It’s the British label that appeals to schoolgate mums, royals and First Ladies alike. As Boden celebrates its 30th birthday, Laura Craik meets founder JOHNNIE BODEN to find out how his catalogue became a global fashion power player.
Thank you for calling, and welcome to Boden,’ chirps a plummy Old Etonian voice. ‘Johnnie Boden speaking. Surprise surprise, calls may be recorded. I do hope you understand.’ Depending on your predilection for hotchpotch dresses, scallop-edged cashmere and pear-print raincoats, you’ll recognise this as the message that greets you when you call Boden, the Coldplay of fashion brands that’s currently celebrating its 30th year. It’s a divisive message that makes customers feel either heartened or violent, depending on their view. If you rang Topshop, you never heard the dulcet tones of Philip Green. But Johnnie Boden is Boden’s heart and soul. And also its voicemail.
After a lifetime of listening to said message, it’s discombobulating to be in the same room as the voice, and find it attached to a tall, lean man in a polo shirt and chinos, sporting a summer tan that’s quite impressive for a ginger. Sockless and smiling, Johnnie, 60, is on top form. He’s just hosted a dinner to celebrate the brand’s 30th anniversary, flanked by longtime friends Yasmin Le Bon, Millie Mackintosh and Jodie Kidd. The Duchess of Cambridge wasn’t there, but we know she’s a fan because she was pictured in the £60 Aurora wrap dress on her family’s Christmas card in 2019.
That she and Michelle Obama, Holly Willoughby, Samantha Cameron and Helena Christensen are Boden lovers doesn’t entirely explain the brand’s £332 million annual turnover, or why it’s succeeding at a time when so many other retailers are going to the wall. Boden’s real success lies far away from the camera, sustained by an army of women who are far too busy to stop and pose for selfies, thank you very much. For Boden Woman, fashion is more of a pastime than a passion. She wants to look smart and stylish, with minimal fuss. She wants clothes that don’t frighten the horses or the husband, delivered in a jolly polka-dot bag.
At Boden House, a shiny glass building complete with open-plan offices, squishy velvet sofas and its own canteen, staff refer to its archetypal customers as Kate and James. ‘I always think it’s nice to have a bull’s-eye,’ says Johnnie, sipping a cappuccino in a spacious corner office decorated with colourful, eclectic art. ‘The defining thing about our characters is that they’re busy. Kate is early 30s with children, probably a teacher, very busy. James is the long-suffering husband, equally busy. He’s not spending hours in the shops. He has a fairly transactional attitude to clothes, but wants to feel a bit different. They’re optimistic. We’re an optimistic brand. Moody fashion is just not us. But what really defines our customers is their attitude, because it’s hard to generalise about their diversity.’
Many have sweepingly generalised them as ‘yummy mummies’, a term that Johnnie says once rankled, but one he has come to accept ‒ even if he disagrees. ‘It’s indisputable that most of our customers have children. We don’t sell that much to women under 25. But crikey ‒ we’ve got two million active customers. Are there really two million yummy mummies? It feels like too narrow a definition.’
Still, the yummy-mummy trope has helped Boden not just survive the market, but define it. Unlike so many ailing clothing retailers, that all-important ‘brand identity’ is not something Boden struggles to convey. The key to its longevity, Johnnie says, is a great team, a boundless curiosity and a relentless focus on the customer. ‘Which sounds trite, but a lot of entrepreneurs and designers have hunches, and they’re often wrong. You need to say “that didn’t work ‒ the customer is telling us they don’t want this”. It’s knowing when to persevere, and also when to stop. It’s listening to the customer, understanding their lifestyle, the things they want, the things they’re not prepared to spend money on, the trends they’re scared of.’
