Podcast: Adam Brown, Founder of Orlebar Brown

November 17, 2022 Sophie Colquhoun

Adam Brown is Founder and Creator of Orlebar Brown, a designer holiday brand famous for its shorts you can swim in. The brand has gone from strength to strength with none other than James Bond wearing their shorts. 

In this episode, Adam talks about reaching 40 and finding 'the thing' he wanted to do after careers in advertising, charity, and photography, how the idea for Orlebar Brown started, and being acquired by iconic global brand, Chanel.

We also cover values, the importance of good storytelling, the making of a hero product, and why you should relinquish some control in your business. 

This is a fantastic interview with Adam that DTC businesses will get lots of insights from. Listen to the full episode below: 

Or, if you prefer, you can read the full interview below: 

Sorcha O’Boyle: I’m delighted to be joined on the show today by Adam Brown. Founder and creator of the menswear brand Orlebar Brown. Now Adam founded business back in 2007 on the premise that men’s swimwear needn’t ever compromise on style. We are absolutely not talking about budgie smugglers here. The brands ethos is very considered, its appeal is international, and it’s been worn by everybody from 007 to Michael Fassbender and even Graham Norton is following on Instagram. Adam it is great to have you here, how are you doing?

Adam Brown: Well. Thank you for having me.

Sorcha O’Boyle: I’m absolutely delighted to have you here. So, before we get into kind of the nuts and bolts of the brand and the business, I’d love to hear a little bit about your kind of earlier career. Because your route into fashion, I think, wasn’t what you’d call the typical one. So, what did you do before creating Orelbar Brown?

Adam Brown: Well, I did all sorts of things. So it wasn’t that I set out to become a fashion designer and I’m not a fashion designer. But I wasn’t one of those people who had this sort of huge dream that I wanted to work in clothing or in fashion. It was much more that I’d tried certain things and I hadn’t really found the thing that I was interested in or the thing that I was particularly good at. And so, before that, you know, I’d work from all sorts of things. So left college and worked in an advertising agency, I was an estate agent. My first real thing was I worked in the voluntary sector. So, I worked as a major donor/fundraiser for a range of different charities. So, whether it was HIV or prisons or children’s charities. I did that for seven or eight years and that was great, but I got offered a job that I didn’t particular want and there was no reason not to want my job, so I went back to college and studied photography. I worked as a portrait photographer for a few years and that was sort of going nowhere and so I was definitely I reached forty and I was looking for something to do. Friends sort of had their own careers and found their own way but I just hadn’t really found the thing I wanted to do and then I had this particular idea and so the idea resulted in where I’ve ended up today.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And can you tell me a little what was that idea? What did you want to do want to do when you-?

Adam Brown: It was a moment I’ve told the story a few times. I was staying in a hotel in Rajasthan and there was a particular moment where I had to go and change for lunch. So I went to the restaurant, I was wearing swim shorts and you know, okay. So, I went back to my room and changed and afterwards just saying “How annoying was that?”, sort of thing. “Oh, I don’t want a swim short I want a short that I can swim in.” So, I wanted a tailored approach to swim shorts and really it just stemmed from there. That moment of sort of lying on a sun lounger after lunch, playing with words and thinking “Oh maybe there’s an idea there.” And that’s really where it started. And then came back to London, did some market research which was fundamentally just looking around shops. There was not, no huge great plan in the background and put together this one product which was a tailored swim short. I really just took to that play on words and looking at how a pair of trousers was made, did a sort of pattern cutting course which I didn’t last at. But looking at the way tailored trousers are made, the way they’re worn. How do want them, the aesthetic, and the appeal of them? And then developed a pair of swim shorts.

Sorcha O’Boyle: So, you are I think a classic example of a brand that’s built itself around a simple product that’s done very, very, well. Can you tell me a little bit about how you created that hero product and secondly how you kind of slowly added more categories and more products on to the brand, without loosing the essence of the brand.

