“We need more indies”: Chesterfield independent clothes shop owner on surviving and thriving for 38 years

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
“The stock in this shop is a personal choice. It’s very hard to buy stock as a bean-counter. You’ve got to believe in it. If I’m selling it to somebody, I’ve got to believe in the product.”

Stuart Smith, owner of Zebra Menswear in Chesterfield, most definitely tells it how it is. And, his passion for what he does, is obvious: “I can’t sell something I don’t believe in”.

Zebra has been next door to the Winding Wheel since 1986, Stuart’s independent clothes shop surviving and thriving for 38 years. Stuart clearly knows what’s what. And when asked to choose one favourite style of outfit, his near outburst wears a grin.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“There’s no such thing as one style! You need a suit for a wedding and formal occasions. You need jeans for casual wear. You need an overcoat for when it’s cold. You need a padded coat for when it’s very cold.”

Stuart Smith, owner of Zebra Menswear, ChesterfieldStuart Smith, owner of Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield
Stuart Smith, owner of Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield

“You need a lightweight bomber jacket when it’s spring. You need cotton trousers when it’s sunny. You need shorts when it’s sunny. You need plimsols when it’s summer. You need socks. You need pants. You need the works! And that’s what we sell!”

We take a walk around the shop, Stuart underlining the quality of material and makes, an obvious pride in both stock and getting it right for the customer.

“They’re representing my shop when they walk out in their clothes. If you’ve just bought a new five-hundred pound coat from me, I want you to look the business. And if they look good, they’ll tell people they got it from Zebra.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Why Zebra? Stuart smiles. “The building, if you look outside, is black and white. One of my very earliest memories of this corner was a zebra crossing. I remember as a child, my mother pointing out to me, ‘It’s a zebra crossing this is’.”

Zebra Menswear, ChesterfieldZebra Menswear, Chesterfield
Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield

“This was the only unit we could get in 1986, because in the eighties most of the shops in town were taken. It was very difficult to get an empty shop, because nobody was closing down.”

66 year-old Stuart has been working in Chesterfield retail since he was 14. Considering some of the empty shops we see in town today, what needs to be done?

“It’s difficult. Because a lot of the rental properties, I believe, they’re owned by big corporations. So they’re just sitting on the property values, and not doing anything to develop them. Quite happy to leave them empty, year after year. Which is not good for the town. They don’t care.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“A lot of the good independents in town are all run by Chesterfield people. These aren’t big corporate faceless people, they’re personalities. I’ve seen so many big chain people come to the town, and after a few years if they don’t get those heavy returns they just close down and move on to somewhere else.”

Inside Zebra Menswear, ChesterfieldInside Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield
Inside Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield

“The indies are good for the town. We need more indies. But a lot of the units that are vacant are too big for independents. And they’re waiting for the corporate boys to move in, and they’re not going to take them over because they’ve got their own agendas with the out of town retail parks.”

Stuart talks of how indies create a remarkable opposite to competitiveness, referencing other menswear indies in town.

“It’s a big industry the clothing business. There’s room for a lot more shops in Chesterfield. I don’t want to be the only shop in Chesterfield, I want to be one of half-a-dozen. We can all offer different things.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I have got rivals in the town. A couple of shops on Chesterfield high street have pitched their wares, selling luxury shoes, and that’s great. With these shops, people from out of town come to Chesterfield. No point just being a one trick pony.”

Casual wear in Zebra Menswear, ChesterfieldCasual wear in Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield
Casual wear in Zebra Menswear, Chesterfield

“If I was living in Matlock, Bakewell, Dronfield, I’d want to come into Chesterfield to see a range of products and independent shops. And we need to hang on to these indies. And we need to grow them. It’s what will bring prosperity and affluence into the town.”

Stuart sees indie as an opportunity for difference, as opposed to the go-to stock of a fashion chain store.

“They go with the bankers, so certain brands are the cash-cows. Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, that have been well established for a long time. But because they’re in these stores it means that some of these more niche products aren’t.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s the niche products that the independent store should be picking up and promoting. There are so many good suppliers out there… The thing is, the fashion industry allows an independent to thrive because we can put our own personal take on it.”

And does Stuart see clothing as an echo of self? “In my case, every day is a dressing up day. Because if you’re standing in front of a customer, you’ve got to look your best. Saturday is suit day. I just feel that as the owner of the business, to look exactly what you’re selling.”

“You’re representing the look and style and trying to offer some pointers. But you can’t cater for everybody. You can’t please everybody. It’s impossible. As long as you please enough people, then you’ve got a viable business.”

From a teen working at Some Kinda Mushroom in Chesterfield, to a 28 year-old working at town’s Geoffrey Davis clothes shop then deciding to do his own thing, inspired by the trends cultivated by the “glam fashion” Sheffield music scene of the eighties, Stuart’s Zebra Menswear of 38 years is certainly a “viable business”.

So, what’s the secret to his success? Stuart laughs. “I might be good at what I do… but nobody ever says that.”

38 years and still going might say so.