With its Instagram-worthy phone cases and sassy slogan bags, London-based accessories brand Skinnydip speaks to a specific sub-set of Internet cool girl, following her idols Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus, who have all been spotted toting Skinnydip’s wares. Which makes the identity of the label’s founders all the more incongruous. For Skinnydip, which operates out of a four-storey, pastel pink office in Primrose Hill, is the brainchild of brothers James and Richard Gold and their Immanuel College school chum Lewis Blitz.
“We keep a relatively low profile,” admits James who, at 31, is the oldest of the trio (younger brother Richard is 29 and Blitz is 30). “It’s such a girly, feminine, empowering brand, it would be weird if we were kind of front and centre as part of it.”
Instead, the boys let the brand take centre-stage. So much so, Gold reveals, that the trio “treat Skinnydip like she’s a person with a personality” right down to analysing “her” likes and dislikes. “We’re constantly redrafting the company bio,” Blitz explains. “Who is she? What’s her favourite music? What’s her favourite restaurant? What’s her favourite food? We talk about that to understand who she is and what she’s all about.”
Skinnydip wasn’t always such a diva. The label’s first home — above a derelict warehouse in Wembley— was a far cry from her current pad, which boasts one wall covered entirely in sequins and a pink Ping-Pong table in the kitchen. The brand first launched in 2010 when Blitz and the Gold brothers — then a few years out of Birmingham University and looking to start their own business — spotted a gap in the market for stylish iPhone covers, an accessory that, at the time, was viewed as purely functional rather than a fashion statement. Despite lacking both manufacturing experience and customers, the boys flew to a technology expo in Hong Kong armed with some hastily drawn sketches cobbled together by Blitz, a philosophy graduate, and proceeded to speak to every factory on the floor. “We dressed up in suits,” Blitz laughs, recalling the trip. “We were absolute morons.”
“They thought we were nuts,” James agrees.
Once back home, the trio repeatedly cold-called retailers until finally a buyer at high-street fashion brand River Island invited them in for a meeting. “We had driven her so nuts that she was like, just come in for ten minutes,” James remembers. She agreed to take a small product run. “I remember us leaving the office and thinking, ‘well, how are we actually going to get it made’, which was the next challenge.” It was one they met by getting involved in almost every stage of production, down to unloading boxes off the lorry and sticking on carton labels. Today, by contrast, Skinnydip boasts more than 200 employees, including 60 at head-office alone, and the trio have broadly divided their managerial responsibilities — James looks after sales and production, Richard retail and concessions, and Blitz marketing and ecommerce — although they still “get involved in everything”, says Richard.
Although the brand has been around for eight years, there are two seminal moments in Skinnydip’s young life that, all three agree, have shaped the label today. The first was a 2012 appearance on Dragons’ Den that has been all but airbrushed from the Internet. Despite applying as a joke — the trio used to role play being on the show after their endless rounds of cold calls — they scored a £120,000 investment from Peter Jones. Ultimately, however, they turned it down. “The three of us like being in control of our own destiny,” James explains. “And the thing with Dragons’ Den is you are essentially signing up to a boss.” The experience did, however, give them a new vision for the brand, “the birth of modern-day Skinnydip,” as James puts it, which included a deliberate retreat into Skinnydip’s shadow (hence the attempt to scrub any evidence of the trio’s 15 minutes of fame from the net). “She wouldn’t go on Dragons’ Den,” James says earnestly.
The other moment, the following year, was scoring a concession stand in Topshop, which came about after the trio accosted Arcadia CEO Ian Grabiner, not at some boozy fashion week party but a Norwood charity dinner. Grabiner “couldn’t have been nicer”, says James, and agreed to put them in touch with Topshop’s buyers.
After three years of selling wholesale, however, a concession stand felt like a “huge risk”, Blitz admits. It was only when they hit their week’s sales target in a day, however, that the three quickly realised the advantage of being able to control product placement. “When we had that — our destiny in our own hands — it proved to be a lot more successful,” explains Blitz. “Because we weren’t being watered down in any way.”
The proof is in Skinnydip’s rapid growth. In less than five years, one concession stand has turned into 250 in Topshop stores from Israel to Los Angeles, and been joined by almost 20 standalone Skinnydip boutiques in locations from Carnaby Street to New York, as well as Brent Cross, where the trio’s families often stop by to give feedback.
The brand has also expanded into handbags, beauty, jewellery, and sunglasses and, earlier this month, launched a nail bar in the basement of their Covent Garden store. “We always have to be one step ahead of everyone else,” Blitz explains. “Because, yeah, we got in at a really good time, we saw a gap in the market, but within a year or two there were loads of companies that were doing tech accessories and trying to sell them into fashion retailers.”
“It’s not a case of just putting any print on to a phone case,” he adds. “It’s about taking inspiration from what’s going on on the catwalks, actually employing a real design team that know what they’re talking about, and always pushing boundaries.”
A philosophy that Skinnydip, were she actually around to give input, would no doubt appreciate.