“We’re not following fashion; we’re following fandom”: TruffleShuffle’s Pat Wood on brands, design and sticking to a niche

TruffleShuffle Owner and MD Pat Wood tells us about the company’s ethos of ‘made for fans, by fans’.

This year sees online retailer TruffleShuffle celebrates its 17th anniversary – and what began with one Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt has grown into the definitive home of retro t-shirts.

We caught up with owner and MD Pat Wood to find out more about the firm’s approach to choosing brands – and delve into the company’s ethos of ‘made for fans, by fans’.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

Hi Pat, hope you’re well. To kick us off, how did TruffleShuffle come about?
I got drunk and accidently started a business that’s now sold over two million t-shirts. It’s as simple as that!

Ha! Simple as that!
Well, I’m glad you asked the question because up on the wall in my new home office is this Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt which I wore to a nightclub in Bristol in 2004. Not being the most fashionable person, I was surprised by the amount of people who came up to tell me what an ace t-shirt I had!

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

So I went on eBay very drunk at 3 in the morning when I got home and bought this Goonies t-shirt – and this is the exact one I bought so it’ 17 years old this week! I paid about a tenner for the t-shirt from a site in America, listed it on eBay and within a day or two I’d sold it for £20.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

I used that money to buy a second t-shirt, and a third, and a fourth, and a domain name… It was a busy 2004 and we’d turned over our first million four years later. It was quick growth.

What helped propel that growth?
We had lots of celebrities wearing our stuff and lots of press in things like Heat Magazine and Now Magazine… We completely fell into it, but it’s served us well!

Am I right in thinking that as well as stocking items from other licensees, you also create apparel yourselves?
We never set out to be a manufacturer. We always wanted to be a retailer. The own-brand stuff comes from areas that aren’t covered by other licensees. There’s very little point in us getting a Harry Potter license for example, because there is a huge amount of fantastically good product for us to get our hands on.

But on the flip side, in 2006 we noticed that Bananaman t-shirts could be a nice niche for us. I wrote a letter to DC Thomson saying that I wanted to make Bananaman t-shirts and two weeks later, young – as he was then! – Ian Downes emailed me to explain I had to pay them a royalty, which naively came as a surprise! We’ve been good friends ever since and Ian was a great mentor for me back then – he showed me the ropes and taught me about licensing agreements.

From there, Ian introduced me to lots of people in the industry and over the last 15 years or so, we’ve created things for licences as and when we see fit. It comes from demand when we see it, although we’d much rather buy from someone wholesale!

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

We’re seeing lots of big brand collaborations in the world of licensed apparel. How different is the brand landscape in apparel today to when you first started?
It’s changed significantly, and that’s testament to the licensing industry as opposed to the fashion industry. When we started, licensed t-shirts were a bit more focused on kids and sports, but food and drink brands, as well as TV and movie IP, has really come into their own.

I remember years ago going into Selfridges and Gucci were doing a Rocky t-shirt that had the same print as us, but they sold it for £180 and our same version – which might have even been printed in the same factory – was £20. There’s a place for these high-profile fashion collaborations and they’re great at getting the brand out there, but they’re not long-term prospects for licensors. We’re committed long-term to licensing; if we did a SpongeBob t-shirt 15 years ago, we still want to be doing SpongeBob items now. That’s an important differentiator for us… We’re not following fashion, we’re following fandom.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

Is there a relationship between creative design and what you see selling well on TruffleShuffle?
Absolutely. We would like to think our design ethic is a lot more considered than some others. That’s why we’re able to sell our products at a reasonably premium price and maintain an air of exclusivity.

Our stuff is made for fans, by fans…. Our head of design – James Leigh – has a specific area of interest that he likes within TV and movies and if the brand he’s designing for isn’t on his DVD shelf, we’ll find someone who does love that IP. Two of our warehouse guys designed a range of Dogtanian t-shirts about 10 years ago because they were fans of the show!

We’ll reach out to whoever we need to find the person that adores a property the most because we don’t want to copy and paste from style guides. We want to do things that are more thought out and 90% of the time, we create our own artwork to ensure its appropriate for our fans.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

You guys have the power to push brands and champion IP. Have there been cases where you’ve jumped on a brand early because you could see it as having the potential to take off?
Absolutely, and we’ve always been aware that some of the bigger retailers use us as inspiration. We interviewed a senior buyer from one of the larger chains and they alluded to the fact that TruffleShuffle comes up in design meetings time and time again, which is a real accolade for us.

It also helps us in the licensing industry because no licensor is going to want to do a £500 MG deal for X, Y or Z. Generally speaking, a lot of people see us as a loss leader that’s producing product that will prick some ears up.

To answer your question, Mr Men and Little Miss is a brand that we’ll have the license for every four or five years when the high street forgets about it. A few years ago, we had lots of celebrities in our Mr Men and Little Miss products, and it soared. When the grocers then embrace it again, our demand wanes a little bit. That’s when we look at taking a break from a licence. It’s a parasitic relationship both ways – we work off the successes that the big retailers create for brands, and they look at our successes too.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

What brands don’t work for you guys?
Remakes of movies. Dukes of Hazzard used to be one of our big sellers, but as soon as they did the remake movie, there was zero demand.

So a poorly received remake can kill a brand’s appeal?
Put it this way, we haven’t sold a Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt since that film came out. It killed the allure of that brand.

Years ago, we had a Roald Dahl license. We pretty much had carte blanche for all the Roald Dahl Quentin Blake artwork. The year before The BFG movie came out, they removed all titles off our license apart from The BFG – and it had to be the movie artwork. For us, it didn’t work.

It was a decision designed to push that brand into the mainstream, and so it removed the ability for us to market it as a niche licence. We weren’t going to do BFG movie merch because we knew it was going to be heavily marketed on the high street. When a corporation’s focus doesn’t align with a small company’s focus, like ours, it can make things tricky sometimes.

And on the other side, what brands have soared for you over the years?
Harry Potter – we were there right at the beginning when the movies were in the cinema. For four or five years it was consistently our best-selling licence, but we wondered if it was too current for us – thank God we decided to give it a go! It was absolutely what our customers wanted.

Pat Wood, TruffleShuffle

With streaming services and the wealth of content and brands out there, is it exciting or challenging that there’s so much out there for fans to engage with?
It’s exciting, but it does add a degree of complexity. Game of Thrones was a good seller for us but out of the 15 people that work at TruffleShuffle, few of us have watched it. It becomes difficult to gauge what’s mainstream demand and what’s niche demand.

The subject of pop-up shops has come up quite a lot in our recent interviews. Would a physical presence ever be of interest to TruffleShuffle?
It’s something we’ve always discussed and never chosen to move forward with. We’re a digital brand, so that’s informed that decision. Every time we’ve ever done a physical event, you look at the website sales and it doesn’t really justify it. It might cost a few hundred quid a day to run a website, but a few thousand a day to run a pop up.

We’ve been invited to sell at things like Comic-Con and a few high street chains have asked if we can do a concession or store-within-a-store, but it’s just not us.

Before we wrap up, how do you and the team fuel your creativity?
Collaboration is key and we listen to as many voices as we can. As is sticking to our niche. We want to keep on producing limited edition, fantastic product, that’s made for fans by fans!

Great stuff! Huge thanks again for making time Pat.

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