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IWC Schaffhausen Transformations: Mr Adam Brown

The Orlebar Brown founder gives us a masterclass in how to successfully change your career

Mr Adam Brown made the biggest change of his life while lying on a sun lounger in India. The founder of Orlebar Brown, purveyors of tailored swim shorts, sweats, shirts and all things that the stylish man wants in his suitcase when he goes on holiday, had just been turned away from a hotel in Rajasthan because he and his friends were wearing swim shorts. No, said the hotel, it’s either trousers or tailored shorts here, leaving the Style Council Member to quietly seethe on his sun lounger. He was, he says, “a bit fed up”.

At that point, he was 41 years old and had been working as a portrait photographer in London for seven years. He was, by most people’s standards, good at what he did. Though, like most successful people, good wasn’t enough for Mr Brown. He wanted to be the best. “I felt that photography was clearly going nowhere,” he says. “I was not a good photographer. There’s a real difference between people who take pictures and real photographers. I knew I was never really going to get the big advertising jobs.” He was “on the lookout for something new”. That something new came to him in the shape of a pair of men’s swim shorts.

Lying there on his lounger, he decided that he would totally change his life and his career. He would give up photography and, despite having no experience, set up a brand selling shorts. The type of swim shorts that wouldn’t get you thrown out of a restaurant at lunch. “I didn’t want a swim short,” he says, “I wanted a short that I could swim in.” On the strength of this simple yet radical idea, he completely turned his life around. He partnered with Ms Julia Simpson-Orlebar, founded the Orlebar Brown brand and set about trying to make a success of it.

What for most of us would seem a daunting transformation didn’t really faze Mr Brown. “I never really worried about it. The process of making products, or the process of working as a freelancer, or anything,” he says. “It’s always just been a sequence of problems to me to be solved. Like anything, you have to find the right people, look for the right advice, and then do it.”

That is exactly what he did. He went back to school, beginning with a fashion start-up course at Portobello Business Centre and then a short course at Central Saint Martins. Within 18 months, despite no previous experience, he had the rudiments of his brand – everything from fabrics to zips – all laid out in his mind. He invested £40,000 of his own money and, in 2007, launched his original tailored swim shorts. A thousand pairs of them, to be exact, and in four different lengths.

Today, 12 years later, Orlebar Brown employs more than 100 staff and has a turnover north of £20m. It no longer just makes swimwear and there are 24 stores around the world. Mr Brown is making inroads in the US market in a big way. South America is new target for him. Last year, Chanel acquired the company.

To say his transformation from photographer to swim short designer was successful might be the understatement of the decade.  It was, by anyone’s standards, a stratospherically good move. What advice does he have for someone who is currently in the position he found himself in all those years ago, when he first contemplated a change of career? It’s simple: don’t worry too much, he says. “Lots of people have many different careers these days. They don’t have to be necessarily related. There are plenty of transferable skills, whether it’s sourcing work or finding the right people, or the right factory, or whether it’s finding your client or your customer.”

More than that though, he says it is important to do something which the excessively proud often overlook: ask questions. “I think people are frightened of asking questions, and actually the thing I found in London is that people are happy to share with you their experience, their knowledge and their contacts. I’ve found people are remarkably generous… and if they’re not, I leave them alone.”

Would he countenance another career change again, were another sun-lounger moment to crop up? “No,” he laughs, “I think, you know, I’m doing all right. Besides, Orlebar Brown has barely started.” And who could doubt that?