How Boden beat the High Street: Started 30 years ago by an Etonian ex-banker, it’s defied the fashion fads that destroyed so many rivals – thanks to the yummy mummy army that’s made it a £300m survivor
- Boden has gone from strength to strength and is celebrating its 30th birthday
- It was given the stamp of approval by the Duchess of Cambridge back in 2019
- Boden was founded by Old Etonian former City banker Johnnie Boden in 1998
- Currently valued at £300 million, it thrived as sales of other labels plummeted
Surely it was the moment Johnnie Boden, who put a generation of mums in striped Breton tops and Capri pants, must have punched the air.
After years of wearing his eponymous brand for casual occasions, the Duchess of Cambridge gave Boden the stamp of approval by wearing it for her family’s 2019 Christmas card.
There she was, posing with her husband and three children, in a £60 Aurora Midi Wrap Dress. It sold out online almost immediately.
I admit I have been critical of the Duchess’s Boden look in the past. I once called Kate ‘a catalogue queen’. Ouch!
After years of wearing Johnnie Boden’s brand for casual occasions, the Duchess of Cambridge gave Boden the stamp of approval by wearing it for her family’s 2019 Christmas card
Yet Boden has continued to go from strength to strength, and is celebrating its 30th birthday — no mean feat in these days of failing brands, empty High Street stores and fast-fashion hawkers online.
The reason for Boden’s success is that it was never meant for people like me, a fusspot fashionista with more money than sense. It’s not meant to be worn in limos, with heels you can’t walk in.
It’s meant for women like Catherine; women with busy lives, lots of bending down to tie laces, small legs wrapped around waist.
It’s meant for women — and men, of course, like David Cameron and Boris Johnson — who don’t obsess over what to wear off-duty, they just want to look crisp but relaxed, ready-to-hop-on-a-boat fresh.
Founded in Johnnie Boden’s kitchen in 1991, amid scepticism that an Old Etonian former City banker could ever succeed in the world of fashion, just eight menswear items were initially made.
But soon he took on womenswear and childrenswear — and mums across Britain are thankful he did.
Boden has continued to go from strength to strength, and is celebrating its 30th birthday — no mean feat in these days of failing brands
2010s: The hiring of sultry supermodel Helena Christensen scared Boden woman, whose role model is more Mary Berry (Boden is wholesome, not sexy). The sheer floral blouses were pretty, if impractical
It’s not just yummy mummies who have fallen prey to Boden. Millie Mackintosh (left in a Mariam dress, £240) and Lorraine Kelly (right in a cotton cardigan, £65) both wear it
Boden was a less twee and overtly Sloaney Laura Ashley. Even if you live in Luton, you can still dress as though you own fishing rights.
And the fabulously funky Mini Boden was the final nail in the coffin of Baby Gap; I’d go through childbirth just to buy the ultra-cute rainbow-waisted marl shorts.
Boden wows in the U.S. too, where a third of sales are made.
Johnnie also cleverly predicted our current mania for casual. And, boy, did that pay off in lockdown.
Currently valued at £300 million, why has it survived — thrived! — as sales of other labels such as Gap, J. Crew, Banana Republic and M&S have plummeted?
Well, for one, the quality has never been compromised: everything keeps its colour no matter how many times you wash it, and doesn’t bobble or shrink.
Two, it hasn’t fallen into the expensive vanity project so beloved of High-Street brands: the designer collab.
Most importantly, and unlike M&S, Boden knows its customer: she doesn’t want the twiddly bits found in Per Una, but is no frump.
The brand has also never become naff; teens are unashamed to wear it. Boden is for teens too, and the reason they like it — the striped cashmere, the long shorts — is it’s fairly anonymous.
They wear it oversized, so it screams festival chic. New trends are added each year — the print tea dress and print Capri pant, for example — but aren’t catwalk-driven.
What we want is great khaki, knits, denim that doesn’t shout: ‘I’m a fashion victim!’ The Boden customer would rather spend money on good wine. Or property.
