The Nottingham company that’s making millions selling 70-inch jeans
From market stall trader to global supplier that produces three million garments of clothing every year, Duke Clothing Company – part of the Bassi Group – is visible in many mainstream outlets. Dan Robinson talks to the family behind the business about how it has grown – and the story behind their invention of the early-Noughties “flame shirt”
Holding up a pair of jeans with a 70-inch waist, Rohan Bassi could probably fit into the trousers along with a body double and still have room to spare.
Needless to say, they don’t belong to him – but are one of the thousands of clothing garments packed away inside his family business’s Basford warehouse.
Making fashionable clothes for men in the largest sizes – shirts and T-shirts go up to XXXXXXXXL – is one of the niches carved out by the Duke Clothing Company, part of the Bassi Group, which are sold in plus-size shops and websites like Big & Tall, Jacamo and Yours Clothing.
That’s not to say it only focuses on larger people, with this only part of a business that also stocks casual menswear in mainstream outlets such as House of Fraser, Slaters, Blue Inc and Beales.
Among its many trend triumphs was introducing the flame shirt – once a must-have item for many teenagers and young men in the early 2000s, even if they refuse to admit it.
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Rohan, who as creative director now runs the day-to-day business with a view to eventually taking over from his uncle Avinash and dad Subhash, says: “Obesity figures are up and we were seeing that we were adding sizes every day.
“We used to stop at large sizes but customers said they needed an XL, then XXL and then XXXL. Now we do eight-times extra-large and up to 70in jeans.
“We researched the market and saw there were no other companies doing what we were doing, which is fashionable clothing that’s affordable and ranges across all sizes.
“There’s still a large retail base of specialists and we thought it would be a good market to cater for – it gives us a little niche and is now about 40 percent of what we produce.
“It’s a growing market with huge potential. It’s not for us to say why people are as big as they are because everyone deserves to be how they want to be, while it’s also for very tall people who can’t find clothes that fit.
“Rather than them just being able to buy a basic white shirt and trousers, we offer them a fashion item.
“It’s not like that’s our only focus – we still have an extremely large range of regular sizes – but it’s definitely our niche and what sets us apart from our competitors.”
Bassi Group has come a long way since it was founded in 1985, eight years after Rohan’s uncle Avinash Bassi moved from India to the UK with dreams of being a doctor – and began trading women’s clothes from market stalls across Nottinghamshire to get by.
Soon joined by his brother Subhash, they set up the company and opened a chain of shops, including in Sherwood, Bingham, Mansfield, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Melton Mowbray, Chesterfield, Derby and Matlock.
They also set up a distribution centre, buying stock from factories in London and importing from the Far East to become a wholesaler selling to independent retailers.
But a change in focus in 1990 meant that all the shops were closed, women’s clothes were ditched in favour of purely menswear and it launched its own line of clothing, which would be supplied to retail chains.
In 2000, the company moved to a purpose-built distribution site at Duke House, in Northern Court, Basford, where it remains today.
The Duke Clothing Company warehouse in Basford
With a new site came a new name. The brothers opted for “Duke” and became Bassi Fashions Ltd, trading as Duke Clothing Company.
Managing director Avinash, 56, says: “We decided to go in one direction because we were getting a growing client base in menswear and finding a niche.
“Ladies’ clothes were being taken up by big chains like New Look at the time.
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“I didn’t expect what would happen. When you’re starting out, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.
“Your hopes are always there and you want to achieve something by working hard and now we’re seeing growth every year.
“When we were wholesaling, we saw there was a market value for a lower price denim brand so that’s how it started – and it just blew up from there.”
The business has grown to more than 100 staff, including 25 based in Nottingham, and has showrooms in European cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Dusseldorf, and countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Its turnover stands at about £7m, with a 24 percent growth last year.
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Duke Clothing, whose brands include D555, Future Cut Cloths, Rockford, Laser, Split Star and Duke London, can be found at 2,000 shops and websites across the world.
Every season it launches 500 products, all aimed at men aged 18 to 35 looking for affordable and casual clothes, including shirts, T-shirts, knitwear, shows, jackets and jeans.
A team of designers, led by Rohan, attend catwalks throughout the year to get inspiration and work on fashion trends about 18 months before they go on sale.
This summer, they have been putting the finishing touches to the clothes they believe will be worn in winter 2017.
Sometimes their forecasts can go wrong but at other times they are incredibly in tune with the public.
One of the greatest successes for Duke Clothing was its “flame shirt”, a black short-sleeved shirt with bright flames stretching up from the waist and arms.
Around the turn of the century, it could be seen everywhere in Britain and Avinash says many other brands tried to get in on the action after his clinical eye introduced it into fashion.
He recalls: “I saw the flame on a cap at a catwalk and thought it would look good on a shirt.
“The designer came up with a really good design. We showed it around to retailers and within three weeks we had an order for 50,000 shirts.
“Then we never looked back. We stopped everything else and just kept producing these shirts 24/7 because we couldn’t keep up with the demand.
“Between 2000 and 2003, we sold half a million flame shirts – it was huge and the biggest thing we’ve ever done.
“Other companies tried to follow us but we had the market. The retail sector was so strong and every department store wanted to stock them.
“We were doing them for everyone from babies to grown men but eventually it died down.
“It’s a fashion item I always remember and was really exciting when we saw everyone wearing it.”
