Some might argue that opening a large independent designer clothing store in the current economic climate is a bold move, but Jules B’s founders, Julian and Rhona Blades, have never been short of courage. “Luck favors the brave,” says Julian, adding, “You just have to keep going.”
There seems to be a lot of money in North Yorkshire, he points out. “Because Harrogate is a lovely town to visit, people do what they do in Europe – they walk, they dress really smart to go out and they take pride in what they look like.
“There are so many restaurants and wine bars and reasons to spend the day in Harrogate. When they are more relaxed, they are more likely to spend money.”
The couple had wanted a shop in Harrogate for more than 30 years but couldn’t find the right location.
Then they saw that the old Jaeger store on Cambridge Crescent was empty, so they contacted the landlords – and here they are.
“We are very optimistic about opening a shop there because the clientele is phenomenal. It’s got a 360-degree hinterland,” says Julian, explaining that there are major metropolitan areas within 20 miles of the city, not much sea, as in the case of Newcastle, where they opened their first shop in 1984 on Acorn Street in Jesmond .
The couple met through a mutual friend in Newcastle 40 years ago. Rhona, originally from Heywood in Lancashire, had a BA (Hons) in fashion design from Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) and became a lecturer there at just 22 years old.
Julian hails from North Shields and his father and ancestors were tailors in the nearby seaside town of Whitley Bay. “My mother, who was German, was also fashion, so that was in my blood,” he says.
When the Sloane Ranger look was all the rage in the 1980s, he worked Saturdays in his father’s countrywear shop and found Barbour jackets circulating, but when he went to Germany none were to be found there .
So he approached the Barbours, who were family friends, and became a freelance agent for the brand.
“I started out like Dick Whittington thinking the streets of Germany would be paved with gold and built a business there through trial and error,” he says.
When Julian’s mother died, he returned to England and met Rhona. They fell in love, but also quickly knew that they should be business and life partners.
Rhona says: “We decided after three months to go into the business as boyfriend and girlfriend, like you do. We had so much in common and we spurred each other on.
“I can remember Julian saying, ‘Do you want to do it or don’t you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Right, okay, we’ll do that’.”
Julian says: “We are very similar. We can go into a collection separately and we’ll probably pick 80 percent of what the other would pick.”
Rhona lectured for five years as the business took off (which it did almost immediately) and established itself, first as a women’s clothing store, then soon after as a men’s clothing store.
She and Julian, who now live in rural Northumberland, have two married daughters and the success of Jules B, a three-time winner of Drapers Best Independent Fashion Retailer in Britain award, continues. In 2020, Julian and Rhona also won the Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award.
More than 70 per cent of the business is now through their online shop but they like stores and now have five with Harrogate (there is a men’s and a women’s store in Newcastle and the same in Kendal).
There used to be 12 Jules B stores including two in the market town of Yarm until strategic closures began in 2018. Now it’s time to get back into the bricks and mortar.
“People are now having an appetite to go back into stores and we’ve noticed that all of our retail operations have improved dramatically,” says Julian.
Harrogate is womenswear only. “It’s a slightly more sophisticated approach to fashion,” says Julian. “We don’t like poster fashion. It’s all about styling, quality and value for money.
“We’re trying to attract the smarter customer, someone who really appreciates the product they’re buying and its quality, so they buy for the style, the luxury, the fit, not the big name that’s on the front splashes – we are the complete opposite.”
Jules B stocks more than 150 brands including designer labels Hayley Menzies, RIXO, Zadig & Voltaire and Rag and Bone, as well as popular ‘softer clothing’ brands such as Oska, Nu, Xenia and Lurdes Bergada.
“A very big brand for us is Holland Cooper – we were their first wholesale customer in the UK,” says Julian, adding that this is likely to be well received in the Harrogate store.
And they’re launching their own knitwear collection called Eddy and Ivy next month, designed by Rhona and named after her parents.
She says: “It was the intention from day one and I never really got around to it, so finally, 40 years later, it’s coming.”
Julian adds: “I’m very confident that we’ve recruited a fantastic team and that we have the right labels for the city – 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 shop is at www.julesb.co.uk.