There is a wealth of talent to be celebrated within retailers and the sector, like many others, is increasingly entrepreneurial. We explore why more and more people are choosing to take the plunge and strike out on their own.
Drapers Next Generation, now in its ninth year, turns the spotlight on young fashion retail professionals and the industry changes shaping their careers today.
Fortune favours the brave, or so the saying goes. And increasingly, so does the fashion industry. As much of the high street struggles against a backdrop of squeezed consumer spending and a shaky economic outlook, many of the businesses flying high today were started by those who decided to go it alone.
Start-up culture spreads beyond fashion. In 2016, a record 660,000 companies were established in the UK, up from 608,000 in 2015, the Centre for Entrepreneurs reports. That record is expected to have been broken again last year. From Uber to Deliveroo, disruptive new business rule the roost but setting up on your own, whatever the sector, is never easy. Failure rates are high and those set on creating their own fashion empire are entering a particularly competitive market.
There is never the ‘right’ time – it is always a massive leap of faith
Emma Hill, Hill & Friends
So why is fashion increasingly entrepreneurial? One of the industry’s success stories is premium womenswear brand Rixo London, which has quickly become a firm favourite with buyers and is stocked by Selfridges and Net-a-Porter. Attend a wedding or an awards do, and odds-on you will spot one of the London-based label’s silk vintage-inspired dresses, shirts or skirts.
“When we launched the brand in 2015, a lot of people said we were too young – that we needed more experience and hadn’t done anything similar before,” recalls co-founder Henrietta Rix, who launched the brand with fellow former Asos buyer Orlagh McCloskey. “But we’re pretty determined. We felt the high street was just racing to compete on trends and the passion behind product was drying up.”
As with many other new brands and businesses Drapers has spoken to, social media has been a powerful tool for Rixo. Instagram, in particular, has democratised the industry, giving up-and-coming brands an opportunity to communicate directly with large audiences without needing any outside help.
“There are so many possibilities if you take advantage of social media. You can connect so easily with people and it’s a very easy, straightforward way of getting the essence of the brand across,” adds Rix. “If someone likes your vision, they can tell in seconds.”
But Rix is clear that social media savvy alone is not enough. Good product, a close, supportive relationship with all-important suppliers and old-fashioned hard work are all still essential, she argues.
And even in today’s crowded industry, there is still space for a good idea catering to an underserved audience. Luxury etailer The Modist launched in March last year, offering modest fashion from brands including Preen, Marni and Mary Katrantzou.
“I was brought up in a family of women who dress modestly and have personally experienced the frustration that one goes through when trying to find fashionable pieces that respect the parameters within which we dress,” explains chief executive Ghizlan Guenez.
“Fashion is becoming more entrepreneurial in the segments that are being created along the way. Entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways to appeal to customers that have never been spoken to before. They are finding new interpretations of what exists in the market place. They have to find creative ways to serve a customer over and above the mainstream that is already out there”
Friends from Mulberry
Former Mulberry creative director Emma Hill started luxury accessories label Hill & Friends with fellow Mulberry alumna Georgia Fendley in September 2015. It opened its first store in London’s Mayfair last September.
Hill agrees that the digital revolution has helped fashion’s entrepreneurs, but warns that it is getting tougher: “There was a window when social media platforms were incredibly helpful for smaller businesses. It meant anyone had a platform and you didn’t need an advertising budget to shoot a campaign. All the rules were turned on their heads, but that has changed. It is much more saturated and bigger brands, who were perhaps caught unaware by social media, have really caught up.”
For Hill, “sheer bloody-mindednesses” has been the secret to growing the brand – along with a dedicated, nimble team that is able to react quickly.
Many investors today expect fast growth and might not look at long-term profitability
Mikael Söderlindh, The Cords & Co
Corduroy specialist The Cords & Co made an ambitious debut last August, when it launched online in 20 markets in one day and opened flagship stores in London, Paris, Stockholm, New York and Los Angeles.
“Fashion is an ever-changing industry and with that comes opportunity,” explains founder Mikael Söderlindh, who also started Happy Socks in 2008. “Consumer brands used to be built with help from television. Now they are built by social media, influencers and digital platforms, in combination with good product.”
However, that same pace of change can be a double-edged sword. New businesses are under pressure to grow quickly, given the industry’s – and consumers’ – increasingly short attention span.
“Let’s say you have a brilliant idea,” says Söderlindh. “That takes time to execute. The world evolves very quickly and we might not give the concept the time it deserves to become financially healthy. Many investors today expect fast growth and might not look at long-term profitability. Entrepreneurs need time to grow healthy businesses.”
Access to the right funding is also key for growing businesses in the capital-intensive fashion industry. The sheer range of options available was one of the reasons Philip Beahon, and his brother, Thomas, were able to launch premium sportswear brand Castore in 2016. It is now stocked by Harrods and Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford.
“Finance is another big reason we launched when we did,” explains Thomas. “‘Easy’ is perhaps not the right word to describe securing funding, but there were a variety of sources we could use to get off the ground. We were offered debt by the high street banks and there are also ‘challenger’ banks, who are great lenders to start-ups.”
Both Beahon brothers had something of a headstart because of their backgrounds in finance, and stress the importance of being able to speak the bank’s language.
“We had nothing but an idea, but we did put together a professional business plan. We understood what would give banks confidence in us,” Thomas adds.
“There is never the ‘right’ time – it is always a massive leap of faith,” concludes Hill. “You have to be a bit brave or a bit mad and know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for.”
How to do it – entrepreneurs’ top tips for starting up successfully
Former fashion agent Hari Martin opened womenswear independent Basil & Bea in Hale, Greater Manchester, last July.
I was a wholesale fashion agent for five years, working for agency Northern Lights. Although I had such a great experience at the agency, in July last year I felt it was the right time for me to open my own business.
There’s a lot of localised governmental support out there for new companies, who can help with things like legalities around employment. There’s also a lot of free advice to tap into.
For me, it was a matter of putting money aside and doing what I’d always wanted to do. My background in the agency really helped with finding brands and we stock Elizabeth & James, King & Tuckfield and Lily & Lionel, as well as fragrances and accessories. My advice is be resilient and have confidence – there are always going to be challenges.
After working in buying and merchandising at Mulberry and Matches, Bethany Rowntree launched etailer Studio B in 2017.
I’d got to the point in my career where although I was moving up, I felt I was doing similar things at different companies and wanted to do something completely new.
Studio B offers a carefully curated selection of new and independent brands, including Rixo, Gestuz and Baum und Pferdgarten.
I did so much research, spending a year at least going into physical stores and looking at what and how people where buying.
Instagram is such a quick and easy way of finding something exciting and getting an immediate sense of the brand’s personality. It has also brought me international customers from Germany, Dubai and Japan, which I wasn’t expecting so early on.
For me, meeting people face to face is key. You need to get out there and build relationships.