Lestrange founders on Europe expansion and why circularity is no silver bullet
London-based label Lestrange opened its first international store earlier in May on Amsterdam’s bustling Nines Streets - or ‘de Negen Straatjes’. The menswear brand, founded by William Green and Tom Horne, focuses on seasonless wardrobe staples that are smart, versatile, and durable.
FashionUnited popped into the new store and spoke to Green and Horne about their choice of Amsterdam as the first location outside of their usual stomping grounds of London, their plans for future growth, and why circularity alone won’t solve the fashion’s industry’s sustainability problem.
Lestrange dates back to 2013 when it launched a single product - a hoodie, aptly named just ‘The Hood’. But the founders soon noticed a tricky contradiction between the company’s ethos and the wholesale space within which it was operating.
“We found that the fashion industry was overly confusing. There were so many fashion cycles each year and it felt like it not only lacked innovation, but it promoted a huge amount of consumption,” Horne told FashionUnited, sat down in the Amsterdam store which is decked out with natural textures and generative materials such as FSC-certified spruce plywood and pine.
“We were at the behest of retailers,” Green added. “Buyers wanted newness all the time. They couldn’t get their heads around the fact we were coming back with the same products season after season.”
‘Buy less, buy better’
It was an “old system” that the pair didn’t identify with - their ethos is that consumers should buy fewer but higher quality timeless wardrobe essentials that they can mix and match and wear again and again.
While the pair agreed circular fashion is an important direction to move towards, they don’t believe it’s the be-all and end-all. “We don’t think circular business is the panacea many think it is,” Green said, pointing to the fact that as of 2017, less than 1 percent of material used to produce clothing was recycled into new garments, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“We have to reduce fashion's footprint by 50 percent by the end of the decade,” he said. “The kind of impact reduction we’re seeing through circular approaches is not fast enough to hit those targets. We think it’s much more important to extend the life of clothes.”
Accordingly, the brand took the decision in 2017 to exit the wholesale business, which it saw as intrinsically linked with overproduction, and pivoted to a DTC business model thanks to investments from its customer base. “We did a crowdfunding in 2018, but then realised 90 percent of the participation was from our existing customers,” Green said. “We thought, why pay 5 percent to the platform when we can cut out the middle man?”
Since then, the company has invited its top customers to invest in the growth of the brand, which has proven a success. Its last round - which it closed in a month - raised 1 million pounds, bringing its total to 3 million pounds to date.
The business has gone from strength to strength since switching to a DTC model, growing year-on-year even during the pandemic, which the founders credited to a mix of factors. “We saw this sudden spike of demand during lockdown, and I don't think that was an accident,” Green said. “We moved our coms to underline the fact that our wardrobe is as suited for working from home as the office. That versatility really resonated with people.”
Horne pointed to the company’s most popular item, ‘The 24 Trouser’, which is made from comfortable stretch cotton, resulting in a product that looks like formal pants but feels more like joggers. Lestrange has sold over a hundred thousand pairs of the trousers to date.
The brand also used lockdown to strategies and formalise its physical store strategy, which included hiring a new head of retail and signing fresh leases. “We were a little bit canny because we actually made some pretty favourable deals during lockdown,” Green said - one of those leases was for its first flagship store, which it opened in May 2021 on London’s Earlham Street in Seven Dials.
The company deploys what it describes as a “hospitality-led” approach to retail, “which is about making people feel comfortable in the store to spark curiosity about the brand and our mission”, Horne explained.
And that retail strategy appears to be paying dividends. The company saw a 100 percent year-on-year increase in store revenue between 2021 and 2022 on a like-for-like basis, while its customer conversion rate in that time frame sat at around 50 percent, considerably ahead of its previous target of 30 percent.
And the label is now taking that strategy abroad. Earlier this month, just days before opening its latest London store at Coal Drops Yard, Lestrange opened the doors of its first international store in Amsterdam.
So why the Netherlands? Well, despite being a British brand, only about 50 percent of Lestrange’s customer base hails from the UK. The remainder is split roughly in half again between the US and Europe, with its two main European markets being the Netherlands and Germany.
“It's the customer base here that we felt a real identification with,” said Green. “We seem to really resonate with Dutch consumers, they have a progressive stance towards what we do,” he said, referring to both the company’s ethos and products.
On top of that, Brexit had an impact on the decision. “Predominantly all our clothes since the beginning have been made in Italy and Portugal,” Green said. “Brexit was obviously just a huge nightmare for the whole industry. Even now, we fail to see any particular benefits, to be honest, but the consequence was that we opened a Dutch branch.”
He said it wasn’t technically a subsidiary, but it allowed the company to operate from the Netherlands without facing as much Brexit-related red tape. “That’s now changed, we now have a full Dutch subsidiary, so that has made it a lot easier to do business here.” While it was “far from an easy process”, Horne said it was “a less costly and a more streamlined process” than it would have been in the German market, “so there was certainly some commercial appeal”.
Lestrange eyes additional markets
The company, which is currently about 30 percent offline, has its eyes on other markets, too, with plans to open one or two new locations each year for the next five years. When asked for locations, the founders said hypotheticals included additional Dutch stores, but also other key markets for the brand, such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris, Stockholm, and Zurich.
And a store across the pond is on the cards too, with a tentative target for an April 2025 opening date. Where it will be, however, is not yet decided. “It's always been the dream to open somewhere in New York,” Horne said. “So I think that will probably happen. It's just about the timing.” Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, is especially popular for the brand. In fact, if it were to be considered its own city instead of the wider New York City, it would still be the second biggest for the brand behind London. But sky-high rents could stop the company from opening doors there.
“The important thing is that stores remain profitable for the company,” Horne said, noting that the 4-wall EBITDA is profitable in all its current units. “That's a huge asset for us, and we want to keep it that way.” He added that a new London location could follow too, most likely in West London, “but we’re not in any rush”.
So what else does the future hold for Lestrange? The founders said the vision is to slowly but steadily add more lines and even potentially enter different categories altogether. “We see ourselves taking the values of our design principles to many other domains,’ Green said, citing womenswear, homeware, and accessories as hypotheticals.
Aligned with the company’s ethos of “buying less and wearing more”, Lestrange has also recently introduced a new non-clothing product called Re_Fresh, an enzyme-driven washing tablet that helps rejuvenate garments.
“Cotton is a very durable, robust fabric, but it won't retain its colour over its lifetime,” Green said. “So we have developed a tablet that works as a gentle exfoliant on the fabric, removing all the slightly faded hairs that are just resting on the top to reveal the richer colour underneath. It's honestly quite astounding.”
Lestrange teamed up with a Dutch scientist to work on the technology, which has been around for decades in commercial textile production, but is a first-to-market as a consumer product, according to the brand.
“In the same way you might take back a pair of shoes to have them resoled, we'd like to be able to freshen products up to give them a new life,” Green said. The company has already been approached by “quite a number” of retailers and even other brands who are interested in the technology.
“At the end of the day we’re much more interested in getting these technologies and innovations out into the public psyche rather than being the only provider of them,” Green said. “We think this is a huge opportunity to create new revenue arms for the business which aren’t dependent on simply producing new products.”