At the age of 24, House of CB founder Conna Walker has taken her brand from her bedroom in London to the red carpets of Los Angeles. How has she done it?
- Conna Walker started Celeb Boutique in her bedroom, aged 17
- Now named House of CB, the brand will make a £9m profit in 2017
- House of CB has six UK stores and no debt
- Walker is growing the brand in the huge US market on the back of its celebrity fan base
“You have to be constantly aware of your customer, who they are watching and who they are listening to,” asserts House of CB founder Conna Walker, speaking to Drapers at the womenswear brand’s design studio and head office, above its glitzy flagship store in east London shopping centre Westfield Stratford City.
“The Kardashians were huge for me. Once they started wearing House of CB, they put us on the map, and we had other celebrities getting in touch saying, ‘This product is dope.’ It went from there.”
Without any outside investment, seven-year-old House of CB has grown into a brand that will make a profit of £9m in 2017 (although Walker will not reveal turnover). The business has no debt – all profits have been reinvested – despite undergoing a retail expansion that has seen it open six stores in the past four years.
Its success is thanks in large part to its celebrity following. As well as the Kardashians, high-profile fans of its form-fitting bodycon dresses, skirts and bodysuits include Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé and models Hailey Baldwin, and Gigi and Bella Hadid. Social media and celebrity gifting – often “knocking on the door 78 times” to get to the right person – are core elements in its growth strategy.
The Kardashians were huge for me. Once they started wearing House of CB, they put us on the map, and we had other celebrities getting in touch
“We are selective with the girls we work with,” says an immaculately turned out Walker, wearing a printed jacket and thigh-high patent leather boots from sister brand Mistress Rocks, which is sold by House of CB. “They have to be the type of girls our [twentysomething] shoppers are interested in.”
“House of CB’s marketing is very interesting, as the brand uses models with different ethnic backgrounds,” says Anusha Couttigane, senior analyst at Kantar Retail. “Historically fashion campaigns have been very homogeneous but today shoppers are demanding to be represented and House of CB really taps into that and it appeals to the retailer’s core customer.
“The price positioning suits the millennial customer who is looking for quality, there is move towards people being willing to pay more for a more substantial product. The fact that everything is designed in-house in London means they can justify the price.”
“I like the brand to be quite organic and not pushed down people’s throats,” explains Walker. “It keeps the idea that the label is still quite luxury even though the price point isn’t too high [dresses generally retail for between £100 and £150]. You won’t see us all over the Tube. Everything has to be in the brand voice, so shoppers know it is our product regardless of where they see it.”
Mark Ashton, chief executive of womenswear business Little Mistress Group, admires House of CB’s approach to marketing: “They are slick and I respect how protective they are of their brand and that they rarely discount. They have great exposure but it’s not aggressive like other brands and it’s impressive how they maintain an air of aspiration while remaining affordable.”
Instagram is House of CB’s main marketing tool.
You won’t see us all over the Tube. Everything has to be in the brand voice, so shoppers know it is our product
Walker says the brand is constantly evolving its social strategy to keep up with consumer expectation: “Instagram is still the strongest [platform] for us – it has more than 1.4 million followers – but we try to have different content on different platforms so it isn’t repetitive. It isn’t enough to post a picture and say, ‘Buy our clothes’ any more. We are trying to build a community and make shoppers feel involved with the brand through behind-the-scenes content of the team, make-up artists and models.”
The confident and personable 24-year-old, who has no fashion training or family background, started the business in her bedroom in 2010 when she was just 17 years old. Her story echoes the early days of US retailer Nasty Gal, which began as an eBay shop for vintage clothing.
Walker’s parents are furniture importers. Accompanying them on a business trip to China in 2010, Walker found some dresses she thought would sell well in the UK. She borrowed £3,000 from her father to buy them, brought them back and began selling them on eBay under the name Celeb Boutique.
“It was accidental, really,” explains Walker. “My dad said, ‘You need to get a job,’ and I’m not the type who deals well with being employed by someone else, so I started selling clothes. Before, during and after school [in Chigwell, Essex] I was answering [customers’] questions, uploading listings, packing orders and sending them out. I paid my dad back in the first few months,” she adds with an air of pride.
The business migrated on to its own website in 2012, and Walker began building a design team.
“There was only so much I could do with pieces that were readymade, so I started designing things myself – and when I say ‘designing’, that is a loose term,” she laughs. “I would draw freehand in the factories in China trying to describe what I wanted. I quickly realised that I needed actual designers so I hired three and since then everything has been designed in house in London.”
The brand is still manufactured in China.
The business operated online only until 2013, when Walker opened her first store in Westfield Stratford City.
