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Tailor's old-fashioned approach proves a breath of fresh air
INDEPENDENT shops are declining, particularly in Oxford with the rise of the Internet and the dominance of big names on the high street.
But reputation still counts for a lot and can mean the difference when it comes to surviving in retail these days.
Shahzad Sheikh has spent more than 30 years in Oxford running Oaks Menswear and over that time he has built up a loyal clientele covering a wide area.
Mr Sheikh believes quality, both of service and product, still counts and invariably over the years when so many clothing shops have come and gone, he has been proved right.
He has been steeped in the trade since being a child in Pakistan where his father, Bakar, was a master tailor who later moved to Kuwait just as its oil-fuelled affluence started to grow.
Mr Sheikh said: “My dad had learned the trade from an English gentleman and he had made army uniforms in the 1920s and ’30s before the Pakistan partition from India.
“After the partition he set up his own tailoring shop and also taught others. He realised there would be a lot of demand in Kuwait and went there in 1962 to start a business.”
However, Mr Sheikh told his father that he did not want to become involved.
“He used to tell me: ‘Learn this trade. Even if you don’t want to do it there will be benefits later on.’ But I said I want to do something else.”
Having returned to Pakistan to go to high school, he started playing hockey and by the time he was 17, he was good enough to turn professional, eventually being selected for the national junior side.
“Suddenly I changed my mind,” he said. “My cousin, Parveen, lived in London and we decided to get married. I could have stayed and gone to the Olympics but I had played for a long time so I got married and I then went to Kuwait.
“My dad wanted me to take over the business but I wanted to go into the sales and marketing side and I opened a ladieswear shop and became a wholesaler.”
But just as he was becoming established, the Iran/Iraq war broke out and as a lot of his customers were from those countries, trade dipped considerably.
The couple decided to move to London and it was then that his sporting past caught up with him.
“Almost as soon as I arrived I was approached and asked if I would like to play hockey for Bucks.”
By 1984 he had been approached by the English national hockey team but as he did not have a British passport he was not allowed to play for five years and once again he decided to take a different route, taking a job in Oxford for Chico, a clothing shop run by his brother-in-law Sultan Ansari.
Five years later he had opened his own shop, Oaks Menswear, in Golden Cross, Oxford.
He deliberately aimed at the quality end of the market, stocking names such as Hugo Boss, Armani and Versace and visiting trade shows all over Europe, which he still attends, and matching the garments with a similar level of service.
“When someone comes into the shop I can tell what size they are just by looking at them and I know the taste of regular customers.”
It is an old-fashioned approach but one that clearly works and he takes pride in passing on his values to generations of staff who have trained at the store and gone on to set up their own businesses.
Last year Oaks moved out of Golden Cross and into a new shop in St Ebbe’s Street with Mr Sheikh claiming footfall had dropped while rents had spiralled, in common with other nearby traders in the Covered Market.
He said: “It is much bigger and we have attracted a lot of young people who still think we are a new shop. It is very positive.”