How John Lewis found fashion and became never knowingly underdressed; Clothing boss Peter Ruis tells how the stores known for good sense and slippers became the fashionistas’ darling

How John Lewis found fashion and became never knowingly underdressed

Clothing boss Peter Ruis tells how the stores known for good sense and slippers became the fashionistas’ darling

Sarah Butler

The Observer, Sunday 10 March 2013

Peter Ruis

Peter Ruis in the John Lewis chain’s Peter Jones store, Sloane Square. Photograph: David Levene

Fashionistas queuing round the block, a sell-out designer collection and breathless reviews by the style press. Can this really be John Lewis? As 84,700 partners working at the department stores celebrate their 17% bonus this weekend, they can rest assured they are back in fashion in a big way. A 9% rise in clothing sales helped drive a bumper year for John Lewis as it increased its market share, mainly at Marks & Spencer’s expense. The chain accounted for 2.1% of the UK clothing market in 2012, according to retail analysts Verdict, 10% up on a year before.

Once associated with sensible knitwear and cosy slippers, the 40-store chain has polished up its fashion credentials through designer collaborations, classy own-label products and the addition of upmarket brands that had previously steered clear of the store.

As a result, fashion sales topped £1.1bn last year – up from about £700m in 2005. That’s still only about a quarter of what Marks & Spencer sells, but it indicates the kind of growth that rivals can only dream of in the economic downturn.

Under the guidance of buying and brand director Peter Ruis, who took charge of fashion in 2007, John Lewis has created a buzz by recognising that shoppers of all ages now want to look trendy – and that older customers no longer want gold buttons and elasticated waistbands.

Sitting in the John Lewis Christmas room surrounded by some very classy Alice Temperley lingerie as well as cute sparkly kids’ dresses – and, of course, an array of tweed slippers – Ruis says: “Everything’s ageless these days.”

John Lewis’s Somerset by Alice Temperley range is a case in point. Now in its second season, the British designer’s collection is already the store’s biggest own-label and its fastest-selling brand ever.

But the fashionistas who line up outside the Oxford Street store and battle for popular items online form a broad church. “We see people in their 50s and 60s wearing it, as well as people in their 20s,” Ruis says.

Its new Kin brand also takes on that concept. Its collection of simple, relatively low-cost pieces includes outfits for children similar to those aimed at their parents and grandparents.

Anyway, Ruis says, the department store’s fans have been misidentified for years: “Historically we have been told that our customers are more affluent and a bit older, but increasingly our research has shown that to be a bit simplistic.”

He says John Lewis has strong market share in all age groups over 25, with a particular “sweet spot” among 35-to-44-year-olds. That demographic includes trendy urbanites who go to John Lewis to buy an iPad and stop to buy some clothes too. The store’s combination of homewares, technology, beauty and fashion has, Ruis says, been vital in helping the business through tough times on the high street.

Instead of worrying about ageing shoppers, he sees an opportunity in the fact that people feel less defined by their age: “The 40s and 50s are the prime of life. People are having kids later, and taking out mortgages later.”

A stylish and well-groomed 44 with three children aged between four and 11, Ruis is a good example of that modern John Lewis customer. He believes the generation that grew up loving brands such as Topshop, Whistles, Ted Baker and Topman don’t feel the need to swap to the classic labels that once formed the backbone of a typical department store.

So in the past seven years, John Lewis has edited out traditional, conservative labels such as German brand Basler and British “mother-of-the-bride” classics Jacques Vert and Alexon, and transformed itself into a kind of indoor high street, but with a grown-up aesthetic.

Ruis say the company works closely with brands to ensure their stock reflects what its customers want: “It’s less likely to be the most overt partygoing outfit of a 16-to-24-year-old. Those shoppers have less income, and the higher cost of going to university means there is less and less business there anyway.”

John Lewis fashion floors now mix the likes of Jaeger, Hobbs, Mango and Whistles with smaller brands such as Toast and Fenn Wright Manson. Prices have stretched up to Ralph Lauren levels, and down to the cheaper Kin.

Somerset and Kin are the department store’s newest and most adventurous creations, designed to suit a different kind of customer from those who would wear the classic John Lewis Collection or John Lewis & Co menswear.

“We have now started to find our feet on own brands. In the first few years we were getting the core range right, but last year we got a bit more feisty and fun,” Ruis says. “We have taken the customer with us, and the more fashionable we get, the more interested they become.”

He predicts that own-label will move up from about 30% of John Lewis fashion sales today to 35% or 40% as Somerset and Kin expand. This autumn, there will be a 50% bigger range of Kin clothing in stores and Somerset will expand into lingerie for Christmas, as well as cashmere, kidswear and even, eventually, home textiles and electricals.

Ruis is also in talks about bringing in a new designer name for menswear but says that despite the success of the Temperley range, he won’t be signing a whole catwalk of collaborators, Debenhams-style. “I’d hate to have 20 or 30 of them and lose our point of view,” Ruis says.

The Temperley range hasn’t been the only hot success. Ruis says sales of John Lewis & Co menswear shot up 20% after advertising featuring a long-haired bearded model proved controversial. A certain newspaper may have described the model as a “gingery tramp”, but Ruis says shoppers were won over by the clothing, and menswear sales increased faster than womenswear over the year.

Ruis, clad in a slimline Burberry Prorsum suit with a Richard James shirt and Grenson shoes, says men are more interested in fashion than they ever used to be. While it was once accepted that 80% of men’s clothes were bought by their partners and mums, now men in their 40s are happy to shop for themselves.

“There is no embarrassment about men’s fashions now. We used to talk about the pub factor – a man didn’t want people to point at what he was wearing, even if as a compliment. Like with men’s moisturiser, it isn’t an issue any more.”

Yet it’s not even metrosexual urbanites who are the main drivers behind John Lewis’s fashion explosion. What is? The internet, of course.

Sales of clothing in stores rose 3% last year, thanks partly to additional floor space. There are plans to add a further 10% of fashion square-footage by 2020 as John Lewis puts fashion into more stores. But that is all small beer compared with online growth.

In the year to 26 January, online fashion sales increased 41%, and the Temperley range sold three times as much on the internet as it did at the Oxford Street store. Ruis suggests it could have sold more had there been more stock in the warehouse.

There is no doubt that John Lewis’s highly effective online operation has brought the brand to a much wider customer base – people who would never have dreamed of buying their dream outfit in an emporium that also sells irons, bedlinen and curtain rails.

Yet Ruis believes John Lewis has just discovered the fashion in its bones. He says it is the story of the partnership and the way thousands of workers get a share of profits that really helped him persuade fashion brands to give the department store a whirl.

“What John Lewis has is quirkiness. It is unorthodox with a slight eccentricity to it. Great British brands of 150 years old work really well with fashion. We have always had that tradition, whether it’s Savile Row or Barbour. I always thought it could work well.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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