Louis Copeland: ‘My business philosophy? Just get up early and work’
The man whose very name is synonymous with high-end suits has tailored his business to adjust to the economic downturn
“I try to use the phrase, ‘Think suit, think Louis Copeland’.” Louis Copeland at his shop on Capel Street in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller
Louis Copeland is no fan of casual Friday. Dressing everyone from former presidents Hillary, Regan and Clinton to Pierce Brosnan and Brian O’Driscoll on their wedding days, the suit seller thinks men should make an effort.
“I think when the boom was on, people began to get a bit lax in their clothing. Dress-down Friday became kind of dress-down Thursday and Wednesday. People didn’t maybe work as hard as they should have.”
It’s a Thursday and Louis Copeland is immaculately dressed. In a navy-blue suit with a cerise pink tie against and a white and cerise pink striped shirt, he wears fashion well.
Up since 6am, after his daily stint at the gym, the 64-year-old is tucking into some porridge with fruit at a cafe near his flagship store on Capel Street. It’s in that store that he works six days a week. On the seventh day, he’ll pop in.
Indeed, hard work is what Louis Copeland is all about. The network of seven shops run by Louis and his younger brother Adrian is something their grandfather Hyman Kaplan, a Jewish man who moved to Ireland from Lithuania in 1912, probably dreamed of.
“He was a trouser-maker. He used to make clothes for a shop on Capel Street and then he took over that shop.” Hyman changed his surname to Copeland and his son Louis took over the business in turn. But it was under Hyman’s grandsons, Louis and Adrian, that things expanded.
The business now employs 70 people and has seven stores in Dublin, including Capel Street, Pembroke Street, where Adrian is based, Wicklow Street, Custom House Quay (CHQ) and two in Dundrum, one of which is a Gant-branded store, and one in Galway. His son Louis and Adrian’s son Adrian also work in the business.
“I suppose we kind of ran the business by the seat of our pants,” says Copeland of the growth. “There was never any kind of strategic moves or whatever. It’s just that things evolved, opportunities came up and you take them.”
For a man whose marketing nous has made his name synonymous with great suits, there’s none of the slick, rehearsed narrative you get from others happy to wax lyrical on their “journey”.
Copeland hates introspection, batting away invitations to do so that others can often relish. A little less conversation, a little more action. “My business philosophy? Just get up early and work,” he says.
Copeland started in the rag trade while still in short pants. “After school, I’d jump on the bus and come into the workshop. I’d pull the tacking off the suits. That was my first memory of work.”
Leaving school at 14, a course in tailoring led to work on the floor of a Thomas Street clothing factory. The chairman of the company was former chairman of The Irish Times , Major Thomas McDowell, who would swing by in his Rolls Royce. The young Copeland helped to make his suits.
Working evenings and Saturdays alongside his father, stepping into the family business was a shoo-in. “It came natural, you kind of fell into it.”
The business flourished. Despite the creep of the casual-into-work wear from the mid-1990s, the subsequent boom brought more spend on clothes. Copeland opened two new stores – one at CHQ, the cradle of Dublin’s banking sector – and another, his first outside the capital, in Galway.
“People would buy clothes. Now I won’t say they were disposable clothes, but they might buy four or five suits, or they could buy a suit when they wanted to buy it,” he says of boom buying habits.
Equidistant from the Law Library, the Supreme Court and the Kings Inns, the recesses of Copeland’s Capel Street shop have probably seen more deals done with barristers than the Round Hall of the Four Courts.
“Because we’re beside the courts, we’d provide the gowns and the wigs and the frock coats and all that, and most of the time, they never thought about prices. The Law Library would have been big business for us, or solicitors coming up from the country.”
But as the economy turned, Copeland’s shop floors began to reflect the woes of professional men up and down the country.
“Since 2007, you could see it. People getting more careful. People talking about prices, trading down a bit or not buying as much as they used to,” he says. “If a fella came in twice a year, he might only come in once a year.”
Legal eagles were among the many professionals to have their wings clipped. Developers and builders had also been a staple. “But they’ve all been hit and when they got hit, we got hit.”
