Real Clothing’s Lucy and Rupert Adams share their story of 20 years in fashion retail    

PICS BY TOM FLINT PHOTOGRAPHY

Real Clothing’s Lucy and Rupert Adams have “lived and breathed fashion retail” for the past 20 years. Their Southwell-based store (pronounced ‘South-Well’ by locals) has featured on the town’s high street in one form or another since 2003. Over the years, the husband-and-wife team have watched their customers’ children grow up, become customers themselves and then seen them go onto have their own children: “We’ve been here for so long that we’re much more than just a shop,” says Lucy. “We’re part of the community.”  

Today their 1,600sq ft two-storey store combines cool and contemporary menswear and womenswear from the UK and Europe. Core labels include Mos Mosh, Part Two, Fabienne Chapot, American Vintage, Birkenstock, Shoe the Bear, Rains, Barbour and Universal Works. Shoppers can browse the latest womenswear at the front of the store and its menswear edit at the back. There’s a dedicated ‘sales room’ upstairs too, which the couple use periodically to move discounted stock.  

Positioned on the market town’s main thoroughfare in a 400-year-old building, Real Clothing is flanked by other perusable lifestyle independents as well as country pubs, intimate restaurants and delicatessens. The store was recently voted Best for Women’s Fashion in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Muddy Stilettos Awards while neighbours Last Night I Dreamt and The Old Theatre Deli were also crowned Best Jeweller and Best Café. While Southwell’s town centre seems remarkably miniature to earn all three accolades in one year, its unique shops, historic minster, racecourse and surrounding countryside are highly revered, pulling in crowds from across the country – especially during the summer.

Retail background  

Real Clothing’s current green fronted store (which can only be painted in council-approved colours) is somewhat different to its original incarnation. For the past two decades, the couple have steered the business through several economic booms and austerities, expanding with more bricks-and-mortar sites before downsizing to concentrate on one single store.

Rupert has been in the industry for most of his life. After beginning his career in high street retail, he moved to Manchester to work as a sales rep and agent. Lucy, meanwhile, worked in banking before taking voluntary redundancy following the birth of their twins in 2002. It was during this period that Rupert’s parents decided to retire from their Southwell-based menswear shop and suggested the couple took over: “We wanted to move back to the Nottingham area, so running the family business seemed like the ideal solution,” says Lucy. “With Rupert’s background, we felt we could really make it work.”

The small store Lucy and Rupert first took on, however, was wholly different to Real Clothing today: “It was a small, traditional gentleman’s outfitters shop that had been open since 1976,” says Rupert. “My parents had taken over in 1990 as something to run while they were semi-retired. But soon after we took over, I realised it wasn’t going to be enough for me; I wanted something a bit more exciting.” 

New direction

In 2003, the pair decided to completely rebrand and began sourcing menswear for the area’s younger clientele from brands such as Barbour, Marc O’Polo and Lacoste. Some of these original labels remain key at the store today. They also moved to much larger nearby premises, enabling them to extend their offer of categories and brands. It wasn’t long before they’d set their sights on cornering the town’s trendier womenswear market, too: “I’d been working for the business on an ad hoc basis, mostly looking after the finances,” says Lucy. “We started to hear quite a few comments from local women who said they’d like a female version of the shop. So, in 2005, we decided to open a second store just a few doors down the road with a focus on womenswear. I’ve always loved fashion, so I took it on as my new full-time role.”

Lucy recalls her very first buying trip, which saw her blow most of the season’s budget at Nicole Farhi. “It was a real baptism of fire as while I knew about finances, I had absolutely no idea about buying,” she says. “I made some mistakes in the early days, but as I learned my confidence began to grow.”   

The couple say lifestyle brands were having a moment in the business’s infancy, so they invested in pieces from the likes of Great Plains and White Stuff. The two stores remained as separate entities, with Rupert heading up buying for the menswear and Lucy in charge of womenswear. “With two very young boys at home it was quite difficult to go on buying trips together,” says Lucy. “Even to this day that’s how we run things; I don’t really get involved in menswear and Rupert doesn’t with the womenswear. It works well for us.”   

