louise & martin schneiderBack
You can tell that, when they think about it, Louise and Martin Schneider miss the early days of Accent. But it’s not nostalgia, or a desire to go back.
“That was a little goldmine, that shop,” Martin says, almost as if he can’t believe it now.
“We sold so much per square metre, it was unbelievable,” says Louise. “We even had a message from our accountant at the time, who said, I know that people are investigating you because they think that you’re money laundering. We were selling so much out of that unit it was untrue.”
“It was tiny,” says Martin. “We only had a few staff, and the rent and rates weren’t a lot of money. So it was a little goldmine. But to be honest, if we hadn’t moved into the big store, I think we’d have been swallowed up by now.”
Accent has been through many changes since then, adding a Kids store and then a Ladies store over in Victoria Quarter, before bringing them all back in one huge — compared to the first — shop in Queens Arcade. But it has never been swallowed up. And it will only ever have one first shop, that Martin opened just before Easter 1984, with Andrew Rockcliffe. Andrew had worked for a brewery, and got a good deal for one of their fitters to do out the new shop.
“We thought it looked like a Paul Smith shop,” says Martin. “But it probably did look a bit more like a pub.” But even if it was accidental, that set the tone for Accent for the next thirty years and more.
“I remember in the changing rooms they had bar stools,” says Louise, laughing. “Going into Accent at that time was a bit like going into your local pub. There were people hanging around, they may be playing cards, they were definitely smoking, possibly a beer. It was just a gathering place for people in Leeds.”
Louise has her own memories of the early days of Accent, when, freshly returned to Leeds from modelling assignments in Tokyo, she was signed up for the catwalk at one of the fashion shows Martin’s new business partner Steve Hakin used to organise, packing out the Warehouse or Mr Craig’s.
“You said there weren’t enough dressers, and I totally believed you,” she tells Martin. “I looked at you and I thought, do I trust him? Or do I think he’s a lech? And you had this really serious persona, so I thought no, he’s alright. How naive!”
“And then I didn’t see you for a couple of years after that, did I?”
Louise smiles, perhaps remembering the slow pace of events that can change entire lives. “Poor you,” she says.
Louise and Martin did see each other again, and married, and ran the business together, and had children, and now those children work at Accent — the next generation. Given every chance by Louise and Martin to choose their own careers, they chose Accent.
“I just hope they can get thirty years out of it, too,” says Martin, and if they do, it’ll be because thirty years were already put into it.
“To do what me and Andrew did in ‘84,” says Martin, who has seen independent businesses open and close and open and close up and down the arcades for years. “Absolutely impossible. Not a chance.”
Instead it’s down to Accent not only to become a focus for the next generation of Schneiders, but a place where young, local fashion designers can get a shot at selling without leaving the city. It lends its name and that expertise to young designers like Tomoto, Rebecca Rhodes and Humblekind, whose sixteen year old proprietor sells his t-shirts in the store himself, learning the trade from the best.
“It takes a certain person to fit in,” says Martin. “Working on the shop floor is the best life skill ever, because if you can sell, you can always work. For me that’s the best part of the job, getting the product in and making people look good. It’s still a meeting place. I don’t need to go out to socialise, I do it every day.”
That’s why when Martin and Louise talk about the old days, and the old shop, going to nightclubs every night, a young Gary Speed hanging around before he was a star, fixing up his teammates then joining them for a night in Mr Craig’s after Eric Cantona scored his Charity Shield hat-trick, and kicking off brands like Liberto, Diesel, Replay and G-Star, it isn’t nostalgia, or a wish that the old days were back.
It’s because those things are all still part of Accent, right now; still home to the biggest jeans wall in the north, still giving space to new designers, still independent, and still trusted to deliver on its promise to its customers; customers who are more like friends.
“We have enough stock to make anybody look good,” says Martin. “So that’s the staff’s remit — make sure you do it.”
And enjoy life while you do. ••
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion