“Buy Well, Choose Well; Make it Last” [Dame Vivienne Westwood]

  • By Melissa Wheeler
  • 25 Jun, 2017

How it became hip to be square 

The Shift in Gear

Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast. 

And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”. 

Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.

The Fashion Revolution

If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.

All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.

“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.

The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.

“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”

It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.

Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.

Sustainable Style

Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.

The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.

For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.

Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.

The Green Generation 

Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.

So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.

A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".

What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.

But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?

This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.

Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.

Melissa's Musings....

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Sep, 2017

I like nice things as much as the next gal’. More specifically, I‘ve been told have expensive taste (eeeek)! This is fine when the price-tag is attainable, but most often it’s a sartorial case of my eyes are bigger than my tummy. Said another way, I often can’t afford the stuff I ‘want’ and therefore ‘need’. Ladies – can you relate?

So, as a means of survival I’ve become adept at hunting for the perfect investment piece while avoiding the horror of rifling through Sale rails. Some women thrive on the buzz of the Sale rail; while others – including myself – would rather go without than see beautiful product tossed around like the reduced shelf at Waitrose. When it comes to savvy shopping, I get my dopamine hit from knowing that I’ve just found a unique, beautiful addition to my wardrobe and a timeless investment item. It’s a case of searching off-piste and knowing what quality and eternal style look like amid the abundance of trend-led tat’ (sometimes no other word will suffice!). To be able to decipher between a bargain purchase - in terms of original RRP and selling price - and a bargain investment in the long-term sense is a finely honed skill. A savvy style steal is only a ‘bargain’if the purchase promises longevity and staying power. In other words, if it’s not a whimsical, short-lived sugar-rush fix followed by a ‘why did I buy this?’ mental crash. We’re talking low-GI, sustainable shopping here. I remember one stunning black stretch bodycon dress I bought from Karen Millen a few years ago, just as Spring was springing and the LBD season was effectively over. It’s classic, classy, flattering and effortlessly chic and – at less than 50% it’s RRP – I knew I’d scored a shopping success which felt like a smug secret.

The location of my latest coup was Not on the High Street (NOTHS) – a retail mecca for expertly curated, premium product with personality, provenance and panache – and involved a high value purchase in terms of its problem-solving capability, practicality and effortless class.

Looking for something transitional to update my look in the dying days of Summer and the advent of Autumn - as the prospect of revisiting my autumn wardrobe gives me that annual frisson - I knew I’d scored when I found the Pimlico clutch from London designer Nadia Minkoff . In black and beige, 100% genuine leather, large enough to carry my essential clutter and featuring an intelligent interior design plus the signature tassel, it’s also sufficiently simple to deliver a clean, classy transition to September. Bearing in mind my wardrobe, it was a no-brainer to get my hands on this beauty, which was also reduced to £79 from £108 on the brand’s own site!

For Gin 'O' Clock at the Papermakers Arms - a swanky gastro pub in Sevenoaks, I decided to team it with my ever reliable failsafe Whistles smock dress from SS16, together with some black wedge sandals from Cara London . Planning a bank holiday weekend away, versatility would be key to choosing what to bring, so being able to also pair the clutch with an Aztec print stretch Lycra dress from Oui was very helpful for she who does not travel light. 

I love nothing better than sharing a shopping secret when I find one and, as such, my style muse mother is also now the proud owner of the Pimlico Clutch in cognac and beige which, is currently being acquainted with the South East coast and yachting life in West Mersea, Essex.

As shopping victories go, the Pimlico clutch on NOTHS scores big time. This cheeky purchase is a great example of spotting quality when you see it and compromising on absolutely nothing.

By Melissa Wheeler 09 Aug, 2017

How do you get a slice of a global industry valued at £23 trillion? From designers through to savvy entrepreneurs, it’s not only the charismatic appeal of the fashion industry that continues to draw people to make riches from rags. 

That London is widely recognised as the capital of fashion – valued at £28 billion – having produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, and is also home to Savile Row no doubt helps the grassroots energy on our island. 

The 3 trillion dollar question is, of course, how do you design fashion that sells? What’s the formula for success? How do you produce a bestseller? How can you consistently make clothes that people want to buy? And how do you shape future trends? Surely there’s a formula for success; a common denominator? 

I was recently fortunate enough to listen to two highly respected and – more importantly – successful fashion designers at Pure London , one of the UK’s leading fashion trade shows. They each displayed a strong sense of individuality, firm conviction in their method and solid principles - while also following unorthodox routes to their success - no doubt key ingredients to bottling their respective brand’s DNA. 

Dr Pam Hogg , legendary fashion designer, DJ, rockstar and artist was a keynote speaker at the event, where her unorthodox approach and rule-breaking path to cult status – she designed for the Brit Awards in 2016 – was shared with crowds of students, buyers and fashion press hanging on her every word. 

Self-taught, unorthodox and famously hands-on, Hogg not only designed all her collections but made the majority of them too, while recruiting students to her studio. Initially wanting to be a painter, she harnessed challenges in dressmaking – fastenings, sleeves etc - in order to shape her designs, which emerged from free-hand sketches. Creativity doesn’t get much more hands-on than this! Given the scale of production and resources - no more than 10 units of each style were made in spite of demand - Pam’s brand retained kudos and prestige rarely seen in mass-produced fashion, her strategy of quality over quantity never compromising revenue. A fabulous raconteur, I was especially taken by a few chosen words she shared in her Expect the Unexpected delivery:

Make something new that customers didn’t know they want […] give the unexpected. […] How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”

In her view, a successful fashion brand must “encourage customers to push boundaries, be excited and adventurous” . Indeed, she reiterated how fashion changes how we feel and can alter moods: fashion is “life-changing”.  

And, when it comes to one of the most saturated markets in the world, how do you retain identity and stand out from competitors? “ If you stay true to yourself the essence of your identity becomes apparent”, was the advice of the designer behind the trademark catsuit and one -leg-garter, seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie. 

After she left the stage, what continued to resonate with me was her bravery and fearlessness; her preparedness to be disliked before being adored: 

The greatest gift we have is our individuality. I cannot understand why anyone would want to look the same.” Sage advice in the design studio, as much as in life itself. 

Similarly refreshing was the contribution made by Henry Holland, who followed on the same platform the very next day. 

Preferring the title of creative director of House of Holland , rather than designer, the muse behind the slogan t-shirt studied journalism and worked at Bliss magazine, before finding fame in fashion. As he said himself, there’s no conventional path to success, “ the rule book was ripped up long ago ”. 

Following his 10th anniversary, a successful second collection with Habitat, and on the cusp of launching his own concept store in China, Holland is an ambassador for British fashion and is a product of Fashion East, a group that nurtures fledgling talent. Exploring topics such as the art of effective collaboration and the topical See Now/Buy culture, which he admitted is a “ challenge ”, it was Holland’s words on authenticity which really stayed with me. In a notoriously competitive market continually fending off saturation, his insights on challenging imitation and homogeneity were refreshing pearls of wisdom. 

“My journey has been based on authenticity”, said the somewhat accidental designer. His journey to critical acclaim on the shopfloor of stores such as Browns Focus and Matches began with irreverent printed t-shirts for his ‘fashion groupie’ friends (namely Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon). “Continuity is important for a brand”, he said. “Don’t try to please everyone or copy – stay true to your DNA, USP and identity. […] Personality and tone are important. I always go to great lengths to preserve the playfulness in my brand and that translates to the product”.  

“Some traditional designers consider me an upstart, but I don’t waste energy tackling objectivity. The playful sense of humour and tone of voice is integral to my brand’s DNA”.  

How do you create a winning fashion brand with both individuality and commerciality? “Challenges are opportunities. The rule book has been ripped up. […] There’s no formulaic path or single route to market”.  

Addressing retailers, Holland’s advice was that “to engage the customer and really develop that shopping experience. It’s about theatre, environment and experience. There’s been a radical evolution in consumer behaviour […] there are a lot of unknowns out there right now and uncertainty affects how consumers behave”.  

Following these unorthodox viewpoints and unconventional routes to success, I was then amused by an article profiling Europe’s richest man, Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex (the fashion empire behind high street brands such as Zara , Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka). The humble octogenarian is estimated to be worth £63.2 billion. As business profiles go, the article was noteworthy not only for the founder’s signature low profile but also for the fact that Ortega made his billions from the rag trade.

So, in answer to the initial question ‘How to be a fashion designer’, his approach remains the same as when he set out his principles in 1975. Today, J P Morgan considers Inditex a “ structural winner ” due to its combined store and online services, its “ pull model ” — the way it draws ideas from customers — and its “ nimble supply chain ”. 

Why was I amused? Because while an icon such as Dr Pam Hogg, who clearly knows a thing or two about designing clothes, advises delivering the unexpected – “ How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”  - the founder of Inditex set out with the simple aim of asking women what they wanted and then making clothes based on their requests. Inditex asks shoppers what they want and then designs products accordingly. 

As Holland says, the rule book has indeed been ripped up. And long may the route to fashion success remain gloriously random, unpredictable and subversive.  

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Jun, 2017

The Shift in Gear

Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast. 

And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”. 

Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.

The Fashion Revolution

If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.

All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.

“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.

The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.

“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”

It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.

Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.

Sustainable Style

Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.

The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.

For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.

Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.

The Green Generation 

Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.

So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.

A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".

What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.

But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?

This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.

Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Jun, 2017

Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that  GQ  covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.

To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of  British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born  “super stylist”  will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.

London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As  Dylan Jones, editor of  GQ  says:  “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .

Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.

Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.

One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.

According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to  “spearhead”  the growth and outperform womenswear.

Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says:  “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.

Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s  ‘You’re so vain’  , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is  “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!

Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in  “modern tribes”  that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.

“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”  said Englinde.  “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”

Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said:  “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”

So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:

“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.

By Melissa Wheeler 08 May, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.

Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.

So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.

These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.

I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.  

He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.  

So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?

Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.

Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.

According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.

These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.

It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

By Melissa Wheeler 24 Apr, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life. Alongside soaring inflation, Brexit uncertainty and changing consumer habits, this appears to have been the case for one of Britain’s most cherished luxury fashion houses, who has stolen the headlines these past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons.

On the 11th April, it was disclosed that Jaeger, the fashion retailer whose clothes were once worn by stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, had collapsed into administration, placing nearly 700 jobs at risk.

Directors at the 133-year-old chain confirmed that AlixPartners had been appointed as administrator after its owner, Better Capital, failed to sell the business.  Peter Saville, Ryan Grant, and Catherine Williamson of AlixPartners were appointed joint administrators and the industry watched in horror as this sad story unfolded.

By 18th April, Jaeger had announced the closure of 20 stores and 209 redundancies across its head office, distribution centre and store network, just one week after having fallen into administration.

The closures are said to affect 165 members of staff, who will be paid for the duration of the process. As for the head office, there have been 32 redundancies, and 12 job losses have been incurred at the retailer’s distribution centre.

About 680 staff in 46 shops and 63 concessions as well as Jaeger’s head office and logistics centre are also said to have lost their jobs.

Retailers of this scale and calibre don’t collapse very often, but when the first fractures begin to appear, they tend to crumble and fall fast. As Warren Buffet has famously said , “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. In this sad British story, it took 133 years versus 1 week.

So, what went wrong for the iconic British brand?

Known for its classic British styles and for a distinguished history, dating as far back as supplying clothing for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Jaeger enjoyed an eminent status in the industry. Synonymous with understated confidence, the brand formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections and aspirational style, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

As we know too well, brand identity and strategy are the bed rock of any brand, and when a business reacts to competition and change by compromising that identity and those values, the foundations begin to shake.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said Jaeger had “struggled for years to truly understand its core clientele” trying to appeal to younger shoppers when women over 45 accounted for a fifth of its sales. He said discounting accounted for three quarters of sales. This discouraged shoppers from paying the full price and lessened their trust in Jaeger’s quality. Even a name as eminent as Jaeger was not immune to the discounting drug. Another source described the fashion house as “well and truly broken” while a supplier, despite being directly affected by Jaeger’s demise, confessed that “It was a brand I grew up with, my grandmother just loved it […] I feel very ‘connected’ to it, so I feel I have personally lost something and it saddens me”.