Adam Brown: Well, the swim shorts were where we started. That’s the thing that I had the idea for in India and we’ve developed. And I think without doubt it’s been a key reason why we’ve got to where we are now. That fact that I could only afford to make one product. The fact I did one pair of shorts in four lengths and it’s the fact that all I could talk about for three years was a pair of shorts. I had nothing else to talk about. So, the thing about being a tailored approach, the things about double stitching, five-year guarantee, it’s quality, trust, customer service. You know, I had nothing else to do apart from talk, we’ve got new colours or new prints coming in, in the shorts. And that focuses everyone in. It focuses the customer, focuses press, focuses all your communications and in retrospect having that one thing, there’s your hero product, then you became known for that. And I think as I go back to that other point, having a range, nobody needs another rail of clothes but having a specific product that is, you are known for. You know whether look at Barbour and the Trench Coat, Hermes and the Birkin and [00:04:23] and Chanel N°5. All those brands that have those key products in them as their hero product without, that transcends the test of time and because reinvented every season, has been absolutely key. And also, what that product does, its then becomes the essence and the centre of the brand. So, if your polo shirts don’t feel like the pair of shorts, you shouldn’t do them. If your outerwear doesn’t have the same DNA and values as that pair of shorts, you shouldn’t be doing it. So, it helps you with decision making later on. But again, it wasn’t strategic, I could only make one product. I had one fabric base, I had one side fastener, I had one zip, it simplified the whole business. But it enabled us to just focus the customer and focus everyone on that. And it still, you know, I think it’s a fantastic thing that 15 years down the line it’s still 35% of our sales.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, I mean [00:05:13]

Adam Brown: And I think it has way more opportunity for it still.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, fantastic. I mean if you ever decide to do women’s shorts, I’d be absolutely up for that.

Adam Brown: Well, that’s another story.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Another story. I’m sure. And how involved are you now in design of every piece that you see on the website, or you see in the shop?

Adam Brown: I’m part of everything. We obviously have a design team now who are far more experienced in how you design a garment and how you construct it and how you source it and how you put it together. But I’m definitely, anything the customer sees, touches, wears, hears, feels, reads, I’m probably overly involved. I’m one of those types of people. But that’s the bit I love. So, we have a strong design team, we have people who look after print, and they do a fantastic job. But I think to my, anything, right at the very beginning of the season I will develop a brief or come up with a story or come up with ideas and then I work that out with the, my Head of Marketing or Chief Marketing Officer and with the Head of Design. And we put that together and then the collection starts coming together from there.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And who is your customer or who are your customers?

Adam Brown: People expect you to give a certain age group, or a profession or a set of interests, so there’s isn’t really that. With all of our brands about a particular aspiration or a particular approach to life. I think you enjoy travel, you enjoy meeting people, you want to get out and about. You know, it’s not, all of our brands are not a sort of solitary brand in particular. You know we’re about holidays, we’re about going away with family and friends, seeing wonderful locations. It’s being in new countries, enjoying different cultures and food and dancing to different music. So, I think the customer has to embrace that type of life. So, whether they’re 22 or whether they’re 62, I sort of don’t care. You know, but they have to want to travel, they want to be with people. They have a certain enjoyment and aspiration to how they want to live their life, rather than age group. But we do have, you know, clearly internally we have these two customers a younger customer profile and an older customer and we laughingly sort of call them Miles and Giles and we refer to them constantly in everything we do. But I think much more it’s about the way you want to live your life. People who want to do that rather than being, this age, they live in these places, they do these types of things. That isn’t how we approach it.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And you mentioned briefly, you know, telling the story and storytelling because that’s such a bit part to the brand. How does story telling work itself into your collections? Like you say you’re Off Roader collection. Can you tell me how that works?

