackleton, before moving into outerwear, boots, and accessories – everything from socks to hats to gloves. We sell direct-to-consumers through and are also building a trade stockist base in some really interesting places, such as the Natural History Museum, in The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club and some more conventional boutiques. 

You’re not from a fashion background, so how did you come up with the idea of creating a menswear brand?

My background is advertising, marketing and branding for about 20 years. I’d planned to start my own branded business for some time and the first one I started was oriented toward musical instruments. About two years ago I opened the first banjo factory in Britain for about 60 years and called it Shackleton because the banjo had a significant role in his adventures.  People kept asking us what else we had inspired by the Shackleton story and aesthetic. And suddenly I found myself running a fashion brand. That’s the part that’s really grown and taken off into a much wider audience.
How did you finance the business? Going back more than three years ago, we started with a small investor who backed us before our ideas had really formed. That was enough to give us some money in the bank and some confidence.  Then in autumn 2013 I launched a Kickstarter campaign for the banjo factory and we raised £50,000 in advance orders which gave us money in the bank, confidence and market testing. It also brought us to the attention of people who loved the story of Shackleton, and that we were making in Britain, as well as to the attention of angel investors who were looking for small companies in which to invest in. We raised additional money that way.  A year later we did another Kickstarter campaign for the clothing brand itself, raising another £35,000 in advance orders and yet more equity funding that way. I’m a late starter to the fashion business and at my age I had to move very fast, so we raised money fast and sold equity in the business fast. For us it’s paid off and given us traction.   

Is that a finance strategy you’d recommend?

It’s worked well for us but if I was younger I might do it differently. I set the goal to make an international luxury brand. It’s a big thing to do in your mid-50s and the only way was to raise a lot of money fast, you need to sell a lot of sweaters to achieve that. We knew we needed external funding so we combined equity with crowdfunding. As a brand-manufacturer we needed the money for development and minimum production runs. We could have made some sweaters because knitwear is relatively inexpensive, but when you get into footwear and outerwear the minimum order quantities are substantial and you need resources.

Who is your consumer?

It’s changing. We started off making folk musical instruments so the majority of our customers were middle-aged blokes aged over 45. They were also the first consumers of our knitwear, but the age is dropping as we move into boutiques which target trendy, affluent young professional men, and places like The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club. We’ve followed our demographic rather than controlled it.

How has this changed your product?

On our next iteration of knitwear and outwear our badging will be subtler. We’ve essentially moved into luxury fashion where the branding needs to be more discrete and the product itself does the talking. The feedback has come from stockists but also our new customers through individual reviews on our retailer’s websites.

How did you decide that was the right price bracket for you?

We’re in the premium-meets-luxury territory and made in Britain. Once you make that commitment, you have to understand there will be a price impact especially as we became more ambitious about what we wanted to make, such as outerwear which is more complex than knitwear. The only way you can succeed is by going higher up the market.

Will your supply chain continue to be in Britain only as you expand the business?

At the moment everything is made here but there may come a time in the next couple of seasons where we have to produce outside the UK as an addition.  Making everything in Britain is part of our story and we have a very short chain. In knitwear I can tell you which company produced the certified yarn and they will know which wool grower it came from, so it’s farmer to the consumer in just five or six steps. Making in Britain has challenges as well as virtues. I can speak directly and easily to the people making our product, and minimums are lower. I can produce 50 sweaters, or even fewer. Turnaround is faster, samples can come in the post the next day. Design meetings are much easier in the Midlands and in Scotland. That’s an enormous advantage, but it comes at a cost. People get paid higher wages. There’s a much higher actual cost per unit but there are other advantages. For the moment it works well for us. 

What are your future plans for the business?

Over the next 12 months we want to double our range of outerwear and knitwear and retailers. We’ll also expand the range and take more stories about Shackleton and similar people to develop that. In five years my ambition is to have built an internationally recognised luxury menswear brand. That’s a big ambition.