'I love the ability to transform how a person looks and feels'
13th June 2019
Stephen Gray runs Gray & Co. on Chapel Place and was responsible for opening the first Ilse Jacobsen store in the UK on Tunbridge Wells High Street. Here he tells us all about his life-long love affair with fashion and style...
Have you always been in the fashion business, Steve?
Originally from the North-east of England, I’m a fashion pro through and through. Since the age of 25 I’ve been involved in fashion – both retail and wholesale. I’ve worked for iconic Great British heritage brands like Alfred Dunhill and Crombie, and I’ve enjoyed successful retail ventures of my own, such as my previous women’s boutique in Altrincham, Cheshire and launching the first Ilse Jacobsen shop in the UK, here on Tunbridge Wells High Street five years ago. With a passion for beautiful clothes and cool music, I love the ability to transform how a person looks and feels.
How long has the Gray & Co. boutique been established?
Gray & Co. is actually only 18 months old. Before moving to our current location in the pretty and historic Chapel Place area of Tunbridge Wells, I previously sold menswear as ‘The Basement’, downstairs in my Ilse Jacobsen womenswear shop, in which I’m still a 50 per cent shareholder.
Did you find the market very competitive when you arrived in Tunbridge Wells?
My Ilse Jacobsen customers were constantly saying, “we really love your womenswear but why can’t we buy menswear like it?” So that’s how customer demand inspired me to launch ‘The Basement Menswear’. l quickly realised that the men of Tunbridge Wells had far fewer places to shop locally, and I saw an opportunity for a specialist, standalone, independent menswear shop and just waited for the perfect premises to become available.
What are the key factors that set you apart in the fashion business?
My Gray & Co. slogan is simply ‘Beautiful Clothes, Cool Music and Great Conversation!’ Retail is undergoing a revolution, and I strongly believe small, passionate, expert independents are perfectly positioned to provide that superior shopping experience. I like to meet my customers face to face, to exchange stories and hear what they’re up to in life and what they’re looking for out shopping. Music is also a huge part of my life.
Can you tell us about the music angle to Gray & Co.?
I’m an avid concert-goer and enjoyed being a DJ for many years. I regularly compile playlists for the shop, which often prompt compliments and conversation. Music can instantly transform a space, you never quite know which way I’m going to take it.
And how about the sartorial choice on offer there?
I really like to offer something just that little bit different from the big brands you find everywhere else. I actively choose to work with smaller, mainly British and European brands, which include many Scandinavian collections that lead the way in sustainable fashion. My brands are often lesser known companies but they have integrity and provenance. I want to support producers that prioritise brilliant design, ethical sourcing and manufacturing, good value and great customer service. They all have a great story and many remain family run.
What do you think of the overall sartorial offering for men in Tunbridge Wells?
Men tend to shop very differently to women. We’d rarely call it a ‘hobby’ but I’d say we do like to look good, but won’t sacrifice comfort. And once we find something we really like and trust, we’re happy to return time and time again. Good style never goes out of fashion.
'I’d describe the Gray & Co. shopping experience as relaxed, rewarding and addictive, and I like to think of every customer as a VIP'
How would you describe the shopping service you provide?
We will always go the extra mile to ensure we get the perfect style and size for every customer. For example, our wide range of MAC premium denim offers four fits of jeans to cater for every body type; from fashionable skinny fits, modern tapered and regular ones, right through to athletic body shapes.
What plans do you have for the future?
I love meeting and chatting with my customers, seeing how my buying decisions excite and satisfy curious shoppers. So, whilst I’m often busy with my wholesale clients during the early part of any week, every Friday and Saturday I can be found in the shop, with the door open and my new, favourite playlist providing the tunes. Having consciously invested in a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop I plan to build on this success and expand the lifestyle offer, whilst always seeking to provide the ultimate customer shopping experience.
Three top tips about being effortlessly stylish
1 Buy the best quality you can – it will reward you: not only will well-made clothes make you look and feel great, but we all need to be more considerate about buying less, buying better. Looking good doesn’t have to cost the earth
2 Learn what suits you – recognise your personal style: don’t be embarrassed to get help from those in the know. We offer a free Gray & Co. personal styling service to help clients try new things
3 Invest in a capsule wardrobe of high quality, key items: and then you can update each season with a few well-chosen new styles to refresh.
www.grayandco.shop @grayandco @grayandco.shop