Adam Brown:   Well I [00:07:27] you know, I like a story, every since I was a kid I liked stories. My grandmother used to tell me stories when I was a child. You know, I’m not a designer, I didn’t try and set out as that. My big doubt, my thing I was always worried with OB, was the last thing anybody needs is just another rail of clothes. If we just think we’re selling product, then you have a far drier or cold relationship with the customer. If you, you know, you tell your friends stories when you’re out and about, when you’re at dinner, when you’re in the pub, when you’re doing whatever, relationships are built by telling stories. And I think if you can bring a product alive through a particular narrative then it makes it far more engaging for the customer than just trying to sell them, “Oh here’s another polo shirt that’s made like this and the fabrics this.” If you bring them some sort of idea about how it can be worn, what you’re doing, the type of emotion you’re having while you’re wearing it. To me, the big joy of all of our brand is the customer associates us with holidays. The greatest thing is when they, the customers say, the moment the holiday starts is when my drawstring bag goes into my suitcase. And the fact that people post pictures and they’re associating all of our brand with those particular moments in their life is a big joy. And the fact that we can bring that sort of narrative or story telling to a product, just makes it much more exciting for everyone concerned.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, of course, of course. And speaking of stories what was your personal big kind of ‘pinch me’ moment with the brand?

Adam Brown:   There have been many. They happen every few months and every year. I think the first one had to be getting into Selfridges and seeing the effects of, you know, okay so for 18 months or so I just worked from a small room, and I was selling as I could on the website. But getting into Selfridges and sort of seeing the peoples reaction to the product when you had large amounts of footfall and I used to go in every Saturday and probably [00:09:07] Sundays and I’d sit and watch customers and you’d talk to them. It was the first chance you had of sort of seeing your customer try on a pair of shorts, talk to them, what was wrong and okay, I wasn’t supposed to be on the shop floor, but I was, and I’d go and find, help, sell. And building a relationship, I built a relationship with the people who are selling the team on the floor. That was definitely the first time was like “Oh okay this might work.” Because you guys are different ages, different sizes, different characters, and personalities and you think, okay now that was a moment. I think the other one was definitely, you know the Bond moment was a big one for us in our fifth anniversary just seeing that effect of when a global franchise and that having international reach and seeing different countries which we hadn’t, people in different, customers in different countries who hadn’t really known about the brand before and seeing the opportunity and the possibilities that gave. There’s loads of them but those are two key early ones, I think.

Sorcha O’Boyle: So, the James Bond connection was Skyfall, for anyone who is listening and doesn’t know. Can you tell me how did that 007 connection come about. Did they reach out to you? Did you reach out to them? How did it happen?

Adam Brown:   I have no, it was pure chance, it really was one of those moments. Clearly pictures of Sean Connery or pictures of James Bond appear on I would imagine pretty much anywhere menswear, any menswear mood board, at some point. In the early days it would be the towelling references, all those sort of the towelling onesie and things like that, the sky-blue colour. All of those have been on the mood boards from the very beginning. So, it seemed very natural. But it was one of those moments where my understanding is Daniel Craig at some point was a customer and I don’t know whether that came about but it was pure chance, whether it was the stylist or whether it was him I’ve no idea. But we got a call, and we sent in some shorts and we’re lucky enough that our shorts were chosen.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Brilliant, yeah, fantastic and you’ve since done a number of 007 collections.

Adam Brown:   So, this is an ongoing relationship that we have, and it’s gone on for a few and it just feels instinctively right. We all do collaborations and some of them are good and some of them not so good. But I think the most successful ones are either the ones which they have to feel so fundamentally natural, they don’t feel forced, or they probably do feel very forced. The very successful ones are ones where you take either the both the collaborators or both the partner into different places and you see the brands in completely different ways. But with Bond and OB it just felt right. It’s not just because we had pictures on mood boards but the DNA, the values, the thing of what Bond is about, you know, humour, romance, travel, adventure, going to exciting places, embracing life and also like that thing about that Bond ultimately protects you. You know something about we have a five-year guarantee and trust and all those, so the alignment of the brand, the DNA of the brands felt right. And, you know, I think that thing of, you know, he’s British but he’s fundamentally international. You know that also was a big thing for OB. You know being proud of our Britishness but ultimately our ambition is far more global than that.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Absolutely and speaking of relationships, you know, that feel right and felt right can you tell me how your relationship with Chanel developed and what happened there?

