Retailer expanding west
Interview: Paul Walker, retailer
Keeping up the style
It all began in an isolated farmhouse near Laggan surrounded by the Monadhliath mountains which the television series Monarch of the Glen would later make famous.
With help from what was then the Highlands and Islands Development Board Paul Walker and Frances Slater set up in business designing casual clothing alongside a company making snowboards.
Working in an idyllic setting had its moments, says Walker, but he admits it was tough, travelling the country and overseas to find buyers, and having to cope with a slump in sales when recession struck.
“It was hand to mouth. We had bad debts and stock was being returned as it wasn’t selling,” says Walker.
But there was to be a change of fortune. They were using tweeds and got asked to design some outfits for the estate staff.
When they set up a roadside shop they saw how much demand there was for their range. They decided they needed to move properly into retail – and headed south to Edinburgh.
In 1993 Walker Slater opened in Candlemaker Row in the old town and two years later moved to its current premises in nearby Victoria Street.
The business blends traditional and modern tailoring using tweed, cotton, cashmere and other quality materials. It takes cloth from Scottish weavers across the country, but also from Italy and Portugal.
There is a strong local customer base, but inevitably tourists – looking to buy a bit of quality Scotland – count for a sizeable chunk of turnover which will be up 15% this year at £5 million.
“These sort of styles never really go out of fashion,” says Walker, pointing out that its biggest selling item – the three-piece tweed suit – is just as popular with young people as with the older generation.
“We wanted to build a brand, something you couldn’t get anywhere else. That was important and I think younger people in particular like that.”
Walker Slater has emerged from family business to earn its place in the fashion world. These days he rubs shoulders with some of the industry’s top figures such as Oliver Spencer and Nigel Cabourn. Last week he was at a show in Florence where he met up with Paul Smith.
There are now two shops in London and six years ago he opened a second further down Victoria Street selling womenswear. He reveals that an outlet is soon to open in Glasgow. The 2,000 sq ft Brunswick Street store will employ five staff and, for him, marks the arrival of the company as a true Scottish brand.
“I don’t think you can be a Scottish brand without representation in Glasgow,” he says, half jokingly. “It’s the biggest city, and it’s where all the Highlanders go for their shopping.”
He is looking at St Andrews as a potential next step and there will be a new 5,000 sq ft warehouse at Bilston Glen.
The company may be steeped in Scottish tradition, but Walker was born and raised in England near the Welsh border. He arrived in Scotland to study at Dundee University and never left.
His business idea, however, was born in the French Alps during a few weeks working in a bar which proved to be a cauldron of retail entrepreneurialism. Two fellow bar staff – Tim Slade and Julian Leaver – were selling t-shirts to fund their skiing season and went on to set up Fat Face. Another young man – Sean Thomas – who was also selling shirts around the ski resorts, turned his business into White Stuff.
Walker whose only other retail experience was working in a family-owned department store in his youth, admits it was probably fate that brought them together.
“Yeah, it was pretty remarkable, I suppose. I was inspired. I realised it was what I wanted to do.”
Education: Dundee University (Philosophy and history)
Career Highlights: department store and bar work, setting up Walker Slater.
Out of work interests?
Last year I competed in the Kung Fu Championships in China. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s a really good way to work out. Besides, I don’t like running.