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Making the cut in design

New Look group design director Barbara Horspool told young designers how to get a foot on the career ladder

The most important part of being a designer for the high street is having the ability to work as part of a team of buyers and merchandisers, according to Barbara Horspool, group design director at New Look.

“Once you are a confident designer, the most critical thing is teamwork. I’ve met some incredibly talented designers, but they just don’t know how to share,” she said. “Designers are pulling to the future, while merchandisers are looking at history - sales from last year. There is tension between the designer, merchandiser and buyer. It’s a very difficult job to balance the views.”

Horspool said the greatest buyers range build to offer real choice. “The hardest thing is not to just duplicate things you like,” she said. “It works when you respect each others jobs and there is no territory. Recognise that no one function is more important than the other.”

How do designers do it?

She continued: “We don’t have a crystal ball. People think, ‘God spoke to Barbara and told her pink was the next colour’. It’s not like that. 80% of everything we do is research. Everything comes from somewhere. We use prediction services, we go to fabric fairs, we talk to yarn suppliers. We use trend scouts and we get paid to comp shop - travelling the world with the company credit card to go shopping is a brilliant part of the job.

“We look at the catwalks and go to exhibitions. We’re also very involved with bloggers. We have our own social networking site called Mylook.com, which has about 4,000 members who talk to us about what they like.

“10% is about experience and the final 10% is instinct.”

She had a word of warning, though: “I see a lot of portfolios that are full of mood boards. It’s fine to have a strategy, but if you don’t deliver or know how to make an idea happen, it’s pointless.”

Horspool went on to explain that understanding the customer and clearly targeting customer types was essential for success as a designer. “You have to ask, what trends will our customer understand? And what will she pay for it? Value doesn’t equate to cheap. It’s about what you get for your money,” she said.

Understand the market

She added that at fast-fashion chain New Look, where the design team comprises 30 people and 68% of product is created in-house, designers have to be aware of the store portfolio, knowing the differences between customers in the London Oxford Street flagship and those shops in secondary towns.

“Where certain colours or ranges go is really considered. Understanding our international stores, where there might be different weather and culture considerations, is also important. How you translate trends, when you do it and where you do it is key.

“Designing for the high street isn’t what graduates start off wanting to do. They dream of having their own label and Alexander McQueen-style catwalks. I was no different,” Horspool said.

She began her high street design career at Marks & Spencer. She recalled: “I had the same passion to create. The biggest difference was the customer. When I took the job at M&S it was about clothing the nation. Whether you are a big business or a tiny brand, you still have to know who your customer is.

“When I had my own label [Blanche] I remember being so excited when I saw a woman in the street wearing one of my dresses. But the bank managers don’t understand designers and it should not be a hobby. I went from selling 100 pieces of an item [at Blanche] to selling millions of pieces.”

Barbara Horspool

After graduating from Kingston University with a first-class degree in Fashion Design, Horspool set up her own label Blanche, wholesaling it to the likes of Joseph, Whistles and Harvey Nichols.

Six years on, she joined Marks & Spencer as a junior designer. She later worked as head of design with Sir Terence Conran at Conran Design and Storehouse, and ran the design team at department store chain Bhs, helping to turn it from losses of £40m to a profit of £40m. She subsequently took roles at retailers Etam and Esprit, before rejoining M&S as head of women’s design - one of the most prestigious design jobs in the country.

In 2007 she joined New Look to set up the fast-fashion chain’s first design team, giving it a point of difference to the supermarkets.

New Look Essentials

Stores 1,000

Sales £1.3 billion. 38% of the population, or 9.6m, bought something in New Look last year.

Design 68% of the collection is designed in-house

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