Adam Brown: I’m going to sound like everything’s fluke, but that was a moment as well. So, I was at a trade show in Paris and I happened to meet the CEO of ARO’s who was a man who was interested in what we were doing. We’ve got on and they’re definitely parallels between all of our brands and ARO’s. ARO’s is a women’s swimwear brand and a similar price point and a similar ethos and a similar take on life. And we were tiny, absolutely tiny at that point and he suggested I met up with Bruno Pavlovski at Chanel and we had a coffee and it was a very nice meeting, nothing much and over the years it’s one of those things that periodically would drop an email and say we’re doing this or doing that or just keep in touch and a relationship built over a couple of years, five years and then just when we were planning to do something with the brand I reached out and I knew it, we managed to pull it together. So there wasn’t that intention at the beginning it was just something that happened, it was again, it sounds like one of those lucky meetings but it just was. I met somebody at the trade show who, a sequence of events happened after that.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And how has the Chanel acquisition changed your relationship with the brand?

Adam Brown: With my relationship to the brand?

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah.

Adam Brown: Well, nothing, it hasn’t changed my relationship. I’m still madly passionate about all of our brand.

Sorcha O’Boyle: But has it changed how the business operates or how you operate within the business?

Adam Brown: Yeah so, it’s definitely, businesses go through levels of professionalisation and growing up. I’m a founder who cares about the DNA, and the values, and the, you know, I believe longevity is built by being true to yourself and not just trying to flog people product. We have some sort of values and purpose, and you know, have a character, like a person. And with Chanel they clearly want to do things well. Chanel is one of the greatest brands in the world. They have real values and customer trust and all those sort of things. And all of our brand was also one of those things, at an age where you could have taken it in many directions. You could do eight dollar t-shirts and it would still be a beach and eight dollar swimming shorts and it would still be a beach and resort brand. I believe that Chanel would, want to take all our brand in the direction that I wanted it to be. That gives me confidence, but I think the ultimate thing it’s about professionalising and whether it’s expertise in other territories. Whether it’s legal advice or whether it’s support, whether it’s, you know, collaboratively working with other brands and the portfolio in particular AROs [00:14:10], you know, there’s things like that. But they have been remarkably supportive and everything we sort of wanted from a partner.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay so if you were to give advice then to somebody who was in your position, who’s kind of a small brand, who’s doing really well, looking for investment. What would you say to them? How should they position themselves?

Adam Brown: Investment goes back to that point of letting people in and finding the right people for you. Identifying what you want your business to be in 10, 15, 20 years’ time and as well as what you want to get out of it personally, the key to the type of investors that you approach. So, with us I had angel investors and that was me targeting a particular person who I thought was the right person for us. Saying no to people who you don’t think are right. Raising money is fundamentally not that difficult. If you’ve got a good product or a good service or you’re an investable person, it’s easy to get money. I said no twice, and one definitely was a, totally the right thing to do. The other one possibly. Don’t go for the easy money, think about the things your business needs to get done over the next four, five, six years. Find the right person who’s going to support with that and then also what would their ambitions be for the business. Because if their ambition is huge scale very quickly then you’ll do that in a different way to if it’s going to be nurtured and go at a certain pace. Investors and founders get across each other when they aren’t aligned on what their goals are for the next, three, five, seven years.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And just going back briefly to those times that you said no. What were the reasons you said no, was it just a gut instinct that you had? Was it?

Adam Brown: Yeah, there’s one where particularly clauses was being put in. When you have these meetings there’s always, you’re dating essentially. Everything is good when things are going well. If you’re a small business you’re going to have a lot of off days and things don’t go right and how do people react at those moments and what could the implications be for you or the team or for the business. And I think I just had particular doubts and I just thought they’re going to be great while things go right but probably not so great when things and for me that was just going to be more hassle in the long time and have wider implications. So, I’d rather just walk away from it now and find another partner who’d be a bit more nurturing and supportive or work with this us while things. I just had a gut feeling about it.

