CEO Interview: Julian Dunkerton, Superdry and the Lucky Onion Group
- Credit: Archant
From a cult clothing line to some of the UK’s most luxurious hotels, entrepreneur Julian Dunkerton is flying solo - and he has big plans for the future. Lucy Parford checks in
If anyone should know what makes a stylish hotel it’s probably the globetrotting founder of Superdry Julian Dunkerton.
One of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs, Julian thrives on catching sight of new trends from around the world and bringing them back to Cheltenham, where Superdry has its creative headquarters.
The urban clothing brand, worn by everyone from David Beckham to reality star Kylie Jenner, was originally inspired by a trip to Tokyo and Julian’s getting ready to fly out to a wedding in Dubai the morning we meet.
Along with the fast-changing world of fashion - Superdry is now sold in 100 countries worldwide - Julian is equally as passionate about creating the kind of cool, contemporary venues his famous customers might like, by breathing new life into stunning, historic properties in Gloucestershire.
Earlier this year he took full control of The Lucky Onion, a group of luxury hotels, restaurants and country pubs in the Cotswolds, which he owns and has backed with a multi-million pound investment over several years.
Julian says: “I have always had a love affair with food and restaurants.
“I travel and go to New York and London a lot - I am committed to living here forever - but I was frustrated there wasn’t quite the same sort of restaurants I was used to seeing in these cities.”
The first restaurant to open in Cheltenham was The Tavern, in Royal Well Place, along with No 131, an impressive Georgian townhouse hotel in the Promenade and No 38 The Park, another elegant townhouse hotel in Evesham Road, overlooking Pittville Park.
Other acquisitions include The Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach, The Chequers at Churchill and The Wild Duck at Ewen, near Cirencester. The group is enjoying Christmas bookings up 30 per cent year on year.
“I’ve been investing in the restaurants for all this time and am still doing so, still expanding when I see gaps in the market,” Julian explains. “I want to really now elevate it to where I think it should be next and continue investing.”
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Superdry’s product and brand director certainly doesn’t do things by halves – he’s bought the two adjacent buildings to No 131 with plans to create a 40-bedroom retreat in the heart of Cheltenham. The properties are in the process of being renovated, ready to open in 2018.
“131 is trebling in size, we’re taking control of both sides of that building which is very exciting,” says Julian, who is ranked by The Sunday Times Rich List in the top 20 wealthiest people in the UK with a fortune of around £465m.
“131 is absolutely beautiful and I’m really proud of it. When I bought that building it was an unloved, empty office conversion and it really wasn’t good for Cheltenham.
“I just thought it was such a shame, it was in such a prominent position, the building needed a complete overhaul and a bit of love to create something beautiful in the centre of Cheltenham, which is why I’m so passionate to do it - these buildings are absolutely stunning properties.”
Over the past five years he has also been meticulously restoring his home, a Grade II listed mansion on the outskirts of Cheltenham. The eight-bedroom property, which was originally on the market for £11 million, has been completely transformed by Julian and building contractors Dowdeswell Estates, which also worked on No 38 The Park.
The major renovations included restoring period features and installing high-grade broadband to every room in the house. On the ground floor the open-plan living area has atmospheric dark walls, towering white orchids and long communal wooden tables for dining and socialising.
Leading from the light-filled sitting room is a spectacular balcony offering panoramic views over the valley, with a swimming pool and fishing lake below. People are always breezing through, from building contractors to chefs from The Lucky Onion.
“If you love architecture and buildings, to bring them back to life is wonderful,” says Julian, who is sitting on a long sofa, dressed casually in dark jeans and a jacket.
It’s not just design and architecture which Julian is slightly obsessed with, but as a well-travelled foodie, the menus at The Lucky Onion are a top priority too.
“I love doing it as a commercial venture,” he says. “I’m a retailer by nature and I love working with chefs and getting the menus right.
“I eat at 131 the most, it’s the nearest,” he smiles. “I have a particular penchant for the whole globe artichoke but I love it all. I get involved in the whole process of the food tastings, before we put things on the menu and tweaking them.”
Ronnie Bonetti is The Lucky Onion’s Director of Food, overseeing all six of The Lucky Onion’s hotel and restaurant kitchens. He previously worked alongside Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at the River Café in London, as well as two restaurants in Sydney with Neil Perry, one of Australia’s leading chefs.
Ronnie joined Soho House as Head Chef at Babington House before moving to the Cotswolds where he was in charge of the restaurants at Soho Farmhouse, an exclusive members club and hotel in Chipping Norton, before coming on board at The Lucky Onion.