By the late noughties business was booming, so the couple opened a third shop in Nottingham’s trendy West Bridgford – now with a third child, aged 18 months, in tow. “Don’t ask me how we managed it,” says Lucy. The new site offered a similar product offer while appealing to a comparable affluent target market. It also gave the business more flexibility, as it meant they could swap stock between the sites. “Before online shopping become popular, the West Bridgford store was an incredible retail business,” says Rupert. “But in the end, I think being positioned so close to Nottingham City Centre was perhaps its downfall. We closed in 2018, thankfully before the pandemic, and I think that was a really good time to go.” 

In 2021, when social distancing guidance was in place, Lucy and Rupert decided to bring womenswear into Real Clothing’s much larger menswear store. After just a few days of combining the two, they realised it made much more sense: “Our customers liked everything under one roof plus it eased things financially,” says Rupert. “We had better foot flow, significantly lower overheads and running the business became far less stressful. I think it’s fairly common for retail groups to have one store that’s more profitable and for the others to draw on its success. We’re really happy to be able to concentrate on one bricks-and-mortar shop.”

Digital world

Aside from the physical store, Real Clothing has had an e-commerce presence since the early days of online shopping. Its first transactional site launched in 2012 following hefty investment, which allowed Lucy and Rupert to grow its customer base. However, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, e-commerce took a significant hit: “We lost a lot of online orders from overseas after Brexit,” says Rupert. “Prior to that we were sending parcels out all over Europe, but that business has disappeared. Brexit was a massive own goal for this country.”

The couple say buying for the business itself was also heavily impacted by the changes as they were importing a large percentage of European brands: “It was really damaging and a complete nightmare in terms of paperwork,” says Rupert. “You’d have couriers turning up demanding extra payments before they’d hand over stock and some were adding on extra fees. The fallout of Brexit didn’t receive the airtime it should have because it happened in the middle of the pandemic.”

There have been more online adversities along the way too, perhaps most notedly when online marketplace Atterley went bust in December 2022. “That was a real smack in the teeth,” says Rupert. “We’d just had a really busy period running up to Christmas, so the timing was awful. We lost thousands of pounds that we’ll never get back; it impacted us significantly.”

Despite the incident, Real Clothing continues to trade via Trouva – one of Atterley’s main competitors. The pair say this helps reach a wider audience while hopefully increasing brand awareness. “It isn’t a huge proportion of the business by any means, but it’s been helpful to us,” says Rupert. “Receiving a £250 order on a wet Wednesday afternoon can really help keep things ticking along.”

The couple has also just invested in updating the store’s website, which they hope will increase traffic over the coming months. Currently, online sales make up around 15 per cent of Real Clothing’s overall revenue, so rebuilding its customer base is a key focus for 2024. “We wanted the new website to represent what it’s like coming into the physical store,” says Lucy. “We’ve got some great photography of ourselves and the team on the site and we aim to provide a really outstanding service. We want to get away from the idea that online shopping is only about transactional relationships.”

Service with a smile

When it comes to customer service, Real Clothing’s physical store still retains its old-school charm. Customers are offered a friendly shopping experience with styling advice if they want it, or just a chat if they don’t: “We’re both talkers and love being social,” says Lucy. “We don’t ever give anyone the hard sell and we aren’t pushy in the slightest. I’ve talked about everything in this shop from pregnancy to the menopause. It’s a real privilege to see people leaving feeling happier than they were when they came in, whether that’s because they’ve bought something great or have been able to offload.”

For a lot of people, the thought of working alongside a spouse every day is probably unimaginable. But for Lucy and Rupert, it’s something they wouldn’t have any other way: “We’ve been together for 34 years and I usually know what Rupert’s thinking before he’s said a word,” says Lucy. “There are some challenges, but we’re quite clear in our own distinct roles. A good sense of humour is also very important.” Rupert adds: “I think the beauty of being a husband-and-wife team is that we completely understand each other and all the stress that comes with running a small business. We bounce off each other – at work and at home – and we keep each other going through the good and bad.”

At 56 and 59, they are in no rush to slow down anytime soon. “We’re just as excited about the business as we were 20 years ago,” says Lucy. “We love opening every box that comes in; every order we place. We enjoy chatting to customers and being part of the local community. We honesty just love it all.” So, with three almost grown-up children, do they see themselves ever passing on the family baton to the next generation? “We wouldn’t want to sway their decision about what they do as we know what goes into making this business work – and it’s a lot,” Lucy adds. “It’s 24/7; we’re fully invested. You just couldn’t do what we do if you weren’t.”   

This interview first appeared in the print in the April 2024 issue of Boutique magazine. Read more here.