“chimp is what i know, it’s what i love & it’s where i feel at home” — mark bedford, the chimp storeBack
On the first floor of the Chimp Store in Thornton’s Arcade, we’re watching an expert fold shirts.
“The right way to fold a shirt?” says Mark Bedford. “Neat and tidy. Everyone has their own way of doing it, but they have to look crisp and sharp. Folding boards? Cheating. You’ve got to be good enough to do without.”
The Chimp Store has had a refurb, sweeping away the paisley rugs, taxidermy and chandeliers for a clean whitewalled look. “We wanted to let the clothes pop off,” says Mark. “Let the clothes do the talking.”
What doesn’t pop off in Chimp is Mark; he could have been customer or staff when we walked in, until he greeted us, and we recognised him: owner. Mark has been coming to work in Thornton’s Arcade, first to Hip and then to Chimp, for fourteen years, and whatever Chimp is, was, or could be, that’s what you’ll find at its core: Mark Bedford, walking up Thornton’s Arcade, ready to fold shirts and run the shop.
“We’ve been planning the refurb for a long time,” says Mark. “We freshened it up when we took over, but this was always the long term plan. We got a quote for it but that was way up high, so we thought, this is where it’s going to get interesting. We went back to the drawing board with materials, costs, a group of friends who were tradesmen.
“And then Andy Keir, who runs Curiosity Allotment. When I told him what I wanted he just knew, and me and Andy worked closely on it together; although the cabinet downstairs was Andy’s little baby. I said I wanted a big, glass cabinet — you do the rest. He came up with a great job.”
It feels like walking into a different shop — “People keep asking what we’ve done, as if we’ve pushed the walls back” — and that’s as true for Mark as for the customers.
“It does feel like starting again. It’s weird. The day we opened after the refit felt like the exact moment I got the keys after taking over. People were coming in going, ‘Is this a new shop?’ No, it’s still Chimp! We’ve just had a makeover! All the staff were involved in the refit, we all had some fun late nights working on it. It’s given us all a buzz.”
That Mark can measure his life by the moments when the keys went in the Chimp Store door lock underlines his pride in its walls, shelves and stairs, which is genuine and absolute.
“I was 25 when I opened it,” he says. “People said, is it scary? Is it intimidating? But the excitement just overweighed it all, I didn’t even think about it being scary. My mum and dad came to the opening party, and I was making them proud.
“I wasn’t great at school, and sixth form and university didn’t appeal, so I went out and started in retail at Next. And they teach you how to do it. Their customer service levels are some of the best in the business, and they taught me every aspect of retail. I remember it to this day, you had to sit in this room and watch videos about every aspect of being in the front of store.
“Then I worked at Hip for seven years, working up to buyer and manager. I put my all into it. I’m passionate about the clothing scene and the clothing world so to me it wasn’t like a job, it was like: I’m in it. I love it, I breathe it. And then this opportunity arose.
“It was funny, the most relaxed thing ever. Richard, who used to own it, came back from America and walked up the arcade as happy as Larry, shouting that if anyone wanted to buy Chimp, he was off to America. That night I gave him a call to see if he was serious, and the ball was rolling. A couple of meetings to sort things out and I had the keys.”
Since then Chimp has been about working hard; about details, about creativity; and some more about working hard. While the store is the flagship, it’s online where a lot of that work has paid off. Chimp have 33,700 followers on Instagram, and each image they see is a crisp and clean representation not only of an item of clothing, but of the Chimp philosophy of going further into the details than anybody else; and each image triggers a storm of likes and emojis.
“The shop was here, in a very popular arcade where you will always get footfall,” says Mark. “But we had to launch online ourselves, and we’ve put a lot of time and work into getting everything there right.
“We don’t have the funds that big corporate companies have. Everybody knows that: independents don’t. So we have to keep our heads above with our finishing touches, our eye for detail, and creativity that makes us stand out without having a big budget to go and spend money on a photoshoot. We do it all through creativity, rather than through money. You can have all the money in the world but it can’t buy you creativity.