Brand Identity

Agreed, these are tough times for all retailers. It's no picnic out there. “The ingredients are coming together for a very consumer-unfriendly environment over the course of this year,” has said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

Retail sales were down 1.8% in March across the board and estimated at a 1.1% drop for the quarter, largely blamed on inflation and flat wage growth. So, why – and importantly how - are brands such as Ted Baker and JD Sports managing to report such impressive figures?

By the 28th January, Ted Baker sales had soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m. Retail sales were up 15% year on year to £400.7m with sales across UK and Europe increasing 10.7%. Online sales were up 35.1%. As many have noted, Ted Baker has identified precisely who its customer is and invests all its energy and attention in pleasing them and them alone.

Meanwhile, JD Sports Fashion posted another record year as profits before tax soared 81% year on year to £238.4m, largely attributed to the popularity of its core product, sports fashion, otherwise known as ‘athleisure’.

The sad reality is that Jaeger seemed to lose its focus, trying to be too many things to too many customer groups. Known in its heyday as the place to buy smart, well-designed and well-made product – with a few more directional pieces dotted in each collection – the handwriting of the brand became diluted and faintly unrecognisable. Surely, one of the pillars of any brand is to be recognisable by design and silhouette? Indeed, as former director Shailina Parti of Jaeger, who worked at the brand for over 25 years, has said:

“Jaeger understood the importance of a logo well ahead of most luxury brands, developing its “straw” lettering in 1935. There was a point when this unique label appealed internationally and I would say even to this day many would aspire to own a Jaeger coat”.

This is very true. Critically, although Jaeger still has a following from customers looking for classic, high-quality clothing, that group has become much smaller and competition in the market has clearly caused it to lose its way and question its identity.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated the core customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy.

With this identity crisis in freefall, the confidence to sell in the best locations, from Selfridges – where it was the first retailer ever to have space in the store in 1930 – to its iconic store on Regent Street, was no longer sustainable. Although Jaeger did work on its store fit – highlighted by the Marylebone shop opening last October – relaunch its website last July and attempt to improve its product selection, unfortunately, it seems it was too little, too late. Without huge investment, Jaeger was always going to struggle to regain its position in the market. It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

The Precariousness of the Private Label

Much has been said and screeds more will be written on the wounded employees and redundant head office personnel and distributors. This tragic tale leaves many victims in its wake. The high-risk nature of retailing will never change, but there are many voices suggesting that the supplier-retailer system must.

Jaeger suppliers stand to lose significant sums of money and many have called for a change in the law.

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said: “It is all very predictable. It’s time someone started looking at the rules and regulations that allow this to happen. The owner didn’t have the appetite to invest the money required and didn’t engage with the industry to take any advice.” Another source added, “It’s so upsetting”.

So, how does the supplier system work?

I spoke to one private label supplier, who explained that “financially, from the minute I delivered the goods to the warehouse, until I got paid, the risk was always mine”. This is why those suppliers – often, small, independent British businesses, - are left so vulnerable. Having fallen into administration, the retailer thus has no obligation to pay them for their merchandise and this – alarmingly - is standard practice. As a supplier, it’s possible to take out ‘payment protection’ from various brokers, but it’s a costly policy and one which small, independent manufacturers are unlikely to be able to afford. As my source reflected, “I guess that in real terms it would have cost me more to have insured every delivery we made to them, in comparison to what we have lost”.

The resultant impact is a precarious cash flow situation, whereby the maker still has to pay for all the manufacturing/shipping/ testing/delivery, whilst not getting paid, which is why situations like this will always unfortunately end in bankruptcies. For many of Britain’s domestic manufacturers – the sector we should be nurturing, supporting and promoting ahead of Brexit - if they have too much owing by any one customer, who proceeds to crash, they can easily find their business to be insolvent.

There is always the chance that these suppliers may have their claims met by the administrators but in the meantime, what we have is a British fashion story that is at once terribly sad and pertinent, speaking to an industry that must review the way the system works.

As the industry mourns yet another British fashion stalwart, we take a harsh lesson on the importance of brand identity and pleasing your core customer. Equally, the collateral that comes from Jaeger’s demise marks a tragic tale, which calls for a systemic review of supplier-retailer relations if we are to prevent similar scenarios.

In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a very different retailer, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Ultimately, it would seem the public no longer knew quite what Jaeger stood for. Let’s hope that this changes.

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Apr, 2017

One semantic stretch too far? You’d be surprised at how retail reality reflects emerging memes.

More specifically, are we spending more on the way we live rather than the way we might want to live? It’s a case in point as far as consumer spending in the fashion sector is concerned. Yes, it seems that we’ve finally hit on the value of experience rather than ‘stuff’ and, naturally, the market has found a way in which to monetise this.

As the Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire said at the World Retail Congress in Dubai earlier this month, “the next generation is behaving differently, spending differently and interacting differently,” he said. “To them it is experience, not stuff that matters”.

A prime example of this is pattern ‘athleisure’, a term first used in 1976 in an advert for trainers. Over the past 7 years, the sector has grown by over 42% and is now estimated to be worth over £7 billion to the UK market. Suzanne Calvert, Debenhams trading director said at last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum “ Athleisure is a trend which is not going away ”, citing that the retailer’s sales of trainers were up 15% in the womenswear department.

As a society, the winner here is wellbeing and our willingness to invest in it. I’ve written before about fashion’s direct relation to feelings – it isn’t just about frocks - and nowhere is this more apparent than the unstoppable march of athleisure. Just as we resort to checking our Instagram feed to boost our dopamine levels, so too do are we rediscovering the mood-altering impact of feeling good and looking good simultaneously. “This idea of being healthy and sporty and fit has become the new sexy,” says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. From beauty-enhancing supplements to the rapid growth of athleisure, there has never been a better time for fashion companies to tap into the health and wellness sector.

Let’s take ASOS as example, who revealed that its sales soared by 37% year on year to £911.5m in the six months to 28 February. George Mensah, an analyst at Shore Capital, had predicted 18% sales growth in Britain, where he said Asos had continued “to build up its presence in the activewear market” . The pureplay etailer, who will produce its own activewear label later this year, launched an activewear collection in January, featuring brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, alongside the sportswear collections of some better known womenswear brands such as Ted Baker, New Look, Free People and Missguided.

As women, what we are seeing is the direct correlation between feeling good and feminism. Yes, there’s a strong argument that ‘Girl Power’ has fuelled what is now estimated to be an $1.7trn global industry, neatly coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of women participating in sport, rather than just looking the part.

From Nike’s Better for It through to Sport England’s phenomenal success with the This Girl Can campaign, the internal dialogue of athleisure is very much one of female empowerment. The semiotics of the category contains more than a few threads of a feisty feminism. Who would have thought supermodels such as Gigi would become kick boxing pin ups and that office-to-gym wear would enter our daily lexicon?

There’s no question that flattering fitness clothing incentivises the prospect of a heady HiiT session and the ability to extend this feel-good factor by (sometimes smugly) wearing our gym gear to the shops afterwards is an added bonus. Activewear (which encompasses leggings) has become the new denim – an essential for any self-respecting womenswear retailer. Indeed, 15 years ago passengers might have been barred from boarding a First Class flights on account of their jeans, which evolved into jeggings, which, morphed into, yes, leggings. Activewear is clearly a trend with legs and we are seeing feminism take some sartorial strides forward as a result.

There’s an implication here – echoed by the protests concerning compulsory heels in the workplace – that women are making a stand, substituting self-consciousness and objectification with self-investment and self-improvement. This is borne out by sales figures in lifestyle purchases. PWC has modelled the growth of the premium lifestyle sector at 6.6% between 2014 and 2020 and – in respect of technical performance wear - many athleisure brands sit in this category. It follows that at a time of biting inflation with soaring living costs, our attention is most likely to focus on frequent benefits rather than occasional ones.  

While many brands not commonly associated with sports clothing are now cashing in on athleisure, some of those first off the starting blocks continue to hold their ground on these new upstarts.The off-duty look sported by supermodels from Karlie Kloss to Gigi Hadid - as they casually run errands in the city with a green juice in hand – has boosted the appeal and relevance of the sector’s pioneers, such as ELLESPORT and Sweaty Betty , whose names both allude to their heroines. Confirming their girl power ethos is the latter’s mission statement: “to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness” and ELLESPORT will always be synonymous with ELLE, one of the world’s highest selling women’s fashion magazines. Neither is footwear missing out on the action, with Fit Flops branching out into trainers fit for fashion.

Tamara and Simon Hill-Norton launched the Sweaty Betty brand in 1998. During the early years their customers were American expats in Notting Hill and the first wave of affluent yoga fanatics. Ten years later, the business burst into the mainstream on the back of a surge in people seeking active lifestyles, and a raft of shops opened across the country.

“It was around 2012 and the London Olympics that this way of dressing progressed beyond the yoga studio became a new way of dressing in the UK,” said Mr Hill-Norton. “Since early 2015 activewear has definitely moved from the studio to the street, and if the US is anything to go by, we are only at the very beginning of a big change in the way women dress”.

A fashion distributor who is always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’ is Love Brands Ltd, UK distributors of ELLESPORT and Drapers Award Winner 2015.

Love Brands Co-founder Michael Shalders confirms the seamless adjacency that activewear now has with mainstream fashion: “The brand has enormous credibility as a forerunner in a very relevant sector which is enjoying a ‘moment’. It gives retailers an entry into that sector while blending fluently with womenswear collections and seems to deliver that niche and specialism which buyers are looking for.”  

This fashion marks a shift away from objectification towards feminine functionality. You know a fashion category has earned its place in our wardrobe when it pushes boundaries. Just as loungewear saw the onesie reach mainstream, so too do we have athleisure brands embracing the jumpsuit.   Onepiece UK , a brand built around the art of slacking, conceptualised the carefree Sunday-style with what must be the natural evolution of activewear. Producing re-engineered jumpsuits, the entry of the onesie into athleisure is surely the sartorial license to lounge and what better sisterly statement is that? As the brand says itself, ‘comfort brings confidence’ and no woman knows this better than she who’s hiked home in a pair of 6 inch heels.

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Apr, 2017

There are many factors which determine a brand or retailer’s rate of sales or success as business and one of those often overlooked is brand identity. Many retailers, and designers, will recall those moments of puzzlement at the failure of a beautifully made, high quality item to capture the interest of consumers over and above a vastly inferior product.

“I just can’t understand why it didn’t sell?” is a common lament from designers and retailers when faced with an abundance of end-of-season stock.

Although it’s natural to believe that the design and manufacturing of the product or collection is of utmost importance, young designers and new businesses must place as much, if not more, emphasis on developing the right brand values and strategy for their company from the very beginning.

45% of a brand’s image can be attributed to what it says and how it says it (Content Marketing Institute)

In fashion, as in other creative industries, people tend to think you just need a great idea. Sadly, for those immensely proud of their product and inspired by their idea, this isn’t the case. In order to sell, you need a brand story. Too many businesses focus on the what rather the why . Brands need to give customers a reason to believe what they are doing, especially in such a saturated market as the fashion industry. If your brand doesn’t have story, a rival brand will.

