Since 2020, major retail stores, some dating as early as 1888, have filed for bankruptcy. COVID-19 has been blamed for the accelerated closure of such businesses, but the end was inevitable for others. Not even Thomas Pink that has served us since 1984 could escape the wrath of the pandemic. However, even before COVID-19 struck, sales had been declining, and losses had been reported. Before we delve into the details of why legendary shirtmaker Thomas Pink closed shop, let’s take a trip down memory lane and reminisce on how three brothers founded it and sold it for millions in 1999
Taking Advantage of Market Opportunities Leads to Thomas Pink
For John, James, and Peter Mullen, shirt-making was not a new phenomenon; they had watched their father run a shirt-manufacturing factory in Dublin. However, they were not interested in following the same path. Therefore, James studied law at Trinity College in Dublin before graduating with a business degree from University College Dublin. As they observed the market, they noticed a lucrative business opportunity. Young people working in London had to don suits, but they could hardly afford costly formal wear. As a result, the brothers decided it would be best to offer substandard formal wear so they could beat Jermyn Street shirt-makers. However, they changed their strategy after realizing they needed to attract and maintain customers. As James told the Irish Times, one look at the prototype shirt and they knew that cutting corners to beat the competition was not necessary; instead, they needed another strategy. They had observed that the shirt-makers in Jermyn Street made quality shirts but never advertised their products. Therefore James and his brothers decided to make good shirts but at pocket-friendly prices then promote them. They even sought the help of the family factory, but since the staff was used to producing in bulk, the shirts did not meet the standards of the Mullen brothers. They were patient enough to teach the team how they wanted the products to be made. Since they had cotton from Lancashire mills and labor, all they needed was a good business name.
The Birth and Sale of a Legendary Store
The Mullen brothers knew of Pinks, a tailor who made the best hunting wear. Thus Thomas Pink was born, and the first shop opened in 1984 in Chelsea backwater, strategically located across a popular cinema. Lancashire mills shut down shortly after, and the brothers had to source their cotton from Egypt or Sudan then have it spun and woven in Italian mills. By 1997, they had taken over the shirt market in the UK and were looking to pay tribute to their hometown by opening the first Irish store in Dublin’s Dawson Street. Their primary location had also changed to Jermyn Street, where the competitors they had been so worried about at the beginning could hardly attract the number of people that Thomas Pink had on its client list. James explained that the success was because even if their stores were not on primary locations, they had done the groundwork of advertising; thus, customers knew what they wanted and where they could find it. The brothers expanded the market and provided a range of products at affordable prices. Since James’ father never understood what the fuss was all about regarding shirt-making, he expected the brothers’ business to shut down, but instead, they kept soaring. By 1999, they had 20 stores, including one in New York’s Madison Avenue and 13 in the UK. Consequently, the brothers sold a 70% stake to LVMH for about €48 million, and according to Independent, sold the remaining 30% in 2003.
Thomas Pink Closes Shop
In 2003, LVMH had sales worth $13.58 billion, an increase of 3.8% from the previous year. The company, therefore, went on a buying spree of leading brands, among which was Thomas Pink. According to The New York Times, LVMH planned to expand Thomas Pink retail store chain to Europe and the United States. In 2016, they added a new dress shirt range, and the global CEO, Jonathan Heilbron, remarked that Thomas Pink’s customers are movers and shakers with a strong work ethic and high standards of dressing. He added that the price and range of shirts ensure that everyone’s needs are addressed regardless of where they are in the chain of command. Unfortunately, the company started experiencing a downfall even before it shut down. In 2018, Fashion Network reported that the firm had years of falling sales; hence they rebranded to Pink Shirtmaker and refocused on men’s shirts that sold for between £120 and £160. Not even the change of name could save the company as the financial year ending in December 2018 showed an operating loss of £23.5 million ($32.3 million).
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and people stopped reporting to work, the need for formal wear declined; thus, demand for the shirts decreased. The sure sign that all was not well was the closure of the flagship store on Jermyn Street in August 2020. Besides, as the lockdown order was enforced and travel restrictions implemented, the Thomas Pink stores in airports lacked customers, and they eventually closed. However, as Telegraph published, the pandemic is not entirely to blame because the starched shirts that were once a status symbol had also experienced a steady decline in demand. The uncertainty led to the public speculating that LVMH was trying to sell Thomas pink. Thus, even private equity firms wanted to bid for the assets. LVMH even shut down its social media platforms and website but assured customers that it would be back soon. They explained that they had to return to their roots and needed to work out a few things. In March 2021, Thomas Pink was reportedly ready to return after LVMH sold the brand to Nick Preston, former JD Sports executive. The deal, however, is for the intellectual property and not the shops or the website. Consequently, a new website to relaunch the brand is in the works, and a new company Thomas Pink Shirtmaker was registered in Delaware. Since then, LVMH has declined to comment on the matter.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee