Whistles’ chief executive told Ana Santi why she left Topshop to seek a new challenge.
I was at Topshop for many years until 2006 so unlike the current generation who have had 13 jobs in their life,
I had one job for 20 years. I left the brand in 2006 as the brand director, a position I’d held for the previous five or six years. Working at Topshop was a great opportunity to exceed our customers’ expectations and do lots of exciting things that no one else was doing at the time. We had a really great, fun time thinking about what we could do next.
There’s a big difference from what you were doing at Topshop as brand director to then actually buying Whistles in 2008. What led you to make that move?
I wanted to leave because I believe if you are doing something and you don’t feel really stretched and challenged and that it’s not exciting for you to get out of bed in the morning, then you should move on and do something else. I was getting a bit bored, to be honest. I wanted to try other things.
So no regrets then?
Absolutely none. I love it.
Your role at Topshop was very product and buying focused. Do you still do much of that at Whistles?
You have to be like that in the fashion industry, as fashion is all about product so you need to be product focused. I put product at the heart of what I do. I surround myself with people who are extremely talented and who have the skills I don’t have, like a very strong finance director and very strong retail operations director.
It took a few seasons at Whistles for you to get the business to where you wanted it. Can you tell me about that?
I thought, at the time, it would be easier to take on an existing small business and change it as opposed to starting from scratch, but I now think I was wrong about this. We didn’t want to alienate all of our customers immediately but we pretty much did. We set off with this new company, alienated most of our customer base and then there was a recession, then we lost all of our financial backing after our backers went into administration. It’s been a tough ride but now we feel the direction is the right one and we are quite happy with it. It will never be perfect; there is still loads wrong with it.
I go into stores and see bits that shouldn’t be there and see stores that are horribly under-invested. We can only grow organically. If you went into one of your stores and thought it was perfect, then what would you do? You’d have to go and do something else as your work would be done.
So who is the Whistles customer now and how do you cater for her?
We lost a lot of our original customers but some of them are still with us. We kind of say our age range is 25 to 45 but I don’t care who they are. If they love fashion and want to buy into quality pieces that last from one season to the next, then I would welcome anyone into the store.