Developing a brand story, plus the core values, positioning, takes time. This is the case even if a designer or businessperson is clear about where their gap in the market lies and how the product will look. If there’s one thing which small business owners and new designers are often short of it is time. Running a small business can involve a spider’s web of time-sapping procedures from PAYE, Business Rates, Tax Returns, HR, Accounts through to myriad crippling red-tape processes. Furthermore, creating effective and targeted marketing editorial is very difficult to do oneself. On so many occasions, after producing a client’s home page, brochure editorial or magazine interview, they have said to me: “Wow. Is that me? I could never have captured the essence of the business like that”. It’s very hard to take an objective view of your business and convey that in such a way as to capture the interest of your target customer.

I advise my clients to ask themselves the why before starting on developing a strong identity platform. Condensing your core values and the reason for doing what you do can be the crucial factor in determining your point of difference from competitors. Sum up what you do in a few words. When sales are slow or competitors unsettle your confidence, those words and core values will serve as a branding buoyancy aid. Equipped with that knowledge and understanding, I am able to bottle your brand with words which resonate with your customer and convey the intangible. This is what shapes your brand identity.

Consistency is key

In the social media age, it’s essential to have a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and twitter, besides a solid website and intelligent LinkedIn profile. And, as the content marketing world knows all too well, consistency is the key to establishing strong, long-term relationships with a customer base.

It’s notoriously hard to build a brand on a budget. Investment is essential, which is why so many start-ups and small businesses fail within the first 3 years. While 91% of start-ups service one year of trading, this figures falls to 4 in 10 after 5 years, according the www.smallbusiness.co.uk , and this is rarely due to poor product.

Dedication, passion, perseverance, trust in your instinct and the ability to take knock-backs are the qualities that are mentioned again and again when you ask what it takes to launch a successful brand. Only with those ingredients will a brand grow both organically and with a sense of authenticity and 80% of consumers said “authenticity of content” is the most influential factor in their decision to become a follower of a brand.

What small businesses do not need and what few can afford is an agency or full service marketing group to foster their image. Furthermore, many businesses may have a single project that needs achieving rather than a long-term service. As a freelance writer, I can tailor a package to suit your needs and take delight in using words to build a brand.

If any of the above resonates with you or stokes your interest, please do Like this post, comment to contact me and/or share this with any entrepreneur who might want to get in touch.

 

 

 

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 30 Mar, 2017

Ascot for All

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century counterculture hero who left his world to live in a hut, said to beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes. By his account, we must be very wary of Ascot and other events where a newly bought wardrobe of coruscating novelty and shimmering offensiveness is the price of entry.

One of the great successes of contemporary life is the democratisation of luxury: exclusive goods and experiences are widely available across the price spectrum. Once, travellers took a lot of baggage — Louis Vuitton trunks and liveried bearers. Now, the more sophisticated you are, the more likely you are to get on a plane carrying no more than a smartphone and a carry-on bag.

Just as Ascot eventually opened up its Royal enclosure to Joe Public, so too has occasion wear experienced something of a democratisation in recent years. We all want to attend and/or participate in London Fashion Week; see the runway shows; to wear something designed by an international fashion house (even if it’s a capsule collection commissioned for H&M or Debenhams) and to connect with our style idols on Instagram, and this desire has grown to embrace occasion wear. Versatility and value for money have become watchwords for those shopping for formal events. For the womenswear retail industry, I am talking specifically weddings, formal events, parties and the races, the sartorial needs of which have hitherto been dominated by household names with price tags exceeding the £1000 ballpark. A few years ago, affordability was rarely a factor and the MOTB’s outfit was often budgeted for under the overall wedding cost. For decades, the co-ordinated dress, jacket and hat had represented the iconic image of the traditional and conventionally accepted wedding outfit, only occasionally usurped by the 3 piece combination. This was the silhouette, structure, style and indeed the safety which the majority of women aspired to, in advance of their son or daughter’s wedding or an invitation to the Royal Enclosure. While this formula still works in many cases, it is no longer the standard convention.

Versatility & Affordability

In recent years, the demand on the shop floor has seen the rails adapting to reflect changes in lifestyle, priorities, attitude and a new willingness among customers to invest in a formal multi-use outfit. “I’d like something which I can wear again” , became the popular refrain often followed by “I don’t want something structured. I’d like to get away from the typical MOTB look”.

As with all these shifts in consumer behaviour, the occasion wear designers and retailers had no option other than adapt while the high street took note of a gap in the market.  

Topshop, Lipsy and L ittle Mistress have all launched bridal collections this spring, becoming the latest in a long line of brands and retailers expanding into occasion wear and following in the footsteps of Whistles, Missguided, Asos and Ted Baker. There’s also been an influx of new occasion wear brands offering pretty, trend-driven dresses at competitive price points. As the category for party wear triumphs, so too has the price architecture for ready to wear been broadened.

When a brand more commonly known for producing traditional kilts enters the occasion wear market, it’s very clear that this category is in demand. Tarak Ramzan’s owned Quiz - that started out making kilts 70 years ago – has disclosed plans to float on the London Stock Exchange as soon as this year. The Glasgow-based clothing business is reportedly exploring all viable options for a £200 million stock market listing of their fast-fashion.

“Quiz is a fast growing brand with a number of very exciting growth opportunities,” a Quiz spokesman recently told the Press, when asked about this news. “We will always consider all options.”

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Ted Baker is a good example of a commercial, high street success which has found a sweet spot in pricing and  nurtures a strong identity and style. Reported last month, sales soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m for the year to 28 January, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m.

Retail sales at the business were up 15% year on year to £400.7million. Online sales were up 35.1%. Wholesale sales were up 20.9%, while license income rose by 26.8%.

Ted Baker chief executive Ray Kelvin said the business traded well despite a backdrop of “ongoing challenges across global markets”.

He added: “Our spring collections have been well received and we have a clear strategy for continued growth across both established and newer markets. This is underpinned by controlled distribution across channels as well as the design; quality and attention to detail that are at the core of everything we do.”

So, what does this mean in the independent retailers and those brands not listed on the London Stock Exchange?

"Ted Baker is our key brand for occasion wear,” says Jeremy Clayton, owner of the award winning fashion boutique Javelin, in Bury St Edmunds . “The range is large enough so that we can buy to suit your own store and not look like the typical Ted Baker shop on the high street. We’re careful about not buying too much print and the tailoring is usually well made and relatively affordable".

Price matters. Especially since younger customers are showing strong interest in dressing-up . “The average age of our Ted Baker customer is mid-30s,” says Claire Southgate, womenswear and accessories buyer for Javelin . “The Ted customer is getting younger and the shorter; skater shape dresses really appeal to them as they can be re-purposed for other occasions […]We also have local races, so the brand is perfect for such events too”.  

So, what are these customers paying on a Ted Baker swing label? The average price for a Ted Baker dress ranges from £140-170. Javelin confirmed that the entry price point for a camisole sits at £39, while the bestselling printed fitted tee comes in at £49. “The highest priced items are the really special 'wow' dresses, which peak at £249.”

The Hemline Index  

It’s not hard to see why we are reacquainting ourselves with the extravagance, power and feminine formality of occasion wear right now. Fashion and clothes are mood-enhancing. We wear what we want  to ‘feel’; we enjoy wearing a ‘costume’ that reflects how we want to be perceived; we use fashion to challenge how we might feel, enhance our mood and ultimately to look our best. This is a concept first espoused by the economist George Taylor in 1926 and noted by celebrities and stylists alike. The theory suggests that hemlines on women's dresses rise along with stock prices. In strong economies, we get such results as miniskirts (as seen in the 1920s and the 1960s), or in poor economic times, as shown by the 1929 Wall Street crash, hems can drop almost overnight.

Few categories have the ability to flatter a woman and raise her spirits more than elegant dresses; floor-skimming femininity; thigh-grazing full skirts and body-con outfits, so it’s no wonder that, with economic uncertainty and a host of other political and financial challenges on the horizon, the fashion industry is expanding the remit of the ‘occasion’ and making this niche more inclusive.

Youth & Individuality

I also spoke to British designer and retailer James Lakeland , of the eponymous brand, who reiterated this pattern, from the position of a designer.

“From the high street through to the specialised boutique, it’s becoming clear that women want to look younger and more modern for weddings and all occasions. This is the most challenging and complex market in which to trade”, says Lakeland. “The women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels, are now getting ready for their sons’ and daughters’ weddings and they don't want the matching dress and coat, together with co-ordinated shoes and bags”.

Sure, many of us might still seek an outfit which “covers the arms”, but the condition remains the same: “I don’t want to look frumpy”.

Indicative of this shift in priorities and the search for value and versatility is James Lakeland’s bestseller for SS17 . “We are focusing on new outfits, brighter colours and bold prints. The stripy all in one trouser jumpsuit has really taken off, as has the zip jacket from the same collection. This really surprised me and made me realize that I should never be scared to move on”.

Responsive Retailers

From the retailer’s perspective, an authority on this sector is Martha Fraser. The owner of Martha V , an independent boutique located in Newmarket, located 5 minutes from the racecourse, the boutique presents a strong example of this rise in versatile, affordable occasion wear.

Martha Fraser, who founded Martha V in 2009, has recently seen this category exceed growth expectations. “The weddings part of my business has increased over 30% during the last two years. Most of this turnover takes place during the first 3 months of the year, in preparation for all the summer weddings and horse races,” says Fraser. While the boutique owner has introduced a broader range of accessible price points, the average spend on one of their wedding outfits is £500.

“We have found that ladies are steering away from the traditional Mother of the Bride look and opting for something a bit different”. This is something I well recall from experience in my mother’s boutique, Ambiance of Colchester, which met the wardrobe needs of many women across East Anglia for over 30 years.

In terms of the Mother of the Bride or Groom, Martha Fraser cites their most successful style this season as an example : “For example, a very popular outfit for us for SS17 has been a Veni Infantino pink and navy dress with wide pleats and a Jackie Onassis style jacket. Veni Infantino also had a striking dress, which has proven to be a popular look for mothers looking for an alternative to the classic dress and jacket”.

Meeting demand from the younger age-groups and young mothers is Dress Code . “It’s a more contemporary look popular with the influx of younger mums that we’ve seen. They're starting to look for their outfit much earlier, often visiting us a year in advance, ” says the boutique owner.

Multi-Occasion Wear

Someone else who knows a thing or two about this market is Joanna Edwards. Having initially been immersed in her mother’s independent occasion wear boutique, La Belle Femme - which closed after 50 years last month - Edwards now runs a successful fashion agency under her own name; the Joanna Edwards Agency . The democratisation of occasionwear fashion is something which she too has noted over the past few years.

“We still see the professional Mother of the Bride who will book her appointment 6 months in advance, try everything, gain the approval of the entire wedding party and then buy the shoes, handbag and hat to match, but these days there is a new breed of MOB, Mother of the Groom, guest, bridesmaid and even bride”, says Edwards.

Despite the demand to project luxury and glamour on our backs, affordability and versatility remain crucial.

“Gone are the days that the month wage outfit would sit in the back of the wardrobe gathering dust. That outfit now must be able to be separated. The jacket must be worn with trousers for the golf club lunch or palazzo pants for cruising”, continues the agent for leading brands including Xenia Design, Carla Ruiz and Paola Collection. The dress must take the wearer to “a friend’s wedding, the races or on holiday with a mere swap of footwear or wrap”. Edwards gives the example of her SS17 bestseller: “One of our on-trend Spanish outfits would set you back a mere £300 pounds, which is pennies in comparison to the beads and glamour of a high end occasion wear brand”.

The question for retailers and designers competing in this growing market is, as ever, this: What do women want?

“Our occasion wear buyer wants the fabric, trimming and quality for a reasonable, affordable price and they can now find it on the high street with the likes of Whistles, Ted Baker and even ASOS. The growth of our Spanish and Polish brands is testament to this development”. In comparison to the high street, many independent brands serving the Ready to Wear womenswear market offer customers a more exclusive, equally affordable and superior design and fit and these USPs will become increasingly important as the sector becomes more populated.

