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Textiles Report: Close up: Sarah Tennant, Debenhams

Debenhams’ Sarah Tennant on the challenges of buying for the young fashion market.

With the spring 14 textiles buying season about to kick off, it’s a busy time for Debenhams’ head of buying for young fashion Sarah Tennant. Drapers spoke to her just days before she jetted off to Florence textile show Pitti Filati.

In fact, it’s an exciting time for Debenhams all round; the retailer just recorded its best-ever like-for-like December sales, up 5% for the five weeks to January 5. This followed a successful Christmas advertising campaign, its first for six years, and some analysts are claiming the department store group is set to steal market share from high street rival Marks & Spencer.

Debenhams’ bustling London flagship on Oxford Street is also undergoing a revamp to better showcase its fashion offer, with white boarding discreetly disguising the building work - something Tennant gestures to as we descend the store’s escalators, which run spine-like through its central atrium. Tennant is enthusiastic about
the project, which is due to be finished in November, and says the “new, shiny flagship store will be brilliant”.

Over a coffee in her office in Debenhams’ central London headquarters, just a stone’s throw from the Oxford Street store, Tennant talks openly about the pressures of buying for the young fashion sector, describing its fast-paced, trend-led nature as “exciting”.

She adds: “Because brands I work on are some of the younger brands, it’s important that we’re reacting all the time.”

Tennant started as a buyer’s admin assistant at Debenhams more than 16 years ago and, today, her role involves her splitting her time between a combination of the core and designer brands for which the department
store is known, which she describes as Debenhams’ “raison d’être”. This includes the retailer’s revolving door of in-house designers - the Edition label was launched in 2011, with Jonathan Saunders, Preen and Marios Schwab among those currently showcased in store and online. Both the core and designer brands have different demands, says Tennant: “They’ve all got the same demands in terms of the right product, the right price, the right time, the same sourcing demands, all of those things; but on a designer brand it’s ensuring the vision of the relevant designer incorporated into that brand that makes a difference.”

Tennant describes working with the designers as “inspirational”, and says they are involved with everything from the branding to the fabrics and colours, with her buying team’s job being to fulfil their vision.

“It might be that [Jonathan Saunders] gives me a jacquard that he wants us to source something similar to, and his jacquard has to fit within our price architecture. So there are those demands as well.”

Scouring the textile trade shows and enjoying close relationships with suppliers is essential across both core and designer labels, says Tennant. “My areas are young areas, so I would be expected to have the latest trends and fabrics of the season.”

In the days that follow the interview she’ll be doing just that by attending Pitti Filati, which she says “really kicks off the season in terms of trends”, followed by textile show Première Vision in Paris.

Marion Peckett, head of design at high street retailer M&Co, agrees. She says Pitti Filati offers a “great direction for the new season, giving a really clear focus on colour, yarn, stitch and texture. This is informative
for both long and short lead times as we start to work closer to the season with our shorter lead time suppliers, enabling us to trial positively.”

However, Tennant says the show that’s becoming increasingly important on the textiles agenda is the Intertextile Shanghai Apparel Fabrics fair, which took place in October 2012. “The development of fabrics
in the Far East is just becoming much better than it ever was. The majority of the exhibitors are from the Far East, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, with China being the big one, and some from Europe as well.”

It’s too early at the time of this interview to talk about the fabric trends for spring 14, so Tennant turns her attention to what she sees as the “big trends” for spring 13. “In womenswear we’re going into monochrome, which you’re seeing on the high street at the moment. So there’s a whole 1960s influence with black and whites, geometrics and stripes, and I think that will continue throughout the season. Dresses is always a great category - we’ve got some great dresses coming through into the ranges.”

Casting her gaze slightly further ahead, she says autumn 13 will be about a “return to heritage”, a theme that has been a persistent trend across the high street over the past few seasons. “So there are lots of checks, and lots of textures. We’re calling it a return to heritage. So we have started buying into that. It has been [a big trend].

I think it continues to be, and I think it will be next year,” she says, adding: “I think a lot of TV programmes, such as The Killing, are having a big influence on knitwear at the moment in terms of the whole Scandinavian trend.”

Due to the trend-led nature of the young fashion market and the constant demand for newness on the high street, Tennant says having a varied supplier base is essential. She declines to reveal Debenhams’ manufacturing split per country, but says the Far East remains its main sourcing hub, with some movement out of China and into Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia as a result of increasing labour costs in the traditional manufacturing super-power. However, she adds that there are different challenges in each country and China remains a primary supplier because “the skillset is amazing”. Turkey and Romania are also key suppliers, owing to the shorter lead times both offer.

She says: “We have to take a very careful view of what we’re doing every season to ensure what we need to happen is happening, in terms of the quality, in terms of the price and in terms of the delivery.”

Despite Debenhams’ announcement in December that it is to launch an own brand entirely made in Britain, Tennant gives a more cautious answer, describing it as an “opportunity”.

“We are very supportive of UK manufacturing and would never ignore a UK source if it was right for one of the womenswear brands.

“One advantage of UK manufacturing is shorter lead times. So would I like to see it increase? It’s an opportunity, yes.”

With a reduced retail spend on the high street, the quality of the fabrics used in garments can have a big impact on a consumer’s purchasing decisions. Tennant says quality is at the “top of the list” of her concerns, as well as ensuring “the customer is offered a great quality garment at a great price. Our customers expect quality across all of the brands”.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, she is resolute about what Debenhams needs to do to stay ahead of the competition: “The challenges are ensuring we’re delivering a wonderful range, we’re delivering what our designers’ vision is, we’re providing the customer with the right trends at the right time and at the right price, and we’re keeping one step ahead of the high street.”

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