Meet Archie Hewlett and become acquainted with his internationally recognised footwear brand, Duke and Dexter.
If you didn’t know Archie Hewlett, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was a seasoned entrepreneur with decades of business and life experience. The 22 year-old Londoner speaks with a level of self-awareness, insight and pragmatism that belies his age and modestly downplays the growing success of his footwear company, Duke and Dexter. A wise head on young shoulders? That’s Archie Hewlett.
D&D’s inception was driven by Hewlett’s desire to escape the rigid world of recruitment. After a taste of the corporate world, he quickly decided rather than using employment as a financial contingency, he would cut ties from the repetitive 9-5 in search of something more. ‘I have fond memories of my team, but I made it very clear when I handed my notice in and was strict with myself, that I was going to get something out of this new direction. Whether it was to do with shoes, or fashion, I was going to make a success of it one way or another.’
D&D’s launch centred upon a niche item of footwear – the velvet slipper. Archie recognised that the product had potential to appeal to a wider audience. ‘It wasn’t an everyday shoe and not ones I would necessarily choose to wear. But after some research, I soon realised their place within the market wasn’t right in terms of terms of how they were worn and price point.’ He embarked upon a project to fashion more contemporary, reasonably-priced velvet slippers but once again found himself in the very situation he was trying to escape. ‘What I then noticed during that process was, as much as I could see the value, I wasn’t passionate about velvet slippers – I wasn’t going to wear them.’
This epiphany was the driving factor in the next stage of D&D’s development. ‘That’s when it moved from just velvet slippers, which we still do have a very small selection of, into this more universal form of loafer which I could definitely see myself wearing provided we took the brand in the right direction and launched it properly.’
Hewlett kept D&D a secret from friends and family, ensuring that only his parents were aware of the business venture. Their opinions, together with his own intuition helped to steer the initial focus of the brand. ‘I was always asking people for their opinions, but I wanted to keep the company secret, so feedback was very limited in respect to responses and I really had to work off my own beliefs to start building what I thought would be a commercial product.’
Aside from age, Hewlett’s success is even more credible given that his personal background is not naturally entrepreneurial. Perhaps for this reason his parents ‘weren’t against the company but also certainly weren’t for it.’ However, he is also keen to point out that his parents did not try to undermine his work or steer his path in a different direction at any point. ‘On a daily basis I was working hard and there was no reasoning or questioning from them because they could see my determination. I think that they could sense my belief in what I was doing, so just left me to my own devices.’
There’s also little doubt in his mind where he gets his drive from. ‘They’re both hard-workers and that’s definitely something I get from them. From the beginning, I think they made that point very clear – that its hard work that gets you places. Success – it’s all hard graft.’
As with most start-ups Hewlett experienced a number of challenges, the memories of which still remain. ‘The worst times are really when you’re at your biggest lows and that’s when everything starts falling apart! It just takes so much hard work and so much passion to make things happen. I can’t emphasise enough this idea of if you haven’t got the drive there then there’s just no point in even beginning.’
Hewlett recalls two moments when he knew his hard work was coming to fruition. Before the D&D website launched and a selling route had not yet been established, many of Hewlett’s parents’ friends would follow up their interest with email enquiries as to how they might purchase Duke & Dexter loafers. For Hewlett, this was a clear sign that there was a market and demand for his product. ‘Everyone’s going to say that they like the shoes out of politeness. But then to follow it up and ask for additional pairs is going above and beyond and proved to me that there is a genuine appetite for the shoe – so that was when it really clicked.’
The second moment followed much later, following the launch of the D&D website. It was the first order that took him by surprise and reaffirmed his belief of the appeal of loafers. ‘The first order came from the United Arab Emirates. I hadn’t even begun to explore the international market – I was wondering where in London the first sale was going to come from, if at all. So that again opened my eyes up to where it was going. I then began to build solid foundations upon which to grow D&D.’
Given the limited funds that he started with, Hewlett delayed seeking help to cover time-consuming and onerous daily administrative tasks to keep the business afloat. Even from a very early stage he was acutely aware of his weaknesses and market competitiveness. But given the limited finances was unable ‘to start hiring people to do things in departments or fields that were far superior to what I could do – so obviously, things like marketing came into fruition much later than I would have preferred.’
One of the unique features of the D&D brand is the range of demographic that the brand appeals to. D&D loafers have been worn by titans of the celebrity world – Jonah Hill, Justin Timberlake, Tyson Beckford, Tinie Tempah, Asafa Powell, Jonah Hill and the Delevigne’s are some of the most notable names.
