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Big CEO Interview, Chris Isitt, Rubie’s UK

PUBLISHED: 15:35 06 October 2015 | UPDATED: 15:35 06 October 2015

Chris with a Storm Trooper

Chris with a Storm Trooper

Archant

Who knew that the fancy dress business is worth millions? We meet the boss of Rubie’s UK, part of the biggest fancy dress company in the world

Chris with YodaChris with Yoda

This year the BBC’s Children in Need fundraising night is on Friday November 13. The 2015 theme invites everyone to dress up as their childhood hero.

To kick off the fun, they invited a raft of celebrities to release their inner childhood hero: Fearne Cotton chose Debbie Harry. Sir Terry Wogan will be the singing cowboy Gene Autry. Dermot O’Leary selected adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tess Daly will strut her tiny waist and endless legs to be Sandy from Grease.

Each of these celebrities will probably have bespoke costumes designed by the likes of Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood or Ozwald Boeteng. If the rest of us want to get into the fancy dress groove, it’s highly likely our costumes, masks, even our make-up and wigs will come from Rubie’s UK.

You might not have heard of Rubie’s, but this is the £40 million business behind the vast majority of costumes sold in independent fancy dress shops, supermarkets and on-line across the UK, especially at Halloween, Christmas and increasingly, national book week every March.

The company has its European headquarters at Wallingford and for the past 17 years its boss has been managing director Chris Isitt who has built the business from £500,000 UK turnover to the huge business it is today. Chris is not only in charge of Rubie’s in the UK and Europe, but he also holds responsibility for the company in the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Africa. Cumulatively this is a £100 million turnover business, taking fluctuating exchange rates into account.

Who knew that the fancy dress business could be so lucrative? And it’s not all aimed at the younger market; half of the turnover is made through adult costumes and accessories.

Rubie’s started in Queen’s, New York in the 1950s. It’s still a family business, run by the second generation but with the third working in the business. It was started by Rubin Beige in the 1950s when he bought a joke shop with his demob money. You can’t call a joke shop Beige, so he called it Rubie’s, his army nickname.

After a few years his wife Tilly began making kids’ Halloween costumes. Halloween is a much bigger event in the United States than anywhere else, enjoying an annual $7 billion retail season there.

In the 1970s Rubie’s bought its first licence to make fancy dress costumes for the Star Trek franchise. It now owns 70% of all key movie brand licences in the US. The company opened in Europe, first in the UK, at the end of the 1990s and the European business now owns around 95% of all key licences in this region.

When Rubie’s launched in the UK, almost all fancy dress business was done through hire. Remember visiting those dingy shops to rent a Julius Caesar or Superwoman outfit? Probably 100 people had worn them before you paid the hire fee, and while the shop assistant swore that they had been dry cleaned since the last customers put them on, you weren’t quite sure about those funny coloured marks down the front or on the trouser leg.

Rubie’s encouraged the purchase of costumes rather than rent by making them more affordable. The starting price point can be around £12.50 for a child’s costume to £150 for an adult outfit. “We sell Santa suits to Harrods and other similar retailers which retail for up to £350,” adds Chris.

Chris had been in the toy business for nearly 20 years before he joined Rubie’s. He learned the trade through working for Kiddicraft, Fisher Price and Matchbox and was head hunted to lead Rubie’s.

There is no one more excited when a new Disney or Pixar film comes out, but of course while he enjoys the films, it’s the opportunity to grow business that really thrills. “We have seen a lot of activity in the past few years. The Marvel studios are committing to three movies a year and Warner Brothers are also committing to more. Every time an Iron Man or Spiderman movie comes out, the costumes are different, so our product development team work flat out every day of the year.”

75% of Rubie’s manufacturing is done in the Far East by a small number of trusted local manufacturers there, the rest is done in the US. Costs don’t make it a viable consideration for Rubie’s to manufacture here, but Chris reviews this regularly. “We look at Europe and Asia as we source new products.”

Around six million fancy dress outfits a year are shipped into the company’s warehouses in Liverpool. They are all quality control checked, and every one adheres to stringent EU legislation. “Everything made for children has to conform to toy safety regulations,” says Chris.

Rubie’s tends to know what movies are coming up 12-18 months in advance. “Some of the bigger movies are flagged up 24 months ahead,” says Chris. “We do set visits to see them being filmed so we can design as close as we can, given our cost parameters.”

It doesn’t take long to design a new costume but designs can go back and forth with the licensor over two or three months even before preproduction approval, and then final sign-off is needed. It can take nine months to reach finished product.

I’ve heard about a relatively new genre (in the UK), ComiCon, which must be a big growth area for Rubie’s. This is a comic book convention where attendees dress up as their book, film or computer game heroes and get together. The event has been held in San Diego, California, since 1970 and now regularly attracts over 130,000 attendees. It must be a sight to behold and is unsurprisingly one of that country’s top entertainment industry’s events.

It’s not yet got the same following in the UK, but among aficionados there is strong and growing interest, especially with some of the biggest Hollywood studios sending talent to be interviewed and giving ComicCon followers opportunities to meet comic creators and artists. Rubie’s supplies goods to some of the UK’s biggest retailers who sell goods there. A ComiCon has even been held at Cheltenham Racecourse. “Fans will dress up, come along to these conventions and have a great time,” says Chris.

I imagine the Christmas parties at Rubie’s Wallingford headquarters must be similar, but Chris says it’s like working in a chocolate factory. Perhaps staff are so blasé about the Storm Trooper, Spiderman and Shrek outfits they design, they’ll turn up in regular outfits. However he says that if someone walked in on a development meeting they’d wonder what on earth was going on.

In the past 12 months, Rubie’s has purchased two substantial businesses. Bristol Novelty makes non-licensed costumes such as witches, clowns and pirates outfits, and accessories. This complements the licence-driven Rubie’s business and will help drive opportunities for book week costumes in March, which has become as big here as Halloween is in the US. The other new business is Mask-arade, at Southam, Warwickshire. which first appeared on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. The company makes paper masks and can react quickly to new trends. “If there’s a new band, such as when One Direction went global, they can have masks of all the members within two weeks,” says Chris. “We can use our contacts to get Mask-arade into Warner Brothers and Disney. It’s a great company.”

The company has also purchased seven acres of land opposite its headquarters and plans to build a 120,000 sq ft building to house its offices and new warehousing.

For Chris, there’s a lot more growth to be had at Rubie’s, and a lot of fun to be had doing it.

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