“A lot of brands feel stores are not the best idea in the current climate but [in my opinion] they help sales online and online helps lift sales in stores – they go hand in hand,” she argues. “I felt for branding purposes it was important for us to have a physical presence to cement where we are in the market.”
In 2014, she rebranded Celeb Boutique to the “more grown-up” name, House of CB, and moved the store to a larger unit opposite. Walker acknowledges it was a risk as there were several empty units on the strip at the time, but the move paid off.
“For me you have to create an impression and an experience in store, and you have that here when you walk in.”
Stores in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester followed, along with eight Topshop concessions across the UK. Sales are now split 60:40 between online and retail.
Having enjoyed domestic success, Walker set her sights on the home of many of her celebrity fans – the US, following strong sales from online customers in the market.
“We’ve a really loyal customer base here but the UK is small and there is only so far you can take it. I felt the next step should be the US because of the sheer size of population, the money over there and the celebrity connection. We needed to physically be there to foster those relationships.”
House of CB opened a store in Los Angeles a year ago, followed by another in Las Vegas last November. Walker relocated to LA to oversee the openings, and returns to the UK for a few days every six weeks to meet with her team here.
“For us it has worked really well in terms of getting the brand out there and it has increased our UK sales as well as those in the US, as UK girls like those celebrities,” she says.
The business also has concessions in seven Topshop stores in the US and two Meyer department stores in Australia.
House of cb has more than 1.4 million instagram followers
Mistress Rocks, the younger, edgier, sister brand to House of CB launched two years ago and is performing particularly well in the US, says Walker. It is currently stocked in House of CB stores but the founder would consider launching standalone stores Stateside in the future.
Further House of CB openings in Miami and New York are on the cards. Walker says her attention is firmly on US expansion for now, as the UK already has “a good spread of stores” geographically.
In addition to store openings, House of CB will brand into new product categories in 2018, including denim, beauty and handbags. It will also expand its current limited ranges of athleisure, swimwear and footwear into full collections next year.
“I’m OCD about things, so beauty has probably been in the works for about a year and a half already,” laughs Walker. “But we’re starting to finalise things, which is exciting.”
The handbags will be priced at around £200 and are aimed at shoppers who aspire to Mulberry but are “cooler and younger”.
“I’m aware we are somewhere in the middle on the high street. We’re not as expensive as AllSaints but we’re not as cheap as Boohoo. That being said I like to give an experience and vibe of a luxury brand from our product, to our delivery [all products are wrapped in tissue and boxed], social and our stores.”
The whole brand is self-funded, I have no debt, no investors
Sofie Willmott, senior retail analyst at GlobalData, says House of CB has a point of difference from fast fashion competitors as the quality of the product is better and price points are higher: “It has a strong handwriting and the product is easily identifiable. Their offer is narrow compared with other brands but they stay true to their target customer.”
Walker says she would eventually like to branch into soft furnishings and accessories to create more of a lifestyle offer, and plans to launch wholesale for non-clothing items.
“We don’t wholesale at the moment as I don’t want to dilute the brand,but I would wholesale swimwear, shoes, accessories and homeware. I would like to stretch out our offer and market the brand without risking the core clothing department.”
Sales have grown by 35% in the year to date, compared to the same period last year. Walker, a self-confessed control freak, says the business has grown at a comfortable rate, on her own terms.
“At first a lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously and it was difficult to get respect. But the whole brand is self-funded, I have no debt, no investors. I’ve grown it in a way I’m comfortable with, and I’ve been able to handle it. We didn’t blow up overnight.”
Slow and steady
The biggest challenge for Walker came ahead of the firm’s rebranding in 2014. “We were more revealing before – not that we’re wonderfully demure now,” she laughs. “The clothes were a lot brighter compared to our current neutral colour palette. I had lost a sense of what my customers wanted and sales began to fall. For me that was a big moment, as I learned don’t ever stop listening.”
The young fashion market is becoming increasingly crowded but House of CB appears to have carved itself a niche by sticking to a signature style and focusing on quality product at a higher price point rather than “throwaway fashion”.
At first a lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously and it was difficult to get respect
If the business can translate this winning strategy into its new product categories there is no reason why the House of CB shopper won’t buy into it. The retailer needs to tread carefully when opening new stores as high rents and rates have crippled many others, however, Walker may be young but she is certainly not reckless.
So far the founder has been calculated in her approach to retail expansion using online sales data to target areas where there is customer demand and letting the website do the rest. The business has flown under the radar compared with some of its peers, but with a slow and steady approach and no pressure from investors to return dividends House of CB could be one of the more sustainable success stories on the UK high street.