On October 12th, Harper and Lewis opened up their doors for the first time in Leicester’s Highcross shopping centre to satisfy everybody’s vintage needs, and they’ve never looked back. The Leicester store is one of a few Harper and Lewis’ that have been opened around the UK, adding to Reading, Southampton, Birmingham’s Bullring, and, the soon-to-be opened, Sutton Coldfield and Derby’s Westfield stores.
I spoke to Harry Bains, the manager of the Harper and Lewis store in Leicester, to talk about vintage style, the store and what is in the horizon for the store.
Generally, how has business been since the store opened?
Massive, students love it and they’re always coming in! I think it’s to do with the quirkiness of the shop window, they’ll see something and say “ooh that looks nice!” and come in. It’s not just students though, we’re getting the older guys who would say that they wore the kind of clothes we sell 60-odd years ago and they’ll pick some stuff up as memories. But really it’s the students that love vintage, the genuine vintage and not the way that the high street retailers sell it.
So what is that sets Harper and Lewis apart from Topshop, H&M, River Island that are all nearby in Highcross?
Ours is genuine vintage. If you look at the fit of their clothes, it’s all slim or super slim fit, whereas vintage is meant to be just how it fits. You should be able to put a vintage shirt and be like “this is vintage”. You’ll go into high street retailers and see stacks and stacks of the same shirt, whereas we’re unique – you won’t see the same flannel shirt anywhere else. Its quite niche in that sense – I can go into Harper and Lewis, pick up a shirt, go out that night in it and nobody else will be wearing one.
What about the other vintage shops that are outside, how are you different from those?
We’re quite different in the sense that we opened in a shopping centre. We set ourselves apart because we didn’t want to just open up in a side street somewhere, and the front of the store in the centre is quirky. People have come in and said that it’s been good to see a vintage shop in a shopping centre!
And what was the thought process behind that, opening in Highcross?
The thought process was open a vintage shop in a shopping centre because no one else has done it before and we’re going to hit a market that we’ve not hit before. We thought if we set up in a massive shopping centre, we’d get every type of customer that comes into the store as well. It was more because of vintage coming back in; it is quite popular at the minute.
Exactly! A lot of places have set ways to dress the front of the store. They have people who tell the visual merchandisers how to dress the models, so is this opportunity you have to dress manikins how you want a part of your brand?
Yes, exactly. We literally come in, and I’ll be like ‘I want to change that’, there are no guidelines, there is no book. It is literally free play, freestyle. You come in and ask yourself, ‘how does vintage sell?’ and you set it how you think it sells best. The thing is, you could put vintage clothes on a rail and it just looks vintage – that’s how it should be!
Tell us how Harper and Lewis started. Where did it come from?
It came from the rock festivals we’d do stalls at, that is where it all started. The owner, Paul Lewis, is my old area manager, and was always into buying and all sorts anyway. Then when he went into the vintage sector, he went looking in the music festival side of things. He opened up The Oasis Centre in Birmingham, and from there he literally took it to different heights in a way. But Harper and Lewis is a family run business. It’s family-run because you have Paul, who is the owner, his wife Angie, who does payroll, and his sister who works in the warehouse.
What is the quality of that, being a family run business?
Firstly, there’s no politics. (Laughs) It’s more personal, there’s a more personal approach to things because there are no guidelines, all. The more personal touches you add inspire your vintage. The whole thing being a family-run business, like I said, means there’s no politics or rules. Vintage should be free play and free of rules!
What makes Harper and Lewis a good vintage store for students?
I guess there’s the whole niche of it being a student-focused store. We do offer a 10% discount for students as well; we take part in the student nights like the Lock-In, which was two days after we opened. The idea was to open before the lock-in, with that as our aim.
It’s offering that experience, that if a student walked into another place they might not get a more personal customer service approach. People can come into our store, ask where something has come from and they’d get an answer, whereas if they asked somewhere else they wouldn’t know where it’s made, they wouldn’t know where it comes from. It’s not about how many sales we can get – because vintage isn’t for everyone – but it’s about how we can add that personal sprinkle on people to come in and say “your shop is great” because that’s what we want. We don’t want to be the same.
Personally, how do you see style?
There is no structure to style – everyone is different, everyone wears things differently. Some people wouldn’t wear a flannel shirt with some chinos, whereas some people would wear a flannel shirt with chinos. Typically the vintage look would be a flannel shirt with some denim, but again, everyone is different. When I do my merchandising, I base it on moments when I walk by and see people and think, “that guy looks funky”, “that guy looks different” or “that guy has his own style”, so when you look at the concept of it, it’s more trying to get a bit of everything from everywhere and putting it together. Style is how you see fit.
If you could dress any celebrity that walks into Harper and Lewis with the clothes that you sell, who would it be and why?
Kanye West, because his style is different. He is the only guy I see out there who has got a unique style and wouldn’t wear the same as what Jay-Z would wear or anyone, where as everyone else wears the same thing. To me, he is unique, he is alone in his dress sense, and so I could have a field day with him if he came in!
Is he your style icon?
No he isn’t, but for the vintage shop – he’d be amazing. I could put him in anything and he’d pull it off because he has that whole persona about him.
Where would you say you see this Harper and Lewis store in a year’s time?
I could probably see it being the main destination in the Highcross for students. The amount of impact we’ve had in just three weeks has been massive. The other day I heard a girl come in with her mum and say, “This is the shop that everyone is talking about at school”. It was like, wow, because it has only been three weeks. People who haven’t brought anything would still come in and show an interest. We’ve never had a customer that hasn’t had a positive look on the store, probably because we’re the only vintage shop to open in Highcross. We get girls come in that get absolutely giddy, two girls came in with their dad and were literally galloping, “this is amazing, this is amazing,” they were saying.
What have you got planned in the next month for Harper and Lewis?
In two weeks time, we’re having a brand new refit because of the impact it’s had. Paul has come in and said “do you know what, it could look better”, so we’re going to bring in vintage stuff, but sort the floor out and put some shelves in, which will let us have a bit more freedom with merchandising. It should add a bit more quirkiness to the store, but people are thinking we’re a pop-up shop, which we are definitely not. So having a major refit will send out a massive message that we are here to stay. We are the best and we will not be beaten.
With Christmas right around the corner, Harper and Lewis is the best place to get that extra special something for a that one person you know best. Head down to Highcross to find the store and discover some vintage gems to get you inspired by off-the-cuff style and a laid-back, fun and inviting atmosphere.
Images by Zahra Gangat.