At a time when bricks-and-mortar stores have been struggling, Drapers finds out how London boutique chain Iris continues to grow in the face of high street headwinds, as it seeks to expand its store portfolio.
“I can grow a business from nought to a hundred million,” Jo Staveley says matter-of-factly, as she sips on a smoothie one sunny afternoon in bustling Wimbledon Village, south-west London.
The former managing director of LK Bennett and Cath Kidston is not dressing it up either: “I helped both businesses expand from two tiny shops to hundreds of stores worldwide. I get a real buzz living and breathing the changes. But when it gets too big, it takes a different skill-set, love and passion. I wanted to find a new brand, small enough that I could nurture and help develop. That’s how my journey started here.”
She is talking about Iris, the decidedly local-feeling women’s and kidswear London boutique chain of which she is chairwoman. It was co-founded in 2004 by friends Sarah Claassen and Annie Pollet, who are managing director and creative director respectively. It first opened its doors in Queen’s Park, and offered a curated edit of premium brands for the working woman and mum-at-home. The independent empire now comprises eight stores, and is defying the high street doom and gloom by opening several more.
But if throwing more stores into the mix seems like a lot to manage, Staveley can handle it. Since she joined Iris in 2013, its annual turnover has grown from £1m to £5m. Staveley explains: “We’re looking at Muswell Hill, Richmond and the lower end of King’s Road. We stick to the 1,100 sq ft benchmark and pay no more than £70,000 annually on rent.” Iris has recently secured a £1m investment, the majority of which has come from Guinness Asset Management’s Guinness EIS fund. It will use the funds to open two new London village stores by 2020.
She says: “When I joined, I ended up investing in the business personally. I can see the future and I can smell that it’s got legs.”
Her belief in the retailer is obvious: she is wearing an outfit of Iris brands: a By Iris black roll-neck jumper, MiH denim jumpsuit, and Isabel Marant Étoile suede boots.
Staveley’s £300,000 cash injection was used to create its own-label brand By Iris and launch the Iris website – both in 2014. Then, in 2017, Iris received a further £650,000, which supported its acquisition of the now-defunct independent Question Air. All five of its London stores have since been re-branded as Iris.
Iris now has the infrastructure and expertise in place to grow its retail operations comfortably. It currently employs around 50 staff across its stores and headquarters Fulham. Ecommerce orders are fulfilled from a facility above its store in East Dulwich.
Staveley explains: “We saw more than 100% growth online in 2018 and it’s our second biggest turnover after our Battersea store.” Online now makes up 15% of total sales, and Iris expects this to grow to 40% within five years.
Own label By Iris represents 25% to 30% of sales. It comprises T-shirts, knitwear and footwear, and is designed in-house and manufactured in India and Portugal. The line-up of other brands includes Isabel Marant Étoile, Ganni and Paige.
“Having their own By Iris collections to complement the external brands is a smart business model”
Claire Burrows, founder of footwear brand Air & Grace
“Having their own By Iris collections to complement the external brands is a smart business model,” says Claire Burrows, founder of footwear brand Air & Grace which is stocked by Iris. “It means the team are really focused on buying in those exceptional pieces that [the own brand does not cover].”
Natasha Hodson, co-founder of childrenswear label Mimi & Lula, another of Iris’s brands, agrees: “The collection is extremely well curated, and the locations are spot on. I’ve also never come across such helpful, knowledgeable and friendly staff.”
Each Iris store has a strong community link and it is this – along with a carefully curated brand mix and personal customer service – that has helped it to flourish at a time when bricks-and-mortar retail is struggling.
Staveley believes this approach is crucial: “The Iris stores are warm and friendly, and like walking into a big wardrobe, so you can dress yourself from head to toe. And you don’t have to go too far to do it. They are local boutiques with the best edits of other people’s collections on your doorstep.”
Opening retail stores at a time when so many are closing and the high street is faltering is a bold decision, and perhaps even a risky one.
Nonetheless, the woman who “nurtured” LK Bennett and Cath Kidston is confident: “I think when the high streets are not doing so well, local village locations can still be thriving.”
Iris at a glance
- Eight stores in Queen’s Park, Chiswick, Wimbledon Village, Battersea, Barnes, Dulwich, Hampstead, and Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
- Brands include By Iris, Ganni, Isabel Marant Étoile, Paige, See by Chloé, Air & Grace and Mimi & Lula.
- Retail prices range from £10 for accessories to £695 for a Woolrich parka.
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