Jane Woolf has been at the forefront of young fashion for 30 years but narrowly escaped a career as a cabaret dancer. The buying and product director for Oasis left this month after 16 years at the retailer, and held a similar role at Warehouse for a decade before that. Former Oasis director Maurice Bennett says: 'In my years in the industry, I can honestly say I've never come across her equal.' Woolf, who has two children, has now moved on to consultancy work.
How did you start in the industry?
I started as a dancer for a French dance troupe: cabaret and show dancing. We performed with Harry Belafonte and the like. My first job in fashion was at Miss Selfridge when I was 18. I was a clerical assistant to the dress buyer and a house model, so I'd try items on and comment on the fit and the feel.
How has fashion buying changed since then?
It has changed hugely. In those days it was about working directly with wholesalers, who were all based on Great Portland Street in London. They constantly popped in and out of the buying office on Duke Street. Suppliers would design collections and you would select - in fact, the job was called 'selecting', not buying. Everything was very item-driven, whereas these days we have our own design team and talk a lot more about what each item says about the brand.
Was it tough being a working mum in fashion?
There were a couple of times when I was on my knees trying to fit in a full-time schedule with a family. I think the Bennett brothers (Michael and Maurice) have had such an impact on the industry: they were the first who were willing to provide part-time roles at a very senior level.
Would you urge your own daughter to go into fashion?
Fourteen-year-old Gracie loves fashion and lives in Topshop, as most girls her age do. She has a good eye. As a buyer you need to be a good communicator, and she has that too. I would encourage her - it's a fantastic industry. People work hard but also know how to have fun. My son Tom is not so interested, but he was a model for Drapers' Autumn 07 Streetwear Look Book!
Were you pleased when your first 'baby' - Warehouse - joined Oasis parent group Mosaic Fashions?
Very much so. I'm just delighted that Warehouse has been a success and a force on the high street. It would have been very painful if it hadn't continued to be a success after I left.
Are you still interested in young fashion?
Definitely. In this industry, if you're still here and in your forties, you must have something. When I first got into young fashion, women working in the field tended to vanish at 30. Of course there needs to be young blood to understand customers and their needs. But today's industry is more complex and you need experience. Also, as you get older you become good at being sensitive and don't have a big ego.
THIS FASHION LIFE
What is your biggest fashion weakness?
It's difficult to say, because I just shop and shop and shop. I really like the high street - there's so much design that goes into it. I really don't see why there is a need to go to the designer boutiques.
What was your best fashion moment?
Definitely the 1980s with the Madonna look - lace fingerless gloves and dangly earrings. I really identify with her because we're the same age.
And your worst?
A Katharine Hamnett jumpsuit, again in the 1980s. It was very difficult to get in and out of.
Who are your industry icons?
Michael and Maurice Bennett, and Mosaic chief executive Derek Lovelock. I do feel privileged to have worked with the very best.
Who is the best high street retailer?
Reiss for simplicity and its attention to detail. Both River Island and Warehouse do a good job of sticking to their core brand values and customer bases. From overseas I like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and BCBG.
What are you reading?
My Life So Far by Jane Fonda.
Who is on your iPod?
Lostprophets, The Kooks, The Fratellis - I like indie bands. My daughter loves My Chemical Romance, so now I'm into them as well.
Who is on your mobile's speed dial?
The nail parlour.