Meet the Sunderland brothers behind Aphrodite celebrating 25 years of selling designer labels to the city
There is a myth that anyone looking for exclusive clothes must step outside Sunderland. It is simply untrue.
Aphrodite, which is celebrating 25 years of trading from its Vine Place store, sells menswear from just about any top brand you can name, including Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith, Hugo Boss, Barbour, Balmain, Stone Island, Patagonia … the list goes on.
The business is owned by brothers and founders, Andy and Duncan McKenzie. When they opened in September, 1994, Andy was 21, Duncan just 19.
Even before then they had an entrepreneurial streak. To raise capital to start the business they sold a milk round.
They had four staff when they started out. Today they have 35. Their store is twice the size and they also have premises in nearby Derwent Street. From there they run the business’ internet arm, which has operated since 2007.
With the decline of the UK’s high streets rarely out of the news, Aphrodite, named after a village in northern Cyprus where the brothers once spent a family holiday, is bucking the trend.
The brothers, former Whitburn Comprehensive pupils, staved off the credit crunch and the rise of the internet; partly by going online themselves. Not only did Aphrodite navigate its way through global economic turmoil, it expanded.
Andrew, now 46, said: “When we started off in ‘94 it was all about the shop floor. Now you have both sides - the web advertising the shop floor.
“We’ve had the two units in Derwent Street for seven years. We’ve had a website since 2007. We’ve just launched a new website five weeks ago, which has been a big investment.”
Duncan, 44, said: “We originally started on the ground floor, then moved upstairs in number 8 Vine Place. Then we moved into number 7 too. It’s all knocked into one now.
“Although we sell online, we get a lot of people travelling now because they’ve seen online what we sell. They come from as far away as Carlisle and all across the Tyne and Wear area, County Durham and Teesside. If you’ve got something that customers want, they will travel.
Andrew added: “I think a lot of people like to buy from an independent business.”
The shop trades just a few yards from Debenhams. The McKenzies are unconcerned by this.
Duncan said: “We’re completely different. It’s great that Debenhams is in Sunderland. But we don’t compete with them. We offer an independent shop with good customer service.”
Indeed, for all Aphrodite keeps up with technological advances, its owners see old fashioned customer care as its greatest asset, along with a good team who work there, enthusiasm – and style conscious customers.
Andrew confirmed: “The people of Sunderland and the surrounding areas do have good taste and know what they want to buy into.”
What made two such young men plunge into the retail world, at a time in their lives when most people wouldn’t even think about commitment and responsibility?
Duncan told us: “We always had a keen interest in fashion and were into our designer clothes. But we felt there was nothing in Sunderland that reflected what we and a lot of people we knew were after.
“We spotted a gap in the market.”