It’s not all about frocks

Fashion has never been about just the clothes. (Stay with me on this…). It’s about so much more than that. It’s a communication tool, the semiotics of which is well understood by celebrity fashion stylists. These A-list frock brokers have become indispensable to the likes of Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Tom Hiddleston, who says Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is “one of the best things ever to happen to me” (imagine!) Perhaps the most famous stylist is Rachel Zoe, who made her name styling Nicole Richie, had her own reality TV series and is now a designer. One of the reasons why occasion wear and – more specifically ‘dressing up’ – is flourishing is precisely because of the way it makes us feel. In the words of Rachel Zoe, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak” and thus it has immense power. Fashion can also be a mood-enhancer to alter the way we feel, rather than reflect it. As one of Britain’s most iconic and expertly styled musical artists Paloma Faith, has said, “Dressing up is like therapy; I feel better in myself when I've made an effort” . So, fashion is not all about frocks. Brands and retailers who understand this will have a ball this season.

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Mar, 2017

Be careful what you wish for...

In terms of seismology, the recent tremors shaking up the retail industry will have pushed the Richter scale to its limit.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the challenges and uncertainties faced by UK high street retailers today, besides the Digital Revolution and the increasing importance of innovation: we have post-Brexit trading agreements; the National Living Wage, the prospect of quarterly tax returns (now delayed by 1 year), exorbitant price rises courtesy of a weak Sterling; 1.8 % inflation. 

Sales of clothes, shoes and other non-food items have fallen for the first time in almost six years as households appear to have tightened their purse strings in the face of rising inflation.

In the three months to February non-food retail sales shrank by 0.4 per cent on a like-for-like basis, according to the monthly retail sales monitor produced by the British Retail Consortium and KPMG. It was the first quarterly fall since November 2011.

The broader measure of all retail sales also shrank by 0.4 per cent for the month of February, a slight improvement on January’s 0.6 per cent decline, but the overall picture remained bleak.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: “Tougher times are expected ahead. The impact of inflation on consumer spending will add further intensity to an already fiercely competitive environment in which the ability to adapt and innovate will be key to survival.

The persistent weak sales performance of several non-food categories points to an undeniable trend of cautious spending on non-essential items.”

This list has now been extended further thanks to the – lest it need repeating – the long-overdue publication of the Business Rates revaluation. Having been calling for this much-needed revaluation to an archaic system for several years, it may well be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ for many small businesses.

A 'sticking plaster' for shopkeepers

The revaluation of business rates was delivered with the Spring Budget and an assurance from the Chancellor Philip Hammond that “I am listening to the voice of business” and, to be fair to Spreadsheet Phil – as they call him at Westminster – in many ways he does appear to be trying to balance out the books as fairly as possible.

So, to recap on this‘inappropriate system’which has left small traditional retailers reeling in horror and the fashion industry fretting slightly more than usual:

Ahead of the revaluation, we’ve seen sausage rolls on sale for £8.61 (explained below!) and Amazon receive another helping hand in the shape of an approximate annual rates cut of £148,000. Everything retailers would not wish for ahead of the “unexpected challenges”, predicted by Chancellor Philip Hammond, in a post-Brexit economy.

Providing an industry viewpoint, Alan Hawkins, Chief Executive Officer at the British Independent Retailers Association (bira) issued a statement last week, in advance of the Budget: “In 2014 the Chancellor announced a full structural review of business rates– all that has happened is a change to the appeals system and sticking plasters to the antiquated and unfair structure. We need fundamental reform and quick. The Government have clearly stated their support of the Great British High Street in these tumultuous times but now they have to demonstrate it and Phillip Hammond needs to listen in advance of the Budget”.

In this respect, and in the interest of a rapidly diminishing ‘nation of shopkeepers’, bira is recommending the Government takes immediate action on business rates to genuinely help our Great British High Street in the challenging and uncertain trading climate. bira recommends the following three points.

1. Government to issue an immediate retail-specific business rate relief payment of £1500 as seen in Wales

2. Change the £12,000 threshold to a £12,000 allowance, for all retail businesses. [1]

3. A fundamental reform of the rating system creating a completely new and fair rating structure for modern retailing. A fundamental review was promised by the last Chancellor in 2014.”

Returning to the proverbial coalface – the shopfloor - a number of retailers – mainly independents - have been very vocal. When we look at the figures involved, it’s not hard to see the cause of their indignance. With retail paying 22% of all the rates collected, while contributing only 5% of the UK’s gross value added, there is a huge imbalance.

Sausage rolls and Southwold

The sausage rolls scenario makes a pertinent point.

Rebecca Bishop put sausage rolls priced at £8.17 in the window of Two Magpies, the bakery and pizzeria she runs in Southwold, Suffolk. It was a mild-mannered protest at the huge rise in business rates due in April.

Bishop, 50, said her annual bill was set to jump by almost £10,000 because her shop’s rateable value had gone from £7,200 to £25,500, making her ineligible for small business relief.

“I can’t put my prices up,” she told the Times — a point made by the sausage rolls in the window, which are 177% more expensive than the usual £2.95. “None of these increases in Southwold is going to come from sales. It’s all going to come off the bottom line, so what that means is either retraction or closure.”

Indeed, the choice for such retailers merits the rock and a hard place analogy and contradicts the Government’s purported ‘support for the British High Street’. A recent survey by rates specialist CVS found that 200,000 businesses in England and Wales – or one in eight – were brought before a magistrate in 2015/16 for unpaid business rates.

Southwold – an example of the sort of small UK High Street we are urged to patronise and support - is forecast to be the biggest loser from this year’s revaluation of the controversial £24 billion-a-year tax on commercial property. The seaside town’s business rates are on course to rise by about 177% on average, threatening the livelihoods of its many independent shopkeepers. It’s a picture that will be replicated across other affluent towns and cities, where property values have risen since the last revaluation. Some independent retailers might argue that a cash-strapped Treasury – with a net deficit of £47.8 billion - has glanced around the country, identified the strongest retail areas most able to generate revenue for a ‘Brexit war-chest’ and raided the retailers?

So, how will it affect other independents facing the steepest rises? Returning to Southwold, I spoke to Lyn Knights, the owner of the iconic independent fashion department store Denny of Southwold , which is currently celebrating its 165th anniversary and welcomes website visitors thus : “Denny’s has been in my family for five generations, we have clothed the rich and famous since 1851. Today, we pride ourselves in continuing this tradition in our lovely town”.  

The business owner explained that “my family business Denny of Southwold had been trading in the town for 165 years, but I wonder how much longer I can survive with such a huge rate increase of 185%”. The fifth generation owner then added that “the smaller shops will obviously disappear, to be replaced by more charity shops and chain stores”.

Illustrating the baffling inconsistencies of the revaluation, Knights noted how “Woodbridge (approximately 40 miles away) has been given a rent increase of only 5 %. It does seem very unfair”.

An 'inappropriate system'

Southwold is not an isolated case.

One only need venture 50 miles to learn of a very different scenario. Jeremy Clayton, owner of independent fashion store Javelin , with stores in Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, empathised with those hit the hardest, while his town had been affected more moderately:

“The revaluation has had a fairly neutral effect in the 2 locations where we trade. […] However, our troubles in Sudbury pale to insignificance when compared to another small Suffolk town Southwold. Their situation – which has received national press – will see business rates there are rising by an average of 173%”.

Clayton then cited the example that “the Butchers has been trading continuously since the Eighteenth century but will have to find a rates payable rise of £1000/month! This situation will really be the acid test of whether the Government cares at all for what diversity is left on the British High Street”.

The retail reality isn’t much better in Ely, a 45 minute drive from the historic market town of Bury St Edmunds.

Sarah Simonds, owner of womenswear independent Artichoke , with boutiques in Ely (Cambridgeshire) and Swaffham (Norfolk), was equally impassioned, saying that she had contacted her MP before the topic hit the headlines.

“It’s such an inappropriate tax and the methods of calculating them are absolutely archaic. […] If any independent retailer wishes to ruin their day they only need calculate the amount of indirect tax that they pay - 20% Vat; plus business rates (in my case £13,000 per annum, since I run two shops and no longer qualify for relief); PAYE for staff and corporation tax [...]”.

Simonds succinctly added that “I pay more indirect tax than I earn and I am sure I am not alone”.

The raw reality is just that. The words and feelings of the retailers themselves speak volumes and show the widespread sense of injustice felt and the need for business groups and associations to work together to fight their side.

“It is outrageous that small businesses are asked to pay such high levels of taxation because the government is either unwilling or unable to hold the multinationals to account. I understand that Amazon's business rates are going up by 2% - how can that be justified? I can understand why the Government wants a property tax in place but if it were calculated on turnover it would at least create a level playing field”.

'Transitional Relief' or tokenism take-away?

Well, Lyn Knights, Jeremy Clayton, Sarah Simonds and others trading in those regions taking the brunt of the business rates bombshell, might (or might not) take some succour from what the Chancellor ultimately announced in the Spring Budget.

In an effort to take account of the justified horror of many small businesses competing with etailers, the leading headline was – naturally – the £435 million handout in cuts to support those businesses most affected, the much-vaunted and eagerly anticipated ‘transitional relief’.

This means that no small business which is coming out of small business rates relief will pay more than £600 more in business rates this year than they did in 2016-17. Increases will be capped at £50/month for those in this situation, estimated to affect 600,000 retailers.

There is also the local authority dimension, which could potentially offer a region-specific financial cushion. Funding for local authorities will allow them to provide £300 million of discretionary relief to help to businesses most affected by the revaluation. Let’s hope these local councils distribute this justly and that retailers actually see some of this money.

Witnessing as I do the demise of my local high street and the pandemic of closed and empty shops, I sincerely hope that our inspiring independents receive the very best of the support that’s available to them until the a more suitable system be put in place.

Another grievance that many retailers face is the standard of local business services, so I thought it important to remind ourselves what the £25 billion raised in business rates revenue each year serves to fund. This is a crucial point when we hear that Amazon’s turnover will equal or pass that of M&S in three to five years’ time, largely because it has very little property. This imposes a very big competitive disadvantage on a store such as M&S and exemplifies the High Street 'problem'. It's vital that the streets are maintained well by local authorities, that car parking fees are feasible, that graffiti, vandalism and security improve and that the overall kerb-appeal of bricks-and-mortar retailers is supported and funded. 

Any better ideas?

This raises serious questions for independent retailers. Why should one retailer pay large sums to support local services, but another retailer selling much the same goods and amounts pay next to nothing?

A busy shopping high street is valued by the community it serves, indeed has a much higher value than an out-of-town internet-based retailing distribution warehouse. So why impose, relatively speaking, much higher taxes on the high street than on the internet retailer? At the worst, this tax differential is helping to kill off the high street.

It’s all very easy to say what isn’t working but it’s helpful to hear alternatives ideas. Various experts have shared their alternatives to the current system.

Some suggest the answer may be to incorporate elements of turnover or profit into the rateable value assessment. Hotels and pubs are already valued on the basis of their turnover – perhaps this should be extended to retailing, or indeed to all sectors? It seems pretty obvious to me - tax proportional to profit - but then I'm far from fluent in finance.

Radical change along any of these lines is needed; otherwise an unintended consequence of ‘sticking plaster’ repairs may be to accelerate the shift to internet commerce simply through tax advantages. This would be a travesty given that we know that the beauty and romance of real retail and shopping is about the experience, not just the price tag. It’s also been mooted that we could move to annual revaluations. The Dutch do it; so can we.

And, with Britain's public houses closing at a rate of knots, let’s not forget this thirst-quenching give-away also announced today, especially since many shopkeepers will need a stiff drink at the end of this week:

From April 2017, pubs with a rateable value up to £100,000 will be able to claim a £1,000 business rates discount for one year.

