First Look: Oliver Bonas Dublin. ‘The busiest opening we’ve ever had’
The UK design chain’s new branch is part of a global expansion. Will it survive Brexit?
Oliver Bonas: Oliver Tress, the company’s founder, says the staff of the Dublin branch were ‘cool as you like’ during the busy opening. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
On the launch day of Oliver Bonas’s Dublin store last weekend, shoppers were forced into a very polite, slow conga line. The place was stuffed to the seams with trendy, polished women and bearded men, and woe betide anyone who wanted to break the line and double back to reappraise a coconut candle or a neon lamp.
Some were curious about the glossy, sherbet-hued addition to Exchequer Street, next to Brown Thomas, just off Grafton Street; others had long been praying to the retail gods that the UK design emporium would arrive in the city.
A few days later, and in a much calmer store, the chain’s founder, Oliver Tress, is stalking the shop floor and getting to know the latest additions to his 1,100-strong workforce.
Good weekend, then? “I’m speechless,” he says. “That was the busiest opening ever, with any store. And the staff are cool as you like over it.”
We talked to some people in our target market who said that, on the weekends, they like to mooch about this area, go to the shops and have coffee, and that it’s got a really nice vibe
Although there are already two branches of Oliver Bonas in Belfast, the opening of the Dublin branch is part of Tress’s plan to slowly internationalise his business. “We keep getting people saying, ‘You should come to Dublin’ or ‘...Copenhagen’ or ‘...Australia’, and from a pragmatic point of view, [Dublin] is the one with the fewest practical challenges,” Tress says.
Securing the Exchequer Street site – it was formerly home to Grahams Shoes, which has moved down the road – was a moment of serendipity. “We talked to some people in our target market who said that, on the weekends, they like to mooch about this area, go to the shops and have coffee, and said that the area’s got a really nice vibe,” Tress says. “I don’t think we could have gotten a better spot.”
Has he Brexitproofed his Dublin operation? Brexit is “beyond our control now – I don’t know what to think any more,” he says with a sigh. “We opened the store knowing it was going to happen, and not knowing what the implications will be, but we’ll find a way to make it work.”
As branching out goes, the outlook is good for Tress: in the UK, Oliver Bonas reported a 22 per cent jump in turnover for 2017, up to £61 million, or about €71 million at the current exchange rate, even after a hefty investment in design, warehousing and website creation, and an expansion to 73 stores.
There’s no typical Oliver Bonas customer, according to Tress, although he says that the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups are well represented. “They’re just people who are interested in stimulation... They want to feel somehow that a product can do more than hold a plant or keep you warm.”
He produces a brand bible; the company’s motto, Work Hard, Play Hard & Be Kind, is written on its first page. On another is the promise Oliver Bonas makes to customers: “Give people a joyful experience and cause for optimism.”
It may sound hokey, but Tress takes this promise seriously. I can’t tell if this is part of his winning USP, but Tress seems to genuinely care about spreading joy. “It was partly because I was, like, ‘Selling clothes and candles isn’t that meaningful – why aren’t I saving lives here?’ I had an existential moment,” he says, laughing. “I spent a long time thinking about this and thought, If you really want to do this, you’ll need to deliver on this promise. It’s absolutely critical to me.”
Oliver Bonas now employs 16 in-store designers, across graphic design, homewares, jewellery, gifts and fashion, as well as buyers to enact their visions. The key quality in Oliver Bonas’s design, in homewares in particular, is that it moves beyond the boilerplate, putting an Instafriendly spin on classics.
Tress opened the first Oliver Bonas store on Fulham Road in London when he was 26. (He is now in his early 50s). Until then the anthropology graduate was a regular visitor to Hong Kong, where his parents lived, and brought back local wares and gifts to sell at markets and fairs.
“I knew nothing about running a business,” he says. “It was a double-edged sword of being young and naive. But I had this thing about not getting a job. I think I felt if I got a job in a company, it doesn’t matter how well you do. Whereas if I worked for myself there would be no limits. Being young, I thought that would be quite an easy reality. The truth is that running a business is a constant battle, and there’s always a sense that everything is in jeopardy the whole time.
We opened first during a recession. I had friends come in and do some painting in the shop. I bought one of those second-hand tills and asked Prontaprint to do me up a logo
“We opened first during a recession – and, in fact, for a small business it’s a good time to start, because deposits and rents were very low... I had friends come in and do some painting in the shop. I bought one of those second-hand tills and went to Prontaprint and asked the Saturday girl there to do me up a logo. I started with very little in the way of capital.”
The store’s name, incidentally, came from his partner at the time, Anna Bonas, a cousin of Cressida Bonas, one of Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriends. Is that not the business equivalent of getting a tattoo of your girlfriend’s name?
“I haven’t thought about it like that,” he says, laughing again. “I was under real pressure to come up with a name, and I didn’t want to use my own name, as I’m self-conscious. ‘Bonas’ sounds nice and neutral: it could be English, French, American or from anywhere. I always think of her when I’m asked that question, and I think ‘I hope she doesn’t read this’. Likewise my wife, who, thankfully, seems fine with it too.”