Sorcha O’Boyle: So, listen to your instincts is what you’re saying?

Adam Brown: Yeah, but to do that you have to be very clear going into those meetings what you want out, for the business and personally. It’s not a thing where I find founders are going down a journey which probably might not be the journey they want to be taken on because the investors have particular ambitions for a business, that they don’t marry up.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah absolutely. Well, that’s a common story, I think. And do you ever find it difficult to hand over parts of the business as it grows?

Adam Brown: Oh no, I’ve never had any problem with that. It was my happiest day when we got a CEO.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Really? Yeah.

Adam Brown: Yeah.

Sorcha O’Boyle: I think that’s really unusual.

Adam Brown: I do some sort of mentoring with small businesses, and I think the, one of the key learnings for me was about acknowledging what you’re good at and what you can do. And one of the reasons I think OB has worked is because of allowing other people in. Allowing other people close, allowing other people to make decisions. When about things I fundamentally don’t believe I understood. I don’t believe I’m every going to make the best decisions about warehousing or logistics or operations. It’s just not what I do. I was happy to get people in and relinquish control of things that I didn’t want to do. And I think that’s something we did well, we got the right people in.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And another thing that I’m interested to hear about, because you know, if you started in 2007 you’re kind of at the start of kind of ecommerce as we kind of know it now. But you’re one of those brands who’s managed to switch from an online only model to having, the wholesale and the stores presence as well. How did you do that? Did you get somebody in? Did you run it? How did it happen?

Adam Brown: Well in the early days it was just me for about three years, one other person helping. But I say you sort of did everything and I think when we launched there was two of us, there was Julia Simpson-Orlebar, hence where the name came from. But then it became, I took it on and very amicably. So, we started with the website, it cost about four or five thousand pounds to build. It was a website as to, you know, there’s no budget and it was an easy way to do it and it was a learning curve right from the very beginning. As you say ecom was in its infancy then it was nowhere near as understood as well but it was done and that’s where we launched. And I think, you know, I was plugging away at wholesale, I wanted us to be a wholesale brand, you know, I liked shops. I like bricks and mortar; I like going out on a Saturday and looking around the shops. And I think all of our brand always felt like it was going to be a wholesale brand. But that took a couple of years. Shop at Bluebird was our very first stockist and places like Colette, you know those rather sort of fashion, but directional stores but then Selfridges was the big first big department store. That took two or three years and we’re, if I’m honest here, you know, we didn’t have the margin in the beginning and we should have waited a while. The website was where we started, we knew the wholesale and clearly with retail again, I suppose it just felt right. It was about six years before we got our own, our first store. Again, these things just dipping your toe in and doing it slowly. We weren’t the type of brand that just did this massive launch into wholesale and this massive. It was, we grew quite organically so as you make mistakes, mistakes aren’t as big and that our approach rather than doing this huge ta dah moment. The website was great, you know the early days I’d go to the back of the website every day and see which orders hadn’t gone through and email the customers and started building relationships in that way as a rather hustle type mentality and doing all the customer service yourself meant that you could speak to people and hear when things went wrong, and when things didn’t go wrong. In the early days there just wasn’t a strategy. The website was what we could afford, we were learning on the job. We did an okay job but obviously we used it more of a customer relationship tool and the website was very clunky. Wholesale came quite naturally, quite quickly and retail followed on. It was always the ambition to be a multi-channel business.

Sorcha O’Boyle: One thing that I find interesting is, obviously a lot of your stores are in place like Mykonos or Ibiza, you know, those real kind of holiday destinations. How do you deal with the seasonality of those locations?

