Seventy years after it was set up by the Bernstein family – which still owns it today – occasionwear brand Bernshaw remains a favourite with buyers. We speak to director Alex Bernstein and design director Sara Brett.
Switch on your television on Saturday night to watch Strictly Come Dancing and fashion fans will be looking beyond former ballerina Darcy Bussell’s score paddle to what she is wearing. And, more than likely, it will be Bernshaw.
Phyllis and Edward Bernstein established the brand in 1945, designing and manufacturing eveningwear on South Molton Street, west London, and ever since it has been an occasionwear staple. The brand sold in Harrods and Selfridges in the 1950s, dressed the cast of US super-soap Dallas in the 1980s’, and became known for quickly reinterpreting celebrity styles, such as the dress Demi Moore wore for film Indecent Proposal in 1993, or ‘that dress’ by Versace that Elizabeth Hurley made famous on the red carpet for the Four Weddings and a Funeral premiere in 1994.
Today, the brand is headed up by their grandchildren, director Alex Bernstein and design director Sara Brett, and has 120 stockists including Harvest on London’s King’s Road, Anne Furbank in St Neots and Jane Davidson in Edinburgh, as well as a further 30 across Europe.
The brand celebrates 70 years this year. What has been part of its enduring success?
Alex Bernstein: Staying focused on what we do best, making glamorous dresses and not steering too far away from what the original premise was all those years ago, from long eveningwear to cocktail dresses.
Did you both always want to work in the family business?
Sara Brett: I started 26 years ago, aged 16. I began at the bottom working alongside the sales manager in my school holidays, making tea and coffee, helping deal with the shops and department stores, travelling and doing the exhibitions.
However, I always used to feed back to the designers what the customers wanted and what I felt was missing from the showroom with regards to the collection. It was always the design side that I found exciting, and I soon began helping my grandmother Phyllis and learnt a lot from her. Eventually, my grandfather Edward said ‘OK, you get on with it’. I took over in 1994 and did my first collection. I was very much thrown in at the deep end.
AB: I studied Property Development and Estate Management at the University of Westminster from 1993-96, and then worked in that industry for big property firms DTZ and Montagu Evans, but didn’t really find my feet, so I joined the family business in 2001. I knew I would always end up here.
What are the pros and cons of working in a family-owned business?
SB: One big pro is seeing my family on a daily basis. As far as a con goes, being very open to having a good argument in the office and not holding back and just saying what you feel!
How is the occasionwear market performing?
AB: People like to dress up more often than not, although there are shifts between long and short [length]. Longer is certainly making a comeback now and with summer weddings, parties and the races, it seems to be a strong season for us.
How has the market changed? Is there more of a focus on separates? What about price points?
SB: Fabrics, style and construction have come a long way. Our customers often take our dresses on holidays and cruises, so it is really important they come out of the suitcase looking great, without needing a press. We were never able to do that years ago, and that is all down to development in fabrics.
AB: Competition is harder. There is obviously more of a high street offer with lower prices. And of course, online is a huge factor. People can order a dress in the morning and have it at their desk by the afternoon and even return it the same day.
What are your current best sellers?
SB: I am designing spring 16 right now, while we are selling spring 15. What we are finding is selling well this season is the little dress with the matching jacket for a church wedding or the races.
How important is celebrity endorsement to the brand?
SB: It really is important and we have a great celebrity following. Darcy Bussell is a great fan. Whenever she wears our dresses – and she wears them a lot on Strictly Come Dancing – our sales seem to increase over that weekend. We see the same thing if a celebrity wears a dress on the red carpet. It does have an impact on us as a company. Social media has been really important too, because if the celebrity is pictured wearing one of our dresses it helps with brand awareness.
What can we expect to see from the brand for spring 16?
SB: We have some amazing rainbow bright colours, and we are also doing some very pretty pale and pastel dresses that can be worn for second weddings and bridesmaid dresses.
How has wholesale changed?
AB: There are less and less wholesale independents around now than there were 10-15 years ago, whether that is due to higher rents or competition from the multiples. However, the ones that are still around are premium a-list stockists. They sell well with regular customers that prefer to be pampered in store and looked after, which you just don’t get buying online or in department stores.
Are trade shows important for your business?
AB: Yes. We show regularly at Scoop at the Saatchi Gallery in London, which we have had tremendous success with and we will be there again in August. We always showed at Who’s Next in Paris, but a couple of years back they changed the dates, so we pulled out of it. Now that they have put them back into September we are toying with the idea of showing there again because we got great extra business there, but since we have not been there for a few years it is going to be quite hard to build it up again. The German market is also very strong for us and we show at Munich Fashion Week [not sure if that still exists - can’t find it online. Maybe they show at a trade show in Munich now?]
How important are international sales to the business?
AB: We still have 70% UK, 30% export, with Germany being our strongest country, followed by France and Italy. Further afield Singapore and Australia are also markets we have touched. There is huge potential for the brand in the Russian market, and the US is also an exciting area to look at.
How do you see the business growing?
AB: We want to expand our stockists in the UK and grow in those other countries, as well as possibly diversifying the range, increasing the range of day dresses that work very well for us.