The Maverick Approach with Marshall Lester
The Maverick Approach with Marshall Lester
Victoria House. July 18th. 11:50am. Sat in an unfamiliar state of having more than enough time to scan through the press release of the oncoming show, I watched the stream of critiques drift through the basement doors, all impeccably clad in a somewhat personal take of SS15 attire. One after one, I’d glance, taking no more than a few seconds to log each distinct composition. At least, that was the case for all but one individual. Donned in neutral tones of cream and white, softly partitioned by a muted blue tie, a man of understated precision paced down the runway, locking my previously brisk focus. It was only fifteen minutes later, after managing to interrupt his day for a quick post-show interview, that I became familiar with his name; Marshall Lester- Licensing Advisor to BCF, one of the retail industry’s most experienced executives and quite easily one of the most pleasant men I’d spoken to all week.
Later that month I contacted Marshall with the request to interview him once again, but this time it was to be purely about the man himself. What was behind his views of the industry, his journey and his extremely modest nature? Fast Forward a few weeks, and I had finally managed to cease Marshall’s schedule, this time locating our discussion a little further West at The Connaught Hotel. Sipping on a glass of English sparkling water, which, to his slight dissatisfaction, was not San Pellegrino, Marshall Lester began his story with a line that unbeknownst to him captured the man’s decorum, he smiled ‘please, tell me if I bore you’.
Leaving school at the age of fifteen, a fresh faced Marshall went straight into work, with the understanding that if you ‘weren’t going to be a Rock Star or a movie star, you went into the fashion industry- it was the only thing left!’ Through the process of trial and error, rather than one of practise makes perfect, Marshall’s Rock Star calling was short lived when he ‘retired at fifteen’. This jaded drummer who quite simply, ‘couldn’t take it anymore’ went to work for his Dad’s embroidery business. ‘In those days you either went to university to get a proper degree for a professional career, or you went to work, the notion of a business or fashion degree just wasn’t heard of’. It was during his time at his father’s business that Marshall first made his mark on the fashion industry, ‘I went to see a movie called West Side Story, one of the best movies ever made’ he reflects with an honest smile, ‘watching all these kids dressed in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, it struck me, that way of dressing really hadn’t come to Britain yet’. With the style very much in its infancy in Europe, Marshall’s forward thinking saw him reinventing his very own printed t-shirts, in a way that was, albeit, a little incompatible to former t-shirt printing traditions, ‘I went to Woolworths, bought a dozen plain t-shirts and took them to a friend’s father’s printing plant’ he regales. Ending up with t-shirts that could quite easily stand by themselves, wasn’t exactly the result Marshall had had in mind, you see this printing plant was meant for the manufacturing of posters. Yet eager to see the market’s reaction to his recent invention, he made a deal with an unconvinced friend who owned a menswear shop in Dalston. For one week only, Marshall’s twelve-piece collection, in all its rigid glory, would be featured in the shop’s window.
It was only a few days later, whilst watching ‘Ready, Steady Go’, the forerunner of the 90’s ‘Top of The Pops’, that Marshall’s genius was acknowledged. Opening the show with her usual perfected form, presenter Cathy Mcgowan stood sporting one of the ‘unconvincing’ printed pieces. This unlabeled advertisement was to be fortified ten minutes later, when a group of Mods clad in what was left of Marshall’s collection, consumed a small portion airtime. The next day, after a request of a hundred more t-shirts, Marshall’s journey had quite abruptly begun. Acknowledging that ‘at the very beginning it was just about selling’ the entrepreneur’s business grew into what was probably one of the largest printed t-shirt companies in Europe.
During the late 60s, once again Marshall’s sharp intuition within popular culture hurled him headfirst into producing a product that the industry desired. ‘We started making Kaftans, and that was another story’ he smiles. ‘When the Beatles came back from India in 1968, they were all wearing Kaftan’s, striding through London airport in these brilliant pieces’. It doesn’t take long to realize just how acute this man’s awareness of the industry was and still is. From an early age he knew how to make a stir, make product that was essentially a necessity if you were to be on trend, and capture an audience that was so vast, that far and few between didn’t own one of his upshots or rather his experimentations. Experiment number three however, was pleasantly inflicted on Marshall without his knowing. Christened the ‘Patchwork Kaftans’ by a former client, the factory responsible for sewing Marshall’s Kaftans had, to his advantage, mismatched the fabrics and patterns during the manufacturing process. Such misfortune sent his business soaring ‘we made twice as much money, and we were supplying everybody on Carnaby Street’.