Cheers Phil. Make it a double. No ice…

Philip Hammond

[1]  Jones Lang LaSalle research for bira March 2014

 

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Melissa's Musings....

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Sep, 2017

I like nice things as much as the next gal’. More specifically, I‘ve been told have expensive taste (eeeek)! This is fine when the price-tag is attainable, but most often it’s a sartorial case of my eyes are bigger than my tummy. Said another way, I often can’t afford the stuff I ‘want’ and therefore ‘need’. Ladies – can you relate?

So, as a means of survival I’ve become adept at hunting for the perfect investment piece while avoiding the horror of rifling through Sale rails. Some women thrive on the buzz of the Sale rail; while others – including myself – would rather go without than see beautiful product tossed around like the reduced shelf at Waitrose. When it comes to savvy shopping, I get my dopamine hit from knowing that I’ve just found a unique, beautiful addition to my wardrobe and a timeless investment item. It’s a case of searching off-piste and knowing what quality and eternal style look like amid the abundance of trend-led tat’ (sometimes no other word will suffice!). To be able to decipher between a bargain purchase - in terms of original RRP and selling price - and a bargain investment in the long-term sense is a finely honed skill. A savvy style steal is only a ‘bargain’if the purchase promises longevity and staying power. In other words, if it’s not a whimsical, short-lived sugar-rush fix followed by a ‘why did I buy this?’ mental crash. We’re talking low-GI, sustainable shopping here. I remember one stunning black stretch bodycon dress I bought from Karen Millen a few years ago, just as Spring was springing and the LBD season was effectively over. It’s classic, classy, flattering and effortlessly chic and – at less than 50% it’s RRP – I knew I’d scored a shopping success which felt like a smug secret.

The location of my latest coup was Not on the High Street (NOTHS) – a retail mecca for expertly curated, premium product with personality, provenance and panache – and involved a high value purchase in terms of its problem-solving capability, practicality and effortless class.

Looking for something transitional to update my look in the dying days of Summer and the advent of Autumn - as the prospect of revisiting my autumn wardrobe gives me that annual frisson - I knew I’d scored when I found the Pimlico clutch from London designer Nadia Minkoff . In black and beige, 100% genuine leather, large enough to carry my essential clutter and featuring an intelligent interior design plus the signature tassel, it’s also sufficiently simple to deliver a clean, classy transition to September. Bearing in mind my wardrobe, it was a no-brainer to get my hands on this beauty, which was also reduced to £79 from £108 on the brand’s own site!

For Gin 'O' Clock at the Papermakers Arms - a swanky gastro pub in Sevenoaks, I decided to team it with my ever reliable failsafe Whistles smock dress from SS16, together with some black wedge sandals from Cara London . Planning a bank holiday weekend away, versatility would be key to choosing what to bring, so being able to also pair the clutch with an Aztec print stretch Lycra dress from Oui was very helpful for she who does not travel light. 

I love nothing better than sharing a shopping secret when I find one and, as such, my style muse mother is also now the proud owner of the Pimlico Clutch in cognac and beige which, is currently being acquainted with the South East coast and yachting life in West Mersea, Essex.

As shopping victories go, the Pimlico clutch on NOTHS scores big time. This cheeky purchase is a great example of spotting quality when you see it and compromising on absolutely nothing.

By Melissa Wheeler 09 Aug, 2017

How do you get a slice of a global industry valued at £23 trillion? From designers through to savvy entrepreneurs, it’s not only the charismatic appeal of the fashion industry that continues to draw people to make riches from rags. 

That London is widely recognised as the capital of fashion – valued at £28 billion – having produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, and is also home to Savile Row no doubt helps the grassroots energy on our island. 

The 3 trillion dollar question is, of course, how do you design fashion that sells? What’s the formula for success? How do you produce a bestseller? How can you consistently make clothes that people want to buy? And how do you shape future trends? Surely there’s a formula for success; a common denominator? 

I was recently fortunate enough to listen to two highly respected and – more importantly – successful fashion designers at Pure London , one of the UK’s leading fashion trade shows. They each displayed a strong sense of individuality, firm conviction in their method and solid principles - while also following unorthodox routes to their success - no doubt key ingredients to bottling their respective brand’s DNA. 

Dr Pam Hogg , legendary fashion designer, DJ, rockstar and artist was a keynote speaker at the event, where her unorthodox approach and rule-breaking path to cult status – she designed for the Brit Awards in 2016 – was shared with crowds of students, buyers and fashion press hanging on her every word. 

Self-taught, unorthodox and famously hands-on, Hogg not only designed all her collections but made the majority of them too, while recruiting students to her studio. Initially wanting to be a painter, she harnessed challenges in dressmaking – fastenings, sleeves etc - in order to shape her designs, which emerged from free-hand sketches. Creativity doesn’t get much more hands-on than this! Given the scale of production and resources - no more than 10 units of each style were made in spite of demand - Pam’s brand retained kudos and prestige rarely seen in mass-produced fashion, her strategy of quality over quantity never compromising revenue. A fabulous raconteur, I was especially taken by a few chosen words she shared in her Expect the Unexpected delivery:

Make something new that customers didn’t know they want […] give the unexpected. […] How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”

In her view, a successful fashion brand must “encourage customers to push boundaries, be excited and adventurous” . Indeed, she reiterated how fashion changes how we feel and can alter moods: fashion is “life-changing”.  

And, when it comes to one of the most saturated markets in the world, how do you retain identity and stand out from competitors? “ If you stay true to yourself the essence of your identity becomes apparent”, was the advice of the designer behind the trademark catsuit and one -leg-garter, seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie. 

After she left the stage, what continued to resonate with me was her bravery and fearlessness; her preparedness to be disliked before being adored: 

The greatest gift we have is our individuality. I cannot understand why anyone would want to look the same.” Sage advice in the design studio, as much as in life itself. 

Similarly refreshing was the contribution made by Henry Holland, who followed on the same platform the very next day. 

Preferring the title of creative director of House of Holland , rather than designer, the muse behind the slogan t-shirt studied journalism and worked at Bliss magazine, before finding fame in fashion. As he said himself, there’s no conventional path to success, “ the rule book was ripped up long ago ”. 

Following his 10th anniversary, a successful second collection with Habitat, and on the cusp of launching his own concept store in China, Holland is an ambassador for British fashion and is a product of Fashion East, a group that nurtures fledgling talent. Exploring topics such as the art of effective collaboration and the topical See Now/Buy culture, which he admitted is a “ challenge ”, it was Holland’s words on authenticity which really stayed with me. In a notoriously competitive market continually fending off saturation, his insights on challenging imitation and homogeneity were refreshing pearls of wisdom. 

“My journey has been based on authenticity”, said the somewhat accidental designer. His journey to critical acclaim on the shopfloor of stores such as Browns Focus and Matches began with irreverent printed t-shirts for his ‘fashion groupie’ friends (namely Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon). “Continuity is important for a brand”, he said. “Don’t try to please everyone or copy – stay true to your DNA, USP and identity. […] Personality and tone are important. I always go to great lengths to preserve the playfulness in my brand and that translates to the product”.  

“Some traditional designers consider me an upstart, but I don’t waste energy tackling objectivity. The playful sense of humour and tone of voice is integral to my brand’s DNA”.  

How do you create a winning fashion brand with both individuality and commerciality? “Challenges are opportunities. The rule book has been ripped up. […] There’s no formulaic path or single route to market”.  

Addressing retailers, Holland’s advice was that “to engage the customer and really develop that shopping experience. It’s about theatre, environment and experience. There’s been a radical evolution in consumer behaviour […] there are a lot of unknowns out there right now and uncertainty affects how consumers behave”.  

Following these unorthodox viewpoints and unconventional routes to success, I was then amused by an article profiling Europe’s richest man, Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex (the fashion empire behind high street brands such as Zara , Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka). The humble octogenarian is estimated to be worth £63.2 billion. As business profiles go, the article was noteworthy not only for the founder’s signature low profile but also for the fact that Ortega made his billions from the rag trade.

So, in answer to the initial question ‘How to be a fashion designer’, his approach remains the same as when he set out his principles in 1975. Today, J P Morgan considers Inditex a “ structural winner ” due to its combined store and online services, its “ pull model ” — the way it draws ideas from customers — and its “ nimble supply chain ”. 

Why was I amused? Because while an icon such as Dr Pam Hogg, who clearly knows a thing or two about designing clothes, advises delivering the unexpected – “ How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”  - the founder of Inditex set out with the simple aim of asking women what they wanted and then making clothes based on their requests. Inditex asks shoppers what they want and then designs products accordingly. 

As Holland says, the rule book has indeed been ripped up. And long may the route to fashion success remain gloriously random, unpredictable and subversive.  

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Jun, 2017

The Shift in Gear

Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast. 

And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”. 

Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.

The Fashion Revolution

If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.

All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.

“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.

The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.

“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”

It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.

Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.

Sustainable Style

Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.

The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.

For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.

Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.

The Green Generation 

Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.

So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.

A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".

What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.

But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?

This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.

Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Jun, 2017

Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that  GQ  covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.

To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of  British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born  “super stylist”  will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.

London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As  Dylan Jones, editor of  GQ  says:  “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .

Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.

Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.

One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.

According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to  “spearhead”  the growth and outperform womenswear.

Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says:  “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.

Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s  ‘You’re so vain’  , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is  “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!

Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in  “modern tribes”  that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.

“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”  said Englinde.  “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”

Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said:  “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”

So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:

“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.

By Melissa Wheeler 08 May, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.

Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.

So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.

These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.

I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.  

He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.  

So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?

Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.

Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.

According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.

These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.

It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

By Melissa Wheeler 24 Apr, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life. Alongside soaring inflation, Brexit uncertainty and changing consumer habits, this appears to have been the case for one of Britain’s most cherished luxury fashion houses, who has stolen the headlines these past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons.

On the 11th April, it was disclosed that Jaeger, the fashion retailer whose clothes were once worn by stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, had collapsed into administration, placing nearly 700 jobs at risk.

Directors at the 133-year-old chain confirmed that AlixPartners had been appointed as administrator after its owner, Better Capital, failed to sell the business.  Peter Saville, Ryan Grant, and Catherine Williamson of AlixPartners were appointed joint administrators and the industry watched in horror as this sad story unfolded.

By 18th April, Jaeger had announced the closure of 20 stores and 209 redundancies across its head office, distribution centre and store network, just one week after having fallen into administration.

The closures are said to affect 165 members of staff, who will be paid for the duration of the process. As for the head office, there have been 32 redundancies, and 12 job losses have been incurred at the retailer’s distribution centre.

About 680 staff in 46 shops and 63 concessions as well as Jaeger’s head office and logistics centre are also said to have lost their jobs.

Retailers of this scale and calibre don’t collapse very often, but when the first fractures begin to appear, they tend to crumble and fall fast. As Warren Buffet has famously said , “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. In this sad British story, it took 133 years versus 1 week.

So, what went wrong for the iconic British brand?

Known for its classic British styles and for a distinguished history, dating as far back as supplying clothing for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Jaeger enjoyed an eminent status in the industry. Synonymous with understated confidence, the brand formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections and aspirational style, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

As we know too well, brand identity and strategy are the bed rock of any brand, and when a business reacts to competition and change by compromising that identity and those values, the foundations begin to shake.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said Jaeger had “struggled for years to truly understand its core clientele” trying to appeal to younger shoppers when women over 45 accounted for a fifth of its sales. He said discounting accounted for three quarters of sales. This discouraged shoppers from paying the full price and lessened their trust in Jaeger’s quality. Even a name as eminent as Jaeger was not immune to the discounting drug. Another source described the fashion house as “well and truly broken” while a supplier, despite being directly affected by Jaeger’s demise, confessed that “It was a brand I grew up with, my grandmother just loved it […] I feel very ‘connected’ to it, so I feel I have personally lost something and it saddens me”.

