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Behind the brand: How Monsoon turned the tide in its 50th year

The stories you don't know about some of the world's best and little-known brands

High Street retail chain Monsoon and Accessorize saw sales up by 43% year-on-year to £258m. Photo: Monsoon
High Street retail chain Monsoon and Accessorize saw sales up by 43% year-on-year to £258m. Photo: Monsoon

Fifty years ago, Peter Simon was asked to help sell some dresses made by a friend’s sister in India. From London stalls trader to Monsoon (and Accessorize) founder, the British businessman has endured a rollercoaster journey across the High Street boom of the 1980s, surviving administration and transforming the heritage brand’s bohemian colour to stay at the forefront in the digital age.

“He’s seen everything of the business over the last 50 years in UK retail,” says Monsoon CEO Nick Stowe. “Peter’s passionate about the brands [which includes its smallest, East] and working with someone who is so experienced is a complete blessing."

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Simon and Stowe haven’t let up since the latter took over as CEO in 2019, with Monsoon having shut around 40 stores to seek rent reductions and facing administration. Simon then bought the company out a year later through his Adena Brands, the parent company of Monsoon, Accessorize and East.

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Group sales have yielded around £260m in its last figures, up 43% to August 2022. Adena has more than 2,000 staff, while the company has ushered in a digital transformation alongside more store openings and the rise of its children’s products.

“We had to fix it,” Stowe says of the company’s pre-pandemic plight. “If we hadn’t when I arrived then we wouldn’t have had a 50th anniversary. The restructuring was necessary otherwise the business wouldn’t have survived.

Monsoon CEO Nick Stowe says colours are ever-changing in London HQ office. Photo: Monsoon
Monsoon CEO Nick Stowe says colours are ever-changing in London HQ office. Photo: Monsoon

“It was urgent to fix the commercial side of the business. We knew it was coming ahead of the pandemic, but it then let us do all the restructuring and to be out of the limelight.”

Asked about his relationship working with Simon, Stowe then jokes: “He’s pretty harsh with me and keeps me on my toes. But it’s a good thing and you can’t let up.”

Today, Stowe, who has worked for the likes of Nike and Converse, looks out across the joyous colours being created by his team from its west London HQ. “At Converse there were more artists and musicians. Monsoon is much more calm in comparison, people are much better behaved,” he quips.

“It’s brighter, more beautiful and a great place to work here. There are a bunch of positive and energetic people who show up and love what they do.

“Clothes are fun, you’re not trying to solve the deep mysteries of anything. It’s ever changing. If you walk out of the office and look at the colours, in two weeks it will be something different.”

Monsoon has celebrated its 50th year by looking at its rich archive — as well as opening a pop-up boutique close to its first store in Beauchamp Place, London — and with a nod to the future.

“It can be a naval gazing exercise, looking at what you and the company have done. For the consumers, they are interested but not that interested,” admits Stowe.

Nick Stowe has enjoyed a 25-year career in the US with Converse, Nike and watch brand Nixon. Photo: Monsoon
Nick Stowe has enjoyed a 25-year career in the US with Converse, Nike and watch brand Nixon. Photo: Monsoon

Its main collaborations involved the London College of Fashion and the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. It was a forward-looking exercise for one of the few contemporary mainstream fashion brands entering into a sixth decade.

Following its transformation in retail and digital overhaul, Stowe says that more time was taken from a product brand point of view. This included its first childrenswear boutique in Westfield Centre, Stratford.

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“A lot of the customers have grown up with Monsoon,” adds Stowe. “We have people in their 40s and 50s and now kids is around 40% of the Monsoon business.”

Childrenswear, which has casual and dual gender products, flows from an extension of Monsoon’s women’s business in terms of the party moment or occasion. “It’s a joyful store design which is just plain fun,” Stowe says of the Westfield store. “There aren’t that many kids' retail stores like that anymore. We did that more as an expression of the brand but also to give back to the High Street.”

As a CEO, Stowe admits he is “an introverted person, pretty quiet” person. “People lead in different ways and you have to find something that is authentically you,” he adds. “If you get the team right and you are encouraging enough — you need to be a little demanding at times — but they do all the work.

Adena Group sales, which include Monsoon, have risen to the tune of £258m. Photo: Monsoon
Adena Group sales, which include Monsoon, have risen to the tune of £258m. Photo: Monsoon

“People don't need to come through the door. We have an open office and everyone is collaborative. It’s a very creative business and people just do things; they’re not going to come and ask me about them. You just have to stay plugged into it. It’s quite an autonomous world. It's not a pyramid, it’s a very flat organisation.”

One extension of the brand is Monsoon Bazaar, a marketplace for sustainable third-party brands, which, says Stowe, is a space for brands close to Monsoon who may not have a presence of voice but are given a platform through the website.

“It’s quite a natural thing rather than commercial,” says Stowe. “It’s about giving people a little bit of a broader edit of products that we wouldn’t normally do with Monsoon.”

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Where once 70% of Monsoon's business came from stores and the rest through online, those figures have been flipped dramatically after Monsoon finally rode the digital tide. Monsoon is set to further focus on digital while adding to a string of recent brick-and-mortar openings, including Accessorize’s first jewellery only store.

More Monsoon stores are set to open. Photo: Monsoon
More Monsoon stores are set to open. Photo: Monsoon

“But we have a lot of work to do in fulfilling expectations on the digital experience,” says Stowe. “That’s where people are spending time. People want more information, better photography, more video is being consumed. We need to do more to make it fun and useful.”

After a 25-year career in the US — Stowe left the UK in the early 90s — he knows that Britons hold influence and curiosity when it comes to the new. “It’s something which has an authentic story from a far distant place,” he adds, “and Monsoon fits into that nicely with the Indian heritage that we have and how we work with artisans there. It’s the origin of the brand. We bring that colour and fun back.”

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