“We push ourselves every day, every minute, thinking about how we can do something different to what everybody else is doing. Social media, especially Instagram, has changed how a lot of things work in our scene. It’s easy for a shop somewhere else to see what you’re doing and copy it, and we’ve had to send emails out to a few who have used our images. So our creativity is what makes us stand out from a rather large pack. I hate the thought of blowing our own trumpet, but down to every detail, we try to put a different image out there.”
That commitment to working harder and doing extra is appreciated by brands as much as customers.
“That’s always great to hear,” says Mark. “When you’re out on the road during buying season and brands are as excited as you are about how you’re representing them. They’re passionate about what they do, and when they see a shop that is just as passionate about it, then you’re both on the same side, and it’s nice to build relationships that way.
“We have that with CLSC. They’re a brand that were new to the UK that we’ve brought in and built up, and they really like what we do and how we represent their brand, and hopefully we’re going to work together on something in the future. That’s what we like, finding that brand we can have a bit of fun with, and it’s a great pleasure building a relationship and building a brand and seeing where it leads.”
“WE STILL BELIEVE”
The success of Chimp’s online profile ought to be the start of one kind of retail story, where the shop closes to save on high city-centre costs and goes where most money is. But Chimp are going the opposite way; one of the aims of the refurb is to bring the shop into line with online, so the two are seamless, and the Thornton’s Arcade store can develop.
“We still believe,” says Mark. “I’ve seen a lot of businesses like ours go online only, but I don’t want to do that. I believe in bricks and mortar, in shops. I love them, because you meet people.
“You could be serving someone who is bang into following us and following fashion, people who come in every week and tell us about new things and become friends that you have a pint with out of work. It’s a good community and I want to keep it that way.
“And then this morning we served a pensioner who saw a pair of the Asics Champagne metallic silver trainers in the window. She was just walking past and they caught her eye, she came in, tried them on and bought them. And that’s great.
“I went through a time when I had to be in the office a lot of the time, out at our warehouse; but I had to free myself up and get back on the shop floor. It’s what I know, it’s what I love and it’s where I feel at home.”
One of the communities that Mark is part of is a community that Leeds has been supporting over the last few years, of people for whom home is work because work is love. Mark and his brother Neil, a photographer and co-owner of Chimp, and Warren Jones of Mrs Atha’s Coffee & Tea House, all grew up together, and have all found success by putting their hearts into doing what they love doing. They’re not kids anymore, they’re serious grown-ups; but serious grown-ups who have achieved their goals without letting go of the youth-forged passions we all wish still burned as strongly within us.
“It’s good,” says Mark. “Everyone is doing what they want to do. Warren is doing coffee, which he loves. Neil’s gone all over the world with his passion for photography, and we inject that into how we do our photography at Chimp. Our photographer Ian has been with us for eighteen months and he’s developed at a phenomenal pace by watching Neil, by asking how he does things.
“Chimp is a close team, we’re not a ‘close the shutters, see you tomorrow’ place. I’m a young boss, so we’re all on Whatsapp and messaging and meeting up outside of work. We try to keep that, although it can be hard to be a friend and be a boss, but I hope I’m good at it. If the guys are doing their jobs then it’s relaxed. I don’t want to be on anybody’s backs, being patronising or sounding like a parent. I have all the trust in the staff otherwise I wouldn’t employ them, so they can crack on.”
As a young boss Mark can be indistinguishable from his staff or his customers, but running an expanding business, and simply growing up, means learning the rules to some different games. The more successful you are, the more meetings you have with bank managers; the older you are, the less the latest snapback fits with the school run. People like Mark, Neil and Warren have matured in the crucible of hard, constant work based on passion for, in Mark’s case, streetwear, and the adaptation maturity demands is expressed on the first floor at Chimp, where the white washes of the ground floor are joined by more dark wood and a different development of style.
“We’re heavily streetwear, and upstairs we’re trying to mature that streetwear,” says Mark. “We’ve taken some brands that are a bit more shirty, a bit more selvedge denim, smarter tops rather than baggy hoodies. Fedora caps, not always snapbacks and five panels. Footwear that crosses over from a trainer to a shoe.
“We have the age bracket that comes in and wants the graphic tees and graphic hoodies and trainers, and since we reopened we’ve noticed upstairs gets the slightly more mature customer who wants a shirt instead of a t-shirt for a night out.