Brand Identity

Agreed, these are tough times for all retailers. It's no picnic out there. “The ingredients are coming together for a very consumer-unfriendly environment over the course of this year,” has said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

Retail sales were down 1.8% in March across the board and estimated at a 1.1% drop for the quarter, largely blamed on inflation and flat wage growth. So, why – and importantly how - are brands such as Ted Baker and JD Sports managing to report such impressive figures?

By the 28th January, Ted Baker sales had soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m. Retail sales were up 15% year on year to £400.7m with sales across UK and Europe increasing 10.7%. Online sales were up 35.1%. As many have noted, Ted Baker has identified precisely who its customer is and invests all its energy and attention in pleasing them and them alone.

Meanwhile, JD Sports Fashion posted another record year as profits before tax soared 81% year on year to £238.4m, largely attributed to the popularity of its core product, sports fashion, otherwise known as ‘athleisure’.

The sad reality is that Jaeger seemed to lose its focus, trying to be too many things to too many customer groups. Known in its heyday as the place to buy smart, well-designed and well-made product – with a few more directional pieces dotted in each collection – the handwriting of the brand became diluted and faintly unrecognisable. Surely, one of the pillars of any brand is to be recognisable by design and silhouette? Indeed, as former director Shailina Parti of Jaeger, who worked at the brand for over 25 years, has said:

“Jaeger understood the importance of a logo well ahead of most luxury brands, developing its “straw” lettering in 1935. There was a point when this unique label appealed internationally and I would say even to this day many would aspire to own a Jaeger coat”.

This is very true. Critically, although Jaeger still has a following from customers looking for classic, high-quality clothing, that group has become much smaller and competition in the market has clearly caused it to lose its way and question its identity.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated the core customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy.

With this identity crisis in freefall, the confidence to sell in the best locations, from Selfridges – where it was the first retailer ever to have space in the store in 1930 – to its iconic store on Regent Street, was no longer sustainable. Although Jaeger did work on its store fit – highlighted by the Marylebone shop opening last October – relaunch its website last July and attempt to improve its product selection, unfortunately, it seems it was too little, too late. Without huge investment, Jaeger was always going to struggle to regain its position in the market. It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

The Precariousness of the Private Label

Much has been said and screeds more will be written on the wounded employees and redundant head office personnel and distributors. This tragic tale leaves many victims in its wake. The high-risk nature of retailing will never change, but there are many voices suggesting that the supplier-retailer system must.

Jaeger suppliers stand to lose significant sums of money and many have called for a change in the law.

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said: “It is all very predictable. It’s time someone started looking at the rules and regulations that allow this to happen. The owner didn’t have the appetite to invest the money required and didn’t engage with the industry to take any advice.” Another source added, “It’s so upsetting”.

So, how does the supplier system work?

I spoke to one private label supplier, who explained that “financially, from the minute I delivered the goods to the warehouse, until I got paid, the risk was always mine”. This is why those suppliers – often, small, independent British businesses, - are left so vulnerable. Having fallen into administration, the retailer thus has no obligation to pay them for their merchandise and this – alarmingly - is standard practice. As a supplier, it’s possible to take out ‘payment protection’ from various brokers, but it’s a costly policy and one which small, independent manufacturers are unlikely to be able to afford. As my source reflected, “I guess that in real terms it would have cost me more to have insured every delivery we made to them, in comparison to what we have lost”.

The resultant impact is a precarious cash flow situation, whereby the maker still has to pay for all the manufacturing/shipping/ testing/delivery, whilst not getting paid, which is why situations like this will always unfortunately end in bankruptcies. For many of Britain’s domestic manufacturers – the sector we should be nurturing, supporting and promoting ahead of Brexit - if they have too much owing by any one customer, who proceeds to crash, they can easily find their business to be insolvent.

There is always the chance that these suppliers may have their claims met by the administrators but in the meantime, what we have is a British fashion story that is at once terribly sad and pertinent, speaking to an industry that must review the way the system works.

As the industry mourns yet another British fashion stalwart, we take a harsh lesson on the importance of brand identity and pleasing your core customer. Equally, the collateral that comes from Jaeger’s demise marks a tragic tale, which calls for a systemic review of supplier-retailer relations if we are to prevent similar scenarios.

In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a very different retailer, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Ultimately, it would seem the public no longer knew quite what Jaeger stood for. Let’s hope that this changes.

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Apr, 2017

One semantic stretch too far? You’d be surprised at how retail reality reflects emerging memes.

More specifically, are we spending more on the way we live rather than the way we might want to live? It’s a case in point as far as consumer spending in the fashion sector is concerned. Yes, it seems that we’ve finally hit on the value of experience rather than ‘stuff’ and, naturally, the market has found a way in which to monetise this.

As the Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire said at the World Retail Congress in Dubai earlier this month, “the next generation is behaving differently, spending differently and interacting differently,” he said. “To them it is experience, not stuff that matters”.

A prime example of this is pattern ‘athleisure’, a term first used in 1976 in an advert for trainers. Over the past 7 years, the sector has grown by over 42% and is now estimated to be worth over £7 billion to the UK market. Suzanne Calvert, Debenhams trading director said at last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum “ Athleisure is a trend which is not going away ”, citing that the retailer’s sales of trainers were up 15% in the womenswear department.

As a society, the winner here is wellbeing and our willingness to invest in it. I’ve written before about fashion’s direct relation to feelings – it isn’t just about frocks - and nowhere is this more apparent than the unstoppable march of athleisure. Just as we resort to checking our Instagram feed to boost our dopamine levels, so too do are we rediscovering the mood-altering impact of feeling good and looking good simultaneously. “This idea of being healthy and sporty and fit has become the new sexy,” says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. From beauty-enhancing supplements to the rapid growth of athleisure, there has never been a better time for fashion companies to tap into the health and wellness sector.

Let’s take ASOS as example, who revealed that its sales soared by 37% year on year to £911.5m in the six months to 28 February. George Mensah, an analyst at Shore Capital, had predicted 18% sales growth in Britain, where he said Asos had continued “to build up its presence in the activewear market” . The pureplay etailer, who will produce its own activewear label later this year, launched an activewear collection in January, featuring brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, alongside the sportswear collections of some better known womenswear brands such as Ted Baker, New Look, Free People and Missguided.

As women, what we are seeing is the direct correlation between feeling good and feminism. Yes, there’s a strong argument that ‘Girl Power’ has fuelled what is now estimated to be an $1.7trn global industry, neatly coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of women participating in sport, rather than just looking the part.

From Nike’s Better for It through to Sport England’s phenomenal success with the This Girl Can campaign, the internal dialogue of athleisure is very much one of female empowerment. The semiotics of the category contains more than a few threads of a feisty feminism. Who would have thought supermodels such as Gigi would become kick boxing pin ups and that office-to-gym wear would enter our daily lexicon?

There’s no question that flattering fitness clothing incentivises the prospect of a heady HiiT session and the ability to extend this feel-good factor by (sometimes smugly) wearing our gym gear to the shops afterwards is an added bonus. Activewear (which encompasses leggings) has become the new denim – an essential for any self-respecting womenswear retailer. Indeed, 15 years ago passengers might have been barred from boarding a First Class flights on account of their jeans, which evolved into jeggings, which, morphed into, yes, leggings. Activewear is clearly a trend with legs and we are seeing feminism take some sartorial strides forward as a result.

There’s an implication here – echoed by the protests concerning compulsory heels in the workplace – that women are making a stand, substituting self-consciousness and objectification with self-investment and self-improvement. This is borne out by sales figures in lifestyle purchases. PWC has modelled the growth of the premium lifestyle sector at 6.6% between 2014 and 2020 and – in respect of technical performance wear - many athleisure brands sit in this category. It follows that at a time of biting inflation with soaring living costs, our attention is most likely to focus on frequent benefits rather than occasional ones.  

While many brands not commonly associated with sports clothing are now cashing in on athleisure, some of those first off the starting blocks continue to hold their ground on these new upstarts.The off-duty look sported by supermodels from Karlie Kloss to Gigi Hadid - as they casually run errands in the city with a green juice in hand – has boosted the appeal and relevance of the sector’s pioneers, such as ELLESPORT and Sweaty Betty , whose names both allude to their heroines. Confirming their girl power ethos is the latter’s mission statement: “to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness” and ELLESPORT will always be synonymous with ELLE, one of the world’s highest selling women’s fashion magazines. Neither is footwear missing out on the action, with Fit Flops branching out into trainers fit for fashion.

Tamara and Simon Hill-Norton launched the Sweaty Betty brand in 1998. During the early years their customers were American expats in Notting Hill and the first wave of affluent yoga fanatics. Ten years later, the business burst into the mainstream on the back of a surge in people seeking active lifestyles, and a raft of shops opened across the country.

“It was around 2012 and the London Olympics that this way of dressing progressed beyond the yoga studio became a new way of dressing in the UK,” said Mr Hill-Norton. “Since early 2015 activewear has definitely moved from the studio to the street, and if the US is anything to go by, we are only at the very beginning of a big change in the way women dress”.

A fashion distributor who is always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’ is Love Brands Ltd, UK distributors of ELLESPORT and Drapers Award Winner 2015.

Love Brands Co-founder Michael Shalders confirms the seamless adjacency that activewear now has with mainstream fashion: “The brand has enormous credibility as a forerunner in a very relevant sector which is enjoying a ‘moment’. It gives retailers an entry into that sector while blending fluently with womenswear collections and seems to deliver that niche and specialism which buyers are looking for.”  

This fashion marks a shift away from objectification towards feminine functionality. You know a fashion category has earned its place in our wardrobe when it pushes boundaries. Just as loungewear saw the onesie reach mainstream, so too do we have athleisure brands embracing the jumpsuit.   Onepiece UK , a brand built around the art of slacking, conceptualised the carefree Sunday-style with what must be the natural evolution of activewear. Producing re-engineered jumpsuits, the entry of the onesie into athleisure is surely the sartorial license to lounge and what better sisterly statement is that? As the brand says itself, ‘comfort brings confidence’ and no woman knows this better than she who’s hiked home in a pair of 6 inch heels.

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Apr, 2017

There are many factors which determine a brand or retailer’s rate of sales or success as business and one of those often overlooked is brand identity. Many retailers, and designers, will recall those moments of puzzlement at the failure of a beautifully made, high quality item to capture the interest of consumers over and above a vastly inferior product.

“I just can’t understand why it didn’t sell?” is a common lament from designers and retailers when faced with an abundance of end-of-season stock.

Although it’s natural to believe that the design and manufacturing of the product or collection is of utmost importance, young designers and new businesses must place as much, if not more, emphasis on developing the right brand values and strategy for their company from the very beginning.

45% of a brand’s image can be attributed to what it says and how it says it (Content Marketing Institute)

In fashion, as in other creative industries, people tend to think you just need a great idea. Sadly, for those immensely proud of their product and inspired by their idea, this isn’t the case. In order to sell, you need a brand story. Too many businesses focus on the what rather the why . Brands need to give customers a reason to believe what they are doing, especially in such a saturated market as the fashion industry. If your brand doesn’t have story, a rival brand will.

Developing a brand story, plus the core values, positioning, takes time. This is the case even if a designer or businessperson is clear about where their gap in the market lies and how the product will look. If there’s one thing which small business owners and new designers are often short of it is time. Running a small business can involve a spider’s web of time-sapping procedures from PAYE, Business Rates, Tax Returns, HR, Accounts through to myriad crippling red-tape processes. Furthermore, creating effective and targeted marketing editorial is very difficult to do oneself. On so many occasions, after producing a client’s home page, brochure editorial or magazine interview, they have said to me: “Wow. Is that me? I could never have captured the essence of the business like that”. It’s very hard to take an objective view of your business and convey that in such a way as to capture the interest of your target customer.