Julian, 52, says: “He has got a brilliant pedigree, we got on brilliantly instantly and working with him is a real privilege. We both just want to create the best food we humanly can.
“It has to be brilliant quality ingredients and has to be food that people can understand. I think top end food, as a result of the Michelin process, has been pigeon-holed and actually the best food you can eat doesn’t have to be as channeled as that.
“There are so many good restaurants when I go to London now. I don’t follow the names, I follow the styles. I’m always fascinated when a new type of cuisine comes in front of my nose. I was in New York last week and I was eating food from Laos, which is a first for me.
“I like tasting what’s out there, because there are so many exciting cuisines and people are doing really interesting things with them.
“It’s like in life, you are absorbing everything around you at all times.”
The Lucky Onion champions food which is local and seasonal and the suppliers are carefully chosen to support local farmers and artisan producers. Currently on the menu at No 131 is Tuna tartare with avocado, wasabi tobiko and crispy wonton and Fillet of pan-fried sea bass with cavolo nero, chestnuts and salsa verde. While across town at The Tavern you can dine on Spiced monkfish tail, chickpeas, fennel and pomegranate or ricotta dumplings, Delice pumpkin, purple broccoli and pine nuts.
Since it opened in 2014, sister property No 38 The Park has welcomed several high-profile chefs for exclusive suppers including Yotam Ottolenghi, Dan Doherty, Russell Norman and Hemsley & Hemsley.
Actors, musicians, celebrities and top editors have all stayed or dined at The Lucky Onion hotels, among them Superdry collaborator and Luther actor Idris Elba. DJ Yoda recently played at No 131’s bar Crazy 8s and it also welcomed wellbeing guru Liz Earle for an event at Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Among the group’s awards are Tatlers Best of British, Smith Hotel Awards, Conde Nast Traveler Best Luxury Hotels and the Luxury Travel Awards. They are also included in The Good Hotel Guide, Hardens Best UK Restaurants and The Sunday Times Ultimate 100 British Hotels.
As well as the draw of Cheltenham’s world-renowned festivals and racing, the vision of a cosy Cotswold pub is always sure to lure people out to the country. The Wild Duck at Ewen is the latest to come into The Lucky Onion fold, in 2015, with a menu brimming with venison carpaccio with beetroots and horseradish and Dartland Farm roast kid with salt baked celeriac and kale.
“I fell in love with the property, it’s one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen,” Julian says.
“We’re about to go through a hotel phase, we’ve been really working on the food in the last six months, getting the menus right, getting that whole process right, so it’s all been running as it should do and now the next phase of development is the rooms, as well as the garden.
“It’s not been looked after, there’s been a lack of investment and that really upsets me when I look at a beautiful property.
“I think there are a lot of country pubs that are closing and that doesn’t make sense, because the public love well-run pubs, they’ve just absolutely got to be good enough.”
There are new venues in the pipeline too for 2018, including at least another one in Cheltenham.
“I can’t help myself,” Julian admits. “I love eating in great places and if I spot a gap, it will be filled pretty quickly.”
As well as The Lucky Onion, Julian is also masterminding an artisan retail park and modern business village at Dowdeswell Park, a 210-acre site on London Road, one of the main routes into Cheltenham. It is already home to Sibling Gin, along with Battledown Brewery and Dunkertons Cider.
Organic produce is another focus of Julian’s, his estate is run organically and the family firm, Dunkertons Organic Cider, set up by his father Ivor and stepmother Susie Dunkerton, has been making award-winning organic cider and perry for over 35 years.
In 2014 Julian took ownership of Dunkertons Cider which he runs with Jeremy Benson, of Bensons Fruit Juice. Dunkertons produced around a million litres of organic cider this year which is sold by Waitrose and Abel & Cole and is now produced at Dowdeswell Park.
“I’m bringing everything here,” Julian laughs. “There are probably over 1,000 people employed in businesses I’ve started in Cheltenham.
“We did our first pressing a year ago, because it takes basically a year to ferment to be ready, so we’re always a year behind, and now we’ve moved our brewing part on site from Herefordshire.
“If you go there now and look at the vats, it’s quite beautiful.”
Julian was 14 when he moved to rural Herefordshire from London with his family who had bought a smallholding. Just a few years later, he started Cult Clothing in Cheltenham with a £2,000 loan from his late father, who was an award-winning BBC producer before venturing into cider making.
“I moved over here when I was 20 and feel Cheltenham has kind of looked after me and seen me grow up and seen my business grow,” Julian reflects.
“I love Cheltenham – this is my home for life – and I want it to be recognised by the world and by London as what should be considered the centre of the Cotswolds.
“So in my small way, if I can assist in that process, then I will.”