‘The first celebrity was Eddie Redmayne. We had spoken to his (Redmayne’s) agent and he had said that there were no guarantees –you can send a pair and we can see what happens. We’d forgotten about it because I had planned that so far in advance. Then, I woke up the morning after the Oscar Awards in 2015 to see he had worn them on the red carpet and accepted his award for the Theory of Everything.’
After Redmayne wore D&D loafers to the 2015 Oscars, Justin Timberlake soon followed. ‘With Justin Timberlake – that was also through a stylist who had got in touch and said Justin’s seen the stuff on social media and he’d love a pair.’
Fluidly talking on all matters, his attitude is testament to him simply enjoying his work. Rather than seeking a celebrity customer for short term gain, his relationships with public figures are built upon preserving the longevity of the brand whilst also bringing his own personality into D&D and steering it away from turning into another faceless fashion label. ‘Some of its to do with the commercial focus but the other side of it is to build a relationship that’s largely built on a friendship element but also trying to give a more personalised service.’
D&D has gained the respect of most prestigious stores, retailing in Fenwick, Liberty and Harvey Nichols. To keep ahead of the game and compete with other establish footwear brands, D&D have relied heavily on social media to gain further exposure. ‘We had good foundations before social media but because of the very limited funds that we had, social media gave us the ability to expose ourselves without much money.’ Indeed, a quick glance through the D&D Instagram shows a clear timeline of the developments within the company since its launch. Recently, D&D opened its first store in Covent Garden and Hewlett has aspirations of opening more stores, particularly stateside. ‘The woman’s range should be coming in the next couple of months and that’s massive for us and something we’re all very, very excited about’ whilst additional future plans include designing different types of shoes including trainers and sneakers.
D&D’s brand identity has grown parallel with Hewlett’s personal insight and self-awareness. Whilst anyone can identify that a struggling business must be worked upon to rectify issues, Hewlett is keen to draw attention to the fact that D&D’s growth was not seamless. ‘Growth and success in itself causes so many issues and so many problems in terms of this idea of self-fulfillment and self-achievement, you are naturally going to fall behind as you succeed because your competitors grow and develop, everything grows and develops and you just can’t keep up so again it comes down to this constant circle of hard work.’
At times, Hewlett felt as though he was chasing shadows as D&D grew, but even now is resigned to the fact that there is no other way to achieve true success. ‘If you have the money from the start and you just hire, then sure you don’t have to do the work, but that in itself is destined to fail to a large extent because you then don’t know the company. It’s almost as though you have to go through this horrible stage – and I do mean horrible. As much as you should love it you have to go through that to truly understand the brand and understand where it’s going.’
Whilst the honesty and insight is refreshing, Hewlett is quite clear that he is very happy doing what he is doing. ‘I wouldn’t change it for a second. I’ve been away and very excited to come back.’
Given this, where is Archie Hewlett going to be in 10 years? ‘The hope is it’s something to do with the people I work with now and the company we work with now. I think when you break down what we’re trying to achieve in terms of the brand we are trying to build, the level of customer service, the production side of it which is so important and the idea of made in England – I hope it’s something to do with that. I hope it’s a bigger scale version – maybe shoes in general, maybe in fashion if you’re going to take it further. But I hope it’s with the similar sort of people – I hope it’s still me at the helm. I couldn’t put my finger on what job – but in terms of the themes and elements behind it, for me is just building on what we have at the moment.’
For entrepreneurs seeking advice, Hewlett and D&D provide a rare and invaluable opportunity to witness first-hand the successes, defeats, challenges and opportunities that hard work, common sense and foresight can bring. In an age where entrepreneurship is romanticised and entrepreneurs are often given demagogue status, Hewlett remains firmly grounded. ‘No-one’s good enough to start something and make it perfect. That’s what an entrepreneur, the status of it implies – that they know all about starting businesses but I don’t think that exists. I think it just comes down to hard work and making a lot of mistakes on the way and obviously learning from them.’
Such words wouldn’t be out of place at a business seminar or TEDtalk – but Hewlett hasn’t practised this – it’s just good old fashioned honesty. At a time when most 20-somethings are flicking through Instagram and aspiring to a champagne lifestyle, Hewlett substituted simple pleasures, procrastination and weekends-off for blood, sweat and tears required to start his business. He’s even given us a whole interview packed full of Instagram-worthy motivational quotes – which, unlike most others are vindicated with tangible success. The moral of the Archie Hewlett story? Don’t waste time, be decisive and find out what makes you happy. And definitely don’t try recruitment.
You can buy D&D loafers at dukeanddexter.com or alternatively check out Instagram @dukedexter
Our thanks go to both Archie Hewlett and Isabella Rothschild for making this interview happen.