If ever there was a story to tell then it’s this one…
We hear so often these days of brands having a rich and valuable tale to spin to the media, the core heart and heritage of what makes them tick and a growing importance of consistency and interaction.
However, amongst the melee of brands competing for a slice of the limelight, now and again we stumble across a story that really hits the spot – one of sacrifice, determination and good old-fashioned sleeves-up graft. Welcome, British Boxers, a quality underwear and nightwear brand that is going from strength to strength.
Debbie Price is simply an inspirational character. Having cut her teeth in the cold warehouses of London as a fashion buyer, a dream that was countered by the starkness of reality, she soon reached a senior position with high-end nightwear company Bonsoir, before life was to take a completely different and unexpected turn.
A diagnosis of the extremely rare Williams Syndrome for her young daughter meant that Debbie had to relocate back to the North West to provide the much needed care and with just £4,000 in her pocket and on the back of her husband being made redundant, she started the British Boxers brand.
This fighting spirit is not uncommon for someone from these shores, but the fight in Debbie may well have a little more substance for her great, great grandfather is none other than the first ever Heavyweight Boxing champion, Jem Mace, who travelled the world competing in both bare-knuckle and gloved bouts.
Here we meet the woman behind the brand.
Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you are from, family and professional past?
I grew up in Cheshire – my dad was a vicar mum a writer. I studied for a degree in fashion and textile design in Manchester in the early 90’s and soon afterwards moved to London to start a career in fashion buying.
You’d think it would be glamorous wouldn’t you, but when you move down with your imagination of how your career is going to pan out and in reality you’re sat in a freezing warehouse in East Acton writing out fabric packing lists for customs you soon realise that there’s a lot more to the job than shopping trips in Paris and wearing the right shoes.
It’s important to know and understand every part of the business through and through and those early days working in the rag trade taught me so many lessons about processes, logistics, factories, manufacturing, communication and sheer hard work.
I soon progressed to high-end nightwear company Bonsoir of London where I eventually became Head of Buying – we supplied Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges, Nieman Marcus and many more. We’d design two collections a year, putting them together for mail order, website and wholesale. Again it was hard work, but what I learned here was my eye for detail – the luxury market and an absolute passion for beautifully made nightwear and careful manufacturing processes. I was able to use my skills from design degree and could design my own fabrics too and that was a joy.
What motivated you to start your own underwear/nightwear business?
I’d always wanted my own business but the diagnosis of my daughter Martha with a rare genetic disability called Williams Syndrome meaning that I needed to be in complete control of my time to enable me to take her to medical appointments and give her the time she needed to reach her full potential was the catalyst I needed to make me want to push for her future and our future.
When you combine that with a love of nightwear and underwear and a career working in that sector it just seemed the right thing to do and the right area to be working in. Maybe some people might think that starting a business in the teeth of a recession is foolish, to me I knew nothing could be as awful as receiving a second class letter in the post saying my kid would need lifelong care. If we lost the house I didn’t care, if I drove a rubbish van and my shoes fell apart I didn’t care. Nothing mattered apart from my family and my business.
We had £4000 worth of savings and I started the business with that. There’s something else though and it may be irrelevant to the brand but my husband Darren had been made redundant too. We were literally skint, I can’t tell you how difficult it was. But I’d decided to do the business and Darren decided to do something amazing too. He was so worried about cut backs being made and unfairly affecting the weakest members of our society that he stood for Parliament in the 2015 general election.
He stood in the Tory stronghold of Congleton in leafy Cheshire increasing Labour’s vote by 20% on a night when they got a complete bashing in the poles. People in Cheshire don’t vote Labour – he did brilliantly and whatever anyone’s politics are I sometimes think it’s just refreshing in this god awful world of political nightmares to know that some people are inspired to do it for the right reasons, to fight for the weakest members of our society and not receive a penny for it is a noble thing to do and he’s brilliant for it.
How long have you been operating as a lone business venture?
I started the business in 2013 so we’ve been going four years.
Can you tell us a little about the reasoning behind the name British Boxers?
With a love of boxer shorts and nightwear, which I fostered whilst at Bonsoir and a family story about my great, great, great grandfather being the First World Heavyweight boxing champion Jem Mace – I just couldn’t have done anything else really. I also knew a factory near to where we lived who had just started a production line.
