Behind the brand: St. Bert’s aiming high in retro loungewear
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With a California vibe, produced in Portugal and Sussex based, British clothing outfit St. Bert’s has global aspirations. From a 'round-the-table family brand', the company has grown through Instagram to a seven-figure turnover with their nostalgic, retro nod to sport and weekend-wear. “Our aim is for everyone to want and need a piece of St. Bert’s in their wardrobe,” says co-founder Ben Godwin.
The idea was spawned after Godwin was made redundant from his City job and although his wife and co-founder, Sarah, had a recruitment business, the couple harboured dreams of starting a business together.
“When we met, we were both wearing our sweatpants and hoodies,” recalls Sarah. “At the time, we had two small kids and we couldn't find anything similar to what we had for children. Places like Gap were heavily branded and we didn’t want that.”
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The duo admit they aren’t “followers of fashion”. Instead, they looked at all their own loungewear colours and decided to go it alone with a new range. Their original concept started a decade ago after testing garments in Turkey. In pre-production samples, however, they noticed that the clothes were pilling (bobbles from damaged fibre) after a wash. They lost around £100,000 and nearly packed in the idea.
However, they landed upon Portugal, known for jersey cotton-based fabrics, sustainability, highly-skilled production work and more economical than the UK. Portugal were, the co-founders say, ahead of their time. “We knew the quality was going to be amazing and we have been with the same family-run company ever since,” adds Sarah.
They started as a children’s brand but noticed at the copious fairs they had attended as a start-up that adults were also keen on the retro colours. Five years ago they added a women's, then men’s line. With bigger margins, womenswear now makes up 85% of the business.
Paid social media advertising has also been a company gamechanger, a transformation forged during Covid where sales tripled. Sarah says: “Everyone was at home, kids were at home being homeschooled and wearing their loungewear.
“We are known for our retro design and standout colour throughout and the feedback we get now is that they are happy-making clothes and it’s what people want to live in."
They have since moved from working from a shed at their East Sussex home to a warehouse. One regret, says Sarah, is not using a fulfilment centre from the start. “I wish someone had told us who was five years ahead of us and given us advice on how to do it right,” says Sarah.
“We were totally blind and inexperienced in the retail industry. I think that’s why it’s taken us so long to get where we are. What we have learned lately is to make sure we are working on the business and not in it.”
They are a business-to-consumer model over wholesale, but with global plans afoot. They have recently taken on a full-time designer to add a new creative side to the brand and free up the couple to speak to buyers, find new factories to yield better margins and expand on their green shoots in the US, Australia and parts of Europe.
Despite the feel-good clothing there are challenges, although not with the husband and wife dynamic. “We both bring different skill sets to the business. Sarah is front of house, the face of social media and liaising with factory and designers,” says Ben, the “engine room” of the business, according to his wife.
“I’m the risk taker where I want ten different colours and Ben says we won’t have the budget for it,” laughs Sarah.
Brexit has made it difficult for St. Bert’s to expand into Europe due to bureaucratic red tape and VAT collection. They recognise that the brand is potentially a strong market due to Europeans being “more adventurous with their colours.”
Sarah admits: “People say that sweatshirts and hoodies must be really easy to make, but to come up with the perfect fit has taken seasons.”
Refining their strong-palleted colour lines is also pivotal. “If we were 100% happy straightaway you would lose the drive,” adds Ben. “We are always trying to perfect and create lines. But as a small business you can’t please everybody.”
As pioneers of standout colour, the family business also remains unfazed at competition. “It’s amazing how often you see something that is quite similar to ours in bigger brands,” admits Ben. “I tend not to worry about it as there is nothing you can do about it. All that white noise will affect your end goal.
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“When we get a chance to sit back, work on the business and chat together, it’s just a really exciting time to discuss what we can achieve, as opposed to being a jack of all trades and the daily grind of running a business.
“I saw someone the other day at a train station wearing one of our hoodies. That’s when you know it’s your brand, your baby and people are out there interested in us.”
Behind the brand: St. Bert’s on...
“We have tried to keep the brand as close to us as possible. There have been times when people phone up saying our customer service is amazing. 'I think his name is Ben,' they say, not realising that they have been dealing with the owner. It is hard to step away from, the moment you do step away from that control it will never be as perfect."
“It is one of the pitfalls of handing over a major part of your business to a third party. The risk is brand damage through a lack of customer service as it’s not the same as what we do and it’s not as personal. So it's about getting the balance right and the need to move to the next level.”