From humble beginnings selling T-shirts from a van, Walsall lad Luke Roper’s designs have gone global. He tells Shelley Carter his remarkable success story
Designer and local lad Luke Roper is a self-confessed ‘man’s man’ with a repertoire of blokey hobbies. When he put his name down to study textiles at school it was a bit leftfield at the time. In his trademark Brummie lilt, Luke says: “Admittedly I was the only lad studying textiles, but I never got teased because I was also a man’s man. I was sporty – on the football team and the cricket first eleven, so it was all good.” He stuck with it and today his menswear brand Luke Roper 1977 is firmly established in the UK with five stores dotted around the country, plus 65 outlets in the US and five stand-alone shops set to open in the Middle East. Luke’s expansion at a time when other good brands are failing is remarkable. His secret – good old fashioned hard graft and self-belief.
Luke’s mother was a wedding dress maker, so there was always a sewing room in the house. Luke started sewing aged 10 and was a natural. “I really took to it. It was something I could do well,” says Luke. He made his first shirt at 12 and as a teenager found inspiration in his friends as he started making clothes for them. “In the early Nineties you had to be much smarter to go clubbing than you do now. Me and my mates couldn’t afford the clobber, so I used to make clothes for us to go out in,” he adds. Getting into Central Saint Martin’s College in London was a big deal for Luke. He initially says he was ‘lucky enough to get a place’ and then sweetly corrects himself: “Actually it wasn’t luck. The competition for places was tough and I had to prove my worth.” Despite loving the course, Luke spent almost every weekend back in Brum with his friends and family and never contemplated staying in the capital post-graduation. “I spent five or six weekends in London over the three years. Birmingham was on the cusp of great things and it was an exciting place to be,” he says.
Luke launched Luke Roper 1977 in 2001 with his business partner and great friend, Simon Poole with designs of three printed T-shirts in the back of his brother’s van. They lived hand-to-mouth for the first five or six years and when they got to the position of renting premises, they had to ‘jump the lease’ a few times in order to keep the business going. Of these tough times Luke says: “We just believed in it and kept going. I can’t be complacent though. The industry has lost a lot of good brands over the past couple of years which is sad. We’ve managed through the recession by running a tight ship, working hard and keeping overheads low.” Luke is hands-on at every stage of the business which is key to its success. Aside from his friends, Luke’s travels also provide inspiration. “I’m lucky enough to be able to spend time in the Far East and I pick up things like the detail and the colour there. It’s amazing,” he says. A collection takes a year from an initial idea to the shop floor, so he’s always 12 months ahead of himself.
Many high profile celebrities have been pictured wearing Luke’s clothes from a range of genres including acting, footballing and TV presenting, but he’s not fazed by it. “You know it’s nice when well-known faces wear my clothes and it’s great PR, but I like seeing the average working man wearing them. It pleases me. I don’t design for celebrities, but for the everyman.” The term work life balance is bandied about a lot, but has Luke achieved this Holy Grail? “Not at all! I have a very supportive and understanding wife and two great kids. I work far too much, but I love it so it doesn’t feel like work. My aim for 2014 is to have more of a balance, though.” For the past two years he and his wife Tracy, also Luke’s PA, have been renovating a farmhouse in Worcestershire which was almost derelict. “It was completely rotten, so we’ve started from scratch really. It’s been hard work but totally worth it. I love the countryside.” Relaxing for Luke means spending quality time with Tracy and the kids, a pint in the pub or a spot of fishing.
Luke’s immediate and extended family is inextricably linked to Birmingham and he’s incredibly proud of his Walsall roots. The Jewellery Quarter has particular appeal for Luke because family members had businesses there when he was growing up and his first job was in the JQ. “I really hope the development of all the beautiful old buildings into flats stops and they leave some of them as they are. It will lose some of its charm otherwise,” he says. Luke’s not adverse to all the changes in the city though. He enthuses: “it’s such an exciting time again for Birmingham. The next 10 years will be fabulous for the city. It’s filled with positivity right now.”