Withit Studios – 30 years in the making
Withit Studios is celebrating its 30 year milestone this year.
Headed up by Dolph Zahid and Bradley Caines, the Withit brand began back in 1991 with the launch of the first shop in Brighton to 2021 with a new bag and stationery line.
Total Licensing went to find out more about Dolph and Brad and delve into Withit’s fascinating background and history.
Dolph Zahid was born in Baghdad, the eldest son of a successful businessman father, and a teacher mother.
As the political situation deteriorated and Saddam Hussein became more powerful, people were literally being bundled into back of cars and trucks and never seen again. Especially if they had influential parents. Dolph’s father owned several factories. Fearing for Dolph and his younger brother Bassam (Sam), their father spirited them out of the country across the border into Jordan in the boot of a car of a family friend. Dolph was 17 and his brother 15. From there they ended up in Glasgow – a holding place for 6 months while their father arranged accommodation etc in the USA.
Dolph and his brother Sam (was Bassam) then moved to Kentucky where they learned English and graduated from high school. Dolph had sole responsibility for his brother as it would be eight years before they would see their parents again.
After graduating, Dolph went to MIT in Boston to study Architecture. He was awarded a first-class degree in lighting and air con at MIT finishing in the top three of his class. He was enjoying a good life, nice apartment, good job, friends, car, holidays etc.
During the years they had been in America, Dolph’s parents were able to escape Iraq and made it to the UK. Neither of them spoke English but nevertheless they began a property business in Brighton.
Understandably, Dolph wanted to see them so flew to the UK to see if he could help them in the business. While flying there, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Dolph only found out at Passport control when they told him he would need to visit the American Embassy urgently as they were closing their borders to anyone from Iraq. Dolph still an Iraqi citizen was told he could not return to the US. His employer refused to give him a reference, he lost his apartment and his car was towed away!
He found himself in Brighton with just a suitcase of clothes. Stigma was such that the UK authorities told him he had to report to a Police Station once a month, even though he had never been in trouble with the law and was guilty of nothing other than being born in Iraq.
Unfortunately Dolph landed as the UK was in recession and not much building work was going on. However, he got a job as a Draftsmen at a small Architects practice. He was more qualified than his boss but he was just happy to work. However, he had noticed that his eyesight was beginning to deteriorate. He was examined by a specialist and told his eyes could not handle the intense work of drawing plans etc and that he would need to find another career.
Dolph found himself in a new country, facing a whole set of new challenges!
The shop below the office where he worked was vacant. Living in Brighton he had seen a diverse range of clothing and ideas and decided to open a shop just selling printed t-shirts, with all manner of designs on, some of his, some he commissioned and some from other existing ranges.
His parents helped too and Dolph decided to call it “With It” after his Aunt suggested he needed a name that was really “with it!
That was October 1991. The following year he opened one in Portsmouth, which his brother flew back from the US to live and run. Dolph then opened Southampton and then Cardiff. His sister who had also fled Iraq ran a Withit Store in Guildford.
Reading and Leeds also followed. Dolph, who was not allowed to drive due to his eyesight would travel between all his shops by train! He would take laundry bags of stock (t-shirts) from store to store, moving them around as some designs sold better in some areas than other. To save money he often slept on the floor of the shops in a sleeping bag before reorganising the shop, changing stock around and setting off on a train to the next store.
Five years on and Bradley Caines joined Dolph although he had been supplied printed T-shirts since 1991.
Brad was born in Bristol to a builder and architect father and his housewife mother. He grew up in the countryside outside Bristol and left school at 16 with no qualifications, working for his Father’s construction business.
Grew up in the countryside 15 miles outside Bristol, was doing all sort of odd jobs and work on building sites from age 10 for pocket money. Leaving school at 16 with no qualifications he worked for this Father’s construction business for a few years. Each weekend however, he was making clock faces, sort of abstract designer ones and selling them at craft shows and street markets. After saving some money he went on a 6 month trip in an old van across the USA from Miami to LA in 1990. While in the states he saw how many t-shirt shops there were and on his return switched to designing t-shirts.
It was now 1991, he was broke when he got back from the US and a friend loaned him £50 to by 12 blank t-shirts and some new ink that was like thick tippex that gave a raised paint effect. It was like painting with glue but the effect was very different but time consuming. He made up 12 designs for the 12 shirts, and sold 6 on a street market on the first day for £15 each.
