Julian Dunkerton: from barrow boy to street-style guru

Ex-barrow boy Julian Dunkerton built up his clothing company, Superdry, from scratch. Now it's one of the fastest-growing firms on the stockmarket.

A few years ago, Julian Dunkerton sent David Beckham a jacket on the off-chance of getting the Becks stamp of approval for his Superdry label. The leather coat was duly worn and judged such an instant winner that Primark had a knock-off out in weeks. As the new meister of street-style cool, Dunkerton, 45, has now "pulled ahead of David Beckham himself", says The First Post. Having more than doubled his fortune to £170m in the past year, he's the biggest British-born riser in the 2010 Sunday Times Rich List.

Not bad for a man who started out on a market stall at 19, flogging drainpipe jeans and granddad shirts. Now though, as he told The Sun, "we have stores in every continent apart from Africa,

and they're going like a steam train".

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Until recently, Dunkerton deliberately kept a low media profile, but the success of Supergroup's March flotation and the endorsement of celebrities from Jude Law to teenage heartthrob Zac Efron seems to have loosened his inhibitions.

"We could literally be the fastest growing company on the whole stockmarket. It's like the floodgates have opened," he says. Critics might detect an element of hubris. But Superdry is considered such a strong brand, in such a strong market segment (see below), that many analysts consider his ambition achievable, says The Guardian.

Dunkerton might have made his name selling urban cool, but he's a countryman at heart. Despite its meteoric rise, Supergroup is still headquartered in the less than edgy environs of Cheltenham. On first impressions, he comes across as "laid back, almost aloof", observes Retail Week. But he likes to operate in the thick of his business. "He is on the floor and involved on a daily basis when many other people in his position would be on a yacht or, in his case, up to his waist in a river fishing," says his partner and design director, James Holder.

Dunkerton's "epiphany moment" came early in life with the realisation that "I was the only kid in school with a pair of winklepickers". After leaving school with three E-grade A levels, he started making trips to London, lugging back binbags full of clothes on the train to sell locally. Soon after, he moved to Cheltenham to set up Cult Clothing with a school friend, funded by a £2,000 loan and a £40-a-week government enterprise grant. They expanded to six shops, but fell out. "He said I was a megalomaniac," recalls Dunkerton. "But I realised that unless you had power you would be lost." In 2003, he formed Superdry with Holder and never looked back.

Great wealth hasn't altered Dunkerton's perspective on life. "I'm going to buy my Dad some more land for apple trees and my brother a house," he said on Supergroup's flotation. It's growing the business that excites him most. "Money itself doesn't interest me. I collect shops. That's what I do."

How Dunkerton became king of the barrow boys

It was going to be the year of the "barrow boys", says Maurice Chittendon in The Sunday Times. The founders of Supergroup, Matalan, and New Look all started their businesses on market stalls and all intended to float them this spring. Yet only one Julian Dunkerton actually made it to market. How come?

"Debt," says The Guardian. Matalan is in hock to the tune of £261m. New Look, which is controlled by private-equity groups Permira and Apax Partners, had hoped to raise £650m from the markets to pay down some of its £1bn debt until fund managers got cold feet. For many such private-equity owned businesses, an initial public offering was little more than a "last-get-out-of-jail card". As far as the weight of City opinion was concerned, only debt-free Supergroup (which has grown to 41 stores in Britain and 27 overseas) was selling a genuine growth story.

As Dunkerton says: "It's taken us 25 years to get to this point to prove the model. It's there, it's ready and it's scaleable." Dunkerton, who describes himself as "an old leftie Guardian reader", had always bridled at being cast alongside these cheap fashion rag-traders anyway. The Superdry brand is positioned to compete against youth labels Abercrombie & Fitch and Jack Wills although, with its Japanese street styling, it arguably has more of an "uber-cool" ethos than its preppier rivals.

Either way, the "hoodies brigade" can't get enough of it, says The Daily Telegraph. The youth market has held up remarkably well during recession: SuperGroup sales rose 87% to £76.1m in its latest financial year. But as the chain expands, can it maintain its "red-hot" cachet in a fickle market? Clearly, you have to remain "inventive", says Dunkerton. But ultimately nothing beats a nose for the business. "My knowledge in this industry is second to none. I have lived and breathed [it] since I was 19. Who else out there has done that?"