It’s a formula that in three decades has seen Boden grow from a modest mail-order company (Boden started with a catalogue inspired by J Crew) to a global brand with 1,000 employees. Johnnie still owns 65 per cent of the business, and has the £335 million fortune to prove it. Yet he says he never had a master plan. ‘In many ways, I still don’t. You’re only as good as your last range. It can so easily go tits-up. All I care about is making customers happy, creating lovely styles, making this a fun place to work and doing something I still really enjoy. Which may sound pompous, but it’s true.’
When the pandemic hit, Boden teamed up with the charity Helpforce to provide £1 million-worth of clothing to NHS trusts across the UK, which was passed on to NHS staff and patients. Johnnie caught Covid ‘right at the beginning, in March 2020. I went to dinner with a lot of people who’d been at Cheltenham Festival.’ Financially, the pandemic has not been kind. ‘Sales fell off a cliff,’ he says. ‘It was horrific. We immediately knew we had to do some dramatic things. We had to make 200 people redundant. Ghastly. We managed to keep our heads above water by changing quite a few items in the range. We introduced more casual stuff, and that awful word “loungewear”. We sold lots of face masks. But sales fell by between ten and 20 per cent. And we knew we couldn’t sustain a business on those sorts of products because there’s a limit to how many sweatpants a woman needs. Now, ever since the vaccine, women have started thinking about dressing up and parties and holidays again. But when you take those things away, demand falls.’
Brexit has not been kind, either: he estimates the cost to his business as £5 million. ‘There’s been a big financial impact. The problem is that the Europeans have no incentive to sort it. Until they notice their exports are falling, they’re not going to do anything. It’s pretty depressing. You just have to grow the business in areas where things are easier. The irony is that American paperwork is now easier than European.’
Although the Boden family were lacemakers in Derbyshire until the 1920s, both Johnnie’s father and grandfather were soldiers, the former taking a dim view of his son’s interest in fashion. Pictures from Vogue decorated young Johnnie’s walls at Eton, where he developed a penchant for bombastic waistcoats bought secondhand at London’s Portobello Market. Aged 16, he was asked to edit the teenage section of Harpers & Queen, a job dismissed by Colonel Boden as ‘bloody stupid.’
Leaving Oxford, he followed the same privileged, well-trodden path as his peers, and went into stockbroking. ‘It seemed great ‒ the money’s good, lots of pretty girls, very Gordon Gekko,’ he says now. ‘I thought, “Here we go – braces”. But I was so bad at it. Didn’t have a feel for the markets.’ He then tried his hand at teaching, ‘but the money wasn’t very good, and I’m greedy’. Then followed a stint running pubs, ‘but I hated the hours. Being sober when everyone else is drunk is just so boring.’
Happily, he was saved from a life of privileged dabbling (don’t you just hate it when your uncle leaves you a six-figure inheritance?) by his then girlfriend, Sophie, a formidable woman whom he met in 1990 while running a pub. Banging on, yet again, one night about his idea for a clothing business, Sophie finally had her fill, telling him that if he didn’t do something about it, she would leave him. ‘She told me I’d had the most amazing start in life, and this incredible education, and was completely wasting it,’ he remembers. ‘In fact, she said, “You are fundamentally a failure”. And I said, “Yes, you’re right.”’
Reader, he married her. They’ve been together for 30 years. He even remembers their first dance. ‘“Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn,’ he says. ‘I didn’t enjoy my wedding much. My father was very ill, and my father- in-law didn’t want the party. But I loved the honeymoon, and I married the right woman.’
The secret of a happy marriage is ‘openness, laughter and kindness. Kindness is very important. I’ve always been a worker, so I was never going to hang around at home. We have different hobbies but, you know, we enjoy each other’s company. Somerset Maugham said that in any relationship, there’s one who loves and another who consents to be loved. We’re both strong characters, but I’m quite scared of Sophie. I’m more scared of her than she is of me.’
Maybe he needs that dynamic?. ‘Yes. I think I’ve behaved quite badly at times, and I need to be told.’