With the advent of the internet and subsequent explosion in online shopping, Avinash admits there have been “drastic changes” in the industry over the years.
“We’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of recessions,” he says.
“There have been difficult periods but we’ve always grown and have never had any really bad times.
“We’ve moved away from things before it has got tough. For example, there are no wholesalers now so it was a good time to move away.”
Rohan, who is Subhash’s 24-year-old son, adds: “Fashion is changing. The main thing is how the market has changed.
“We used to have a large base of retail customers who don’t exist anymore so had to move along with the times and serve online companies like Boohoo now.
“We’re working with a lot of online retailers because that’s where the growth is, rather than bricks and mortars.
“There’s not many new stores opening every week but there are new online shops launching every week.
“It’s changed some of the things we offer – we try to make it as easy as possible to sell online and there’s a few logistical changes, such as how we do the product images ourselves and send them to websites, and make sure we have detailed descriptions.
“People can complain about how the internet has changed things but you need to embrace it and move with the times – it’s also opened up a lot of opportunities.”
Rohan believes men’s fashion will continue to get bigger, further ratifying the decision to focus on it.
“Women’s clothes have always been the largest market but these days men are a lot more bothered about what they are wearing and want to be fashionable so I can see a growth in menswear in general,” he says.
“In terms of fashion trends, there’s a lot of neutral and earthly colours coming through.
“Bomber jackets are big at the moment and ripped clothing is coming back quite strong.
“The whole design side excites me quite a bit. It scares quite a lot of people with how much in advance we work but I find it interesting because I’m quite into fashion and it doesn’t feel like a job.
“We’re not designing clothes for us to wear – it’s what’s going to be mass market.
Targeting the mass market means the Bassi family is always likely to spot one of their own T-shirts, shirts or jeans out on the streets across the UK and beyond.
Not that it ever gets boring.
“Seeing your product out there is so exciting, even to this day,” Rohan adds.
“Even if you’re walking around town and spot someone or watching Coronation Street and see someone on TV wearing a T-shirt you’ve made, it still excites me now.”
Property adds second strand to business
Diversity can be the key to success for many businesses – and a move into the property market has provided the Bassi Group with another profit-making stream.
It currently owns 15 commercial buildings, including premises occupied by Sainsburys, Co-op, Staples and Ladbrokes in Nottingham, with a combined £30m value.
The company recently added a purpose-build 15,000 sq ft property currently housing Aldi, based in Rochdale, to its portfolio in a £3.7m deal.
Rohan says: “It’s a very important deal – the biggest we’ve done to date and now the cornerstone of our portfolio.
“Aldi is in there for another 15 years but we see how it’s been growing massively in the UK so we see them staying there for even longer.
Bassi Group has bought a building currently occupied by Aldi in Rochdale
“Every five years the rent automatically increases by 10 to 15 percent so it’s a good revenue stream.
“When you walk into an Aldi and know you’re the landlord, that’s pretty exciting.
“We try to get a diverse range of properties, whether it’s retail, supermarkets, warehouses or garages.
“They can be out of town or in town, and having these big blue-chip companies as your tenants is quite a big thing.
“This is hopefully going to be a stepping stone to even bigger buildings, with our next target a big supermarket.”
Bassi Group first got into property in 1995, initially focusing on the residential market.
Clifton Co-op is among the family portfolio
At its peak, it owned 100 homes, including 70 in Nottingham, which were rented out to create revenue streams.
But about 10 years ago, the firm decided to concentrate on commercial properties.
They include buildings currently occupied by the Co-op, in Clifton; Sainsburys in Waverley Street, Forest Fields; IFS UK, in Beeston; BDO, in Carrington and a joint tenancy of Ladbrokes and Andrew Baxter hairdressing, in Mansfield Road.
It also owns property in Derby, Leicester, Sheffield and Tamworth, while still owning about 50 residential properties but is continuing to sell its stock.
Avinash says: “There’s always changes in the market so the property business has given us another option along with the clothing side of the company to cover ourselves.
The company owns the twin buildings occupied by Ladbrokes and Baxter Hairdressing
“We asked ourselves ‘how can we go further in our own field?’ But property is always a safe investment to help us grow.
“But we didn’t enjoy the residential side too much because it takes up a lot of time to handle so we decided to go into commercial property and concentrate on that. We have good connections with developers and agents so they come to us with property that’s ready to be invested in and become the landlord.”
But Avinash admits the market in Nottingham is tough, explaining why some of its properties have been bought from further afield.
“We’re going for the larger buildings now and hope to get at least two or three every year,” he adds. “But it’s hard to get the right property in Nottingham. You can get plenty of bad ones but Nottingham is always the hardest to find the right property at the right price. That’s why we’ve had to go a little way out of Nottingham because the profit margin was better.
Sainsbury’s Local, in Waverley Street, is another Bassi-owned property
“With property at the moment, the biggest thing is rates are ridiculously high and get passed on to the landlord if the building is empty.”
The property side of the company currently makes up about 40 percent of the business and as it continues to grow, it will attract more focus from the Bassi Group.
Rohan adds: “At the moment it’s just the directors who look after the property side but we’d look to take on more staff if it gets much bigger.
“We’re probably going to need to employ more people on the property side, who will actively be looking to invest.
“That’s the next stage and we’ll start with two or three people by the end of the year.”
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