Young, fashionable and very desirable, Stanley & Stella is a brand to watch. Images talks to founder Jean Chabert

When talking to people about Stanley & Stella, it feels like you’re sharing a secret that only a select few are party to. The brand has been around since 2012, with its first collection launching in 2013 in Europe, although its first foray into the UK market took place as recently as 2014. Since then it has quietly been infiltrating the sector as more decorators discover a retail-ready imprint brand that is ideal for the more fashionable, higher end of the market. The turnover for last year was €21 million, and the company is on target for €30 million this year.

Its clothes – mainly T-shirts and sweatshirts, with a toe being dipped into jackets, polos and caps – look like something you’d find in a good high street shop, and have a higher price tag to match. Not that this deters customers. At trade shows from Birmingham to Stuttgart earlier this year, the crowds were flocking round the Stanley & Stella stand where the garments were laid out as though in a high end boutique. The collection is strong in heathers, as expected by a fashion-led brand, with the company offering an impressive 140 different colours in total.

In a market where low garment prices are the expectation, in line with promotional budgets, purposefully offering a pricier product is unusual; however, Stanley & Stella’s pricing strategy is based on well thought-out principles from the man who founded B&C Collection. Jean Chabert starting selling T-shirts in 1990 while studying applied economics and business at university in Belgium. He believed that while the quality of imprint T-shirts, such as the stitching, the colour and so on, was very good, the style at the time wasn’t what European customers were looking for. He set up B&C in order to create T-shirts whose feel, fit and styling would have specific appeal for European customers and end users. Jean eventually sold the company to Kwintet in 2008 at a time when B&C was turning over €70 million annually: the company was – and still is – a big success.

Jean Chabert, founder and CEO of Stanley & Stella

Stanley & Stella produces ‘retail clothes for imprint’

Premium pricing

He returned to the imprint market four years later with Stanley & Stella, which he unapologetically positioned at the premium end of the market. “As you know, in the imprint business, most of the time it is a question of price, because if you want to give something free to people, you don’t want to spend a lot of money,” comments Jean. “If you have an event where you have decided to communicate through textile, the first question will be, ‘What kind of product can you afford?’. And the budget is not unlimited.

“A lot of the time, the T-shirts that you give away free at an event, people don’t wear because they don’t like the product, they don’t like the shape, they don’t like the touch. It was obvious from this that we should decide not to create an imprint collection, but to create a retail collection and sell this retail collection in the imprint market. We haven’t compromised in terms of quality.

“The big advantage is that when the customer sees the product they love it, and the disadvantage is that the price is 30, 40, 50, 60% more expensive. The question was, could we have a big success if we provide the best quality, the best T-shirt, but more expensive? The answer is yes.”

According to Jean, the imprint market is split into three segments: one where price is all that matters, which he compares to Ryan Air: “If you are organised, you can travel for £20 or £30 anywhere in Europe, but you will never expect a high level of service.” Using the same analogy, the second segment consists of those who love to travel, but like to have some sort of service; these are most of the brands that decorators tend to opt for as they provide something different without having too big an impact on cost. But for Jean that is not enough. “Some people are ready to pay, they want the perfect service and the perfect product, and that’s why we believe some of the market is ready to move from a price product to a slightly more expensive product that fits with what they are looking for.”

He acknowledges that Stanley & Stella is targeting a small percentage of the total imprint market – around 1-2% – and concedes that changing the customers’ mentality was not easy at the beginning. It takes six months to get a first order from a new customer, says Jean, and a year for them to have a regular order, because it takes time for them to get used to the pricing and the quality of the product. “But once the customer is convinced, it’s the opposite,” he explains. “They couldn’t go back to basic products. They want to continue, they’ve found a good thing. If you are used to travelling in business class, it is a shock to come back to economy.” With growth figures of 40-50% in Germany and Belgium and 90% in the UK, it appears a number of people, as he predicted, are happy to pay for ‘business class’ garments.

Garments from Stanley & Stella’s A/W 16 collection

Responsible business

When Stanley & Stella was founded, it was based on three pillars: the first was to create a strong connection. This is something Jean is passionate about. “We can put on the table ten different T-shirts and one of them could give you a lot of emotion, and one of them wouldn’t give you a lot of emotion. Emotion comes from the DNA of the brand. Emotion comes from the quality of the stitching, it’s about the seduction of the fabric, of the good sense in terms of balance, the right colours… It’s a lot of small detail which makes a huge difference.”

The second was to create a strong image. Sustainability is a key part of the brand’s identity, with the company only using organic cotton, wool, tencel, modal or recycled polyester. “Did you know that to produce one T-shirt takes 3,000-4,000 litres of water?,” asks Jean. “Organic cotton reduces the amount of water used by 60-70%. Based on these kinds of figures, it is impossible for our company to use non-organic cotton.”

The third pillar is to create a worldwide dealer network. “We have a business model where we are not working with the wholesalers because we believe that we need to provide customer training.” At present the company has just one warehouse in Antwerp, Belgium, with more planned over the next few years. Next year, the company will be able to guarantee next day delivery for all orders placed before 4pm in 18 European countries, including the UK.

It’s not just about styling and delivery times, however. Ethical and ecological considerations are just as important to the brand. The company is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, an independent organisation that works to improve labour conditions for textile and garment workers. Good salaries, hours and working conditions are vital, with Jean emphasising that a good team is paramount to the business succeeding. It is not enough, explains Jean, to assume that if you have the financial means you will have success. “The most important thing is to create a unique and strong team. It’s costly, it takes time, but when you get it, then you can do anything.”