Front and centre of the business he might still be, but in recent months, his three daughters have entered the frame, appearing on the Boden website and catalogue in a photo shoot to mark the brand’s 30th anniversary. Anna, 26, is a teacher; Stella, 21, is studying politics at Bristol University and Katie, 23, has finished a foundation course at Central Saint Martins, alma mater of Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. ‘I hope she might get into this business, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on her,’ he says. ‘I want them to find their feet doing their own thing.’
He says that living in a household of women keeps him young. ‘They’re very opinionated. I come from a household where there were quite a few taboo subjects. My father was authoritarian. And then I married Sophie, and her family was much more girly, very outspoken, very noisy. Nothing was off limits. I really enjoyed that, and I’ve tried to embrace it. So I’d like to think that they can speak their minds freely. There are times when I find that exhausting. But I’d like to think I’ve learned tolerance. They’re constantly introducing me to new things, whether that’s fashion, music or art. I can’t imagine having three boys, I really can’t.’
His daughters clearly adore him, yet he seems quite a self-critical parent. ‘The biggest mistake we made was not listening,’ he says. ‘And also trying to make them all do the same things. You tend to pigeonhole your children, and think they’re all going to be the same, when they’re all terribly different.’
Would the man who was once a member of Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club call himself a feminist? ‘I’ve always loved women. I’ve never been a blokey bloke, although I’ve got lots of male friends. There’s a feminine side to me that had to be expressed, and that’s probably why I did this job. My father wanted me to be a soldier, or something masculine. I’ve got three daughters and my dog’s a bitch. Everything about me is quite girly, but to say I’m a feminist is…I don’t want to be labelled in the political sense.’
When he’s not working in London, he’s pottering on his farm in Dorset ‒ or at least, trying to potter. ‘I’m a bit obsessive. I can’t relax. I get up early. I’m a Mrs Thatcher. I’m six hours’ sleep. Although ever since [having] Covid I’ve been sleeping a bit more. My biggest relaxation is a steam room. That, and listening to music. I’m obsessed with music. I like walking, riding, weeding. My weeding fork is my favourite friend. And my dog,’ he says, getting out his phone and showing me a video of his jack russell, Sprout. ‘Bloody love dogs.’ Does he like cooking? ‘Impatient. Only like cooking quick things. Steak. Breakfast. Fish. Anything that requires a complicated sauce, forget. Bearnaise? No patience. Always curdles.’
We’ve been speaking for over an hour, and I wonder whether his staccato replies indicate that he’s losing patience, charming and attentive as he’s been. Better wrap it up with the old ‘What are your plans for the future?’ question. ‘Basically, I still love what I do,’ he smiles. ‘I’m going to carry on. But the moment I start making big mistakes or not enjoying it, I will stop.’ Spoken like a true pragmatist – one that you can bet is fervently hoping a daughter or three will take over the reins.
Boden’s greatest hits
Charlotte Vossen picks out the most popular pieces over the brand’s 30-year history ‒ and which you can snap up now in its celebratory anniversary collection
1991: The Rugby Top, one of the eight original menswear styles that launched the brand in 1991, is also loved by women for its long sleeves and comfy cotton fabric.
1997: Undoubtedly Boden’s most popular item, the chic long-sleeve Breton Top was first introduced in the late 90s. To date, the brand has sold over two million striped tees.
1997: One of the biggest sellers back then was the French Collar Cardigan. Available in 15 colours, it sold out every time for ten seasons in a row.
2005: The knitted Tank Top was once considered a uniform for golfers and grandads, but became one of the brand’s biggest winter wardrobe hits thanks to its funky patterns.
2005: Since its launch, Boden has gradually made the switch to more sustainable fabrics. One of its most coveted coats, the Quilted Jacket, is now made from recycled polyester.
2007: The Velvet Coat with its rounded collar, front pockets and cool colour combo made its debut in autumn 2007 and quickly amassed a nine-week waiting time.