The Fabulous Baker Boy

People can relate to Ted Baker, especially when company founder Ray Kelvin dismisses cutting edge catwalk fashion as ‘see through Perspex bollocks’. But the company takes design seriously. One reason for Ted’s success is his rigorous attention to detail,

Study a Ted Baker shirt, and you will see how design lies at the heart of this company’s success. There is attention to detail in everything, from the fundamental cut and quality of the fabric to the finishing touches of pockets, buttons and labels. “It’s not just a shirt,” says company founder Ray Kelvin. “It’s a Ted.”

These days the Ted Baker business covers a lot more than the coloured shirts it became famous for. The group has expanded into tailored suits, women’s wear, children’s wear and even skincare. In 1997, nine years after the brand was established, the company floated on the Stock Exchange.

For Kelvin, the 43-year-old chief executive of the group, it is a far cry from his early working life in retail, supplying bland, middle-of-the-road clothing to be sold in mass-market women’s chain stores. “My background is producing faceless products for faceless retailers. I’d got caught up in this area of nothing,” he says.

Kelvin broke free of this mediocrity by opening his own shop in Glasgow, which, after six sometimes difficult trading years, began to flourish. It was quickly followed by stores in Manchester and Nottingham and the still existing concession in Harrods. Now the business has a market capitalisation of £115m, bigger than Moss Bros. It has also expanded into European countries such as France, Switzerland, Spain and Sweden, as well as further afield to countries such as Canada and the US.

In the UK, there are 11 standalone stores, including a flagship outlet at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, which act as showcases for the brand. There are also about 20 Ted Baker concessions in department stores such as House of Fraser and a wholesale network of 150 independent stockists. Kelvin says that, as the business grows, great care has to be taken to manage the Ted Baker brand, to “take care of Ted”. As the last company report says: “We always ask ourselves the question ‘Would Ted do it this way?'” The shops that stock Ted Baker are called “trustees” and are carefully selected to ensure they have the correct profile.

Meanwhile, the group relies on word of mouth, not advertising, to spread its fame. Kelvin says, with characteristic bluntness: “A Ted Baker shirt doesn’t guarantee you a shag. I don’t like selling an image.” The fact that celebrities, including Pierce Brosnan, the Blair family, Puff Daddy and Tom Cruise have been spotted wearing Ted Baker shirts has also boosted the brand’s style credentials. The group has carefully managed the mystery both of its namesake, the enigmatic Ted Baker character, and Kelvin himself, who never has his picture in the papers and almost never gives interviews. “I’m only doing this interview for Design Week to give credit to the team,” he says.

In contrast to the mystique, Kelvin has a down-to-earth approach and a laddish sense of humour which is reflected in the informal style of his company’s culture. The business enjoys in-jokes with its customers, for example, giving away “goldfish” – a piece of carrot in a water-filled plastic bag – in one clothing promotion.

Kelvin’s mother still works in the Ted Baker store in Covent Garden, wearing a badge saying “I taught him how to tie his boots”. He has no office and no desk at Ted Baker’s central London headquarters near Euston, known as The Fortress. The company is about to move to new offices near Kings Cross, which has already been christened The Ugly Brown Building.

There are plans for a barge on the nearby canal for entertaining guests and holding company parties. Although Kelvin stresses his ordinary background, he is now a rich man following the company’s flotation. Born in Maida Vale in west London, he did not shine in his education, flunking his business studies course at Middlesex Polytechnic. But as he says himself, “When they put pound signs in front of me, the figures all made sense.”

A very open man, he is forthcoming about the fact he is single with two sons under five called Ben and Josh, and readily expresses his sadness that his late father cannot see the growing success of the Ted Baker business.

Kelvin believes the care taken with the Ted Baker brand and its design is communicated to its customers. He says: “There’s a kindness and a specialness about Ted.” The company says it has rejected the old-fashioned principles of “shopfitting” in favour of individually designed stores that are “warm in atmosphere”.

