When Debenhams revealed Richard Quinn as the new addition to its Designers at Debenhams roster on 19 February, questions were raised about whether the department store chain’s core shopper would even know who this fashion-forward designer is.
Just 24 hours later Quinn received the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for Design, after the monarch sat in the front row of his London Fashion Week show.
As well as being a PR coup for Debenhams, the signing of Quinn has provided a much-needed boost for the 25-year-old Designers at Debenhams initiative, which has been undergoing something of a shake-up. Drapers revealed last month that Debenhams is axing its John Rocha collaboration, while Betty Jackson’s collection is also being removed and Jeff Banks’ menswear range reduced to formal suits and shirts.
Industry sources have told Drapers that flair and imagination are needed to revitalise the Designers at Debenhams concept following the retailer’s failure to evolve the roster.
“It needs more theatre,” said one Debenhams supplier. “What about a pop-up with a new designer each season or a collaboration with Graduate Fashion Week? Debenhams got lazy and hasn’t evolved so now it needs to challenge itself.”
Quinn’s first collaboration will be a 12-piece dress collection in his signature print and is due to launch in May.
The Richard Quinn customers will be in and out, as there is no hook for them to come in and browse
Nivindya Sharma, director of retail strategy and insights at WGSN
While it is expected to appeal to a young fashion customer not usually associated with Debenhams, Nivindya Sharma, director of retail strategy and insights at WGSN, does not believe it will be enough to convert them.
“One designer will not make Debenhams a destination for a fashion-forward customer base. The Richard Quinn customers will be in and out, as there is no hook for them to come in and browse.” She also doubted Debenhams core 40-year-old-plus customer would rush in for a Quinn dress.
“Debenhams needs to ask itself what else it can offer its customers to keep them returning. It is not a credible destination for fashion any more. Designers at Debenhams used to be distinctive, but we have seen the rise of smaller, lifestyle brands that suit that consumer.”
A pioneering concept when it launched in 1993, Designers at Debenhams aimed to make designer collections available at high street prices.
“It was market leading,” said Sharma. “Debenhams’ failure to refresh it means some of the designers feel slightly irrelevant now.”
The stagnation of Designers at Debenhams symptomatic of the retailer’s wider issues, observed independent retail analyst Richard Hyman: “If you leave something without looking after it, when you do look at it, there is a lot more work to be done and that increases the risk involved. Debenhams has been standing still for a very long time.”
A source close to the situation agreed: “The department store sector as a whole needs to find compelling reasons for customers to actually come into stores.”
Chief executive Sergio Bucher, who joined Debenhams from Amazon last year, is attempting to do exactly that through his “Debenhams Redesigned” strategy, which aims to improve store layout, reduce clutter and step up its online experience.
Bucher has said he wants visiting Debenhams to be a “fun leisure activity” and is increasing space for personal shopping, hair and nail bars, and restaurants.
However, Hyman is sceptical about plans to increase Debenhams’ focus on its successful beauty category, reducing its reliance on fashion sales: “If you are a department store chain, you have to have a strong fashion business. How many floors of beauty and gifts can you have?’
Sharma says there is currently a huge difference between “what [Debenhams] aspires to be and what it actually is”, adding there is a lot of work to be done: “Department stores have to sell lifestyles, dreams and aspiration. Debenhams is not doing that right now.”
The Drapers Verdict
There is no doubting the buzz generated by Richard Quinn and his addition to Designers at Debenhams shows the department store chain has an eye on the industry’s rising stars and understands it needs to bring excitement to its brand mix. With the turnaround strategy still in its infancy, there is still much to do: Quinn might attract younger, edgier shoppers to Debenhams but its current clothing offer is simply not good enough to keep them in store. Fashion is critical to Debenhams’ future. Quinn coming on board shows a willingness to look beyond the established brands it already knows well, but it is just one small piece of a much bigger puzzle.