Is it possible to build a 3-million-pound fashion brand with nothing more than £40 and a sewing machine? Yes! James Buckley-Thorp, a graduate of the University of Kent, founded clothing brand Rupert & Buckley whilst studying toward a degree in Law.

Rupert & Buckley is now available in 150 locations across the UK and this year is moving into 7 states in the USA. This year also saw them become official leisure wear partner for the Cancer Research UK Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge — one of the most famous Boat Races in the world.

Let’s go back to 2011, before R&B, when James had decided to join his university’s rowing team. His team had decided to enter the collegiate race and James had an idea that he hoped would help the team bond together, as well as making them stand out and look awesome — why not all wear matching striped socks with the colours of their college (purple and yellow). After failing to find any socks in the required colours, James decided he would make his own! Armed with no sewing experience and a newly acquired sewing machine he made 5 pairs for his team. James’ team lost that race, but all people wanted to talk about their socks! The other teams wanted socks in their colours and so did other sports teams. In the space of a week, James had produced around 600 pairs of socks. These were being produced and distributed all from his dorm room!

Fast forward to 2013 and James was now selling his products from via his website. He had just graduated from Kent and had been offered a place at a Bar School to follow the career he had planned to do. It was at this point that James decided he had an opportunity to develop Rupert & Buckley into something bigger, but should he take the risk? “Everyone said not to do it,” said James, “James you’re being crazy” was what he was being told by his family and friends.

James Buckley-Thorp, founder of Rupert & Buckley

James decided to take the chance. He had saved £11,000 which he had intended to use to go to Bar School and decided he would open a pop-up store in Bath, his hometown, on 11th Nov 2013 for 7 weeks running up to Christmas. £10,000 went straight to the landlord and the rest went on doing up the shop and stocking it up. James remembers walking into the shop for the first time and seeing the holes in the walls and wires hanging from the ceiling and realising the task at hand. James admitted “It can be very lonely” when those around you think you’ve made the wrong choice. However, he was determined to make it a success, “I had to make it work”. After stocking the shop with his trademark socks, t-shirts, loungewear, and small gifts he managed to turnover £34,000 in those 7 weeks. 

Rupert & Buckley then grew from there. James decided to search for investment and began to build a team around him. “If I’m smarter then anyone on my team, then they are redundant”. He wanted to surround himself with people that are the best at what they do. In 2017, James hired a CEO to take care of the company.

James has now moved onto his next adventure — Hive Retail. He has set himself the goal of helping 500,000 retail startups. This is ambitious by anybody’s standards, but you would be wise not to bet against him achieving this. James is energetic, passionate and relentless. It doesn’t take long with him to see his wholehearted belief in Hive Retail. It has begun with free monthly meetups for retail entrepreneurs in London, but his plans are to expand this across the UK. He is also working on an online platform to support these startups and Europe’s first 3-day intensive accelerator course.

Do people still think he is a little bit crazy? You bet! But through Hive Retail, James is teaching people that there is definitely a method within his madness. As the saying goes ‘Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do’.

Advice from James

Look at what the market wants and identify your unique selling point (USP).

If you can identify your USP then it helps you see how you can get into the market. James suggests that there are three categories that can help you identify your USP:

1. Invention — This is where you create something completely new — find a problem and think of what can be done to fix it. Your product then sits as completely unique to any other. It is VERY important to get help and assistance in getting the product protected if it is an invention.

2. Innovation — Using innovation as your USP requires you to take something that already exists and do it better or different. This could be a different colour, extra features — simply anything that makes your product a better offering than the competition.

3. Cheaper — This is simply where you can offer the same (or similar) product to your competition but you sell it for less. You could do this by looking at lowering your costs (perhaps using different materials) or lowering your margins.

Find your niche and build your community

Whatever you are going to do its important to identify the segment that you are going to serve and then build a community of these people with your organisation at the centre. James is a firm believer that retail still has a need for a physical presence and that this will be the place where a community is built. The majority of purchases may then be made online, but stores will be the place where consumers come to find inspiration, gain product knowledge and have a chance to interact and build a relationship with the brand.

By building a community around your brand you will have consumers that create a buzz around what you are trying to do and hopefully attract everyone else to see what is going on!

Always be honest

It is so important to build meaningful relationships with your customers, your employees, suppliers, other entrepreneurs and even your ‘competitors’ — you’ll never know when you need these relationships. “Focus on being honest, truthful and reliable and when you hit hard times, the genuine connections you foster through being honest will help you through”.

You can find more advice from James Buckley-Thorp by following him on Instagram @jbuckleythorp– where he posts his series of videos offering advice to retail startups.