Beyond Retro's Steven Bethell: selling vintage, helping the planet
Beyond Retro founder Steven Bethell is a retail and fashion pioneer. That’s not just because of his status as an early adopter of a resale/recycle/upcycle business model, but because of his belief that such a model could build a big (really BIG, it “finds homes for secondhand clothes and sells about 3 million garments a week”) fashion and retail group and evolve beyond being the small local business that so many secondhand fashion sellers are.
Having opened its first store on Cheshire Street in Shoreditch two decades ago, the company now has 16 across the UK, Sweden and Finland. And, importantly, the inventory is carefully curated and is all about key trends.
That trend approach extends to marketing with the recent ad campaign (Access All Areas - The Band Edit) being built around iconic music genres.
That in itself is enough to set Beyond Retro apart. Yet the group (the parent company is actually called Bank and Vogue) is about more than just selling secondhand. As well as retail, there’s wholesale, remanufacturing with the Beyond Remade label launched last September, and fibre to fibre via a Renewcell partnership.
Fashionnetwork.com spoke to Bethell about what makes him tick, why Beyond Retro is such a success, working with big brands, opening new stores, and driving circularity forward.
Fashionetwork.com: You went from being a vintage retailer and major secondhand garment wholesaler to being a key sustainability-focused brand collaborator and then a manufacturer of new-from-old fashion. Tell us about that.
Steven Bethell: Converse asked could we have an input into their Chuck Taylor shoe? We wouldn't make the whole item, but would make a component. We partnered with Converse from 2017 and started to think about how we actually pick, sort, grade, wash and cut components for a ‘new’ product from our supply of used.
What's really exciting in the partnership is that working with somebody like [its owner] Nike, you’re really stepping up your game.
We've also done a line of products for Zalando, for About You, for Gina Tricot, and in the coming months we have some pinnacle brands that we have product coming out with.
I genuinely believe that designers and creative directors want to be part of the solution of not burning up the planet. What we’re demonstrating with what we're doing is that it’s possible to manufacture in a different way and make an engaging product. Those Chucks that Converse made are genuinely engaging, they’re a solid product.
Americans buy 450 million pairs of jeans a year, the average life expectancy of a pair of jeans is two-and-a-half years but there's still a lot of life in that denim. We can cut that up and make it into components. So the first shoe we did with Converse was a denim one. Since then we’ve supplied more denim, workwear, Hawaiian shirts, and Polar fleece. I think we've done nine drops with them to date.
FN: And Beyond Remade? How did your sustainable own-brand of apparel and accessories come about?
SB: The problem with the vintage business is you can only sell what you find. The simplest thing is cut-off shorts. You’ll find broken-knee Levi's that you can make into them. But often there are silhouettes or items that you can't find enough of. So we built our own facility. We knew there was a market for backpacks and started doing things like cutting up leather jackets and making backpacks out of them. We didn’t want to [use new]. We had so much material, so how could we use what we already have?
I’m really proud of the work we did with Converse, because to me, it's an example of an iconic product that's reinvented. And all of our skill sets came together now to launched the more premium Beyond Remade range. We have an eye to be able to pick for style and quality and now we have this new talent of being able to remanufacture.
I've always marvelled at the stories of Yves Saint Laurent walking through the vintage markets of Paris and being inspired. As a vintage retailer, we spent 25 years looking at garments, each of us, pulling out the things that we love and saying “look how cool this is”. Beyond Remade is an accumulation of those walks through the vintage markets of the world. For us, it’s where we can spread our wings and show what remanufactured products can look like at scale, but in a considered environment. It's still very small, but we’re not making just one or two, we’re making a run.
We have our own remanufacturing facility. If you want to kill a party talk about auditing! But I'm really proud that our remanufacturing facility just passed a snap audit. What's going to be really important in the remanufacturing sector is we hold ourselves to the same standard as new manufacturers — fully audited and fully traceable.
And as we approach other brands, even luxury brands, we lay it on the table and and show what’s possible. We're trying to inspire change.
