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The Drapers Interview: Barbara Horspool

The White Company’s Barbara Horspool recounts the twists and turns of her 34-year career, during which she has worked at some of the UK’s biggest retailers.

Barbara Horspool

Barbara Horspool

Every career move should be about what you are going to learn and what you can add to your skills base. That is how you should see your career progression,” says Barbara Horspool, newly appointed clothing director at The White Company.

Wise words from one of fashion retail’s most highly regarded design chiefs and advice that has very much been the mantra for her own career. Dressed in an on-brand ensemble of white and navy, Horspool is just days into the newly created role of clothing director for the lifestyle retailer when Drapers meets her at The White Company’s London headquarters in Kensington.

“For me, this move to The White Company is a fantastic opportunity to work for and understand more about lifestyle brands and online retailing. I have always been a great admirer of the brand and this new role will be an exciting challenge for me.”

Horspool joined on December 8 and oversees buying and design. “I’m responsible for the product development teams and ensuring the range is commercially focused, aspirational and targeted at our customer base,” she explains. The range includes women’s partywear, cashmere, silk nightwear, leather gifts and wardrobe essentials. There is also The Little White Company for babies from newborn to 12 months, and children aged one to 12.

“The White Company has an amazing reputation in terms of home in particular and there is a real big opportunity to grow clothing. The White Company is a business that is growing very fast, so it is very exciting.” Chief executive Will Kernan hopes to grow the clothing element of the business substantially in the Next five years. Having the right team in place is essential, Barbara says. “Knowing I have safe pairs of hands both on buying and merchandising is really important to me and the team here have done an amazing job so far in building the clothing range. I have a lot to learn.”

This constant drive to learn and improve has propelled Horspool throughout her career, but it all stems back to her childhood. Growing up in a small Welsh village called Llangollen, her father, Norman, ran a fruit and flower shop called NH Horspool. “I grew up with a retailer that accepted nothing but the best. And we talk about click-and-collect now, but my mother, Daphne, used to deliver to customers for free if they wanted it.”

Horspool worked in the shop but excelled in art and English at school, where she then had to make a choice between the two. She chose to pursue art and went to Cardiff School of Art in 1977 to study for her foundation course, where she fell in with the fashion set. “It was the days of the Blitz [nightclub in Covent Garden] and New Romantics, and I got into going out dancing, with everyone looking amazing. The 1980s were all about what you looked like and where you danced.”

She decided she wanted to study a fashion degree, but coming from a foundation course known for producing fine artists, ceramics and performance art, she found her interviewers at Kingston University in London almost laughing at the fact that she would want to do fashion. “I had to convince them,” she recalls. “I remember on my first day my tutor saying ‘Oh, you were the one we nearly didn’t take’,” she says with a laugh. She did three “very hard” years at Kingston, during the years when revered Professor Daphne Brooker ran its School of Fashion. “Daphne was a tyrant but she was amazing,” says Horspool. Brooker produced talents including designer John Richmond and artist Helen Storey, among many others, before retiring in 1992 (Brooker died in 2012, aged 84).

While there, Horspool met her future business partner Mark Betty. “We had absolutely nothing in common. He was part of the Blitz scene in London and I was a nice girl who dressed up and went dancing. But we ended up going to Paris collections together, and shared ambitions over the same things.” Horspool graduated with a first-class honours degree in 1980. “If you were one of Daphne’s stars she got you interviews with brands like Chanel, but my tutor, Richard Knott, said I should start my own business. So Mark and I decided to launch our own label. He chose the name Blanche, taken from the character Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire. With just £500 loaned to them from Horspool’s mother, they started the label in 1980, doing everything themselves. Barbara says: “To this day I remember the day we got our first order”, from Joseph on London’s South Molton Street, for 12 shirts. They sold out within a week. “They rang us up and said we need another 24 shirts. And we had made them all by hand, so we had to sit and sew these shirts to get a repeat order in and each shirt had 17 buttons on.”

Blanche was a success, with about 20 to 25 stockists at its height, including impressive names such as Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Lucille Lewin at Whistles and Harvey Nichols in London, and showed at London Fashion Week. However, it didn’t bring in enough money as stockists and suppliers often let them down and, after briefly working with a potential backer, Mark decided to leave. “He said to me then, ‘It’s your pieces that are the stars that sell really well’, so I guess that is where my strength has always been.” However, Horspool decided she didn’t want to run her own label alone and Blanche stopped trading in 1987.

Her then boyfriend - and now husband, Gary - suggested she needed to work in a large successful business to learn how to make money, so she picked up a copy of Drapers Record and applied for a role as a design assistant at Marks & Spencer. “I didn’t even read the advert properly and turned up at this interview with Brian Godbold [then M&S design director] wearing a nude pink Azzedine Alaïa dress and leopard-print Manolo Blahnik boots at M&S in Baker Street to find out I’d applied for a role as an assistant to the colourist. Luckily, they knew Blanche and said ‘We want you’.

Alongside her buyer Anne Rolland, Horspool quickly made an impact on activewear, leisurewear, tracksuits, jersey and swimwear, taking the womenswear department to new heights, with the other buyers then requesting to work with her. However, she found it frustrating that she was limited to this area and couldn’t look at the wider picture, so in 1988 left to join Storehouse, the retail business set up by Terence Conran, to head up the design studio at department store chain Bhs.

