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From Essex to the world: the rise of Never Fully Dressed

Lucy aylen lucy tighe never fully dressed

Lucy Aylen has built womenswear label Never Fully Dressed from a one-woman band to a thriving online business that is in hot demand with leading retailers around the world.

There is a real family feel at Never Fully Dressed’s Essex headquarters when Drapers arrives on an unusually sunny winter morning. Laughing over slices of chocolate cake, founder Lucy Aylen and members of her close-knit team are chatting about everything from her upcoming birthday plans to reality TV.

The contemporary womenswear label certainly has plenty to celebrate. Although she will not reveal figures, Aylen tells Drapers that turnover has grown by more than 100% every year for the past five years. Sales were up year on year over Christmas and in January, a famously tough month for retail.

From its origins as a market stall, and after rising to prominence in the UK with a winning combination of printed dresses, appealing price points and social media nous, Never Fully Dressed is going global. Aylen has added wholesale stockists across the world as part of plans to increase sales via that channel, is upping her focus on sustainability, and is considering adding to her one bricks-and-mortar store in Essex.

Among the new roles in the business are a finance director and a wholesale manager. Never Fully Dressed’s team is now 16-strong.

In order to keep my sanity, we’ve been adding more structure to the business

Lucy Aylen

New stockists for spring 20 include Shopbop and Nordstrom in the US, Canada’s Hudson’s Bay and Australia’s The Iconic, as well as Namshi and Ounass in the Middle East. The brand will launch in Ireland’s Brown Thomas in May, and counts Asos and Selfridges as UK stockists. Bolstering the team is part of Aylen’s strategy to prime Never Fully Dressed for future growth. On top of all that, the 34-year-old entrepreneur is expecting her third child this month.

“In order to keep my sanity, we’ve been adding more structure to the business,” laughs Aylen, a perfect advert for Never Fully Dressed in one of the brand’s tiered maxi-dresses paired with yellow socks and Nike trainers. “Otherwise, growth wouldn’t have been sustainable – we have no outside investment and I own 100% of Never Fully Dressed.”

Never fully dressed spring 20

Never Fully Dressed spring 20

Aylen never set out to create a fashion brand. An aspiring actress with a ferocious work ethic inherited from her market-trader parents, who sold bags and accessories, she started selling garments at London’s Portobello and Spitalfields markets in 2009 to keep her busy when auditions were scarce.

“I wanted to act and, like most actresses, I was unemployed a lot. My parents used to do the markets and had shops, so I had a bit of knowledge. I’m not good at doing nothing, so I’d do the market when I wasn’t getting acting work. At first, I’d just customise by buying bits and adding trims – a bestseller was an off-the-shoulder jumper with a big bow. I still get messages on social media from customers who remember buying from me then.”

Never Fully Dressed amassed a following through the markets and online. Aylen opened the store in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, in 2014.

“I was still working from my mum’s loft, constantly dragging stock up and down the stairs. That’s why we opened the shop. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Let’s make this a proper business,’ but it gave us more  structure. It was half store and half office, and I thought, ‘If the takings cover the rent of the office, that’s great.’ We don’t have London rents or rates, but we’re on the Central line, so people travel to it.

“When I started doing the markets, Topshop concessions were flying. If you got into there, then you had it made, and would then start wholesaling to Independents. I’ve been quite lucky that our own retail came first, so we weren’t dependent on those accounts, whereas most small brands need them to be able to fulfil factories’ minimum orders.”

She adds that the store is profitable and, combined with pop-ups, accounts for around 5% of turnover.

Never Fully Dressed’s bright, contemporary and feminine product – its tagline is “sophisticated sass” – has a broad appeal. New products are launched online every week. Prices sit just above the high street, from around £39 for T-shirts and camisoles to £129 for a reversible animal print wrap dress. Printed dresses at less than £100 are the label’s sweet spot. Recent bestsellers include a candy-pink lobster print midi-dress and ditsy floral wrap dress, both £89.

We’ve got a really high return customer rate, so if we can introduce them to the brand earlier, then we’ve got a longer life with that shopper

Lucy Aylen

Aylen is experimenting with broadening the brand’s appeal still further by reducing its entry price point to £50-£60 for dresses to draw in a younger consumer with a lower budget. Expanding the brand’s plus-size range, which is currently available on Asos, is another ambition.

“We have a wide customer base and it is something we’re looking to expand further. That younger girl might currently only buy a Never Fully Dressed dress for a special occasion like her 18th birthday. We’d like her to be able to buy more than once a year. We’ve got a really high return customer rate, so if we can introduce them to the brand earlier, then we’ve got a longer life with that shopper.”