I advise my clients to ask themselves the why before starting on developing a strong identity platform. Condensing your core values and the reason for doing what you do can be the crucial factor in determining your point of difference from competitors. Sum up what you do in a few words. When sales are slow or competitors unsettle your confidence, those words and core values will serve as a branding buoyancy aid. Equipped with that knowledge and understanding, I am able to bottle your brand with words which resonate with your customer and convey the intangible. This is what shapes your brand identity.

Consistency is key

In the social media age, it’s essential to have a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and twitter, besides a solid website and intelligent LinkedIn profile. And, as the content marketing world knows all too well, consistency is the key to establishing strong, long-term relationships with a customer base.

It’s notoriously hard to build a brand on a budget. Investment is essential, which is why so many start-ups and small businesses fail within the first 3 years. While 91% of start-ups service one year of trading, this figures falls to 4 in 10 after 5 years, according the www.smallbusiness.co.uk , and this is rarely due to poor product.

Dedication, passion, perseverance, trust in your instinct and the ability to take knock-backs are the qualities that are mentioned again and again when you ask what it takes to launch a successful brand. Only with those ingredients will a brand grow both organically and with a sense of authenticity and 80% of consumers said “authenticity of content” is the most influential factor in their decision to become a follower of a brand.

What small businesses do not need and what few can afford is an agency or full service marketing group to foster their image. Furthermore, many businesses may have a single project that needs achieving rather than a long-term service. As a freelance writer, I can tailor a package to suit your needs and take delight in using words to build a brand.

If any of the above resonates with you or stokes your interest, please do Like this post, comment to contact me and/or share this with any entrepreneur who might want to get in touch.

 

 

 

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 30 Mar, 2017

Ascot for All

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century counterculture hero who left his world to live in a hut, said to beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes. By his account, we must be very wary of Ascot and other events where a newly bought wardrobe of coruscating novelty and shimmering offensiveness is the price of entry.

One of the great successes of contemporary life is the democratisation of luxury: exclusive goods and experiences are widely available across the price spectrum. Once, travellers took a lot of baggage — Louis Vuitton trunks and liveried bearers. Now, the more sophisticated you are, the more likely you are to get on a plane carrying no more than a smartphone and a carry-on bag.

Just as Ascot eventually opened up its Royal enclosure to Joe Public, so too has occasion wear experienced something of a democratisation in recent years. We all want to attend and/or participate in London Fashion Week; see the runway shows; to wear something designed by an international fashion house (even if it’s a capsule collection commissioned for H&M or Debenhams) and to connect with our style idols on Instagram, and this desire has grown to embrace occasion wear. Versatility and value for money have become watchwords for those shopping for formal events. For the womenswear retail industry, I am talking specifically weddings, formal events, parties and the races, the sartorial needs of which have hitherto been dominated by household names with price tags exceeding the £1000 ballpark. A few years ago, affordability was rarely a factor and the MOTB’s outfit was often budgeted for under the overall wedding cost. For decades, the co-ordinated dress, jacket and hat had represented the iconic image of the traditional and conventionally accepted wedding outfit, only occasionally usurped by the 3 piece combination. This was the silhouette, structure, style and indeed the safety which the majority of women aspired to, in advance of their son or daughter’s wedding or an invitation to the Royal Enclosure. While this formula still works in many cases, it is no longer the standard convention.

Versatility & Affordability

In recent years, the demand on the shop floor has seen the rails adapting to reflect changes in lifestyle, priorities, attitude and a new willingness among customers to invest in a formal multi-use outfit. “I’d like something which I can wear again” , became the popular refrain often followed by “I don’t want something structured. I’d like to get away from the typical MOTB look”.

As with all these shifts in consumer behaviour, the occasion wear designers and retailers had no option other than adapt while the high street took note of a gap in the market.  

Topshop, Lipsy and L ittle Mistress have all launched bridal collections this spring, becoming the latest in a long line of brands and retailers expanding into occasion wear and following in the footsteps of Whistles, Missguided, Asos and Ted Baker. There’s also been an influx of new occasion wear brands offering pretty, trend-driven dresses at competitive price points. As the category for party wear triumphs, so too has the price architecture for ready to wear been broadened.

When a brand more commonly known for producing traditional kilts enters the occasion wear market, it’s very clear that this category is in demand. Tarak Ramzan’s owned Quiz - that started out making kilts 70 years ago – has disclosed plans to float on the London Stock Exchange as soon as this year. The Glasgow-based clothing business is reportedly exploring all viable options for a £200 million stock market listing of their fast-fashion.

“Quiz is a fast growing brand with a number of very exciting growth opportunities,” a Quiz spokesman recently told the Press, when asked about this news. “We will always consider all options.”

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Ted Baker is a good example of a commercial, high street success which has found a sweet spot in pricing and  nurtures a strong identity and style. Reported last month, sales soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m for the year to 28 January, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m.

Retail sales at the business were up 15% year on year to £400.7million. Online sales were up 35.1%. Wholesale sales were up 20.9%, while license income rose by 26.8%.

Ted Baker chief executive Ray Kelvin said the business traded well despite a backdrop of “ongoing challenges across global markets”.

He added: “Our spring collections have been well received and we have a clear strategy for continued growth across both established and newer markets. This is underpinned by controlled distribution across channels as well as the design; quality and attention to detail that are at the core of everything we do.”

So, what does this mean in the independent retailers and those brands not listed on the London Stock Exchange?

"Ted Baker is our key brand for occasion wear,” says Jeremy Clayton, owner of the award winning fashion boutique Javelin, in Bury St Edmunds . “The range is large enough so that we can buy to suit your own store and not look like the typical Ted Baker shop on the high street. We’re careful about not buying too much print and the tailoring is usually well made and relatively affordable".

Price matters. Especially since younger customers are showing strong interest in dressing-up . “The average age of our Ted Baker customer is mid-30s,” says Claire Southgate, womenswear and accessories buyer for Javelin . “The Ted customer is getting younger and the shorter; skater shape dresses really appeal to them as they can be re-purposed for other occasions […]We also have local races, so the brand is perfect for such events too”.  

So, what are these customers paying on a Ted Baker swing label? The average price for a Ted Baker dress ranges from £140-170. Javelin confirmed that the entry price point for a camisole sits at £39, while the bestselling printed fitted tee comes in at £49. “The highest priced items are the really special 'wow' dresses, which peak at £249.”

The Hemline Index  

It’s not hard to see why we are reacquainting ourselves with the extravagance, power and feminine formality of occasion wear right now. Fashion and clothes are mood-enhancing. We wear what we want  to ‘feel’; we enjoy wearing a ‘costume’ that reflects how we want to be perceived; we use fashion to challenge how we might feel, enhance our mood and ultimately to look our best. This is a concept first espoused by the economist George Taylor in 1926 and noted by celebrities and stylists alike. The theory suggests that hemlines on women's dresses rise along with stock prices. In strong economies, we get such results as miniskirts (as seen in the 1920s and the 1960s), or in poor economic times, as shown by the 1929 Wall Street crash, hems can drop almost overnight.

Few categories have the ability to flatter a woman and raise her spirits more than elegant dresses; floor-skimming femininity; thigh-grazing full skirts and body-con outfits, so it’s no wonder that, with economic uncertainty and a host of other political and financial challenges on the horizon, the fashion industry is expanding the remit of the ‘occasion’ and making this niche more inclusive.

Youth & Individuality

I also spoke to British designer and retailer James Lakeland , of the eponymous brand, who reiterated this pattern, from the position of a designer.

“From the high street through to the specialised boutique, it’s becoming clear that women want to look younger and more modern for weddings and all occasions. This is the most challenging and complex market in which to trade”, says Lakeland. “The women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels, are now getting ready for their sons’ and daughters’ weddings and they don't want the matching dress and coat, together with co-ordinated shoes and bags”.

Sure, many of us might still seek an outfit which “covers the arms”, but the condition remains the same: “I don’t want to look frumpy”.

Indicative of this shift in priorities and the search for value and versatility is James Lakeland’s bestseller for SS17 . “We are focusing on new outfits, brighter colours and bold prints. The stripy all in one trouser jumpsuit has really taken off, as has the zip jacket from the same collection. This really surprised me and made me realize that I should never be scared to move on”.

Responsive Retailers

From the retailer’s perspective, an authority on this sector is Martha Fraser. The owner of Martha V , an independent boutique located in Newmarket, located 5 minutes from the racecourse, the boutique presents a strong example of this rise in versatile, affordable occasion wear.

Martha Fraser, who founded Martha V in 2009, has recently seen this category exceed growth expectations. “The weddings part of my business has increased over 30% during the last two years. Most of this turnover takes place during the first 3 months of the year, in preparation for all the summer weddings and horse races,” says Fraser. While the boutique owner has introduced a broader range of accessible price points, the average spend on one of their wedding outfits is £500.

“We have found that ladies are steering away from the traditional Mother of the Bride look and opting for something a bit different”. This is something I well recall from experience in my mother’s boutique, Ambiance of Colchester, which met the wardrobe needs of many women across East Anglia for over 30 years.

In terms of the Mother of the Bride or Groom, Martha Fraser cites their most successful style this season as an example : “For example, a very popular outfit for us for SS17 has been a Veni Infantino pink and navy dress with wide pleats and a Jackie Onassis style jacket. Veni Infantino also had a striking dress, which has proven to be a popular look for mothers looking for an alternative to the classic dress and jacket”.

Meeting demand from the younger age-groups and young mothers is Dress Code . “It’s a more contemporary look popular with the influx of younger mums that we’ve seen. They're starting to look for their outfit much earlier, often visiting us a year in advance, ” says the boutique owner.

Multi-Occasion Wear

Someone else who knows a thing or two about this market is Joanna Edwards. Having initially been immersed in her mother’s independent occasion wear boutique, La Belle Femme - which closed after 50 years last month - Edwards now runs a successful fashion agency under her own name; the Joanna Edwards Agency . The democratisation of occasionwear fashion is something which she too has noted over the past few years.

“We still see the professional Mother of the Bride who will book her appointment 6 months in advance, try everything, gain the approval of the entire wedding party and then buy the shoes, handbag and hat to match, but these days there is a new breed of MOB, Mother of the Groom, guest, bridesmaid and even bride”, says Edwards.

Despite the demand to project luxury and glamour on our backs, affordability and versatility remain crucial.

“Gone are the days that the month wage outfit would sit in the back of the wardrobe gathering dust. That outfit now must be able to be separated. The jacket must be worn with trousers for the golf club lunch or palazzo pants for cruising”, continues the agent for leading brands including Xenia Design, Carla Ruiz and Paola Collection. The dress must take the wearer to “a friend’s wedding, the races or on holiday with a mere swap of footwear or wrap”. Edwards gives the example of her SS17 bestseller: “One of our on-trend Spanish outfits would set you back a mere £300 pounds, which is pennies in comparison to the beads and glamour of a high end occasion wear brand”.

The question for retailers and designers competing in this growing market is, as ever, this: What do women want?

“Our occasion wear buyer wants the fabric, trimming and quality for a reasonable, affordable price and they can now find it on the high street with the likes of Whistles, Ted Baker and even ASOS. The growth of our Spanish and Polish brands is testament to this development”. In comparison to the high street, many independent brands serving the Ready to Wear womenswear market offer customers a more exclusive, equally affordable and superior design and fit and these USPs will become increasingly important as the sector becomes more populated.

