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Julian Dunkerton and how Superdry spiraled out of style

 (ES composite)
(ES composite)

Spare a prayer this week for Julian Dunkerton, co-founder and chief exec of the 20-year-old clothing brand Superdry, which has just reported an ominous £148m loss for the year to 29 April.

Even by the standards of a flailing high street, this is bleak news. Then again, Dunkerton insists it’s all under control: he reassured a journalist last week that “Julian has been beavering away and sorting this out.” Maybe speaking about himself in the third person keeps his spirits up.

Dunkerton – a 58-year-old who was once one of British retail’s great success stories – is nothing if not tenacious. Before Superdry, there was his retailer Cult Clothing, which he launched in the 1980s on a Cheltenham market stall. By 2003, he had shops in many of Britain’s university towns; he joined forces with James Holder (who had previously designed Bench, another street-fashion line), and created Superdry as Cult Clothing’s in-house brand.

Superdry found popularity with  students in the Noughies but has struggled to stay relevant (Superdry)
Superdry found popularity with students in the Noughies but has struggled to stay relevant (Superdry)

From there, they developed stand-alone Superdry stores, then an international wholesale business, which successfully floated on the stock exchange in 2010. In the meantime, it had become ubiquitous in the UK, and the university-town strategy had paid off in attracting an ardent student following. For a time, it was one of our most-loved homegrown brands, worn by celebrities like Kate Moss and David Beckham.

The look was casual and urban, lying somewhere between skater fashion and the utility that was, at the time, associated with the thriving Japanese streetwear scene. That was a key part of the branding, too: Dunkerton and Holder gave Superdry various logos using Japanese symbols. To most customers in the UK, these words meant nothing, but lent the brand a mysterious air of cool; unfortunately, they also meant nothing to Japanese speakers, as they translated to gibberish.

Superdry was for people who wanted to get the streetwear look without knowing much about the culture of it.

Melanie Rickey, fashion editor

It didn’t matter at the time. “Superdry found favour with people who wanted something stylish, but didn’t want to engage with trends,” says Melanie Rickey, a fashion editor who was then working at Grazia magazine.” It was unpretentious and it was well-made. It was for people who wanted to get the streetwear look without knowing much about the culture of it, which recalls the famous “cerulean blue” comment in The Devil Wears Prada – design ideas trickle down, and Superdry found a sweet spot in the mass market.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to cling onto a sweet spot. By 2012, fashion commentators were already calling the logo-heavy look ‘tired’. The initial popularity with students led to disadvantages over time, suggests trend forecaster and brand strategist Lucie Greene. “A young consumer base is always volatile,” she says. “That market will go into something incredibly passionately, and it’ll be the hottest thing for a moment, and then either it becomes less cool, or the brand gets a bit greedy and over-expands. Suddenly, it’s something that your dad knows about.”

Maybe Superdry did get a bit greedy; by 2018, it was in 157 countries. Having stepped down as chief exec a few years earlier, Dunkerton left the board that spring, citing “other demands on my time.”

In 2021 Dunkerton launched a flagship store on London’s Oxford Street (Dave Benett/Getty Images for Superdry)
In 2021 Dunkerton launched a flagship store on London’s Oxford Street (Dave Benett/Getty Images for Superdry)

These demands were mainly at home in Cheltenham. They included the family business founded by his parents, Dunkertons Cider, and The Lucky Onion, a Cotswolds hotel and pub group that he had acquired in 2017 (he sold most of its portfolio last year). But more excitingly, there was the matter of his second marriage that summer, to Jade Holland Cooper, a fashion designer in her own right. Her luxury brand, Holland Cooper, specialises in horsey countrywear and is popular with the cast of Made in Chelsea.

They make a surprising couple in some respects: there’s a 22-year age gap, for one thing. Dunkerton has a Richard Hammond-ish beardy look, but pairs his Superdry with Saint Laurent. Holland Cooper, now 36, has the glamour of an influencer, and loves to attend the couture shows (her mother is also a designer). But as she once told an interviewer, the couple share the same entrepreneurial instincts. “I’ve never met anyone as inspiring,” she said. “I need to be with someone who doesn’t say, “Have you earned enough money now?”. I just can’t think like that.”

Their wedding, which put some of that money to good use, was held at their home – a £50m Georgian mansion called Dowdeswell Court. Dunkerton’s mate Idris Elba did a DJ set, with Craig David joining him for a duet.

2018 had started well at Superdry too, with an all-time-high share price – but things went rapidly downhill. By the end of the year, shares had slumped by more than 80%. Dunkerton couldn’t bear to watch from the sidelines. In December, he started complaining to press and fellow shareholders that he didn’t like the direction the brand was heading in, and that he should be brought back. A fraught campaign ensued, with directors opposing his return and claiming that before he’d left, he’d overseen the design of the very collections that were now bombing. Nevertheless, by April 2019, with the support of 51% of the shareholders, Dunkerton returned as chief exec; the entire board resigned in protest.

The company is now focusing on cost savings and margin improvements, but the brand is struggling to regain its Noughties mojo.

Susannah Streeter, Hargreaves Lansdown

If this were a movie, we’d now jump forward to a reinvigorated fashion brand four years later, seized from the jaws of death by the man who knows it best. But it hasn’t been so easy. “The promises of sustained growth which helped propel shares to lofty highs in early 2018 just haven’t materialised, and shares have decreased 97% from their peak,” says Susannah Streeter, head of money and markets at the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown. “The company is now focusing on cost savings and margin improvements, but the brand is struggling to regain its Noughties mojo.”

Superdry’s aesthetic and reputation had lost its way long ago. Like its co-founder – who famously refused to use a smartphone for years and would apparently only read emails if his team printed them out – it’s far from the cutting edge. “These days it’s definitely a dad brand,” says Rickey. “The website looks like Littlewoods or Next – really naff, and not aspirational.” When you’re selling casual clothing, she points out, you need a very clear vision that makes you cooler than the next brand. “It’s just jeans and T-shirts, yes – but what jeans, and what T-shirts? And who else is wearing them, who we can relate to? There’s no cultural touchpoint with Superdry anymore.”

It’s not what today’s twenty-somethings expect, says Greene. “When you look at the most successful brands now, they think of themselves as engines of culture, and they connect to music and sport, and create very distinctive environments.” Gen Z has a sophistication that perhaps millennials 20 years ago did not have, she adds: “Superdry’s Japanese references, for example, are not entirely authentic; younger audiences can see through that.”

She’s not optimistic for the company’s future. “It might get another round of funding, but it feels like a managed decline. It would take a very decisive strategy and a big injection of investment to give Superdry a new life, and I don’t know if those two things will combine.”

Dunkerton, however, is bullish. “Would this company be here if I hadn’t come back? I don’t think it would,” he said in last week’s interview. “The product is getting better, the public are starting to like it, turnover has stabilised and we are getting our cost base into the right place.”

To paraphrase his wife, even in the face of enormous challenges, he doesn’t seem to be asking himself whether he has now made enough money. Dunkerton is a man who won’t give up – and if anything can save Superdry, maybe that will.