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My Fashion Life: Debra McCann, founder of The Mercantile

From Danish trade shows to the markets of Uzbekistan, this independent retailer travels the world for brands to bring back to her east London womenswear store.

Debra 1 jpg

Debra McCann

When the recession caused Debra McCann and her husband, Thomas, to close their wholesale show, the duo bounced back by opening womenswear and lifestyle store The Mercantile in the then up-and-coming east London Spitalfields area. A regular trade show traveller and market stall shopper, McCann goes to extremes to find labels she loves for her varied clientele at 17 Lamb Street.

How would you describe The Mercantile to someone who has never heard of it?

A buzzing independent clothing store in the heart of the east end of London selling a huge selection of contemporary brands, both well known and lesser known.

When and why did you open the store?

We opened our original store on Lamb Street some seven years ago. We changed the name and became sole owners of the existing business three years ago.

You launched the store with your husband Thomas. How is it working with family members? We’ve worked together for years. I know my strengths and his weaknesses. Our eldest daughter works in the store on Saturdays; it’s very much a family effort. They are my biggest and valued critics.

What did you do before opening the store?

I worked in product development for Nicole Farhi, then for an American distributor, which paved the way for us to set up a distribution company and showroom selling brands such as True Religion, Maje, Designers Remix and Nobody.

When picking brands for your store are you led by your emotions?

I’m definitely led by my emotions. Sometimes it doesn’t make the best business sense to buy what you love, but it’s easier to sell product that you love and have faith in.

You stock a wide selection of brands from international to local, from affordable to more high-end. Why take this approach?

I believe in buying the best you can afford, but I prefer a crafted product with integrity over a product that is branded and overpriced. I believe that all of our styles represent value for money, whether it’s a Vanessa Bruno cashmere piece or a pair of Dr Denim jeans. Also the size of the store and the nature of our varied clientele allows us to have fun with the brand mix.

You travel all over to find new brands. What are your favourite trade show and showroom appointments?

I enjoy Revolver in Copenhagen and Tranoï in Paris, although it’s so late. We get more done at Who’s Next in Paris, which isn’t as aesthetically stimulating but gives a better overall view of most of the brands we buy at an early stage.

What do you think makes a good trade show?

It’s essential to feel the buzz of the new. Premium in Berlin is good for this as it’s the first show of the season and there is a spirit about it. I always feel very creatively uplifted when we travel to buy.

Where is the strangest or most unexpected place you’ve come across a brand to stock?

We stock brands from Niger, Burkina Faso and Uzbekistan. We try to be different to the homogenous nature of the high street, so we are happy to put in the extra effort to source more unusually and deal with the hassle entailed.

What have been your bestselling brands this season?

Rains and Dr Denim sell like hotcakes and are rarely reduced, so they perform very well. Des Petit Hauts and Samsøe & Samsøe have both had a great winter season too.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

Every time I serve a customer in the store who really gets it, who really loves it, who is really excited by what we do. That’s my constant high point, even though it happens quite a lot now.

What has been the lowest point of your career and how did you overcome it?

The recession forcing us to fold our wholesale showroom was my lowest point. We had nothing when we set up the store but it made us stronger, more creative and determined.

Have you ever been surprised by the reaction to your buying choices?

I’m surprised all the time when things fly out at a pace that is unreal. We don’t often have disasters, but sometimes there will be a style that is slow for no reason at all.

Where are your personal favourite places to shop?

The Mercantile

The Mercantile

The Mercantile

Pixie Mart (New York), Ron Herman (Los Angeles) and IT (Hong Kong) for clothing. For vintage Paris and New York, for markets Cambodia and for homeware my all-time favourite is Paradise Road in Colombo.

What are your current favourite fashion brands?

All the brands that we stock, for differing reasons, but personal favourites are Ba&sh, Christophe Sauvat, Current/Elliot, Anna Pugh and Des Petits Hauts. Other than that I love the styling of Erdem, Preen, Vanessa Bruno, Marni and Alexander Wang.

What is the most treasured item in your wardrobe?

A very expensive cream sheepskin coat but, as I’ve had it for 20 years, I think it’s been worth every penny. God knows how I’ll cope when she dies.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

It’s all about the bottom line.

If you weren’t working in the fashion industry, what would you be doing?

Training horses in Tarifa or running a yoga retreat in Cambodia.

 What do you do to switch off from work?

Beach walks with my whippet and time with my family.

Tell us something not many people know about you.

I speak fluent Klingon.


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