An interview with Vanessa Knox-Brien and Baukjen de Swaan Arons of Isabella Oliver 365.
Your site is one of the most user friendly sites– who designs your site? Did either of you have experience in web design?
Thank you! Our website is designed in house, because we can then get the look and style of website that we desire and our customers want. Prior to launching IsabellaOliver.com, we did not have any site design experience but over the years we’ve learnt a lot from our customers and from experts. The one thing that is constant is that it is ever changing. As technologies change, new opportunities arise and we like to experiment to provide a better/easier online shopping experience.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being an online company?
We cannot change the fact that our customers cannot try on their clothes in our online shop, therefore we do everything we can to help them in their decision making process. We show pictures of the different ways to wear the style, images of the different colours, videos to show what it looks like in motion and turned around, cut outs so that you can see the style as if you were holding it up in front of you. Finally, we give as much information as we can that the customer may want to know. This includes how we would wear the design, what the fabric consists of, how to care for the style, its measurements etc. The fast-paced evolution of technology also means we are constantly evolving our website.
Are you planning to open any physical stockist or concessions?
This is a work in progress and we will have more to reveal soon.
What are the particular challenges for selling maternity wear?
Many women, when they become pregnant, are unaware of maternity brands. In addition, they only shop for maternity clothes for a limited time period and they may never return. This combination of factors means that a maternity business needs to constantly acquire new customers and then lose them after a short time (hopefully they may come back with another pregnancy or recommend you to their pregnant friends). Another challenge with maternity wear is that our customers’ body is always changing and because of this, the customer may be very unsure of what will work for her style and fit-wise. Therefore it is very important to remove any doubt by providing good advice, ideas on how to wear, and have an experienced and friendly customer service team. Pregnancy itself can be a challenging time in many ways, we want to take the stress of how to dress and look stylish away!
You’ve managed to retain your maternity clients by developing 365, is this just a natural development for the brand?
Yes. Our maternity customers were always asking us to do something as they loved their Isabella Oliver maternity wear and wanted to continue wearing Isabella Oliver. The Isabella Oliver 365 collection is about providing style solutions for the modern woman and the same collection philosophy applies: feminine style, comfort, versatility, and quality rolled in to one. We are now mid way through our second season for 365 and are enjoying it enormously. Our customers have been and continue to be a huge support, telling us what they think, what they like, what they feel is missing etc. We were really humbled when we saw how many customers are willing us on to succeed. The AW09 collection is selling really well and we hope our customers will love the SS10 collection as much as we do.
I love your product videos. Do you feel it’s key to your site’s selling power?
Absolutely. A video can say a lot more than an image. A few years ago when we were thinking about doing this, it was quite controversial. It was going to be expensive and there was no guarantee of success. We asked a few website experts what they thought of our idea and they told us that they could think of many better ways that we could spend our money. However, we listened to our gut instinct and launched the videos. We have never looked back since.
What’s great about your site is that you have ‘real’ models and for so many sites the trend has been the lifeless mannequin. Does using real models had an influence on your sales?
From day one we have used models rather than mannequins. We like the Isabella Oliver shopping experience to be one we would want ourselves and mannequins don’t feature in that. It comes with a high cost, but we feel it is worth it.
You both have extensive business experience, what edge has this given you over your completion?
There are three co-founders at Isabella Oliver (Baukjen, Vanessa and Geoff). When we started we all came in with different skill sets and business backgrounds. We all had a lot of respect what the others had done so whomever knew most about a certain area was the one we listened to most for that area. We greatly benefitted from each of us being good at something else. Since we launched Isabella Oliver, we’ve all had to become involved in areas that we knew nothing about before. It has been a huge learning curve and we’ve been lucky in many ways to learn so much about so many new things. We’ve all grown in directions that are probably quite different to what we would have expected. But it has been a joy (and still is) to learn something new every day.
In the last five years we’ve seen a huge change in maternity wear – what do you think created these changes in design and how much have you influenced the trends of maternity wear?
When we launched there wasn’t much choice in the maternity wear market that was stylish, comfortable and good quality. We wanted to develop a line that celebrated the pregnancy curves and allowed women to buy with confidence. Instead of hiding behind oversized pieces, we designed styles that complimented the pregnant shape. That is probably our main source of influence and inspiration in the maternity market. We have never focused on what competitors are doing as it can be distracting. We do what we believe in, would want to wear and to date this has worked well for us.