She was soon promoted to head of design for all of Conran’s women’s clothing businesses, which included BHS, Mothercare and Richard Shops. “To this day I haven’t worked for someone so magically inspirational as Sir Terence Conran, and I still use his quote ‘A designer is only as good as the brief they are given’. He really understood that.”

Horspool soon caught Sir Stuart Rose’s eye, and went to work for him at Dorothy Perkins as head of design in 1993, but on her first day she was approached by fashion chain Esprit to be its worldwide design director and jumped at the chance. “This international role was just a much bigger challenge for me,” she says. Rose did warn her that the company was going through some internal strife between its shareholders, but she wouldn’t be deterred. “I thought he was just trying to get me to stay, and that shows how naive you can be when trying to progress your career. He was actually being very honest.”

So she joined Esprit at its Düsseldorf office in 1994, but Rose had been right. The company was bought by Hong Kong billionaire Michael Ying and with changes afoot, and having just given birth to her son, Jake, she decided to leave and return to the UK. Upon her return she did several consultancy jobs, including her first buying director role in 1995 with British Shoe Corporation, which included the Saxone chain and was part of Sears Group, where she worked with then managing director Mike France, who she praises for his charismatic and proactive leadership.

However, commuting to Leicester from London didn’t work for her life as a new mother, and she moved to women’s young fashion chain Etam in 1997 to take up the role of design director. Just six months later its South African owner Foschini sold the business back to Etam France, and Horspool was made international design director, spending three days in the Paris office and two in London. “It was fabulous and probably my best international experience was working for a brand with an international mentality.

“Then I remember one Sunday evening reading in the Sunday Times that Yasmin Yusuf [now creative director at Miss Selfridge] had gone to M&S [as creative director in 2001], and in my heart I still had this soft spot for M&S and I thought ‘That was the job I wanted’.” It was obviously meant to be, because a few months later Yusuf called her up and asked her to head up the design on womenswear, which she “jumped at”, joining in 2001. She adds: “Yasmin is another incredibly strong character. She has great style, is very single-minded and not the easiest person to work for, but I learnt so much from her. She had a vision and was unrelenting in how she wanted to deliver it.”

However, in 2004 Sir Stuart Rose was drafted in to replace Roger Holmes as chief executive, and Yusuf left to be replaced by Kate Bostock.
Although there was a six-month period with no one in the creative director role, leaving Horspool and her colleagues, head of stores Liz Evans (now chief executive of Oasis and Warehouse), senior buyer Beth Butterwick (now chief executive of Bonmarché), head of merchandising James Leslie and head of women’s buying Leslie Torson (now co-owners of London mini-chain Trilogy), to hold the fort. Butterwick says: “I know Barbara as an incredibly rare and talented individual. She has an innate understanding of her target customer, is able to drive creativity within the framework of commercial rigour and is an inspirational leader that takes her team and colleagues on the journey.”

Of Bostock’s eventual arrival at M&S, Horspool says: “Kate came in and I worked really closely with her for a year and we did the first ever fashion show and did the first Twiggy and Erin [O’Connor] campaign, so it was all massively exciting.” However, Bostock had big changes planned, which meant a change in Horspool’s role, so she decided to leave in 2007 and subsequently met New Look chief operating officer Paul Marchant, who asked her to come on board as trend director.

Landing in businesses going through a period of inner turmoil seems to have been the norm for Horspool - Marchant left just six months later [he now heads up Primark]. “Business is ever-changing; you have to be prepared for that,” she warns. Nevertheless, she spent five “amazing” years at the young fashion retailer, taking it from a business that just sold affordable clothes to a major force. “The figures - we used to pinch ourselves every Monday and just go ‘Oh my god. Are we really doing this well?’. It was just phenomenal and it was very sad when after the move to London and the attempted IPO [in 2010], we lost our way.” Horspool quit in 2011 and after considering a move to Oasis as design director, she was convinced to return to New Look by founder Tom Singh. However, she says “by the time it all settled down and it was clear where Tom wanted the business to go, it wasn’t where my heart was.

“I wanted to do something smaller, to get out of the value market and put back my real love of product, quality and authenticity.”

She then met John and Belle Robinson, founders of womenswear chain Jigsaw, one of her personal wardrobe staples, and joined in June 2012 as product director: “They would laugh because I was always the highest spender of the staff discount. But I learnt so much about the more premium end of the market.”

And now Horspool is excited about her next challenge, which she has found at The White Company in a role which offers a wider scope in a different type of business. “The future comes from brands that can give an experience to the customer and for me a lifestyle brand is going to give an experience to a customer, rather than just selling clothing.”

And she has some wise words for anyone looking to follow in her successful footprints: “I was once told that people gain their jobs through their technical ability but often fail because of their attitude. Working well and communicating clearly with the people in your organisation has to be one of the single biggest challenges you have to learn, whatever level of management you reach.

“For career progression, it is vital you recognise that everyone has different strengths and that success comes from a being part of a highly motivated, accountable team, not just your own achievements. Be open to learn, ask for help and never settle for anything but the highest standards.”

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