We’d literally make the boxer shorts in Britain and call the business British Boxers. I also liked the metaphor. My great, great grandfather Jem Mace had literally been a great British Boxer, we were making the boxer shorts in Britain and also I was having to fight tooth and nail for my daughter to get her the initial diagnosis, the right medical care, the right school, the right statement to get her help in school. It’s all a massive fight really.
How would you describe the brand and its range?
We are about quality and luxury. We use the finest fabrics, which are exquisitely soft against the skin. Two-fold cottons, brushed cotton flannels, piping details, we match stripes and checks on seams. Everything is considered and beautifully done. Our tag line is “British Boxers Knockout Undies and Nightwear.”
What is the market position as opposed to somebody like The White Company?
In terms of demographic we are in a similar position. I would suggest our branding is younger and aimed at more of a male clientele albeit we have many loyal female customers too. I think that people really want traditional nightwear and underwear but they can’t find it in many places and so we’re more niche than the White Company.
Where are your product materials sourced and made?
The boxer shorts are made here and socks are made in Britain too. The stretch trunks and nightwear are currently made in Europe in small production runs because (and believe me I’ve been a buyer for 20 years and tried 8 British factories) nobody has the right machinery to finish the waistband properly to the high standard I want. I absolutely refuse to make here for the sake of stamping pastiche union jacks on everything.
To my mind it’s far more important to have a viable business producing 50% of products here than one which produces everything here and has a lesser quality and no longevity. That way we’re building our volume and production back up and eventually may be able to produce our own in house.
All our packaging is produced here, our labelling here, our photography and tax is paid here.
Nobody supports British jobs and manufacturing more than we do, but we’re doing it sensibly and for the right reasons.
But also, it’s important to know that none of our products are made in Far Eastern sweatshops. Everyone’s paid properly and we use factories I know.
The presentation of the brand is impressive, where do you want to take the direction in 2017?
Thanks! Good question, I’m meeting up with our art director at the end of January and we’ll have that chat then! But we are throwing branded polo shirts, hoodies and zip jackets into the collection in 2017 which is great. At the moment it’s very difficult to get pictures of celebrities in your products because you don’t really see pictures of people in their pants or PJs.
How do you feel about collaborations and ambassador programmes. Surely a James DeGale type could be a winner for you?
It’s a weird one because when we’ve discussed this before it was very much felt that the brand was aimed more at rowers and rugby clubs i.e it was a bit posher – despite the obvious boxing links. It was felt that boxers weren’t going to be walking around in £79 pyjamas.
I could be persuaded otherwise though especially now we’re adding more loungewear into the range and also whilst we’ve had some investiment in, until we are selling more and there is budget available I think it will be difficult to do this. It might be a question for 6 – 12 months when we can see how well we’re performing.
What have been the major issues you have faced so far and what do you envisage as obstacles moving forward?
Cahsflow – but do you know what I’ve done. I went out three weekends out of four and sold product at artisan markets across Cheshire and Staffordshire to raise money to pay for factories, mills and advertising.
It’s not easy when it’s 7am on a Sunday morning and you’re standing outside in the rain setting it up on your own – but it’s meant that we have kept afloat, paid the bills, built up really good relationships with suppliers and also met loads of our customers too. Many of them have become friends of the brand or even friends to me personally too. Some even invested when we sought Crowdfunding through Crowdcube at the end of 2016.
Where do you want to be this time next year?
We’re on track to double turnover this year when compared to last year. We broke into Harrods (not literally) in 2016 and we also successfuly raised investment. This year I want us to break more department stores and to vastly increase our mailing list and find more direct customers. I want to get our story out there so people have heard of us.
Any plans to hold a press day?
Not yet – but I’m sure we can in a few months.
What is the most important thing for the brand to be doing fro this point?
Definitely creating a strategic vision and implementing it.
Tell us about you. What do enjoy doing away from BB?
British Boxers and the kids take over my life a lot. I’ve got a 5 year-old called Stanley too.
I absolutely love making people laugh via the use of social media, I love going on the radio – we did lots of live radio last year when we had a quest to get Gary Lineker “In my pants” It was brilliant. I did an interview with Sarah Millican’s Standard Issue magazine and she tweeted it out to millions, which was lovely of her.
I also like playing my flute I got grade eight with distinction (oooh get me!) when I was at school.
I also really like doing the pub quiz but only if Darren’s with me because he’s a genius with a PHD and he knows everything. The idea is to win then the winnings pay for the babysitter!