Having established herself as London’s premier denim guru, Donna Ida Thornton is now using her expertise to create jeans that both fit and flatter.
With less than 24 hours’ notice, Drapers manages to catch women’s denim guru Donna Ida Thornton, who’s about to sashay off to Paris for trade show Who’s Next. Sitting down at the west London headquarters of her eponymous independent womenswear business, which operates three London boutiques and one in Guildford, naturally the first thing she asks me is where my jeans are from.
When I confess they are an inexpensive pair from Uniqlo, she shoots back in her subtle Australian lilt that that’s where she shops for her 19-year-old stepson, because “they’re OK and they don’t shrink up and stuff. Boys can do that, because you’re kinda straight up and down and you don’t have too many curves to go round”.
Ida Thornton is charming and down to earth, and her passion for all things denim is clear.
Since the doors of her first boutique opened on Draycott Avenue in Chelsea seven years ago, she has garnered a reputation as the capital’s go-to girl for women’s denim. Now she is realising a lifelong dream by channeling all of that knowledge and expertise into her own line: Ida.
Gesturing to the rail behind us, she explains that Ida’s spring 13 range arrived at the stores just before Christmas and has been an instant success, currently at 50% sell-through in store; she is modelling the pretty Mrs Thatcher pussy-bow blouse as we speak. Launched for wholesale for spring 13, Ida has already been snapped up by more than 30 stockists, including the likes of womenswear chain Anthropologie and boutiques such as Bottega in Tarporley, Cheshire, and Okeefe in Esher, Surrey.
Looking at the collection, it’s not hard to see why. Okeefe owner Janine O’Keefe describes the range as perfect for her customer base, as “Donna really knows what works for the woman of today”. She adds: “She has really addressed the rise issue, which is key, as very few customers want a low-rise jean now because they are so unflattering.”
The 30-piece collection, which includes tops but otherwise is exclusively high-waisted jeans, has a cool, retro 1970s feel with cuts to suit every shape from a cigarette to a flare, and each with an old-fashioned name such as Martha or Frenchie. Wholesale prices range from £52 to £70 for jeans and £25 to £65 for tops.
Okeefe is days from receiving its first drop when Drapers calls, but its owner is confident it will perform well.
“Donna is such an iconic jeans expert and we trust her design judgment implicitly. She has also priced the products at an affordable level as they are mainly around £150 retail,” she says, before confessing that her favourite style is “the Audrey in black with ankle zip”, which is “straight out of Roman Holiday”.
Ida Thornton didn’t want to cannibalise her existing offer, and was conscious of the need to provide something new: “You don’t just want to replicate what you’ve already got. It’s like J Brand is doing so well, or Paige is doing so well, there is no point. There are so many amazing players in the market that I’m selling.”
She has always loved high-waisted jeans and had it in mind to do her own collection, but admits the push came from one of her regular customers, called Jean, who had a preference for a high waist and was always giving her a hard time about why she didn’t do more in that style. “She said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t just do your own high-waisted jeans, Donna. You know what people want.’ After thinking about it all night and the next day I thought OK, yes, this is definitely the direction it’s going to be,” she says.
So Ida was born, and Jean immortalised in denim with the high-top cigarette style Jeanie. Ida Thornton admits she’d like to see Ida stocked by premium retailers such as Matches and Browns and etailer Net-A-Porter.
However, quietly confident, she adds: “I think it’s best to let the product speak for itself. If it’s good and people want it, the stockists essentially come to you anyway. So really my focus is to work on the collection, make sure it’s really good and desirable and that the customer demands it.”
And customers are demanding it. Though Donna Ida has always offered high-waisted cuts, with pieces from the likes of J Brand, Ida Thornton says she has seen a shift from the style being seen as mumsy to it becoming more fashionable, with more customers opting to buy the style and more brands offering it.
However, putting Ida to one side, she says the trend for spring 13 sees a return to blue denim and away from the colours that dominated last year. “Fashion just does swing like that,” she says. “We get mass saturation with something and then we go, ‘OK, I don’t want that any more, I just want blue jeans, blue jeans, blue jeans!’ and really spring is all about blue jeans.”
In store, J Brand “is still very strong for us” says Ida Thornton, adding that “it’s continued to be the market leader in premium denim”, especially in regards to cut and using new fabrics. “I think a lot of denim brands have been hoping for a long time that J Brand would fall off a cliff, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” she says. “It is very strong still. It continues to deliver and the cut’s amazing. Really nobody’s holding a candle to J Brand as far as that’s concerned.” She adds that Rag & Bone is performing well and praises Frame Denim - a newly added brand for spring 13 - for its “sleek” and “clean approach” to denim.
She declines to reveal the business’s turnover but says trading is strong, with year-on-year growth averaging around 20% each year. Though right now, apart from Ida, she’s channeling her energies into the online business, www.donnaida.com, which she reveals was up massively at Christmas by between 400% and 600%. “I love the bricks-and-mortar store and seeing the customers but online is where I’m most interested because it’s new to me,” she says.
At present the online store’s offer is not differentiated from what is sold in the shop, but this is something she plans to look at. Mobile optimisation is also imminent, scheduled for the first half of this year. Though it’s not all about online - Donna Ida will shut its Chelsea boutique for five days at the end of March and gut the store, with a new interior and shop frontage set to be unveiled at the end of March, to the tune of a £120,000 investment.
As the interview ends we just have time to share photos of our pet pooches - Ida Thornton’s being her two beloved chihuahuas - before she’s whisked off to be photographed and prepare for a busy buying season in the weeks ahead.