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Life’s a beach down south

Beautiful beaches and idyllic countryside abound, but southern England (from Kent into East and West Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire) is not renowned as a hotbed of fashion activity.

Essentials

Average house price* £300,000

Population 7.3m

Average total cost of living per household per week** £723

*Rightmove House Price Index, March 2011 **Office for National Statistics Family Spending Report 2010

Of the UK’s top 10 fashion retailers by turnover, none have their headquarters in the South.

But if living by the beach while scaling the career ladder is attractive, there are plenty of businesses that are based here, including lifestyle retailer Fat Face, jewellery supplier Icon Live, lingerie chain Ann Summers and outdoor brand Timberland. And as these companies can struggle to lure people from London, demand for talent is high.

Deborah Medhurst, founder and creative director of kidswear brand No Added Sugar, found recruiting staff the biggest challenge after shifting the business’s headquarters from London to Petersfield, Hampshire, in 2009. She says: “People who are creative in fashion tend to be in London. It is very tough to find that [high] standard over here. We’ve had to recruit on a freelance basis and we’re still looking to recruit a designer [full time].”

Medhurst admits the move was tougher than expected. She misses London’s nightlife and the theatre, and has even ended up paying more on rent for the office. But she has no regrets, especially when it comes to family life.

“The kids love it. They just trundle out into the garden and spend hours playing there,” she says.

Barny Edis, a former Londoner who heads up sales at No Added Sugar, is also a convert. He says he is “incredibly busy” at work but the atmosphere is relaxed, adding: “The quality of life is excellent. I can’t remember the last time I was stressed travelling to work. Everyone is a lot more cheery in the morning.”

Fat Face is another company that enthuses about the lifestyle. Julie Baron, originally from Yorkshire, had no links with the South when she accepted a buying role with the business in 2003. She bought a house in Westbourne, a rural village 10 minutes’ drive from the head office in Havant, Hampshire, and, despite having since left Fat Face, still lives there. Now buying manager at multichannel lifestyle retailer Boden, she commutes to north London.

“I love it down here, I don’t want to go back to the city. Coming here to work was one of the best things I ever did. People don’t realise what the benefits are. The lifestyle is so easy; you don’t have the stresses that you have in London. You’re not challenging yourself every day on the tube,” she says.

She left Fat Face in 2008, a few months after it was taken over by private equity firm Bridgepoint. “The business changed into more of a corporate entity,” she explains. However, insiders still at Fat Face say although the past few years have been tough, it is still a fun place to work. People wear what they like and often turn up in shorts and flip-flops between May and October. In the right conditions, some even go water-skiing after work.

“The quality of life is excellent. I can’t remember the last time I was stressed travelling to work”

Barny Edis, head of sales, No Added Sugar

Fresh fields

That regional businesses are often surrounded by beautiful countryside is a major draw. Darren Cookson, director of apparel, retail buying and merchandising at Timberland, says: “Everyone who visits the office sees and feels the brand before walking in the door. It’s an amazing, rural location [in Wexham, near Slough] close to Black Park, surrounded by nature.”

Staff get a generous gym membership contribution and there is space to run, walk and cycle around the office. Meetings are often held outdoors. This sort of culture means Timberland has no recruitment issues, says Cookson, who also believes it is more important that people fit in with the culture than just being able to do the job.

Southern living certainly has its merits: the South Downs is a haven for walkers and cyclists, watersports enthusiasts have miles of coastline to enjoy, and there is the nightlife of Brighton, the opera at Glyndebourne and plenty of country pubs to discover.

There are also some good schools, and jobs pay well - buyers and merchandisers can command similar salaries to London-based roles, according to the Salary Survey from recruitment firm Michael Page International. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show average earnings in the Southeast are 5% higher than the national average, at £514 per week.

However, there are pitfalls. Property prices, although cheaper than London, are still high compared with the rest of the UK. Lynne Shields, HR director at jewellery supplier sIcon Live, says the slowdown in the property market and soaring commuter costs have deterred some senior-level applicants. She adds: “Relocation is harder if you have a property to sell, but having a young family is also a reason to want to leave London.”

Where the action is

Not being able to pop out to Oxford Street for some ‘comp shopping’ is another problem, especially for buyers and designers, says Sophie Bubb, associate director at Michael Page International. She adds: “In fashion, a lot happens in London. Merchandisers and technical people can be less concerned about working elsewhere, but creative people like to be close to product.”

However, she says a major benefit of working in the South is that companies tend to invest in employees more than London-based firms: “Companies down here are very good at succession planning and career progression because it’s important they hold on to their staff.”

As the fashion industry streamlines its workforce in the wake of the recession, job security is a bigger priority for many employees.

Mary Anderson-Ford, director of fashion recruitment firm Whitepeak Group, says the subdued social life when working outside large metropolitan areas is often cited as an issue for her candidates: “Head offices outside of cities tend to involve the use of a car. This rules out the pub culture side of work, and puts off some people who enjoy that.”

The South may not have London’s glamour but, if quality of life is important, it certainly has a lot to offer. And the job opportunities are not to be sniffed at either.

Southern stars

Icon Live

Jewellery supplier to high street retailers

Location Burgess Hill, West Sussex

Number of head office staff 330

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, design

Perks 20 minutes from the beach

 

No Added Sugar

Kidswear brand

Location Petersfield, Hampshire

Number of head office staff 14

Departments at head office Everything except manufacturing

Perks Pets allowed in the office

 

Fat Face

Lifestyle retailer

Location Havant, Hampshire

Number of head office staff 182

Departments at head office Everything except manufacturing

Perks After-work water-skiing, relaxed dress code

 

Timberland

Lifestyle brand

Location Wexham, Berkshire

Number of head office staff 120

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, design, marketing, finance, HR

Perks Generous contribution to gym membership, meetings are often held outdoors

 

Ann Summers

Lingerie retailer

Location Whyteleafe, Surrey

Number of head office staff 200

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, design, marketing, finance, HR

Perks Underwear allowance

 

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