Johnnie Boden, now 60, also predicted very early the demise of the High Street; yummy mummies are too busy to park and browse, they hate trying things on with a pram and enduring the sweating frenzy that can be the fitting room.
2020s: The 30th birthday collection is just glorious. It’s all about a tea dress worn with wellies, never going back to the office and enjoying the great outdoors. The new Boden mum shares clothes with her leggy teen daughter and isn’t stuck inside cooking
However, although the majority of Boden’s trade is now online, the catalogue remains perennially popular with 56 million sent out each year, 13 million in the UK
Hence, it began as a catalogue, and was ahead of the curve by selling online in 1999, with a user-friendly and aspirational website.
However, although the majority of Boden’s trade is now online, the catalogue remains perennially popular with 56 million sent out each year, 13 million in the UK.
Johnnie says: ‘I would love it if the catalogue were to go because it’s bloody expensive, but people still bloody love it.’
There are just two bricks and mortar stores (Park Royal just off the M40 in West London and the flagship King’s Road store).
ALL THANKS TO JOHNNIE’S GO
The brand owes its name to founder Johnnie Boden.
Known for his attention to detail, he even labels teapots according to how many cups they hold. So it’s no wonder the Boden family, which owns 65 per cent of the business, boasts a £335 million fortune.
Boden was founded in Old Etonian former City banker Johnnie Boden’s kitchen in 1991
Johnnie, a father of three, began Boden after a failed career in finance.
His break came unexpectedly when an inheritance enabled him to quit his job.
Fashion might appear a curious career path for a former member of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club.
But Johnnie had covered his walls at Eton with images from Vogue and became men’s fashion editor of a teenage edition of Harpers & Queen aged 17.
First was the menswear collection in 1991. Womenswear came a year later when he realised the margins were better. Mini Boden was born in 1996.
Boden now has 1.9 million customers. Johnnie is creative director, leaving the management of the 1,200-strong workforce to his executive chairman and chief operating officer, while he ‘jollies everybody along’.
And John Lewis sells a limited range.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Its tendency to play it safe once gave Boden a reputation for being frumpy and unfashionable.
In 2012, profits dropped after even devotees — its core market is 35 to 50-year-old middle-class women — criticised it on parenting website Mumsnet for being ‘smug’, ‘overpriced’ and ‘twee’.
There have also been design fails. Johnnie once admitted a peplum top had been an ‘absolute disaster’. ‘Not flattering,’ he said. ‘They make your hips look big.’
But then came a resurgence; slicker advertising, limited-run collections and a keener eye for trends.
They brought in more striking styles, dialled back on garish prints and even stepped up to supermodels — although there was a backlash when Helena Christensen headed its 2012 ad campaign. Customers thought her ‘too sexy’.
The brand is celebrating its birthday with a capsule collection.
The Best Of Boden has updates of its greatest hits: the Kathryn jumper with a bigger collar. Cord jeans cut wider and slightly more relaxed.
The Hollie jacket (£150) is made — you guessed it — with recycled polyester.
There are new designs, too: I love the Mariam print dress, £240 (each item is named after a long-standing member of staff. Many stay for years).
The collection ranges from £55 for a crew-neck top, to nearly £300 for a lovely, almost 1970s velvet coat. And Breton stripes do feature.
The new face of Boden is a great choice, too: Jean Campbell, an earl’s daughter who first modelled for the brand aged four.
The campaign manages to evoke Scottish castles and shooting parties, without any actual bloodshed.
Prices have risen over three decades, of course.
Johnnie knows his customers are not likely to be the kind of people who would trample a child to land a £9 cashmere sweater in Primark (Boden cashmere is well over £100. Rightly so).
Boden devotees don’t want to feel they are squeezing the lifeblood from garment workers as, above all, if you wear it, you must be nice.
Otherwise, what’s stopping you from abusing its practically unique 365-day return policy?
Above all, Boden is a great British success story, a fashion brand where fashion is never allowed to become faddish or get in the way of a bracingly good walk.
It even has a For Doing Outside Stuff section. Even I am slightly swayed by the navy, mustard and tangerine waterproof mac at £150. All I need now is a great big yacht.
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