AFTER a tough period during the recession, the fashion industry has bounced back with a vengeance. In the last five years, it's grown by 22 per cent, and is now worth £26bn to our economy, according to figures out earlier this year from the British Fashion Council. Oliver Tress, founder of high street favourite Oliver Bonas, is one of its veterans. Having opened his first store in 1993, he's weathered the recession, and grown the brand into a wellknown name with over 40 shops. Oliver Bonas's forte is its carefully designed and collated women's clothes, jewellery, gifts, furniture and homeware. But Tress's foray into the industry wasn't entirely deliberate.
While he was at university, his parents lived in Hong Kong, and his habit of bringing handbags back for friends was something he thought little of. But things changed as he moved into his twenties. "All my contemporaries were doing the normal thing. I just didn't go for any job interviews. I've always had an in-built stubbornness to received wisdom, but I was also deeply ambitious." While Tress cooked up his big break, the handbag ferrying continued - "it actually started to get slightly annoying". But eventually - and perhaps inevitably - it was this mini importing business that became his success story.
GAME PLAN Much of Tress's success is down to product quality and a good dollop of business sense. He's had to cultivate this over the years. "If you've got experience, of course it'd be easier than I made it for myself - there would be far fewer growing pains." And he's the first to admit that the process has involved a fair degree of trial and error. Initially, he didn't have a comprehensive business plan, let alone a vision. And even now, Tress is most at home with a laissez-faire approach: "I'm a serial new ideas person, but I can actually only do just one thing. I do kind of make it up as I go along, and that sometimes is a bit uncomfortable for others."
Even the name "Oliver Bonas" came about in a rather ad hoc way: Tress was given a tight deadline by his bank to get a manual credit card imprinter. He didn't want to use his own surname, so borrowed his then girlfriend's: "Little did I know that 20 years later, her cousin (Cressida Bonas) would be going out with prince Harry."
But this approach does have its plus points - a lot can be learnt from Tress's refreshing willingness to relinquish control: "It can be hard to find good people, but you only have to have one or two good experiences to realise that you're not the best person for everything. It's actually an incredible release." The fact that Oliver Bonas has 16 members of its 10 Year Club speaks for itself: "longevity is something we look out for."
Tress can now afford to be confident.
But he's aware there are times the business could have "gone harder earlier". Oliver Bonas had a website in 1999, making it an early adopter of e-commerce. Yet it never "invested ahead of the curve." At present, the site accounts for just 10 per cent of sales, but Tress is hoping that the brand's clout will translate into an online pull: "we've got the market already, so we should be looking at 15 to 20 per cent."
AN EYE FOR BEAUTY Tress's vision is to have a Great British design house, and he's setting the wheels in motion. "In years to come, I want to be internationally recognised as a Great British design success story - like Paul Smith or Marni." The expansion of his design and buy teams has only happened seriously in the past three years. But now, 70 per cent of the store's items are designed in-house. "Design has always been at the heart of our products. Obviously we've got the job of curating products - that's fine - but it's not a substitute for a genuine design house."
And a larger, more coherent internal design team should mean a more consistent and emblematic brand. An Oliver Bonas shop doesn't have the same instantly recognisable theme as some of its fellows - Cath Kidston, for example. But this lack of constraint has given Tress the freedom of experimentation - and that's part of the Oliver Bonas feel. Each store is eclectic, perfectly laid out and expertly filled. "Everything that's doing really well is all our own design - that's very gratifying and exciting."
And while Oliver Bonas continues to evolve, thanks to a well-executed traditional business model, Tress is also brimming with admiration for today's thousands of innovative tech startups, quipping that he'd never be able to set up such a thing himself. He points out, though, that good business does carry some universals. "The business opportunity world is bigger, but the basics still apply. Old school questions - 'what's your USP? Does it have scalability?' - will always matter." After all, "most good ideas have already been thought of. So most of all, it's about doing something better."
OLIVER TRESS CV Company: Oliver Bonas Founded: 1993 Turnover: £30m Number of staff: 450 Job title: founder and managing director Age: 47 Born: Henley-on-Thames Lives: Battersea, London Studied: Anthropology at Durham University Drinking: Beer Eating: Tapas Favourite Business Book: Whatever you think, think the opposite, by Paul Arden Talents: Nothing remarkable, unless juggling counts! Heroes: Paul Smith, Miuccia Prada First ambition: To be an architect Motto: "Work hard, play hard and be kind" Most likely to say: "Is it special?" Least likely to say: "Hooray, it's 5am - let's go for a run"