Louis Copeland: ‘When the cleaner is off, I do the dishes’

Extrovert Irish tailor says his team spotted the move towards smart-casual men’s wear long before the pandemic changed all of our wardrobes

“Life is all about compromises,” says Louis Copeland with a certain mischievousness. The 73-year-old Dubliner is talking about his complicated feelings around the pedestrianisation of Capel Street. Having initially slammed Dublin City Council’s decision, the tailor and self-promoter extraordinaire has softened his tone on the issue, even lying down on the empty thoroughfare to do what he does best, apart from fitting suits – mug for the cameras.

“We’re three weeks into it now and I think it has to be tweaked,” says Copeland, before admitting that the three weeks in question have been particularly busy ones for him and his team.

Being forced to pivot his work and his life around Covid-related disruption, Copeland has, like most people, embraced one or two big changes in the past couple of years.

Dressed sharply in a crisp white shirt, navy tie and cufflinks, the businessman and household name admits, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, that he has had to embrace the increasing casualisation of men’s wear. It is a trend Copeland and his team spotted coming down the track almost a decade ago but one that has been hastened by the pandemic and two years of working from home. Naturally, there is also now a renewed emphasis on the online side of his business, which took off like a rocket during the pandemic, he says.

But some things will never change. For Copeland, it’s still all about the personal touch. He refuses to work out of an office at the back of his shop on Dublin’s Capel Street, where his grandfather, Hyman Coplan, a Lithuanian Jewish migrant, founded the business.

Copeland, the figurehead at the top of the group of family-run men’s wear outlets, continues to treat the shop floor of his Dublin 1 flagship as his base of operations, working directly with the staff and greeting luxury-starved customers, who have been flooding back into his shop with gusto over the past year or so.

If you ordered a suit from him during a lockdown and returned it for whatever reason, you might have received a personal phone call from him, asking what was wrong and if he could help. He also continues to court the attention of visiting celebrities – Enchanted and Grey’s Anatomy actor Patrick Dempsey along with Step Brothers and Boogie Nights star John C Reilly being two of the most recent to spend their money in Copeland’s shop.

Six stores in Dublin and Galway bear his name within the family-run group of businesses, which also includes the Gant franchised clothing shop in Dundrum Town Centre. Shareholdings are mixed within the family but today, the group is managed by Copeland’s son Louis jnr, his brother and nephew Adrian and Adrian Copeland jnr along with group general manager David O’Connor. These are the people he credits with navigating the company through the pandemic.

And yet Louis remains the public face of the business. Earlier this year he was shortlisted for the established category in the high-profile EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards scheme, one of eight that will vie for the gong.

Copeland is anxious for the detailed-oriented O’Connor to join him for our interview. They operate “a very flat management structure” across the Copeland group, O’Connor explains. This, Copeland believes, is one of the “secrets” of his business’s success. Working with the staff and management, “there’s no hierarchy, really”, he says. So flat is the structure, in fact, that Copeland says he does some of the less salubrious tasks around the shop from time to time. “When the cleaner is off, I do the dishes,” he says. “I sometimes clean the toilets.” This last claim is too much, even for O’Connor. “You do not clean the toilets,” he says, laughing. “Will you stop.”

With public health restrictions having decimated his walk-in trade in 2020 and Irish retail in general, solutions had to be found fast. “We all sat down and asked, ‘what are we going to do here?’,” he says.

“We did have our online business and that was kind of travelling along but that was obviously going to be the big opportunity,” Copeland says. O’Connor thinks his boss is underselling it somewhat. The group had been steadily ramping up its online presence for roughly five years before the pandemic accelerated the adoption of ecommerce.

“We hit the ground running,” O’Connor says. “Where a lot of our competitors were left scrambling to try to get stock photographed and up and online... we had all that infrastructure in place.”

Managing relationships is what Copeland’s business is all about, none of which are more important than those he has with customers, who he tries to treat “like kings”, he says. Staff are just important, according to Copeland.