If you grow organic cotton it takes 13 kg of carbon per 1 kg cotton grown. But if you use existing cotton and an existing pair of jeans, it uses only 3 kg of carbon. So it's an 80% reduction and we hope that Beyond Remade will be an inspiration to brands.
FN: Beyond Retro itself continues to expand. Do you think you’ve reached capacity yet or are you going for super-fast growth?
SB: We opened our first shop on Cheshire Street 20 years ago and now have 16. We’ve opened in Finland, which is going insanely well. The first week of sales were what we had budgeted for the month.
2023 will see at least three new stores, but as a company we don't borrow money, we don't have an outside investor, so we’re always growing slowly and organically. Every time we make such a move we’re taking the money out of our own pockets. We’re gently pleased about our reception in Helsinki and see a longer runway there as well.
In the last 18 months we’ve opened the Argyll Street store [just off London’s Oxford Street], the Westfield Shepherd’s Bush store and Coal Drops Yard, all of which have been good to us. If you’d said to me 20 years ago if you stand at the door of Liberty and look straight forward, would you ever see Beyond Retro? I’d have said ‘no’. So this is a moment.
FN: Why do you think Beyond retro has proved so successful?
SB: Beyond Retro is about us being able to tell the fashion story of the day through used. That's been the mission. But it’s also a celebration of the stuff that we love. From the 50s dresses to the 70s, to this week in Coal Drops [Yard], where we have a 90s ski party going on.
The win is not selling secondhand but selling relevant, that magic moment when you've got a rack of, say, corsets because you know that corsets are the hottest thing in the world.
I have that feverish bug to be super-relevant. Say we just sold vintage military gear, it would be fun, but it wouldn't have the momentum and the reach. We wouldn't get onto Argyll Street. That's the real trick -- mass exclusivity, but on-trend.
The customer has changed. The diversity has changed, the breadth has changed. Even from an age perspective, it isn't just a shop for teenagers. In Sweden when I was last there, I remember seeing a lady in her 70s buying a sparkle dress. She said she was going to a cocktail party and wanted ‘something lovely to wear’.
FN: So it’s all about picking great product?
SB: We have a heritage of 25 years, we know what's available. We have a collective knowledge of what's possible. The team we've assembled is very diverse. My partner is an accountant by trade and there's a discipline that comes with that. We have a CEO running the company who’s very analytics-driven. And we’ve thrown a lot of resources at data collection. Each item that we sell has a unique barcode. We collect the data from that and can do forward-buy plans based on that data. I genuinely believe that allowed us to go from being a two- or three-shop business to being 16 stores and an omnichannel presence across three jurisdictions.
And on top of that we have a team that watches for trends.
FN: There’s clearly still a lot of work to in the fashion sector and it remains one of the most polluting sectors globally. Is the sustainability message at the forefront of what you at Beyond Retro, or is it more subtle than that?
SB: The question is how do I get that Westfield customer to leave the dark side and come to the the side of light? They're not going to get it by us being preachy. I'm only going to get them to change their diet because my hamburger is just as good or better as the hamburgers from the other guys!
I’m an optimist. For instance, in 2017 we started working with Re:newcell. They’d published a paper that said they could take pre-consumer denim cuttings and use it as an import to their dissolving pulp. I called the CEO and said ‘hey what if I had post-consumer that looks like pre-consumer?’ He said ‘there's no way you can do that, forget it’. But I said I could and we did. We have a division that works with them and last year we delivered five million pounds of post-consumer cotton.
I genuinely believe we can create a circular economy for apparel. Trying to do something new is really hard. But our team is willing to do the hard work. I have the adventure gene in me. I believe the business can be more than it is. As the co-founder, it's my job to get out there and push those envelopes.
This year will see an expansion of our brand collaborations and partnerships and will also see expansion on the fibre-to-fibre side. Beyond Remade will continue to grow and be a demonstration and a beacon to other brands that upcycling at scale is possible and we can make beautiful things.
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