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Close up: Baukjen de Swaan Arons, co-founder, Isabella Oliver

Isabella Oliver has grown steadily since its launch as a maternitywear etailer, but now its co-founder has
plans to take it to the next level.

Hidden away in a quaint former post office in Kentish Town, north London, the head office of etailer Isabella Oliver is a hive of activity. There’s a real buzz as we walk past the rows of desks where employees are busily working among the various mood boards and mannequins that line the walkway.

As we enter the relative calm of co-founder and creative design director Baukjen de Swaan Arons’ studio-like office, she quips that what seemed a large space when the business moved in two-and-a-half years ago is now “bursting at the seams”, and admits the etailer, which sells its eponymous maternitywear label andwomenswear own brand Baukjen, may be looking at moving premises again soon.

It’s a period of transition for Isabella Oliver, which is growing to become a medium-sized company. Established by De Swaan Arons and her husband Geoff van Sonsbeeck nine-and-a-half years ago after the pair, who have three kids of their own, spotted a gap in the market for stylish maternitywear, it is on track to close its financial year on September 30 with sales of £19m, up 40% on last year. And two weeks ago it launched its eStylist online styling service.

“The eStylist is a little bit in the vein of ‘we don’t know, but we have a gut instinct’,” De Swaan Arons says. The service allows customers to fill out a questionnaire about their style needs and book a 20-minute online appointment with a stylist, who will then advise them with a clothes rail via webcam, from Monday to Saturday, any time between 12pm and 7.30pm.

De Swaan Arons says the service is taking away the homework the consumer has to do when they are in a bricks-and-mortar store, thinking about what they can wear their latest purchases with. “It’s not unusual to see people in stores holding onto a hanger, looking up and thinking,” she says with a laugh.

“So we’re answering a whole bunch of questions that I would have if I was standing in front of the rail. That is our advantage as non-bricks and mortar. Our disadvantage is we don’t have a [physical] changing room. For us one of the KPIs [key performance indicators] that we get on a Monday morning is our return rate,” she says, adding that while the business is “in conversations” with some of the virtual fitting room software providers, the eStylist proposition will help reduce this.

It’s too early to measure the service’s real impact, but De Swaan Arons says initial reactions have been positive, and draws a parallel with her own reservations about the iPad, something she didn’t know she needed until she had one.

With consumer adoption of smartphones and tablets gathering pace, that channel is becoming increasingly important to the etailer. Following Christmas, it saw its traffic via tablet devices shoot up from 30% before December 25 to nearly 40% after. “That was a wow moment”, she says.

Getting the right team in place has been integral to Isabella Oliver’s success, De Swaan Arons points out, adding that it has required different people at different stages, with people “who could roll their sleeves up” needed at the beginning, and “experts in [specific] areas” essential right now. Today it employs 80 people full-time and has a structure that comprises the board, which looks one to two years ahead; a leadership team, which plans for up to six months ahead; a management team, which focuses on the next two months; and a trading team which works on a week-to-week basis.

It also has a dedicated social media team, although De Swaan Arons admits this is a “learning process”.

Martin Newman, chief executive of ecommerce consultancy Practicology, is a fan of Isabella Oliver, but agrees more could be done to utilise its social media presence. “There are lots of social commerce drivers, including ratings and reviews, as well as links to YouTube content, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. However, I feel that this could still be more integrated into the core user journey,” he says.

Dan Mortimer, chief executive of digital strategy agency Red Ant, agrees there are “several nice touches” to the site, including built-in user reviews and video clips, but says there are some finishing touches that “could take it from good to great”.

“The look book front page, for example, is pretty static and there’s no function for matching colour, style and so on - all of which would encourage a fuller basket at the end of the sales process. And the images themselves have no clear hierarchy, which means there’s no one standout element to attract the eye and the wallet,” he says. “The likes of Net-A-Porter have this kind of thing cracked. Hero looks and products, andsearches/matches cut in almost every way conceivable, across products, designers and styles.”

However, Isabella Oliver is in a period of development, with the team busy behind the scenes preparing for the etailer’s next phase and getting ready for what is shaping up to be a busy 18 months. De Swaan Arons says the etailer’s single view of the customer is one of its advantages over bricks-and-mortar retailers, but admits there is work to be done if it is to harness the data in a meaningful way. She adds that partnering with back-end systems provider MMP from the beginning has been an advantage, with a scalable solution always on offer to match the needs of the growing business.

The etailer’s needs stretch beyond the confines of the UK. Eight years ago, Isabella Oliver was one of the first UK fashion etailers to head overseas, and today international sales account for 50% of revenues, with a particularly strong performance in the US. “We’ve had a solid eight years of working with suppliers, building up a good network. Those relationships really stand us in good stead with our growth plans,” says De Swaan Arons.

For ecommerce consultant Leon Bailey-Green, Isabella Oliver’s international leanings should be applauded.

“Baukjen and Geoff are well connected across the fashion and ecommerce worlds. They aren’t short of supporters who want to see them succeed. They’ve been considered in their approach to building the business and were embracing global retailing long before internationalisation became fashionable in ecommerce.”

Wholesale of the maternitywear range is a big part of Isabella Oliver’s growth plan and is on course to rise from 4% of sales in 2012 to 10% this year. The etailer was opened up to wholesale around six months ago and has secured accounts with upscale department stores Harrods, Fenwick, and Galeries Lafayette in Paris, with more due to be announced for autumn 13.

There are also big plans for the Baukjen own brand, which was launched in 2009 and rebranded from Isabella Oliver 365 in August last year. It will launch in the US within the next 18 months and is also being opened up
to wholesale for spring 14, with De Swaan Arons heading off to Asia the week after this interview to meet with potential partners in response to demand.

When Drapers asks what the future holds for the business, De Swaan Arons gives the sort of analytical answer that reveals her early ambitions as a mathematician: “I often think about it as a Venn diagram”, she says, explaining that the worlds of retail, publishing and design are colliding. “That little centre point is where Geoff and I always say the future lies. The circles are moving closer and closer together. We’re all unapologetically standing on each other’s toes and all looking at mastering the three areas of product, content and commerce.”

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