All of the brand’s prints are designed in house, and most manufacturing is done in China and the UK. A small amount comes from Europe, such as knitwear from Italy. Never Fully Dressed has recently started working with three new factories in the UK.

“I’d make everything here if I could,” says Aylen. “Compared with five years ago, I do think there’s more and more production available in the UK.”

Never fully dressed spring 20

Never Fully Dressed spring 20

Sustainability is never far from fashion brands’ minds in today’s market and Never Fully Dressed is no exception. As well as manufacturing more in the UK, Never Fully Dressed is developing knitwear made from recycled polyester for autumn 20. The brand also launched a “Pre-Loved” section on its website last year. Shoppers can sell garments back to Never Fully Dressed in exchange for loyalty points to spend on new-season product. The brand then sells the pre-loved garments via shopping app Depop.

Growing the wholesale offer, particularly internationally, has been a key focus over the past 12 months. It did briefly wholesale in its early years, through Asos, but Aylen admits the business was not sophisticated enough to deal with the demands of stockists. Wholesale relaunched last year and currently makes up 15% of Never Fully Dressed’s turnover – a figure Aylen would like to grow to 20% over the next year.

“Never Fully Dressed is a perfect fit for [us],” Melanie Smallwood, international buying director at Global Fashion Group, which owns new wholesale partner The Iconic, tells Drapers. “Its product is fabulous and at a great price point, it has a huge, loyal and engaged customer base, and is incredibly flexible to work with. It hits the sweet spot with an offering that attracts a broad audience, regardless of age, location, weather or occasion.”

Drapers Digital Festival

Ddf20.index festival

Lucy Aylen is speaking at Drapers Digital Festival on 30 April. 

The full-day conference offers a chance for the community to hear from pioneers of the digital economy, leading fashion retailers and tech giants about what’s driving the industry’s transformation, ideas to stimulate future trends and how to stay ahead of the game.

Find out more and book your tickets now at digitalfestival.drapersonline.com

To help support the growth of wholesale, Never Fully Dressed has also appointed a design assistant.

“Previously, I designed everything,” Aylen explains. “I don’t have any formal training, but I know my customer and I know what she likes. But the introduction of wholesale and the fact that we’re now balancing different territories and different seasons meant it was just too much. It got to the point where we might have had a beautiful print and because we needed newness, I’d just say, ‘Oh, let’s just do a repeat style,’ and then think that print deserved more.”

International sales currently make up 42% of turnover. Key international markets include the US, which makes up around 40% of direct-to-consumer online sales. Aylen plans to open a Warehouse in the US through a third party later this year to further improve the experience for customers and support wholesale accounts. Ireland and Australia are other fast-growing markets.

As well as the Buckhurst Hill store, Never Fully Dressed runs at least three pop-ups around the world each year, to test new markets. It will travel to Los Angeles, Dublin, London and Sydney this year.

“Never Fully Dressed is the perfect example of a digitally native brand using temporary stores to connect with their community and test new markets,” says Ross Bailey, founder of pop-up and short-term rental marketplace Appear Here. “We’ve worked with the team to launch pop-up stores in London and LA. Their LA store proved so popular they had to ship over more stock.”

Aylen has not ruled out opening further permanent stores, particularly as the brand’s existing bricks-and-mortar location is profitable: “Until about six months ago, I’d have said no. It comes down to the location and getting the maths right, but I’d look at a store in London. Rents have come down, and we’re in a stronger position to negotiate, because people have not done well and closed stores. I do think there will be a resurgence in bricks and mortar, and I like being able to create something immersive for customers.”

Even with these growing channels, Aylen is pragmatic about the challenges facing smaller brands – Never Fully Dressed stopped offering free returns last year.

“Fashion brands have tried to compete with the likes of Amazon and been surprised at how hard it is to do. We had free returns for about 18 months but took it off last year. We’re a really honest company and there wasn’t even a backlash. We just said: ‘Look, we’ve really tried to do this for our customers, but it isn’t sustainable right now. Perhaps it’s something we’ll revisit in the future.’ We’d rather put resources into giving customers enough information – like styling videos – so they don’t have to buy multiple sizes.”

Aylen has carved a space in a crowded market with an appealing product proposition, accessible price point and strong work ethic. Acting may not have worked out as a career, but an impressive roster of new international stockists should help propel her brand even further into the limelight.

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