The application of the paint onto the shirts was hard on his hand and he switched to screen printing. Buying everything second-hand he set up his four- colour carousel printing machine and a tunnel dryer in his rented bedroom and cleaned his screens in the bathroom. Unfortunately, the chemicals dissolved the bathtub and he was asked to leave…!
Undeterred he rented a workshop and lived there. He managed to get a permanent street market spot in Bristol.
After overhearing other street market owners talk about t Spring Fair in Birmingham he decided to investigate. Borrowing a friend’s car he drove up in February 1991 on the first day of the show, Sunday. Recession was bad and there were several empty stands. He secured one for the rest of the show for £100. He drove back to Bristol, got his t-shirts together and drove back up again to the NEC in the morning at 5am to set up on the second day. The first person to set foot on his stand, was Dolph Zahid!
Dolph placed an order buying almost all of Brad’s stock, then asked for a discount!
That order and the many that followed from Dolph and others enabled Brad to open his own shop in Bristol called “Knot Concrete” featuring his t-shirts, clocks and also unusual products such as watches from Storm as well as artwork prints.
However, trying to design, print and sell was time consuming for one person. A friend asked him to go with a group to Brighton for a day out. While in a Brighton pub, Brad saw Dolph by chance. As they had both been doing business together, starting at the same time and trading from 1991, they got talking and Dolph said he wanted to do more of his own production and sell more of his own but lacked time to design as was always selling and running the shops. Brad wanted to just focus on design and production and not have to try and sell everything as well.
Dolph asked Brad to move to Brighton and set up at the back of his Brighton store and print from there and they could create and build on the ranges they both had. As a result, Brad moved to Brighton in 1996.
The Withit licensing business
It was there that the Withit Characters, Cheeky Monkey, Chocolate Moose, Top Dog and more began to emerge, as well as the other characters that are now known as the Phizzogs were all created. Combining their knowledge of what consumers looked for from their already vast experience of designing and selling. They were an instant hit.
By 1998 sales were very good and other shops were asking if they could buy Withit Tees to sell in their shops so Withit Wholesale was formed. In two years they were supplying over 200 independent retailers across the UK and some in Europe. Withit were also doing the Clothes Show Live events that were then sponsored by BBC Radio 1. Sales there were incredibly popular and, off the back of that, Topshop did a Withit concession store in Oxford Street.
As Withit continued they were often approached to do Brand Licensing Europe. However, unaware of what that industry was it was not till 2001 that Withit took part. 9/11 had just happened and the show organisers had several cancellations from American firms refusing to fly. Withit was called and offered a small space and a discount to take part on the Monday afternoon, with the show starting Wednesday. With only a day to prepare Brad printed out there designs on boards and the Wednesday morning they took the early train and put the designs to the wall of the booth with only minutes to spare before the doors opened.
The first person to walk onto the stand was Rosie Pearce from WHSmiths. She knew the designs and asked for a meeting the following week. They went and were introduced to Mike Redfern from Blueprint. They were told this would be their licensee and signed up to be exclusive to Smiths for back to school stationery. At the show, they also signed Euromark for phone covers ( Nokia) and also Silverknit for nightwear.
WHSmiths launched the range for back to school in 2002 and sales were off the scale. Withit broke the record for the most pencil cases sold in a day – 1800. In fact, sales were so high, Blueprint had to fly more stock in as Smiths were going to run out before the end of the BTS season. This would lead Smiths to do more and more ranges over the coming years where at times Withit would have over 4 meters of retail space as well as its own signage in many of their 400 stores. It is estimated Withit sold over 10 million items over the following eight years.
As a result, deals and sales came in from all kinds of places.
Back then retailers, particularly in apparel, were rather more focused on Film & TV in terms of licensing and actually felt that stationery devalued the brand and apparel should lead. However, champions of the brand like Dunnes in Ireland sold truckloads as did LittleWoods and BHS. Later on, Next, River Island and Matalan became stockists
Dunnes Ireland, in particular, did large numbers and Dolph and Brad even developed a gift stationery range and school bag range specifically for them. This was also on top of a huge Christmas range of nightwear which was all gift boxed using Withit Branding.
Dolph comments, “We would have girls queue up outside our office for Withit Carrier bags and ask for them to be signed. There were many calls from parents asking for more characters to be made into stationery as girls would form Withit Groups where each girl was a different character and some groups were so big there were not enough characters in production to supply them all with products with their favourite on it.”