It’s not all about frocks

Fashion has never been about just the clothes. (Stay with me on this…). It’s about so much more than that. It’s a communication tool, the semiotics of which is well understood by celebrity fashion stylists. These A-list frock brokers have become indispensable to the likes of Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and Tom Hiddleston, who says Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is “one of the best things ever to happen to me” (imagine!) Perhaps the most famous stylist is Rachel Zoe, who made her name styling Nicole Richie, had her own reality TV series and is now a designer. One of the reasons why occasion wear and – more specifically ‘dressing up’ – is flourishing is precisely because of the way it makes us feel. In the words of Rachel Zoe, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak” and thus it has immense power. Fashion can also be a mood-enhancer to alter the way we feel, rather than reflect it. As one of Britain’s most iconic and expertly styled musical artists Paloma Faith, has said, “Dressing up is like therapy; I feel better in myself when I've made an effort” . So, fashion is not all about frocks. Brands and retailers who understand this will have a ball this season.

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Mar, 2017

Be careful what you wish for...

In terms of seismology, the recent tremors shaking up the retail industry will have pushed the Richter scale to its limit.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the challenges and uncertainties faced by UK high street retailers today, besides the Digital Revolution and the increasing importance of innovation: we have post-Brexit trading agreements; the National Living Wage, the prospect of quarterly tax returns (now delayed by 1 year), exorbitant price rises courtesy of a weak Sterling; 1.8 % inflation. 

Sales of clothes, shoes and other non-food items have fallen for the first time in almost six years as households appear to have tightened their purse strings in the face of rising inflation.

In the three months to February non-food retail sales shrank by 0.4 per cent on a like-for-like basis, according to the monthly retail sales monitor produced by the British Retail Consortium and KPMG. It was the first quarterly fall since November 2011.

The broader measure of all retail sales also shrank by 0.4 per cent for the month of February, a slight improvement on January’s 0.6 per cent decline, but the overall picture remained bleak.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: “Tougher times are expected ahead. The impact of inflation on consumer spending will add further intensity to an already fiercely competitive environment in which the ability to adapt and innovate will be key to survival.

The persistent weak sales performance of several non-food categories points to an undeniable trend of cautious spending on non-essential items.”

This list has now been extended further thanks to the – lest it need repeating – the long-overdue publication of the Business Rates revaluation. Having been calling for this much-needed revaluation to an archaic system for several years, it may well be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ for many small businesses.

A 'sticking plaster' for shopkeepers

The revaluation of business rates was delivered with the Spring Budget and an assurance from the Chancellor Philip Hammond that “I am listening to the voice of business” and, to be fair to Spreadsheet Phil – as they call him at Westminster – in many ways he does appear to be trying to balance out the books as fairly as possible.

So, to recap on this‘inappropriate system’which has left small traditional retailers reeling in horror and the fashion industry fretting slightly more than usual:

Ahead of the revaluation, we’ve seen sausage rolls on sale for £8.61 (explained below!) and Amazon receive another helping hand in the shape of an approximate annual rates cut of £148,000. Everything retailers would not wish for ahead of the “unexpected challenges”, predicted by Chancellor Philip Hammond, in a post-Brexit economy.

Providing an industry viewpoint, Alan Hawkins, Chief Executive Officer at the British Independent Retailers Association (bira) issued a statement last week, in advance of the Budget: “In 2014 the Chancellor announced a full structural review of business rates– all that has happened is a change to the appeals system and sticking plasters to the antiquated and unfair structure. We need fundamental reform and quick. The Government have clearly stated their support of the Great British High Street in these tumultuous times but now they have to demonstrate it and Phillip Hammond needs to listen in advance of the Budget”.

In this respect, and in the interest of a rapidly diminishing ‘nation of shopkeepers’, bira is recommending the Government takes immediate action on business rates to genuinely help our Great British High Street in the challenging and uncertain trading climate. bira recommends the following three points.

1. Government to issue an immediate retail-specific business rate relief payment of £1500 as seen in Wales

2. Change the £12,000 threshold to a £12,000 allowance, for all retail businesses. [1]

3. A fundamental reform of the rating system creating a completely new and fair rating structure for modern retailing. A fundamental review was promised by the last Chancellor in 2014.”

Returning to the proverbial coalface – the shopfloor - a number of retailers – mainly independents - have been very vocal. When we look at the figures involved, it’s not hard to see the cause of their indignance. With retail paying 22% of all the rates collected, while contributing only 5% of the UK’s gross value added, there is a huge imbalance.

Sausage rolls and Southwold

The sausage rolls scenario makes a pertinent point.

Rebecca Bishop put sausage rolls priced at £8.17 in the window of Two Magpies, the bakery and pizzeria she runs in Southwold, Suffolk. It was a mild-mannered protest at the huge rise in business rates due in April.

Bishop, 50, said her annual bill was set to jump by almost £10,000 because her shop’s rateable value had gone from £7,200 to £25,500, making her ineligible for small business relief.

“I can’t put my prices up,” she told the Times — a point made by the sausage rolls in the window, which are 177% more expensive than the usual £2.95. “None of these increases in Southwold is going to come from sales. It’s all going to come off the bottom line, so what that means is either retraction or closure.”

Indeed, the choice for such retailers merits the rock and a hard place analogy and contradicts the Government’s purported ‘support for the British High Street’. A recent survey by rates specialist CVS found that 200,000 businesses in England and Wales – or one in eight – were brought before a magistrate in 2015/16 for unpaid business rates.

Southwold – an example of the sort of small UK High Street we are urged to patronise and support - is forecast to be the biggest loser from this year’s revaluation of the controversial £24 billion-a-year tax on commercial property. The seaside town’s business rates are on course to rise by about 177% on average, threatening the livelihoods of its many independent shopkeepers. It’s a picture that will be replicated across other affluent towns and cities, where property values have risen since the last revaluation. Some independent retailers might argue that a cash-strapped Treasury – with a net deficit of £47.8 billion - has glanced around the country, identified the strongest retail areas most able to generate revenue for a ‘Brexit war-chest’ and raided the retailers?

So, how will it affect other independents facing the steepest rises? Returning to Southwold, I spoke to Lyn Knights, the owner of the iconic independent fashion department store Denny of Southwold , which is currently celebrating its 165th anniversary and welcomes website visitors thus : “Denny’s has been in my family for five generations, we have clothed the rich and famous since 1851. Today, we pride ourselves in continuing this tradition in our lovely town”.  

The business owner explained that “my family business Denny of Southwold had been trading in the town for 165 years, but I wonder how much longer I can survive with such a huge rate increase of 185%”. The fifth generation owner then added that “the smaller shops will obviously disappear, to be replaced by more charity shops and chain stores”.

Illustrating the baffling inconsistencies of the revaluation, Knights noted how “Woodbridge (approximately 40 miles away) has been given a rent increase of only 5 %. It does seem very unfair”.

An 'inappropriate system'

Southwold is not an isolated case.

One only need venture 50 miles to learn of a very different scenario. Jeremy Clayton, owner of independent fashion store Javelin , with stores in Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury, empathised with those hit the hardest, while his town had been affected more moderately:

“The revaluation has had a fairly neutral effect in the 2 locations where we trade. […] However, our troubles in Sudbury pale to insignificance when compared to another small Suffolk town Southwold. Their situation – which has received national press – will see business rates there are rising by an average of 173%”.

Clayton then cited the example that “the Butchers has been trading continuously since the Eighteenth century but will have to find a rates payable rise of £1000/month! This situation will really be the acid test of whether the Government cares at all for what diversity is left on the British High Street”.

The retail reality isn’t much better in Ely, a 45 minute drive from the historic market town of Bury St Edmunds.

Sarah Simonds, owner of womenswear independent Artichoke , with boutiques in Ely (Cambridgeshire) and Swaffham (Norfolk), was equally impassioned, saying that she had contacted her MP before the topic hit the headlines.

“It’s such an inappropriate tax and the methods of calculating them are absolutely archaic. […] If any independent retailer wishes to ruin their day they only need calculate the amount of indirect tax that they pay - 20% Vat; plus business rates (in my case £13,000 per annum, since I run two shops and no longer qualify for relief); PAYE for staff and corporation tax [...]”.

Simonds succinctly added that “I pay more indirect tax than I earn and I am sure I am not alone”.

The raw reality is just that. The words and feelings of the retailers themselves speak volumes and show the widespread sense of injustice felt and the need for business groups and associations to work together to fight their side.

“It is outrageous that small businesses are asked to pay such high levels of taxation because the government is either unwilling or unable to hold the multinationals to account. I understand that Amazon's business rates are going up by 2% - how can that be justified? I can understand why the Government wants a property tax in place but if it were calculated on turnover it would at least create a level playing field”.

'Transitional Relief' or tokenism take-away?

Well, Lyn Knights, Jeremy Clayton, Sarah Simonds and others trading in those regions taking the brunt of the business rates bombshell, might (or might not) take some succour from what the Chancellor ultimately announced in the Spring Budget.

In an effort to take account of the justified horror of many small businesses competing with etailers, the leading headline was – naturally – the £435 million handout in cuts to support those businesses most affected, the much-vaunted and eagerly anticipated ‘transitional relief’.

This means that no small business which is coming out of small business rates relief will pay more than £600 more in business rates this year than they did in 2016-17. Increases will be capped at £50/month for those in this situation, estimated to affect 600,000 retailers.

There is also the local authority dimension, which could potentially offer a region-specific financial cushion. Funding for local authorities will allow them to provide £300 million of discretionary relief to help to businesses most affected by the revaluation. Let’s hope these local councils distribute this justly and that retailers actually see some of this money.

Witnessing as I do the demise of my local high street and the pandemic of closed and empty shops, I sincerely hope that our inspiring independents receive the very best of the support that’s available to them until the a more suitable system be put in place.

Another grievance that many retailers face is the standard of local business services, so I thought it important to remind ourselves what the £25 billion raised in business rates revenue each year serves to fund. This is a crucial point when we hear that Amazon’s turnover will equal or pass that of M&S in three to five years’ time, largely because it has very little property. This imposes a very big competitive disadvantage on a store such as M&S and exemplifies the High Street 'problem'. It's vital that the streets are maintained well by local authorities, that car parking fees are feasible, that graffiti, vandalism and security improve and that the overall kerb-appeal of bricks-and-mortar retailers is supported and funded. 

Any better ideas?

This raises serious questions for independent retailers. Why should one retailer pay large sums to support local services, but another retailer selling much the same goods and amounts pay next to nothing?

A busy shopping high street is valued by the community it serves, indeed has a much higher value than an out-of-town internet-based retailing distribution warehouse. So why impose, relatively speaking, much higher taxes on the high street than on the internet retailer? At the worst, this tax differential is helping to kill off the high street.

It’s all very easy to say what isn’t working but it’s helpful to hear alternatives ideas. Various experts have shared their alternatives to the current system.

Some suggest the answer may be to incorporate elements of turnover or profit into the rateable value assessment. Hotels and pubs are already valued on the basis of their turnover – perhaps this should be extended to retailing, or indeed to all sectors? It seems pretty obvious to me - tax proportional to profit - but then I'm far from fluent in finance.

Radical change along any of these lines is needed; otherwise an unintended consequence of ‘sticking plaster’ repairs may be to accelerate the shift to internet commerce simply through tax advantages. This would be a travesty given that we know that the beauty and romance of real retail and shopping is about the experience, not just the price tag. It’s also been mooted that we could move to annual revaluations. The Dutch do it; so can we.

And, with Britain's public houses closing at a rate of knots, let’s not forget this thirst-quenching give-away also announced today, especially since many shopkeepers will need a stiff drink at the end of this week:

From April 2017, pubs with a rateable value up to £100,000 will be able to claim a £1,000 business rates discount for one year.

Cheers Phil. Make it a double. No ice…

Philip Hammond

[1]  Jones Lang LaSalle research for bira March 2014

 

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