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Look East

Vickie El-Rayyes brings an enviable track record to East as its new buying manager and tells Drapers her sourcing plans.

We have a long-standing supplier base, which I think in these difficult times really puts us on a good footing,” says Vickie El-Rayyes, buying manager at East, as we sit down in the womenswear retailer’s headquarters in southwest London. 

She adds: “The whole retail landscape has completely changed over the last five or six years – it’s changing every day – and we very much talk of partnerships with our suppliers.

If you have those strong connections then you can really play into each other’s strengths and weaknesses and react together.”

East’s partnership approach towards its suppliers may represent the company’s already established way of working, but it also reflects a more recent industry-wide trend, where austerity-hit fashion retailers are eager to work more closely with manufacturers in order to drive efficiencies and ensure maximum cost savings, without compromising on quality or design.

With her freckled complexion, tousled strawberry blonde hair and somewhat bohemian style, El-Rayyes seems like the perfect fit for the Indian-inspired chain, with its ethnic-inspired prints and embroideries, so it’s hard to believe she’s only been with East since April.

When she joined the business she brought with her a wealth of sourcing experience, with 15 years in own-label buying. She began her career at Monsoon, spent six years as a buyer at Warehouse, established and ran her own womenswear brand – called Boo-tique – for two years, before returning to Monsoon for four years as a senior buyer. Most recently, she held the post of formalwear head of buying at Arcadia-owned Bhs, which she says “just wasn’t for me”, due to its “less design-led and more department store nature”.

Breaking away from the conversation for a moment, Drapers can’t help but notice the striking blue-and-white hand-block, batik-stitch jacket that El-Rayyes is wearing. The design is from the spring 13 Artisan sub-brand, and is precisely the ethnic, design-oriented product for which the retailer is known.

“It’s gorgeous isn’t it?” she enthuses, stretching out her arms to survey the design, before adding: “[East] is very much about promoting the crafts in India, where it’s made, and it’s at quite a high price point. It’s all hand-block prints and beautiful embroideries, so it’s very much our heritage. I think it fits the current climate in a way because consumers are being a little bit more demanding about special product – they want things that have that hand-touched feel. There has to be a reason to purchase.”

El-Rayyes declines to reveal the company’s turnover – though East’s most recent results showed like-for-like sales were up 5% to £39m in the year to January 31, 2011 – however, she does reveal that the business sources globally, with India being its predominant manufacturing base, supplying 40% of its garments. A fact that is in keeping with the business’s heritage, which involves a long-standing relationship with Anokhi – the Indian textiles business that inspired the launch of the UK retail arm in 1994.

East sources a further 30% from China, and 30% from Europe, which is up from 24% in spring 10, reflecting the trend towards near-sourcing. “That is fairly new for us,” admits El-Rayyes. “We have been developing it and we recently switched one of our woven products from China to Europe. That means we can wait longer to react and instead of booking on very long lead times from China, we can get proper reactions first.” Within Europe, El-Rayyes says that both Turkey and Portugal are key manufacturing countries for East.

The womenswear retailer isn’t alone in increasing its European production, following rising labour costs in China. Sue Butler, director at consultancy and sourcing specialist Kurt Salmon, echoes this: “We are seeing more UK retailers near-sourcing to increase their levels of flexibility and response times. They can do smaller production runs, react fast to best-selling lines or missed trends and get the products into the UK much quicker.”

El-Rayyes says product development in Europe has also risen to such a level that issues around quality that were problematic five or six years ago have now been largely ironed out, while shorter lead times offset the increased cost of manufacturing closer to home.

The UK is also now featuring in East’s supplier mix, with El-Rayyes revealing that the retailer is producing some of its jersey on these shores. Having been at Warehouse when the retailer became one of the first high street brands to go to China, she says it’s great to see manufacturing come full circle and return to the UK, a message echoed by Drapers’ Save Our Skills campaign.

In fact, demand for UK manufacturing was one of the hot topics at the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry’s supply chain seminar in September. Speaking at the conference, Sangita Khan, creative design director at UK manufacturer Buff Clothing, which counts high street retailers Next, River Island and Matalan among its customers, said demand is even up at the volume end of the market. “UK designers and manufacturers can offer quicker, speedier lead times from concept and design to production and delivery. Fashion is ever fast-moving, and if you blink you will miss the trend,” she warns.  

However, El-Rayyes describes the process as a gradual “evolution”, conceding that jersey is a small part of East’s product mix and that certain products are best sourced in China and India.

Nevertheless, those countries face their own challenges, where economic growth is creating higher aspirations among employees, leading to a fear that traditional skills are in danger of dying out. “With the lack of interest among the younger generations coming through, you do worry that some of those lovely embroidery skills and crochet techniques are going to disappear. I think about how in my own career I’ve seen less and less of that lovely product coming through, and it’s such a shame.”

Turning to a more cautionary note, El-Rayyes says mitigating risk is essential, and advises measures such as bulk buying raw materials, and encouraging suppliers to be transparent when it comes to costing. “They don’t like it, but actually in these times we all have to [be transparent]. A supplier might have to take a margin cut in the way we might have to – it has to be mutual.”

She also advises using different manufacturers to produce the same product, spreading the risk in the event that something goes wrong. “You don’t want to have all of your eggs in one basket,” she says. “Where we’ve shifted one of our woven products from China to Europe, what we’re doing is still keeping some of that product in China.”

Kurt Salmon’s Butler says this is a sensible strategy to adopt. “Done well this can reduce risk and exposure to one region and supplier. Some retailers also produce the bulk of their original orders in the Far East and then do their in-season repeat buys from [closer] sources so they can place the orders later once they have actual sales data to make informed decisions.”

Looking ahead, El-Rayyes expects to see more retailers start near-sourcing. “There is a big opportunity for European manufacturers to take some of the Chinese business,” she says, before adding that future sourcing decisions will be based on “really thinking about each country’s USP and placing the right product with the right manufacturer”.

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