IT’S hard to imagine less likely antecedents. Andy was a milkman; his younger brother Duncan worked for the family waste management business. Both had a deep and genuine love of fashion and, one day, they decided to open their own shop.

That was almost 23 years ago and now Aphrodite, a flagship store in the heart of Sunderland, lives up to its mythological title. It employs around 35 staff, who work both front of house and behind the scenes on the website, and customers come from all over the region and beyond. Recalling how it all began, Andy can’t help but smile. "We’ve learned by our mistakes," says the 44-year-old, who lives in Sunderland. “In business, a mistake costs you money, so you try not to make it twice.”

But despite their inexperience, Andy and Duncan were perfectly equipped for roles in men’s fashion retail, being their own target market. Frustrated by a lack of decent clothes shops locally, they often found themselves trekking to places like Leeds to satisfy their desire for trendy, slightly off-beat brands. When they opened Aphrodite, it was with a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve.

Loading article content

“The big thing we wanted was to offer not just the brands, but fantastic customer service,” says Andy. “It’s about the experience of shopping with us – a personal, friendly service, getting to know customers by name and having that one-on-one feeling. We also wanted to offer brands that were not as readily available in every other store.”

Catering for men aged 16 to 60-plus, Aphrodite stocks clothes, shoes and accessories that have cross-generational appeal. There are higher-end yet still affordable brands like Moncler, Stone Island, Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith, Adidas and Canada Goose, which Andy feels are both stylish and wearable.

“We’re certainly not high street,” he says. “We’ll introduce a new brand to the market and work with it and nurture it – that’s what it’s all about as an independent. We’ve got to be cautious that we’re not overlapping with our brands as well.

“We’ve got a good core customer. There are guys who have shopped with us since the day we opened and we’ve got the younger guys coming in now who might have pocket money to spend but then they get their job or apprenticeship and that’s the future of our business.

“I think that’s the beauty of the designers we stock – they’re very universal and some are timeless in their designs. It’s pieces that people can wear and they’re not necessarily going to date."

Andy admits that at the outset, it was hard to break into what can be a closed network of brand affiliations, but over time, he and Duncan have earned their place. They have also weathered the storm of tough economic times where other independents have foundered.

“With the economy, you see what the strong guys are all about,” says Andy. But he adds: “I think the North is more of a level playing field; down South people live more off bonuses and commissions. We have probably felt it at certain times but in general, I think we’ve coped very well, which comes back to customer service. I think that’s how we’ve progressed as a business the way we have over the years.”

It’s the buying decisions taken by Andy and Duncan (they both attend all the trade shows, taking equal responsibility for purchases) that underpin Aphrodite’s success. Getting things majorly wrong when it comes to predicting trends – and, perhaps more importantly, their customers’ tastes – would surely signal a decline in fortunes for a shop so reliant on repeat business. If Andy feels this pressure, it doesn’t show.

“The buying window takes up a lot of time,” he says. “In the past, we would do it twice a year – now we’re away on a monthly basis. In the main window of January/February and June/July, we’re away most weeks. I think buying is something that you always want to do better. We’ve done it for 20-odd years now so you sometimes don’t even have to open your mouth – you just look at each other.”

People are naturally curious about the brothers’ relationship and how the family tie translates into running a business. For Andy, it’s simple – it just works. “I think everybody has their moments and sometimes we’ll challenge each other – we’re our own biggest critics – but we have a very good understanding and we work well as a team,” he says. “It’s a team game with myself and Duncan, but also the guys who work with us. It’s been good for 22 years.”

For the past ten of these, Aphrodite has had an online presence, and now virtual sales make up around half its business. It’s an area Andy and Duncan have invested heavily in, including employing two full-time photographers, and Andy feels the website has significantly boosted the shop’s profile. “We have a fantastic following in Sunderland, but we also get people travelling from Newcastle, Darlington and Durham,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the website. It’s a massive advertising tool for the bricks and mortar business. I’d like to think we’re promoting the city, not just Aphrodite.”

Obvious though a move into womenswear might seem, Andy and Duncan are against it, preferring to stick with what they know and are confident they do well. “I think ladies mix and match more than guys,” says Andy. “If I go shopping with my wife, I think it’s a different mentality. A man is more brand loyal.”

They wouldn’t, however, rule out the possibility of opening another store – with the proviso that the location would have to be right, and not too close to Sunderland. “We get offered units on a regular basis, but it’s just making sure that it’s the right one,” says Andy. “We’re always out and about checking.”

What has no doubt contributed to the brothers’ success is their fellow North-Easterners’ preoccupation with looking good. They’re proud of their roots – and proud to serve the region in meeting this demand. “I think in the North, we take pride in our appearance,” says Andy. “I think we’re quite good at knowing what we want to wear and we wear it in a certain way. I think it’s that feel good factor. People work hard for their money and if they’re going out, they want something nice to wear.”

ANDY McKENZIE

What’s best about living in the North-East?

We have a lovely coastline and I think it’s always nice to have a walk there. Durham and the Lakes are also good for a day out.

What are the latest trends in men’s fashion?

I think with women, you have looks that come and go, where with a guy, it could be a pair of chinos or shorts with a short-sleeved shirt or tee. We’re seeing more colour coming into collections, especially pink.

What are your favourite brands?

I’ve got a big wardrobe of different brands. With jackets, it’s things like Moncler and Stone Island. A jacket for a guy is like a handbag for a lady. I’m also quite into selvedge – raw denim. My top half is always just Oliver Spencer, a guy who originates from Harrogate.

Aphrodite, 8 Vine Place, Sunderland SR1 3NE

T: 0191-567-5898

W: http://aphrodite1994.com