Starting off in the Fashion Business with the likes of Jeff Banks, Steven Marks and Richard Caring, this humble man has seen it all, ‘non of us knew what we were doing, and at the time it didn’t matter as much, but now it’s a much more sophisticated business’. By the age of twenty-four, Marshall had branched out once again, this time turning his trade to the Jean business in a way that just hadn’t been done before. ‘Faded Denim in mass production’, the concept of selling something that looked used didn’t really exist at the time, so in response to why he decided to unnerve the industry in such an unfamiliar way Marshall notes ‘it just felt right’. So right in fact that it vaulted his business to new level, with every window in Bloomingdales sporting this novel faded fortune.
With trade in printing, kaftans and jeans all well rehearsed, Marshall moved on once again. Ingraining his knowledge further within the business, he joined forces with the industry’s architects, the designers. Introduced to Marshall by the renowned Lynne Franks, British designer Kathryn Hamnett was the first to officially be backed by Marshall’s company, ‘She’s a very talented designer, I just thought with that talent, and maybe a little guidance from myself, we could create something very successful’. And so they did, the two collaborated on a jean collection, with Marshall providing Hamnett with her own label and an extensive business. Not one to leave a task unfinished, Marshall materialized the fortunes of a few more high profile designers, setting up labels for the likes of Japanese designer Michiko Koshino and Wendy Dagworthy.
A few years later, after taking his business public on the London Stock Exchange, Marshall moved to America, where his skills were quickly absorbed by a multiple of different establishments. First was Diesel Jeans, where Marshall became a Partner of the brand and its CEO. Next was Ben Sherman, it was here that it became clear that setting up labels was simply second nature to this modest dean of all things retail. But what was to come was something neither Marshall nor any of his associates really expected. Delving deeper into the unknown, Marshall branched into the exhibition industry after being approached by Blenheim, The world’s largest Trade Show company. With ideas to go into the fashion sector in America, the company hired Marshall as a consultant, asking him to format a business plan, with which they were to use on entering the American fashion market. Much to his surprise, two days later he became a partner, shortly finding himself setting up New York’s Premiere Exhibitions, and Miami’s International Jeans wear and sportswear show. Like Miami, Marshall was new to the Exhibition business and a like Miami, he galvanized it, ‘sometimes in life you’ve just got to do something you know nothing about’ he notes. ‘When you approach something from the outside, you don’t have any restrictions’. It was then, that I saw a little bit of this magazine’s personality in Marshall’s. Despite the limiting guidelines that monotonously state ‘you can do this’ and ‘you can’t do that’, Marshall ‘just did it’.
By 1998 Marshall had sold the Exhibition and set up his Consultancy business, working with the likes of Calvin Klein and JC Penny. He looks at me, inhales and slowly reaches for his glass of water, ‘and then came the dot com boom’. With a new interest focused on ‘doing something with the internet’, the ‘totally un-savvy tech’ Marshall was approached by the founder of fashion content provider, Fashion Wire Daily, of which Marshall later became the CEO. ‘I’m embarrassed to tell you but I didn’t know how to use a computer or even send an email and I was running an internet company!’, he laughs with a slight sense of humiliation.
Coming to the end of my time with Marshall, the entrepreneur reflects on a very poignant experience in his life, one that adopts the ‘Maverick approach’. ‘It was during my time at Fashion Wire Daily; I had a cup of tea in New York, at the Royalton Hotel with a lady called Natalie Massenet, founder of Net a Porter. She’d asked to buy content from Fashion Wire Daily and I thought she was absolutely mad’. Five hundred million pounds later, Marshall realized Natalie Massenet approached the industry in a way that very few have the courage to do, ‘she had an idea and did it, Natalie had that Maverick approach ’.
Ten years ago Marshall moved back to London, where he set up his Trans-Atlantic consultancy business. With clients including one of the worlds largest corporations, Reliance brands of India, Marshall works with a substantial range of companies including Marks and Spencer and Harrods. He now also acts for brands, designers and talents, working for the BFC as a licensing consultant, advising both UK and international brands and designers. Still to this day it puzzles me why I was so fixed on finding out more about the man, who entered Victoria House on July 18th, donned in neutral tones of cream and white. Luckily I did. As a master of modesty and a firm advocate of the Maverick approach, I’ve yet to meet someone more inspiring. Finishing what’s left of some very English sparkling water, he speaks a simple patter of brilliance, ‘you know why I like London, because when I started we didn’t jump in the deep end to see if we could swim, we threw ourselves off a mountain to see if we could fly’.
Written by: Fenn O’Meally
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