The award-winning entrepreneur’s eponymous business has chosen Chester’s historic city centre, flanked by an affluent hinterland, as its flagship location. Opening last November forecast sales are for £300,000 this year with 25 percent annual growth going forward. Now O’Brien, 29, who is staging the biggest couture fashion show outside London on June 7 at Chester Racecourse, is drawing up plans for further store launches in Liverpool, followed by Manchester and London.
Chester’s three floors feature women’s ready-to-wear day and evening collections with a two alterations service included to ensure the perfect fit, a couture consulting room, menswear tailoring, and a bridal suite complete with a white carpet, chandeliers and champagne.
Clients can also see how their garments take shape in the pattern cutting and sewing studio.
The business model, a mix of the old-fashioned and fiercely contemporary. Looking both to the past and the future its innovative approach comes a time of changing fortunes for the industry and high street retail as they navigate the forces of online migration and fast fashion.
As the occupant of a property once the home of a Jaeger store O’Brien is acutely aware of what he is up against and why a fightback is crucial. But times too are more on his side. “Today more customers are interested in and value how things are made,” he explains.
“Here clients can meet the manufacturer and the stylists, and learn about our British suppliers too.
“For example we’re able to buy fabric in small rolls which enables us to digitally design our own patterns and make them exclusive. Our pleat maker is one of the very few with the skills and a traditional machine. Clients become part of the story of their purchases.”
Backed by a silent investor and retail mentor, O’Brien and his nine staff spent weeks making the launch stock, a 120 piece collection for this season.
“We offer bridal packages, advise on accessories and wedding parties make a special visit, coming from all over the country,” he adds.
“They have the chance to collaborate on the design, incorporating elements they have seen elsewhere and liked. We decided on that because everyone looks at different websites these days and come with their own ideas.
“Our other customers are primarily from the North and the Midlands. The alterations service is very popular and means clients can have not only a special outfit but a very comfortable one too.”
Mid-market affordable and couture don’t normally go together, but that was O’Brien’s target and another point of difference. Separates cost from £150 to £250, a dress up to £400, a man’s two-piece suit £1,500 and a wedding dress from £1,000 to £2,000.
Demand, with strong repeat custom, is showing his pricing is right. Two burdens remain however affecting him and other other high street businesses: punishingly business rates and parking charges.
“Shopping centres offer free parking,” he points out. “We have appealed our rates, that was two months ago and are waiting to hear. We could do so much more, create more jobs, if the system was fairer to town and city centre businesses,” he says.
As the label’s centrepiece, O’Brien himself is the one clients want to advise them. As the business expands that inevitably will become more difficult so he is now training a new team of design assistants.
His solution for one of the biggest styling challenges, dressing the mother of the bride, is to freshen the look by focusing on dress sleeves with new eye-catching designs instead of settling for the standard bolero and jacket cover-ups which are “a bit stuck in the mud,” he reckons.
For this summer’s big occasions, he suggests bright acidic colours and swishing pleats as the sure fire ways to turn heads.
“We will make you look special and feel very relaxed too,” he promises.