Although Kelvin insists his clothes appeal to every age, from 16 to 70, the Ted Baker knack is to achieve the balance between being accessible, but not mass market. Ted Baker customers want to wear distinctive clothes, but they do not want to look way out. The company’s philosophy is: “In fashion you should lead, not follow, but never lead too far.”

Kelvin dismisses the cutting edge catwalk stuff. “It’s unwearable, this seethrough Perspex bollocks.” He sums up the Ted Baker range as “wearable, beautifully made, beautiful quality products that aren’t ridiculously expensive but have an identity of their own”.

Including shop staff, Ted Baker now employs 400 people. Seventy of these work in the wholesale division, with 25 of them in design. Kelvin says: “We are basically a design business. We produce everything in-house. I can’t get excited unless we have designed it.” That means everything: clothing, stationery, graphics, buildings and office furniture.

The company has a special projects team, which covers areas such as shop design, and a graphic design team, which handles the creative work for swing tickets, postcards, point-of-sale material, and so on. However, it does use design agencies for help in specialist areas, for example, in the relaunch last October of the Ted Baker website as an e-commerce site. Blueberry.Net, a Web design company specialising in fashion e-commerce, worked with Ted Baker to redevelop the site, which is very clean and uncluttered, with two-dimensional graphics. Sam Stonier, Blueberry.Net e-commerce director says: “It’s quirky without being gimmicky.”

Ted Baker On-line is just one of the latest ventures taking the brand into its next phase of development. There are further overseas expansion plans and major new product lines in the wings. A woman’s version of the popular Endurance suit, made of uncrushable wool and selling for £299 is planned, as is the Party Animal Suit, a dinner suit made of fabric with a Teflon coating that means all sorts of nasty stains can be simply brushed off.

Sally Bain, a senior analyst at the retail research consultancy Verdict Research, says that so far Ted Baker has managed its growth carefully, protecting its exposure to an economic downturn by opting for concessions and wholesaling, rather than rushing to open lots of new stores. “It’s got its finger on the pulse of what young men want, and also what they need to wear. It’s all to do with nuances, its not about being outrageous,” she says.

The company has diversified into different product areas to maximise sales and now has 35 per cent of its sales in womenswear – a market four times the size of the men’s market. But Bain warns that growing retailers must be careful not to lose touch with their customers – or there may be disastrous consequences for sales.

The Ted Baker business looks healthy. It’s one of the few bright spots, along with brands such as French Connection and Gap, in what has been a terrible year for high street chains.

Kelvin even admits he has had a conversation with Marks & Spencer about the possibilities of bringing Ted Baker’s fashion know-how to help the struggling British retailer. Although these talks may never come to fruition, today’s dowdy-looking M&S might do well if it could capture some of Ted Baker’s youthful style.

Key dates

1988 First Ted Baker store opens in Glasgow, designed by Harper Mackay

1994 Wholesale operation launches

1995 Ted Baker Woman born

1996 Teddy Boy clothing range for children launches

1997 Ted Baker floats on the Stock Exchange. Edward Baker tailored clothing launches

1998 First US standalone store opens in New York. Website launches. Skinwear and Underwear launches

1999 Bluewater store opens. The Endurance suit and the Woman fragrance launched. Ted Baker On-line, the e-commerce website goes live

Everything plus the Kitchen sink

The website Ted Baker On-line had to give viewers quick access to the product ranges. ‘It is designed around templates so it is easy to navigate,’ says Blueberry.Net e-commerce director Sam Stonier.

Visitors can look at the clothes using a magnifying glass icon that zooms in on particular details of the clothes. There is also a Flash animation box, containing information on promotions in the style of a shop window.

The site has fun details, such as a kitchen sink graphic where information not to do with shopping, such as investor relations, is kept. There is also a two-dimensional character christened Ted Bod, who is suitably enigmatic, to show visitors around the site. According to Blueberry.Net senior designer and art director of the website, Giles Routledge, ‘The clothes come out from this two-dimensional background.’

Blueberry.Net absorbs a percentage of the development costs in return for a percentage of the on-line profits, giving it a vested interest in making the site successful.

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