So how bad was the hit? “I’d say, like most businesses, we’re down 40-45 per cent depending on the location. But when things like that happen, you’ve just got to adjust.”
And adjust he has. While the shops on Capel Street and Pembroke Street are freehold, Copeland rents the others. Has he been stung by upward-only rents?
“I think landlords are more inclined now to sit down and talk to you than they were a couple of years ago. We’re all in this together so we have to work together.
“I have to say the landlords we have, we’ve sat down and come to some kind of agreement that works for both parties.”
And what of his lease in the near-deserted shopping emporium that is CHQ? “One of the lads working down there a few years ago told me there was more footfall on the moon than at CHQ,” jokes Copeland.
“People ask me how do you survive down there, but I mean, we don’t have big rent and it’s our target market down there. We have a loyal following there and it does actually wash its face.”
Copeland owns his Capel Street premises, a former bank, which he bought in 1990. Does the bank now own him?
“We’ve had to sit down and talk to the banks, yes. The one thing you don’t do is ignore the banks. You’ve got to get in there and talk to them and explain your position, show them what plans you have for the future. Sit down and negotiate with them.”
He says they’ve been flexible. “Hopefully we have a viable business and I have to say AIB has been very good to us. They met us halfway. If you get loans, they’ll give you interest only, if needs be.” It’s a facility he’s availed of.
The recession has meant that more than hard graft, rigour and planning are required too. “Things were that good over the past few years that you didn’t have to plan much. But there are things we are doing now that we didn’t have to do then.”
He talks of more formal and more regular management meetings, brainstorming sessions with staff and negotiation with suppliers. “These are the things that we didn’t do because we didn’t have to. But now things are getting tough, you’ve got to get tough with it.”
But he’s determined not to run his business on the advice of accountants.
“My accountant would say I’m overstocked, that I’ve too many staff. I’d listen to him, but you have to have a little bit of imagination. You have to have the stock there. If someone comes in and you don’t have the stock, they’ll go somewhere else.
“The thing to do is not to get too conservative or too safe because, if you’re too safe, you start getting dull. You need to be adventurous as if there was no recession.”
One thing’s for sure, he’s cracked marketing. “I try to use the phrase, ‘Think suit, think Louis Copeland’.”
Now many people do. He’s been name-checked by everyone from actor Dan Ackroyd, to Jedward to Roscommon-Leitrim TD Luke “Ming” Flanagan, who wore a Louis Copeland suit made from hemp in the Dáil in 2011 to highlight his campaign to have cannabis legalised. But there are some perceptions that need to change.
“Some people think we’re only for celebrities or politicians or people like that. Or that we’re expensive or maybe for older men. That’s something we have to change.”
His weapon against the big retailers is service. “If you go and get service from an experienced sales person, they are going to pick the right size for you, the right colour, the right fabric for you.”
And it’s when Copeland talks about personal service that he lights up.
“I like looking after people. I like making people happy,” he says simply. “I don’t have an office. My office is in that window over there. I try to meet everybody and say hello to everybody and treat them as you’d like them to treat you. Make sure they are looked after and are comfortable.”
Looking after staff is important too. “It’s not just about hugging the customer, hug the staff. You’ve got to train people and invest money in them. We’ve had staff here since they started as messenger boys. They only way they leave is in a box.”
If sales of menswear are a barometer of the economy, he’s starting to see green shoots. Just as well, as he now has a grandson called, not surprisingly, Louis.
“People are starting to dress up again. And if you want to get serious about your business, you need to get serious about how you look.”
CV: Louis Copeland
Name: Louis Copeland
Family: Married to Mary, they have three children and four grandchildren
Lives: Dartry, Dublin
Hobbies: Walking, work
Something you might expect: He’s a firm believer in hard work, and no fan of the move to casual office dress.
Something that might surprise: He’s a daily gym-goer. “It’s really like a drug. If you don’t do it, you feel bad and you feel guilty. It gives you a real kick-start to the day and it gets you fired up.”