THE day after singer Rihanna donned a pair of Ragged Priest’s signature studded shorts, sales went through the roof.
The pop star’s endorsement bolstered the Westcliff-based clothing label’s already growing success and now they’re currently one of the hottest brands in fashion. They are stocked in Topshop and on ASOS, and count Rita Ora and Jessie J, as well as Rihanna, as fans.
Not bad for an independent clothing label which was devised seven years ago.
Sitting down in the office with owner James Cutmore, accounts man Jok Vaufrouard and chief designer Bex Koppit, I ask them about the “Rihanna effect” on the business in 2012.
James says: “It’s what all fashion labels dream of – a celebrity choosing to wear their clothes. Rihanna wore them at the Coachella Festival in America and picked them out herself.
“We got a call from our concessions manager at Topshop the day after Rihanna was photographed, saying ‘it’s 9.02am and, I don’t know what’s happening, but we are selling a lot of the studded shorts’. We sold thousands.
“It was good in many ways, but it also sort of killed studs for us. The trend took off and then all the stores were doing it.”
James has created a 12,000 sq ft fashion base in Westcliff where clothes are designed, made and distributed. The building in Park Street is like a teenager fashionista’s dream of an office. Exposed brick walls are lined with rows of leather jackets, the main office is complete with leather chairs and a huge desk, and the main work space buzzes with well-dressed staff at their desks, surrounded by rails of cool clothes.
The label is divided into their popular reworked vintage range, as well as their trendy fashion collections which run alongside.
James, 35, started out as a retail manager for Gran Moda, in Leigh, after leaving school.
He says: “I worked in retail straight from school and Gran Moda pretty much gave me free rein to do my own thing. I did a lot of visual design in the shop and got to understand what people wanted.
“I could see the vintage trend kicking off, so I started selling vintage on eBay. I kept that going and was trying to increase business, while planning to leave my day job.”
James decided on the name the Ragged Priest and set up a shop in Clifftown Road, Southend.
James says: “Someone suggested the Ragged Priest, which had been a name of a shop that had gone out of business. I liked it and initially went with a religious theme, with the brand linked to the vintage element and the idea of recycling and salvation. The religious theme has faded out now, as we have grown as a business.” However, things didn’t go to plan with the shop and James decided to focus on running it through eBay.
Knowing he needed to break into the mainstream shops, James went on a charm offensive with the buyers at Topshop to get the vintage clothing stocked.
James says: “For six months we sent them frosted brownies and vintage notes and samples to try to get them on board.
“They said they couldn’t work with us with the vintage clothes, but they could with reworked vintage. So we set about adding stud details and changing out pockets.”
It was at the point Bex, who was studying fashion at the London College of Fashion at the time, got really involved.
She says: “I was working all hours on a domestic sewing machine, reworking vintage clothing to get everything ready for the Topshop collection.
“It was a very busy time, but really exciting to be part of something that was taking off.”
Their hard work paid off and the Ragged Priest rework vintage collection was stocked in Topshop from 2009. Their statement work was primarily geared around studwork on a variety of pieces.
James says: “We pretty much started studwork as a trend. It has sold so well that it has given us the opportunity to expand the business.
“Now studwork is on the decline and we are focusing on rebranding who we are to take things forward.”
James and Bex are the creative masterminds behind the brand.
Bex says: “We spark off each other. Of course we argue sometimes, but we are straightforward with each other. “You feel part of something, so it means you don’t mind if you work until 5am on some occasions. It is a place where people who work hard are given opportunities.”
Since Jok got involved full-time last year, he has driven the business forward and been part of expanding the brand all over the world.
Jok says: “James is very much the creative force. I don’t have that element, but I have run a business for many years and have a lot of experience with accounts and making businesses global.
“Since joining we have expanded to Italy and Holland and built the business up overseas.”
James says: “You need that side of things. You start out doing everything yourself, but as the business has got bigger, I have had to let go of doing everything and hand it over.
“Because we produce everything in-house, we were a little reluctant to get too big, too quickly, but we started outsourcing some of the manufacturing.”
Even in the past five years, the fashion industry is demanding even more from labels.
Bex says: “Fashion incorporates everything now – it’s the fashion bloggers, the social media, everything. You have to be tuned in all the time to what’s going on.”
James says: “We are very immediate. We do not sell collections by seasons. If you see something at a show then you can buy it immediately. That is why buyers like us, because we design and make collections in-house.”
Now the team, which consists of about 50, are focused on re-branding the label and driving it forward.
There is no doubt that another celebrity wearing the clothes would be good for the business – who would James like to see wearing the latest collection?
“Cara Delevingne would be top of the list. She represents what we are all about.”
Visit www.the raggedpriest.com for details.