Steve Russell meets Simon Whitaker, founder and director of independent menswear retailer, Master Debonair, and discovers how a personal tragedy inspired a style revolution.
Like many young men, Master Debonair’s Simon Whitaker grew up in awe of his father, and in his case, with good reason. Bob was a larger-than-life character, famous for his dapper dress-sense, so when he suddenly passed away in 2015, Simon was determined to look razor-sharp at the funeral, as a final, loving tribute. A fruitless search for accessories worthy of the occasion would change his life forever:
“I was looking for a tie clip and a pocket square but I just couldn’t find what I was looking for, and when we got home I said to Eve (his wife) ‘I think I’d like to source some men’s accessories.”
He located a far-east accessories supplier, set up a Facebook page and the seeds of an empire were sown. Within months, the page had 5000 followers and he knew he’d tapped into something. Having spent most of his career in process engineering, Simon had no knowledge of the fashion industry, but his engineer’s eye for problem-solving,coupled with Eve’s background in marketing, saw the business grow rapidly. A little too rapidly, as he explains:
“By the time our website launched in early 2016, we had invested in about £10,000 worth of stock which by then, included suits, so our house was overrun. We were both still in full-time jobs, but when our dining room was regularly full of half-naked wedding parties getting fitted for suits, I knew the time had come to look for a shop!”
From the start, Simon and Eve wanted their customers to have a comfortable and intimate experience, so they decided against a city-centre venue and instead opened their first premises on their home patch of East Boldon in South Tyneside. A can-do spirit and Eve’s creativity helped them overcome a shoestring budget, and they managed to radically refit a former furniture store in just 6 weeks. That’s when, in Simon’s words, “things went crackers”!
“It was mad. We had people travelling to the shop from as far away as Aberdeen and London. We were struggling to house all the stock we needed, so it wasn’t long before we had to start looking for warehouse space. Within a month, I had to give up work and commit to it full time.”
Simon describes himself as a “jump right in” kind of guy, so he wasn’t unduly daunted, and it’s proved a wise decision. They’ve since opened two more stores – in Chesterfield and London – a headquarters in Boldon Colliery, and last year, turned over £2 million. Impressive stuff, but for Simon, it’s only the beginning. They recently launched their own-label range of classic tailoring and plan to significantly expand their high street presence:
“Our plan eventually is to have 5 flagship stores and 20 smaller stores nationwide. Everyone thinks that the website is our main source of sales, and it does pretty well, but the shops are our core business.”
Considering the well documented problems of high street retail, Master Debonair is a remarkable success story, but it’s easy to understand why. With an exquisite range of formal and casual menswear, footwear and accessories, the products speak for themselves. However, their real USP is the relationship they’ve built with their client base. Their motto is “outfitting self-confidence” and Simon and Eve genuinely want customers to feel like they’ve stepped into their home rather than a shop. A recently installed beer tap in the East Boldon store perfectly encapsulates their unique take on customer experience!
This commitment to excellent customer service has brought them a host of awards, including Business of the Year at the Best of South Tyneside Awards and Best Independent Menswear Retailer 2019 by internationally renowned fashion institute, Drapers.
With the emergence of Peaky Blinders and Conor McGregor’s sharp-suited rise to mega-stardom, some people assume that Simon finds inspiration in current trends, but as a fan of neither, he cites Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone era) and other vintage movie legends as his true inspiration. Those and his dad of course. Something tells me Bob would be immensely proud of the extraordinary tribute to his memory which Master Debonair has become.
Discover more @ www.masterdebonair.com/