Rags and riches
The fashion company Whispering Smith – “Manchester’s best kept secret” – has counted on Barclays as a “silent partner” on its journey from market stall to international multi-million-pound business. We talk to Director Sanjay Kumar about growing a fashion business, adapting to change – and what Manchester means to him.
From a Manchester market stall to a multi-million-pound fashion design and international distribution business, the story of Whispering Smith can legitimately be called “rags to riches”. Lal Kumar’s business, then called Rajan Trading, moved from the market stall to a showroom north of the city centre, before supplying high streets nationwide with own-label creations. In the process, a new generation – Lal’s sons Sanjay and Rajan – joined the company and oversaw the next period of growth.
Sanjay Kumar says the bank has been a vital partner in the company’s success since his father founded it in 1967 – banking at his local Barclays branch – right up to now, when Whispering Smith can rely on the bank’s business advice and services in an industry with very particular financing requirements and supply chains that criss-cross the globe.
Sanjay says: "Barclays in Manchester are like our silent partner, and have been since we formed – from their Cheetham Hill branch in the beginning to Spinningfields now. The relationship team really understand the personalities in our business, the particular nuances and idiosyncrasies, and our complicated business cycles.
"They’ve provided us with support through good and indifferent years – though I’ll add that we’ve had more good years than indifferent years."
Sanjay notes that, in addition to advice and understanding, Barclays has provided the company with working capital funding, guarantees, trade finance and foreign exchange services: "These are solutions to complicated working capital requirements, and they’ve been vital. Barclays has been with us from day one throughout a great journey."
The journey continues, with an increasing proportion of the fashion marketplace moving online.
Barclays in Manchester is like our silent partner, and has been since we formed. The relationship team really understand the personalities in our business and our complicated business cycles.
Sanjay says: “Recently, our brand Brave Soul has been the main driver of the business and has been working really well with online retailers throughout Europe and increasingly America and Asia. We still do own-label work for the high street, but we’re lucky to be supplying so many major online retailers because as they grow – as more and more consumers spend money online – we can grow with them.” As with the changes from market stall to stock house to contract work, the Kumars recognise “shopping habits are completely changing, and we’ve adapted to that. Ultimately we’re middlemen, supplying the online retailers – and if they’re growing exponentially, then we are too.”
Whispering Smith employs 130 people in the UK, covering design, quality control, compliance, sales, logistics, warehousing and finance. The bulk of the workforce – and the design team – are in Manchester: “Even though we’re an international business now with offices in London, New York, Hong Kong, Spain and Germany, our headquarters is still in Manchester, where it all started, and we’re very lucky to be able to tap in to the immensely talented local design pool. Historically, Manchester has always been a hotbed of talent with a creative core. The city provides the creativity that leads to the success of our product ranges, and that leads to the success of our business. We’re very proud to be Manc.”
Manchester has been at the centre of the country’s fashion trade as “Cottonopolis” since the 18th and 19th centuries. First, mechanisation saw the city become a centre of mass-production, and later it became the warehousing and distribution centre for the products of Lancashire’s textile mills.
Reflecting on the present-day appeal of the city, Sanjay adds: “Manchester-based designers probably have a more nationwide perspective than some London designers. They’ll bring designs that are more suited to more people – London is a bit more of a bubble. Certain things you sell in London but only London. Manchester, I think, is more nationally commercial.”
The city provides the creativity that leads to the success of our product ranges, and that leads to the success of our business. We’re very proud to be Manc.
Whispering Smith is adding new lines and categories (“Watches, footwear, headwear – we’re making Brave Soul into more of a lifestyle brand,” says Sanjay), while geographically “expansion becomes self-fuelling. The more people hear about us internationally, the more they approach us. Often our showroom is like the United Nations, with different retailers and e-tailers from different continents walking round”. The opening of a new 5,000 square foot showroom in London’s West End will further aid this growth: “A showroom is a meeting place where we can show our ranges to potential and current buyers – they can buy stock, or they can talk to us about creating special orders under their own brands.”
And now a third generation of Kumars is on board to help navigate new directions in fashion: “Rajan’s kids have joined the business and are very energetic and have brought in new brands – some things that are a bit cooler and more street. A new generation will drive the growth.”
And what would Lal Kumar, who died in 2009, think of the new world his children and grandchildren are operating in? “He’d find it hard to get his head round online and social media, but I think he’d be proud of how we’ve adapted to technology. It’s still about getting as many good clothes to as many people as possible.”