From shop floor to fashion shows – Deborah Price (Class of 1992)

Deborah Price, Class of 1992, graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a degree in Textile Design. She’s now the Managing Director of British Boxers, an underwear and loungewear brand stocked by Harrods, Joules, Debenhams and John Lewis. We sat down with her recently for our Old Waconian Magazine to hear all about her journey since her time at our school.

When I left Cheadle Hulme School, I went to Manchester Metropolitan University to study for a foundation diploma in Art and Design, followed by a BA in Textile Design. It was a really exciting time being in Manchester in the early ’90s. Popular British culture streamed out from the city, and we felt like we were at the heart of something very big.


When I graduated, I worked on the shop floor at John Lewis in Cheadle for six months. Suffice it to say, I found that frustrating. I felt like I’d previously been striving for creative success during a huge culture shift… and suddenly I was in a uniform I hated, selling curtains I didn’t particularly love, on a shop floor. In hindsight, I was learning excellent customer service and how to sell products to high-end clients. It didn’t feel like that then, though. I remember the head of HR laughing when I mentioned that I wanted to be a buyer – telling me that very few people made it to that level. At the time, I took it personally. I think sometimes that can be a huge incentive; if someone doubts you can do something, absolutely prove them wrong! So that’s what I set out to do… 

I applied for a position as assistant to the director of a London fashion supply company. I got the job. I moved to the capital with nothing but a suitcase, and stayed on a friend’s floor. I looked forward to the glamour of working in the fashion industry. In reality, I was stuck in a warehouse writing out packing lists for customs. After three months of doing that, I learned to be extremely accurate. I was a whizz at Excel, and very good at organising lorry drivers and logistics companies. It wasn’t what I wanted, though, so I was moved upstairs to the sales team. And that’s where my career really started to take off. 


We were designing collections of clothes which we would then sell to the buyers at the likes of Tesco, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, River Island and H&M. I found it fascinating. We were buying from textile mills all over the world, and flying to Paris and Frankfurt to meet them all at big trade fairs. There were shopping trips to LA, Paris and Milan to see what other stores were doing. We were buying and selling at the same time – and somewhere in the middle of that were the margin and sales targets we had to hit. I absolutely loved it. I’d found what I wanted to do. 


I eventually became the Head of Buying for an old British company called Bonsoir. They sold posh PJs to stores like Selfridges, John Lewis and Harrods, and private labels like Harvie & Hudson on Jermyn Street. I absolutely loved that too. 


Around that time, my husband Darren and I married in London. Our daughter was born shortly after with a condition called Williams Syndrome, a genetic disability. She was so poorly that we knew we had to come back up north and be near our family. We settled in Leek in Staffordshire, and I can remember sitting with my husband at the dinner table one night telling him that I needed my own business. It was all a massive risk, but I knew that if I didn’t try it, I’d regret it forever. I had to be in control of my own time so that I could be there for our daughter, but I also needed to work in the industry that I loved. We had £4,000 saved up in an ISA and used it to start the business from our spare bedroom, making boxer shorts at a factory down the road. We called it ‘British Boxers’, drawing on the story of my three-times great grandfather Jem Mace (the first world heavyweight boxing champion in 1870) in press and marketing. 


The highs of running the business? Definitely selling the brand into Harrods, Joules and Debenhams. And, of course, John Lewis. That was a full circle moment for me. From having the gauntlet thrown at me all those years ago by the head of HR to suddenly working with buyers and selling my own designs back to John Lewis, it was a lovely feeling. 


Our viral tweets have been good fun too. We tend to take a left-of-centre stance on Twitter. In doing so, we’ve found a whole raft of customers who also want to fight for the British values we love and hold dear. We took a pop at Brexit because it made trade extremely difficult. We took a pop at The Daily Mail because we don’t like their views on refugees and women. We quoted Philip Pullman calling Nigel Farage a “foghorn of ignorance”. That got us 70,000 likes and four million impressions. Sometimes, you just have to be brave and say what you think. It will alienate some people, but we are who we are and that’s okay. As great as social media is, it’s also important to never lose sight of the fact that it’s all just noise – tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. 


The lows of the business? When we’ve stood in sub-zero temperatures on the cobbles of Macclesfield at Treacle Market in the pouring rain, purely for the sake of our cash flow. All of it is legitimate, all of it has been necessary, and all of it is building a brand and a business. 


You have to graft extremely hard if you want to make it in the fashion industry – or  any industry for that matter. Yes, you might get to sit in Buddha-Bar Paris, drinking champagne with buyers after a trade show. But you also need to sit in that warehouse typing out those packing lists for customs so that you know all aspects of a business when you set up on your own. Even when dealing with the fanciest shops and biggest buyers, it’s still very much the rag trade. It’s all wheeling and dealing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 


I think my tip for any CHS students or Old Wacs wanting their own business in the fashion industry is to just start at the beginning. Start with an Instagram page and build your confidence in selling anything. Don’t reach out for the glamour, just crack on with the graft. And remember that it takes years to build your knowledge, your product, and your brand. 


Looking back on my own time at CHS, my favourite memories would definitely be creating artwork out of textiles with Mrs Jones and painting with Mr Yearsley. I would sneak off to the art rooms at lunchtime to carry on with my work! I loved it all so much. The most wonderful thing since, though, has been the network of old school friends and colleagues willing to help when I set up my business. People I hadn’t seen for years lent me an apartment for a photo shoot, helped with IT, bought our products, or told their friends about us. I’m so grateful to CHS for creating that whole sense of team, which still prevails nearly 30 years later. 

British Boxers is featured on our CHS Community Business Directory. Click here to view the directory and promote your own business.