Papini celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. Rachael Glazier caught up with Deb Howse and Gary Fisher to discover how the company’s product offering has evolved while its friendly, family-based attitude has remained the same

From left: Papini’s owner Gary Fisher, the new Retro Polo in the customer-requested black/red colourway, Director Deb Howse

Within minutes of starting a conversation with Papini’s Gary Fisher and Deb Howse it is clear that, above all else, Papini is a family company. It’s 19 years since owner Gary set up the company, which supplies polos and hoodies to the promotional market, and director Deb has been working there for 17 of those years. In fact, until an employee retired three months ago and so had to be replaced, the last time Gary and Deb had needed to recruit was six years ago. “We don’t have a high turnover of staff at all,” agrees Deb. “It is a family, and that also includes our extended family, all the partners and children. We have meet-ups and get togethers; we really are a family-based company in more ways than one. My surname should be Howse-Papini, rather than just Howse!”

The 12 staff, which includes Gary’s wife Heather who controls the finances, were all made shareholders two years ago. And the Pontefract company’s emphasis on looking after its staff extends to customers as well. “We get a lot of people coming to us who have been recommended to use Papini because of the quality and the service level we give,” explains Gary. All the customers are known to the staff by name, along with their families and everything else that’s important. The staff send out wedding cards, birthday cards, and can suggest which garments will appeal to customers based on their in-depth knowledge. “I spoke to one customer this morning and I mentioned to him that we have the new Retro in black and red because I know the team he supports and that’s their colours, so I can personalise it,” says Deb.

Manufactured in China

The name Papini comes from when Gary lived in Italy for seven years working for Marks & Spencer. “My kids used to call me Pap rather than Dad, and Papini became a derivative, hence the name,” explains Gary. The garment names often have a heavy Italian influence, too: for example, the Elite polo range has styles named Firenze, Milano and Napoli.

All Papini’s clothes are manufactured in China. “Back in the 1980s I helped M&S set factories up in the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka,” says Gary. “Then I decided to go on my own and I set up a factory in northern China which works 100% exclusively for Papini.” When asked if he would consider moving the manufacturing to another country, he’s quick to respond: “Not in the short-term and it’s certainly not on the horizon. I know lots of people have moved to Bangladesh, but we’re very quality conscious. I’m very happy with the quality standards we have and I don’t wish to jeopardise that.”

Papini offers DIY Polo and Hoodie services for smaller bespoke orders, design boards for bespoke styles from Papini

Retro Polo

Papini started off with a basic polo shirt – the 210 – and gradually added new styles over the years. “We just built on that and slowly, slowly over the years it’s become bigger and bigger,” says Gary. “In the last ten years we’ve moved quite aggressively forward with new ideas and new marketing techniques.”

One of the latest ranges is the Retro Polo line, which was introduced on March 1 this year. The vintage-inspired range of tailored-fit, 210 gsm, 35% cotton/65% polyester polos with contrast-coloured tipping on the collar and cuffs launched with six colour options: black/orange, black/cyan, black/yellow, navy/emerald, navy/sky and navy/red.

At the end of May a new colour option of black/red was added, because that’s what the customers wanted. “We take on board what they say, and because of the initial feedback we added the seventh colour option in the Retro,” says Deb. “We’d done navy with red tipping and then as soon as we sent the samples out, people said, ‘Oh, I like the navy, but we’re really interested in black.’ The customers asked for it and we did our best to deliver it.”

All the products are developed in consultation with customers. “We have about 20 customers that we go to on a regular basis for input,” explains Deb. “If another customer’s put a suggestion forward we’ll come up with a design and ideas and then go back to the customer that the comments came from initially, and then we’ll also speak to the other 20 customers and say, ‘Here’s three or four designs. Which one do you think works the best? Which colours do you prefer?’ That’s where the majority of our ranges come from – from customer feedback and working with our customers.”
“It’s an accurate way of doing it, rather than guessing,” adds Gary. “At the end of the day, it’s the market that determines what we do, not us.”

Being in control of the production schedule of the factory in China is crucial in allowing Papini to respond so quickly to customer demands. Not only that, but because the company is also HMRC-registered it means that when a container comes in from China Papini can do the clearance itself, eliminating any concern about stock being trapped at some far-off customs point. “It is a big responsibility, but we’re very proud to have been able to pass the test with HMRC to do it,” comments Gary.

Some of the original Retro Polo colourways that were launched in March this year

Constant development

New ranges aren’t brought out annually on set dates. “We look at how our stock’s going, which colours are working in the Elite range and speak to customers,” says Deb. “If there’s anything they come up with that might be slightly different to what we do, then we’ll look into it, contact the factory, look at the fabrics, look at the colours. We don’t do it every year. It’s just as and when.

“With the Retro we’ve gone from six to seven styles in two months. The Elite Polo started with seven shirts, we’re now on 28 different styles. The Hoodie started with three combinations – we now have 18, plus we’ve also introduced the Zipped Hoodie with 10 different colour options, all because of the feedback from our customers.”

“There’s always something in development,” says Gary. “The whole range is constantly being renovated.” They are looking at performance-type fabrics at the moment, agreeing that the market is, at least in part, going in that direction. Polyesters are popular, notes Gary, and for the past six months they have been looking at fabrics with anti-bacterial properties as well, although they are not yet decided as to whether this is a route they are going down. “It’s still in the testing stages,” says Gary. “We test everything properly before we introduce it into the market.”

Papini also offers a bespoke range, creating unique designs dyed to a specific Pantone number for companies looking to place a large order. “We can come up with products that aren’t normally part of our range,” explains Deb. “We’ve done microfibre fleeces and jackets that we don’t run as a stock item, but we’ve done them to suit a customer.”

Papini’s warehouse

Papini works closely with its customers to provide this bespoke service for a number of blue chip companies and can also cater for those wanting smaller bespoke orders under the firm’s DIY Polo and Hoodies services. These start at a minimum order of 150. Customers choose a polo style, from raglan sleeves to side stripes, or a pull-over or zipped hoodie, and then choose the colours they want. It’s that simple, and it’s a popular option with sports teams, reports Deb.

The main appeal of Papini’s garments is their quality, believes Gary. “Initially, when we started off we were offering a quality that wasn’t available on the marketplace, and we have maintained that quality and improved on it right through the recession.”

The effort that goes into embroidering or printing a product is considerable, adds Deb, and people are proud of their club badges and workplaces. “Wear your logo with pride,” she states. “You should be not just proud of the badge, you should be happy with the shirt that you’re wearing as well.”