Adam Brown: Well, there’s two parts to that. One is how we manage the seasonality of the business, and the second part is the seasonality of those particular stores. And the seasonality of those particular stores you just have to budget those in because clearly Mykonos is not as busy in December and November and January. But they are those key resort areas, the places were our customers go to enjoy our product where they go on holiday are absolutely key for where we meet them and then we can try and build relationships with them from that point. So, whether somebody’s on holiday in Saint-Tropez or Ibiza or Miami or wherever it is, it’s worth it’s weight in gold to meet them at that point. You acknowledge that they’re going to be quieter at certain points of the year and you build those figures into your cash flows and all your budgeting. As to the business part of it I think right from the very beginning that’s been a question. What do you do in winter? What do you? But it’s always sunny somewhere. Some people travel the whole time. You follow the sun, you follow, you just take your marketing, and you try and, you know, very early on, when we got into Australia very early on and I think that was because English, we couldn’t translate the website so Australia and America were our obvious places to start and we started getting orders from Australia very quickly and clearly their summer is totally the opposite of us. So, you just start trying to talk, gear stuff to Australia and to America. But there are all sorts of other challenges. I’ve never held with that all of our brand is a seasonal brand because we’re categorically not and people travel so much, whether that’s right or wrong, but all of our brand is about holidays. We’re about going away and people, you know, whether it’s for two days or whether it’s for two weeks, people are travelling all year round.

Sorcha O’Boyle: And just touching there on sustainability as you did. I mean obviously it’s not even a buzz word anymore. But can you talk to me how you work in sustainability into the brand?

Adam Brown: Yeah, so years ago one of my key challenges or key issues with all our brand was to wear our product you have to get on an aeroplane, or you’re going into the oceans or you’re on a boat or whatever it is. But I still fundamentally believe, you know, I love the fact that we can enjoy other parts of the world. I love meeting other people; I love going to different towns. I love eating all of the food, just I believe we shouldn’t be, I think just embracing a wider world is a good thing. And I think anyone who is ignoring climate change and sustainability and not doing it is just wrong. So very, all those issues in the early, you know, three years in, so fifteen years ago. So, all those issues twelve, thirteen years ago were bubbling away. One of my regrets is that we didn’t build that in right from the very beginning. So I think if you build, especially in the early days to have a sustainable, to build a business based on sustainability you do it a certain way. You make decisions which allow you to do that and because we didn’t make those choices right at the very beginning and it niggled away and niggled way and then we did it later on, that presents it’s own challenges. So, we have embraced it, it’s been a long road. It’s been something we’ve talked about for twelve years. It’s over the last six, seven years we’ve been actively putting, we have targets in place. We measure our carbon footprint. Every product we can measure the carbon footprint of a particular whether it’s a swim short, or a t-shirt or a piece of knitwear and that’s readily available to the customer so they can see whether they’re eating a fruit salad or an ice cream sundae. We have targets about offsetting that clearly, then we’re trying to reduce the amount that we have to offset every year. But we’re very aware of it and so are the team. Everybody feels incredibly passionate about and it’s something we’re doing everything we can to do and obviously looking at things like B Corp and stuff like that for the future.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, of course. And you know looking to the future what are you looking forward to in the next twelve months or so.

Adam Brown: In the next twelve months, well for Orlebar Brown or for me?

Sorcha O’Boyle: Yeah, well either.

Adam Brown: Well, I think we’ve barely started. You know I look at Orlebar Brown and I just think we’ve barely started. People sort of talk about because the business is sold and stuff that’s the sort of end of it. But it isn’t, it’s just the sort of beginning. You know we’ve barely reached everyone who can buy a pair of Orlebar Brown swim shorts. There’s so many countries in the world that we haven’t even begun to start selling in. Whether it’s South America, or the Far East or we haven’t made any inroads. So, the opportunity there, the opportunity on other categories. We don’t do accessories, footwear. If you have the words holiday, why doesn’t Orlebar Brown do luggage or skincare or sun care and things like that. So just on all Orlebar Brown level. But also, I think this going back to your storytelling piece the way you bring a brand alive the way you bring a narrative alive. The way you start telling stories around this group of clothes or this product which makes it into a brand then I think that’s, we’re having lots of very exciting conversations there at OB.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay, so watch this space is what you’re saying.

Adam Brown: Yes.

Sorcha O’Boyle: Okay brilliant. Listen Adam that was super. Really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much.

Adam Brown: Thank you.

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