“That guy still wants to wear what he feels comfortable in. If you wear streetwear, when you dress smart you still want to wear shirts that go with your streetwear. So we have jackets up here that you could wear with a nice flannel shirt from Portuguese flannel, or you could wear with a t-shirt from downstairs. Every brand we’ve brought in sits with every other brand we do, and allows you to wear it in a different way, which is the key.”
One of the other signs of Mark and Chimp’s growing maturity is his new-found but classic refuge from the realities of business life: golf.
“Golf! That comes from my accountant,” says Mark. “He was giving me some advice and suggested golf, because on the golf course you don’t think about anything else: you’re concentrating on your game.
“Business is twenty-four seven. When I go on holiday these days, it’s not a holiday, there’s still work to do. I’ve got a little daughter, but even on daddy daycare days with her, there are still emails to answer. There’s got to be a cut-off point where you decide: today I am having a day off. Today I am not going to check my emails.
“I get great support from my family, especially my wife, Zoe. She’s my rock; when I get home from a stressful day she’ll calm the situation down, asking every detail and coming back with some great advice. Zoe looks after our daughter when I have to be on the road buying and having late meetings, and she manages Westrow Hair Salon, so she has plenty of stresses of her own. But she always finds time to help me with mine. We’re a great team together.
“My dad has been an avid golfer all his life. He used to put me and brother in for lessons, but at the time we were like, this isn’t for us, we just want to play football. But I took that advice and have been out to the driving range a few times, and he’s right. You’re focusing on getting your swing right, on where the ball’s going, and it takes your mind off work, and those few hours not thinking about work are good, they refresh you. Next my dad’s going to take me to his golf course with my brother, we’re going to have a nine hole game out there together.”
What Mark is always thinking of, in business, is “Never sitting still. We’ve got to keep pushing forward. Our customers expect the next thing, and if we sit still we won’t last.
“We’re constantly researching online, going to trade shows, looking for inspiration, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Instagram has changed a lot of it. Now you can see what a shop in Australia is doing in a second, in the palm of your hand. Instagram gets checked more often than email; I follow every brand we stock and if they put something out that we haven’t heard about we can get a message straight over. They put it out, we see it within a minute, they’ll have a message within two minutes. ‘Chimp want some of this? We’ll let them have it.’
“Where we’re going next is an in-house brand for 2016. We’ve touched the surface with t-shirts and shoelaces before, and it would be easy to go out and get some t-shirts screenprinted without much thought. But this is going to be considered. I think people will expect that from us. I won’t say too much, but after all these years I like to think that between me and my brother, we’re in the right space to come up with something pretty special.”
It sounds ambitious, but note carefully what the ambition is: to come up with something special. To meet, and exceed, high expectations. Not to do the easy thing. Mark’s ambition is to work hard. That’s what sets Chimp apart.
“I want to keep doing what we’re doing,” says Mark. “For online to keep growing, and to keep introducing people to new brands from around the world. I could sit here and say I want to make a million, but as long as everything is okay and we are still involved in doing what we love, that’s my goal.”
And The Chimp Store stays.
“I’ve been working in Thornton’s Arcade for fourteen years. Without a break. Fourteen years walking up the arcade to work, it’s a long time. But I wouldn’t want to open another store and not be able to be there every day; I’d struggle because I’m hands on.
“And I wouldn’t want to move, because if you’ve been in the same place for a number of years it builds that confidence in the customer, that they’re going to come to Leeds, come to the same place, get the service they expect and go away as the same happy customer every time. I wouldn’t want somewhere bigger with more staff because it can change the dynamics, and I love the independent feel. This whole arcade has got the independent feel that I love, and I wouldn’t want to take myself out of that.”
We try to push Mark here. If he doesn’t want to make a million, and he doesn’t want a chain of shops, and he doesn’t want to move the store, what does he want? What’s the Chimp dream?
“The Chimp dream. Maybe the ultimate dream would be… maybe the ultimate dream would be this. I think the ultimate dream would be to walk up the arcade one day and see my daughter in charge. That would be a nice goal, to see Chimp progress within the family.
“And,” he says, laughing as he realises, “I’d still have a say!”
And he’d still be folding t-shirts, neat and tidy, crisp and sharp. All without a board. Because that would be cheating.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 30