Forever in blue jeans...

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date published: 11 December 2012

Martin meets... Maggie Hughes, boss of famed clothing store Zutti
GETTING Maggie Hughes out of her shop is a challenge in itself... actually getting time to chat with this pert, perky character about life behind the counter (hah!) at Zutti Co these past 32 years is even harder.

I lost count of the number of people who stopped and spoke to my diminutive companion as we walked from her real domain, the sales floor in Yorkshire Street, to the Costa Coffee in Spindles.

“Oooh...I didn’t even know we had one of these,” she coooed with genuine wide-eyed surprise as we marched into what passes for Oldham’s street cafe culture.

And as she looked around the festively decked out malls this mistress of a merchant tailor mused: “I can’t remember that last time I was in here.”

And this from a woman who works nobbut a minute’s walk from Oldham’s town centre shopping offer.

But Maggie’s life is Zutti Co, Merchants Tailors since 1980, and she loves it. In the past eight years — since she last went to Rome, her favourite city — her eternal life has been Oldham’s highest-profile fashion retailer.

Maggie has spent just 24 days out of the shop in those years — eight Christmas Days, eight New Year’s Days and eight Easter Sundays.

By my reckoning that’s 2,896 in the shop and not at home on the Delph-Marsden border with husband Paul and, at times, son Zack. Both of whom work in the business, by the way, so they are always together anyway.

“I love it, I wouldn’t have any other way” she chirruped as we sipped our coffees and munched our festive mince pies while Maggie spoke to, or acknowledged, just about everyone who passed by.

Most people just expressed a silent shock at seeing Maggie somewhere other than the shop... she is that much of a fixture.

Just about any bloke in Oldham with a smidgen of fashion sense must have bought something from her these past 32 years.

Maggie has an unquenchable enthusiasm for her work and seems to be on first names with just about every customer. She is, without fear of challenge, The Ultimate Retailer.

All she needs is a uniform, Zutti Co supplied of course, and you could stick her in Marvel Comics...

Aside from the big chains, Zutti Co has been a constant in the fashion stakes with only the lamented Trilby and the now sadly closed Demolition, as serious competition for most of that time.

But Zutti Co remains and ever more shall be so if Maggie has her way. “I’ve always been in love with fashion,” she told me in that endearing, charming way that has probably sold a million pairs of jeans and even more tee-shirts to the populous of Oldham and beyond.

Oh yes, people come from all over to browse at Zutti Co, confident in the knowledge they will be served by the owner and have access to genuine designer clothing.

It is all a far cry from her early days in Chadderton and later in Failsworth where she was brought up by her single-parent father Bill Reynolds, a guard on the railways. Night shifts meant Bill put 11-year-old Maggie into Whiteacre All Girls’ Boarding School in Clitheroe – “I just loved was such fun!” — and on leaving for the world of work the teenage Maggie took an office job.

But not for long and she soon found herself being trained as a dental nurse at a practice in Failsworth. From here it was a career step (and more money she readily admits) to Manchester Dental Hospital but the fashion bug never left the restless, ambitious would-be entrepreneur so she took to being a fashion buyer and seller in her spare time.

“I would literally buy some jeans from manufacturers in Manchester and then tour the private fashion shops trying to sell them on. I used to knock on doors all over Oldham and Rochdale and eventually I sold a few, and then a few more.”

The jeans manufacturers obviously took a shine to young Maggie — it’s a fact, probably on Wikipedia, that most people do — and directed her to suppliers of tops and knitwear in Nottingham to increase her range. So off she would go in her red Vauxhall Chevanne, collect the goods and whizz them around her small but growing band of suppliers.

And then came the day that changed her life. Forever.

Waiting one morning on the footpath outside a jeans factory in Manchester a certain Paul Hughes took pity on the shivering lass and invited her in for coffee.

The next time they met outside the premises where Paul ran his trouser manufacturing business he invited Maggie for another drink, this time alcoholic and out of business hours and the rest, as they say, is history.

Soon they were looking for premises to open a retain business — Shaw was considered at one point — but they settled on the empty shop in Yorkshire Street which has become home to one of Oldham’s truly enduring and much-loved businesses.

So where did the name from? I ventured as I stole the half of the expensive mince pie that Maggie wasn’t about to finish off. “Well, at that time there was a really cool Italian tennis player called Corrado Barazutti and we going to call the business Barazutti Co... but we decided it was too long and so we’re Zutti Co.”

The name is part of Oldham folklore – an oasis of certainty and calm in a Yorkshire Street retail maelstrom that was once the epicentre of Oldham’s shopping offer.

Sadly the street is now, well, a mishmash of takeaways and charity shops studded with old favourites like Mario’s, Clegg’s Opticians, Mann’s Furniture, Tymbuktu, the Open Fire Centre and, more recently, Muso’s and some healthy competition, Zohm Oumo menswear.

“The days are gone, long gone, when people would come to Oldham for Tommyfield Market and then walk the length of Yorkshire Street. I can’t remember the last time we had any passing trade.”

Those early times were a real challenge for the fledgling business.

“It was days before anyone came through the door, literally days,” said Maggie with a disarming smile that was so natural it was easy to forget she is a hard-bitten retailer.

And a good one, too, for Zutti Co is a respected and renowned name in the fashion scene and, thanks to efforts of techno-whiz son Zack the business has a world wide audience and marketplace via the web.

But it was a struggle. Maggie and Paul married and lived in a semi-detached bungalow in Royton and such were the times they were about to lose their home.

They were rescued by a sale to Paul’s brother and the pair moved into a cockroach-riddled damp dump in downtown Miles Platting. “It had an outside toilet,” Maggie recoiled — or should be be recalled? — and it was three years before they escaped the cheap rent to a small terraced house in Failsworth, where Paul was born and Maggie was raised.

Five years later they were established and they now live in the tranquility of the Pennine foothills —when they ain’t working that it is — and life is much, much better. Well, they now have an inside toilet or two...

The business continues to grow despite the rape of retail trade by internet trading and Maggie recognises that the Asian festivals of Eid have played a major part in the Zutti Co’s growth. “We have a hugely loyal base of customers from the Asian community.”

This support, and the introduction of schoolwear —Zutti Co is the only stockist of uniforms for North Chadderton School and is also a recommended supplier to Royton and Crompton — has seen the business flourish.Oh, and course, there are the tourists.

Many years ago Maggie and Paul took on a Saturday boy, a certain Mark Owen from Copsterhill Road. “He used to put the belts in the Charlie Parker trousers Paul made upstairs,” explained Maggie, adding: “And when we were really busy on Saturdays he would be on the shopfloor.

“He worked for us when he left school before going to work for Barclays Bank in Failsworth.”

Mark still calls in the shop occasionally when he isn’t touring with Take That — yes, it is THAT Mark Owen —and fans of Britain’s biggest ageing boy band frequently call at the shop.

“We had a group over from Italy the last time Take That played Manchester so we gave them all Zutti Co T-shirts. Mark spotted them in the audience and they were sooooo excited they came back to Oldham to tell us before flying home later that morning.”

Maggie probably needs to get a life — or least another break in Rome — but I’m not brave enough to tell her...