Teesside fashionista Steve Cochrane takes to the couch to reveal his innermost thoughts about his thriving business…
WORDS: ADAM STEEL
PICTURES: CHRIS BOOTH
Steve Cochrane is in triumphant mood as we sit down in the boardroom of his flagship Middlesbrough premium fashion store Psyche. He’s just recovered from a hangover, although he’s doing a fine job of disguising it.
The genial Psyche supremo turns 60 next April – not that you can tell that either, as he looks much younger and has the room-filling presence of a motivational speaker.
Steve is not-so-fresh back at his Linthorpe Road headquarters from a midweek trip to London, where the champagne flowed as Psyche won yet another award in the UK fashion Oscars.
You name it, Psyche have won it – GQ magazine’s Best Menswear Shop and FHM’s Retailer of the Year. They’ve even finished runner-up to Harrods in the Department Store of the Year stakes.
And such is their envied reputation that the 2018 Drapers Award for Menswear Independent of the Year is the latest addition to the trophy cabinet.
For proud Teessider Steve, what he does is a labour of love in a part of the world he loves.
It has all quite literally been more by design than accident that he and Psyche continue to be trendsetters – 36 years after he started out in Redcar with Sliced Tomatoes, a small punk and new wave clothes shop which his own parents advised against opening.
“Passion is a word I like to use for us, and I absolutely, totally and utterly love what I do,” Steve tells Tees Life with his trademark enthusiasm.
“I don’t want to say if you love what you do you never work a day in your life.
“There are a lot of hours and late nights involved, but I love everything about my job and it varies infinitely.
“I still love to see a well-made garment, and love to see people going out of the shop buzzing like mad because they have just bought a load of things they really like.
“And I love going to the new fashion shows and seeing all the new things for the next season.
“I go to the Pitto Uomo fashion show in Florence all the time and you hear other retailers complaining about having to attend another one.
“I find that weird. What’s not to like about being at a fashion show in Florence?”
It’s difficult to see where Steve starts and Psyche stops, the two are so entwined.
Yet whatever he does, the father-of-three does it with vigour and energy.
That extends to keeping fit during his rare free time to ensure his spirit – if not so much his body these days – remains as healthy as his multimillion pound business.
“I’m not a big TV watcher. You are watching other people do things, instead of doing them yourself,” he says.
“I’ve always been into sport, and if it was a choice between mountain biking at Dalby Forest or going to watch the Boro, even though I love the Boro and we do their suits, I would rather go mountain biking.
“I’ve done the Great North Run 20 times, the London Marathon, and used to do the Middlesbrough 10k every year, but I’m starting to get arthritis in my spine and knees now so can’t run.
“But, if you don’t look after yourself, you fall off a cliff, don’t you?”
Steve’s love of clothes and lust for life means Psyche – fast approaching the 40-year mark – still sits at the top of the fashion mountain, although he bristles at the mere mention of the ‘F-word’.
“I hate the word fashion, to be quite honest,” he explains. “I prefer to call it clothing. “I think fashion has been monopolised by the pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap fast fashion people. So I prefer style and quality, and thankfully it’s moving away from luxury sportswear to sportswear-influenced tailoring at the moment.”
Everything Steve does seems to boil down to futureproofing and staying ahead of the game.
“You go to fashion shows to see all of the key looks, fabrics and directions for the next season,” he reveals.
“You soak all of that up, and do all of your analysis and forecasting, and then go and do your buying.
“So all spring and summer 2019 has been signed off now.
“We start planning autumn ‘19 soon. It’s all a risk and gambling, but it’s informed gambling.”
The former oil rigger now employs 79 people in his department store, along with another five in Cleveland Centre outlet Psyche2, while he opened a new store in Durham in April.
Success has led to a number of prestigious personal laurels as well as awards and wealth, including an MBE for services to the Teesside economy and recognition in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours list, and an honorary doctorate from Teesside University.
It means Steve and Psyche have become almost as well-known to the outside world as industry, football and the Transporter Bridge when it comes to putting Middlesbrough on the map, although not all of the attention has been welcome.
BBC Three screened a four-part documentary series in 2005 about Psyche, called The Secret Life of the Shop.
Steve and his staff were shadowed for a year by director Richard Macer, but he felt the end product was more mockumentary than documentary.
“I think a lot of our success in terms of awards is that they find it endearing that we are all-singing, all-dancing and we’re doing it in Middlesbrough,” he reflects.
“But the mistake that people make is that they consider Teesside a backwater, and that’s far from the case.
“It has always been a trendy place, and there have always been good clothes shops, it’s not just Psyche.
“But I think a lot of the negative press attention our area gets from down south is just to make themselves feel better.
“We live in a fantastic place, full of fantastic people, but I wouldn’t do a documentary again.
“It was produced by a southerner talking in a drawl and in mocking tones, trying to goad us to do things.
“There were things in there I didn’t want going out and I felt quite stitched up by it, to be honest.
“For raising awareness of Psyche it was a nine out of 10. For making it look professional as a business to invest in, it was a two.
“But it means I’m dead used to being in front of a camera, so there is a positive to it because video is a big thing these days on the internet.”
Another big plus is that Steve’s relationship with other half Alex – one of the documentary’s central themes due to their 21-year age gap – is still going strong.
They have two young boys together, Ollie and Theodore (Steve’s eldest son Harvey is studying Law at university) and plan to finally get married at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2020.
“We got engaged in 2005 but I haven’t got around to getting married because I’ve always been too busy and I always put work before my personal life and get told off for it,” Steve says.
“But I love her to bits. We have a lot in common – she’s got a first in her degree in retail – and we get on like a house on fire.
“The MBE means we can get married at St Paul’s, which will be amazing.”
Steve uses a football analogy to describe Psyche and is currently kicking on in cyberspace, adapting to the high street’s tough demands with an increased online presence.
Psyche launched an American website last Christmas, a New Zealand site hits the internet soon and it will be followed by a Chinese version.
“It’s exciting times, and if you aren’t trying to score goals or stop the opposition from scoring, you shouldn’t be in my team,” he says.
“You’ve got to be fit and strong to compete because it’s massively competitive online.
“So you’ve got to be the best and strive to improve all the time. Constant improvement is what I’m after.”
That said, Teesside’s designer don isn’t planning to take a back seat – or a director of football role, if you will – any time soon.
“Providing my health holds up, I would like to go until I’m 70 and then step back and become chairman and come in half a day here and there.
“There are ups and downs, but I’ve still got the determination and high energy levels to succeed and overcome the challenges,” he adds, practically punching the air to emphasise the point.
Psyche-ing out the opposition, I guess you could call it.