Brad continues,, “Our own wholesale was still good but more and more larger shopping malls were opening up near our high street shops. We could not compete with them as they left the High Street for the Malls the high street became decimated. The 2008 crash meant we lost a lot of stockists, however we began to just focus on licensing, and did deals all over the world, USA, Australia, Brazil, Russia and more in Europe.”
One such deal was C&A who had left the UK but were still very much alive in Europe with over 1000 stores. Withit did a DTR with them which lasted nine years, with them selling 55K items of nightwear a year. This was in ladies nightwear and sold in Europe mainly to Spain, France and Germany but also including Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic, etc.
2009 saw Burger King approach withit, as did McDonalds. McDonalds loved it but felt Withit did not have enough awareness in the US and, as they only did global deals, decided to pass. However, Burger King did regional deals so signed Withit up for UK, Germany, Spain and the U.A.E. (there were very few Burger Kings in France back then).
Withit was the first Art based brand to feature in a Kids Meal. The chain were trying to appeal to older kids rather than young as at the time there was a growing backlash that the marketing of junk food to the very young was not good and bigger brands like Disney were pulling out of such promotions. Withit appealed to young teenagers so was the perfect fit. They created a range of stationery influenced products. Spain even did TV advertising for the brand. They sold out and it was extremely popular, Smiths actually complained saying they lost sales as kids wanted to buy the same items in their stores! In all, over 5 million items were given away with kids Burger King Meals
A DTR for Claire’s Accessories in 2010 again gave Withit a chance to diversify its characters to different retailers. Withit was one of the few brands at the time that was selling in both WHSmiths and Woolworths at the same time. Withit were doing more business outside of the UK although sales still continued in Dunnes, Littlewoods and some other chains. Overseas retailers included C&A, Auchan, Carrefour, Gemo, Casino and NewYorker.
Sadly, at this point, Dolph was struck down with cancer and it would be another five years before he was given the all-clear. However, regardless of the chemotherapy he was taking he would still do his upmost to travel to tradeshows and Award ceremonies to make sure the business world knew he was still around.
During that time, Withit sales continued mostly in Europe. However, Dolph and Brad also developed a new brand entitled “Kitties in the Cities”. This has now been signed up to become an animated TV Show due out in 2021.
New bag and stationery range
More recently in 2018 Dolph and Brad met up with a past fashion bag licensee and friend Gavin Watson who had set up an ecommerce business selling his bag lines from his base in Hong Kong. He had made Withit Fashion Bags for many retailers in the past as a licensee and wanted to relaunch the brand he loved. Brad developed a new style guide in association with Watermelon Creative to take the brand into new product areas based on the fact the original fanbase is now adult and would be open to buying into other categories like homewares, gifting and greetings.
The bag range is set to launch early 2021. There will also be a select range of stationery to accompany the bag line. This has come from a business relationship with a Turkish manufacturer that will also be selling the ranges in that market.
As Withit enters its 30th year, Dolph is very much recovered but deals with less in-depth running of the business. He is, however and quite rightly, still considered the face of Withit. He focuses on attending trade shows and events and keeps his networking skills intact as far as possible.
Brad is in the process of overhauling the Withit image into a more digitally aware world with a bigger focus on social media.
He is also designing a range of higher quality apparel for release in Spring which will sell for above typical pricing but will be in limited numbers and act as an aspirational driver for the brand. This will run along a more affordable Print on Demand range.
As brands from the 90’s and 00’s become more retro, Dolph and Brad feel now, more than ever, especially in light of their new product ranges, 2021 is the perfect time to re-establish itself with retailers and licensees alike.
Looking to the future
Talking about the past and their plans for the future, Dolph said, “The brand is a huge body of work and fun that has realised an ambition to take the brand global from those humble beginnings of a small shop in Brighton to making so many kids happy.
I see the brand as this simple idea that just made people smile and became a juggernaut taking itself, and us, on its own world tour. It was a lot of hard work but also a great time as we opened up so many doors around the globe with the brand. Without TV or a movie to back it just proved it had evergreen credentials. People just love its look.”
Brad commented on their plans for the future, “We’re tapping into our heritage while adding a healthy dose of freshness to new product ranges we are launching. Online or in store the brand has the same global appeal its always had.
Our new multi faceted approach to create some product ourselves to sustain awareness combined with competitive licensing to expand and enrich the product offer, we feel is a more dynamic strategy for the next decade.”
This article appears in the winter edition of Total Licensing.