To keep sales ticking over and retain staff, one of the first things Copeland and his team did was negotiate discounts with their suppliers. “We took a hit. They took a hit,” says Copeland. But at the outset of the crisis in 2020, it allowed him to slash up to 40 per cent off everything in the Capel Street shop. The result? Copeland held on to 80 per cent of his staff in the first year of the pandemic, according to the company’s most recently filed accounts. The picture is much the same across the other companies in the group.

With the website “going gangbusters” in early 2021, O’Connor said they were able to bring the sales team back on to the premises on a near full-time basis. They went to work, Copeland says, selling and presenting to customers on Zoom. “We had a little television studio set-up,” the notorious extrovert enthuses. “We had cameras and ring lights. We had great fun.”

The return of weddings in the late summer of 2021 was another opportunity. “That’s when we came up with the idea of an online wedding show,” says O’Connor. They put together a panel of experts to proffer advice to would-be couples, comprising wedding planner Tara Fay, dress expert Sharon Hoey and former RTÉ presenter-turned barrister Theresa Lowe, who gave lessons on speechwriting. It was a success, according to Copeland and O’Connor, with more than 550 couples signing up to view the four shows, over two-thirds of whom subsequently shopped with Louis Copeland.

Online remains an important aspect of the business with the threat of the pandemic having receded. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, says Copeland, who has just returned from the world’s largest annual men’s wear show in Florence. “You have to meet people and feel the fabric”, he says.

On the issue of trends, he says that before the pandemic, 70 per cent of his sales were suits and 30 per cent were “smart-casual” items. During the pandemic, it switched to 95 per cent smart-casual. “Obviously, Covid completely changed the whole thing,” Copeland says, particularly with people filing back into offices across the country and looking to build up their work wardrobes again. Gone are the days when accountants, solicitors and executives just had to have two suits and a handful of shirts on rotation for work. They now have to have the two suits plus a business-casual wardrobe, replete with jackets and even “swackets” (a type of knitted jacket, Copeland and O’Connor assure). They expect the ratio to settle at 60 per cent smart-casual and 40 per cent suits this year and beyond.

“It’s not the normal casual we’re going for though,” Copeland clarifies. “It’s more luxury because there are a lot of [retailers] in the middle market.” Even with rampant consumer price inflation rearing its head for the first time in a generation? O’Connor says the team are working with suppliers to “stabilise prices”. Copeland and his team have a long-standing reputation for being tough negotiators. “We don’t just take the first price they give us,” he says. “You’ve got to fight for yourself and you’ve got to fight for your customers. But we do believe that there has to be a little bit in it for everybody, including our suppliers.”

The business has been pivoting towards more smart-casual looks for the past eight years or so and anyone who has visited the Capel Street shop in recent years will have noticed that. Once synonymous with suits, Copeland had for years been attempting to change the company’s image and break into that market. “Every brochure we did, we only showed smart-casual,” says O’Connor but to little avail. It took Covid to “break that” public perception, O’Connor says, and “I now think we’re the top destination for smart-casual” as well as made-to-measure and off-the-rack.

“You’re very confident,” Copeland quips to his colleague.

Confidence is exactly what Copeland wants his customers to have as they head back into their offices, many of them for the first time in almost three years. What sort of advice does the team have? “Better to be a little bit overdressed than underdressed,” says an animated O’Connor, or the “style doc” as he describes himself on Instagram. “There is no place in the office for a GAA jersey. Sportswear is for sport.”

Is this actually an issue?

O’Connor says “it’s a huge problem”, according to some of his customers. “People have gotten used to being at home,” Copeland adds.

In summary, “think business casual”, he says. “That doesn’t mean a suit, shirt and tie. But, you know, take the time.”

CV

Name: Louis Copeland

Age: 73

Family: Married to Mary, they have three children

Lives: Churchtown, Dublin

Hobbies: None to speak of apart from the gym

Something you might expect: A self-proclaimed workaholic, he’s in the shop seven days a week. “I don’t think people realise how on-the-ground Louis is,” says O’Connor.

Something that might surprise: Despite his reputation for courting publicity, he’s not one for going out much. “When I’m finished in work, I like to just switch off at home,” he says.

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