The retail champion who puts fame after business

 
Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer talks T-shirts and Small Business Saturday with Made in Chelsea’s Oliver Proudlock

THE SERGE DeNimes headquarters is a cosy studio-cum-office, located exactly where you would expect for a business whose founder has found fame on Channel 4’s hugely-successful reality TV show Made In Chelsea. I’m hesitant about interviewing Oliver Proudlock, who, when not working on his fashion business (Serge DeNimes now sells T-shirts, sweatshirts and accessories), is being filmed quaffing champers at Kensington Roof Gardens with London’s social elites. Has he really encountered the difficulties faced by most of the businesses he’s championing at Small Business Saturday on 7 December?

Supported by the likes of American Express, this grassroots campaign, which reaches its culmination on Saturday, is seeking to encourage people to shop in local, independent businesses. Proudlock’s public image doesn’t look like a snug fit. But it soon becomes clear why he is, in fact, a suitable choice of ambassador for Britain’s small retailers. Unlike many reality TV stars, who attach their names to a product once they clock that 15 minutes of fame can be a real money-spinner, Serge DeNimes was launched in June 2011 – three months before Proudlock was approached by Made In Chelsea’s producers.

But fashion is a competitive industry, and clothes retailing was hit especially hard by the financial crisis. Revenue in the industry declined in real terms by 2.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent in 2008-09 and 2009-10 respectively, according to a recent IbisWorld report. By September 2011, Proudlock’s T-shirts had already made their way onto the shelves at Harrods, but he knew that for his business to survive, he needed to raise its profile.

STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD
Proudlock graduated with a degree in fine art, but realised soon after that fashion was his calling. So he settled on T-shirts, using images of Rio de Janeiro for his first range. “The photographs were taken by my mother in the 1970s, and they were amazing. There was nothing similar available at the time, and when you’re trying to set up something new, your product has to stand out.” He had eight T-shirts printed at a factory in Portugal, but rather than put them straight up on his website, he decided to try and get hype around the brand first. He wouldn’t be the first designer to capitalise on the social media revolution to market his product. Earlier this year, for instance, Oscar de la Renta used Instagram to give loyal online followers a preview of its autumn campaign.

So he spent four weeks in Brazil, taking photographs of Rio locals wearing his designs. He kept a daily blog, and found a Brazilian charity to sponsor – Barrio Vasco (5 per cent of all profits have been donated to the association). Despite his best efforts, however, “it took a long time for the orders to start coming in after the launch. But when they finally did, I would personally pack them, carry them to my local Post Office, and send them to customers. It wasn’t the most efficient system.”

CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT
It wasn’t until a Harrods buyer came along to the Serge DeNimes launch party that the business began to gain traction. The world’s best-loved corner shop started stocking its products, and Notting Hill’s Wolf and Badger followed soon after. Since then, Serge DeNimes has featured in four pop-up shops, and will aim to do two to three every year from now. And while Proudlock says he wants his products to remain exclusive, he is currently in talks with Topman. Does he have faith in the ailing British high street? “Yes. But retailers have to keep it exciting and constantly changing, and find new ways to engage with their customers.”

Today, Serge DeNimes and its sister website, So Serge, release three daily blogs between them. They have an established presence on Pinterest and Instagram, as well as a YouTube channel. “When you’re a small business, you have to constantly be interacting with your customers,” Proudlock says. But while avoiding social media could be detrimental for a new retailer, being so well-known does carry certain risks. “You’re only as good as your last job. And last December, that almost spelt disaster for us when a huge order didn’t arrive. A night-shift worker in the Peruvian factory where our products were manufactured had left the heat press on, destroying the entire batch. Hundreds of customers didn’t receive their orders. I was in the office on Christmas Day, calling people to apologise and arranging refunds. I didn’t know how we would come back from that – first impressions are so important.” He has since moved factory.

Despite approaching two possible investors last year, Proudlock has yet to seek funding for Serge DeNimes. He put £5,000 into the company initially, adding more from his own pocket each time the business made larger orders. “At the beginning, our overheads were minimal. But maintaining cashflow is hard, particularly when you’ve just put in a large order. If you want to use a good factory, minimums are high, and you’re committing to a huge amount of stock. It’s scary not knowing if you’ll be able to shift it all.”

This brings us back to Made In Chelsea. “I’m lucky that I don’t pay myself from the brand – I make money from the show, as well as the other designs and collaborations I’ve become involved in since my profile has grown. Without that, I’m not sure the company would have survived.” Today, through his Oliver Proudlock brand, he has done a shoe collaboration with Oliver Sweeney and a jewellery range with Theo Fennell. His blog, Proudlock Style, is currently being developed into an online retailer – “a Mr Porter for smaller, up-and-coming brands.”

CREATIVE AMBITION
Indeed, Small Business Saturday is just one of many ways Proudlock is trying to support fellow small businesses. He is currently looking at a three-floor, 3,000 square foot space in Islington to build into a hub for creatives working in design, fashion and art. “What’s hard for up-and-coming brands is your resources. If I want to do a lookbook, for instance, I’ll have to rent out the studio, find a photographer – all at a huge cost. But in a hub like this, I could build a photographic studio that every brand can use. I’ll have a graphic designer on each floor. Businesses will pay a monthly packaged fee, but it will be so much cheaper than the alternative.” His long-term ambition? “To manage young creatives – do their PR, marketing, accounting and legal.” But Proudlock could be gracing our screens for some time yet. Not only does Made In Chelsea now bring in around 800,000 viewers to E4 per episode, but Proudlock informs me he wouldn’t write off a stint on I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here.

CV OLIVER PROUDLOCK
Company name: Serge DeNimes

Founded: June 2011

Job title: Creative/managing director

Number of staff: Three

Age: 27

Lives: Fulham

Studied: Fine Art at Newcastle University

Drinking: I haven’t been drinking much recently, but I do love a glass of red wine now and again

Eating: Sushi

Currently reading: Run Baby Run, by Nicky Cruz

Favourite business book: The Steve Jobs biography

Talents: I’m incredibly creative and I love running my own business

First ambition: I always knew I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps as a photographer

Heroes: Ralph Lauren, Johnny Depp, Pharrell Williams

Motto: No matter what, always be positive