It is a brave move, some might argue, opening a large independent designer fashion shop in the current economic climate, but Jules B founders Julian and Rhona Blades have never lacked courage. “Fortune favours the brave,” says Julian, adding: “You ‘ve just got to move on.”
There does seem to be a lot of money in North Yorkshire, he points out. “Because Harrogate is a nice town to visit, people do what they do in Europe – they promenade, they actually get dressed up to go out, and they take pride in the way they look.
“There are so many eateries and wine bars and reasons to spend the day in Harrogate. When they are more relaxed, they are more likely to spend money.”
The husband-and-wife team had wanted a Harrogate shop for more than 30 years, but the right location eluded them.
Then they saw the old Jaeger store on Cambridge Crescent was vacant, so they approached the landlords – and now, here they are.
“We feel super-positive about opening a shop there because the clientele is phenomenal. It’s got a 360 degree hinterland,” Julian says, explaining that, within a 20-mile radius of the town, there are large conurbations, not lots of sea , as is the case with Newcastle, where they opened their first store in 1984 on Acorn Street in Jesmond.
The couple met in Newcastle through a mutual friend 40 years ago. Rhona, who is originally from Heywood in Lancashire, had studied for a BA (Hons) in Fashion Design at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University), and then became a lecturer there, aged just 22.
Julian is from North Shields, and his father and forefathers were tailors in the nearby seaside town of Whitley Bay. “My mother, who was German, was also in fashion, so it was in my blood,” he says.
When the Sloane Ranger look was all the rage in the 1980s, he was working on Saturdays at his father’s countrywear shop, and noted that Barbour jackets were flying out, yet, when he went to Germany, there were none to be found there.
So he approached the Barbours, who were family friends, and became a freelance agent for the brand.
“Off I went like Dick Whittington thinking that the streets of Germany would be paved with gold and, through trial and error, built a business there,” he says.
When Julian’s mother died, he returned to England, and met Rhona. They fell in love but also quickly knew they should be business, as well as life partners.
Rhona says: “We decided to go into business after three months, as you do, as boyfriend and girlfriend. We had so much in common and egged each other on.
“I can remember Julian saying, ‘Do you want to do it, or do you not want to do it?’ And I replied, ‘Right, okay, we’ll doit’.”
Julian says: “We are very like-minded. We can go into a collection separately and we will probably pick out 80 per cent of what each other would pick.”
Rhona continued to lecture for five years as the business took off (which it did almost immediately) and became established, first as a womenswear shop, then then menswear soon following.
Now living in rural Northumberland, she and Julian have two married daughters, and Jules B’s success has continued, a three-time winner of the Drapers Best Independent Fashion Retailer in Britain award. In 2020, Julian and Rhona also won the Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award .
More than 70 per cent of the business now comes via their online shop, but they like shops and now have five with Harrogate (there is a menswear and a womenswear shop in Newcastle, and the same in Kendal).
At one time there were 12 Jules B stores, including two in the market town of Yarm, until strategic closures began in 2018. Now the time has come to step once again into bricks and mortar.
“People have an appetite now to get back into the shops, and we have seen all our retail outlets improve dramatically,” says Julian.
Harrogate is womenswear only. “It’s a slightly more sophisticated approach to fashion,” Julian says. “We don’t like billboard fashion. It’s all about styling, quality and value for money.
“We try to attract the more intelligent customer, someone who really values the product they are buying and the quality it has, so they are buying for the style, the luxury, the fit, not for the big name that’s splattered across the front – we are totally the opposite.”
Jules B stocks more than 150 brands, including designer labels Hayley Menzies, RIXO, Zadig & Voltaire and Rag and Bone, plus popular “softer dressing” brands like Oska, Nu, Xenia and Lurdes Bergada.
“A very big brand for us is Holland Cooper – we were their first wholesale client in the UK,” Julian says, adding that this is expected to do well at the Harrogate store.
And they are launching their own knitwear-based collection next month, called Eddy and Ivy, designed by Rhona and named after her parents.
She says: “That was the intention from day one and I never really got round to it, so at last, 40 years later, it’s coming.”
Julian adds: “I’m very confident that we have recruited a fantastic team, and that we have got the right labels for the town – it’s something exciting, new and fresh, and the location is second to none.”
Jules B is now open on Cambridge Crescent in Harrogate. The online store is at www.julesb.co.uk.