Womenswear brand Hush has gained a devoted following by telling a brand story beyond its relaxed clothing offer
Sunshine streams through the windows of womenswear brand Hush’s bright, airy offices in Battersea, south London. Founder Mandy Watkins and her husband and business partner, Rupert Youngman, sit at a table in the boardroom upstairs, teasing each other about how to pose for their Drapers photoshoot.
This boardroom did not exist last time I visited, back in 2017. But as the company has grown, it has taken more space in the building and opened a new floor – the head office now spans around 9,500 sq ft, more than double the 4,500 sq ft of two years ago. Then a relatively well-kept secret, Hush is now on its way to becoming a household name.
We are here to talk about this growth, which is being driven by a steady rise in the brand’s own website sales, alongside an increasing number of concessions in John Lewis. Its most recent published results show its turnover climbed 74% to £29.8m for the year to 31 March 2018, while its operating profit soared by 162% to £5.4m.
Youngman says turnover rose to £40m in the year to 31 March 2019: “To put it into context, in 2016 our turnover was £10m. So the business has quadrupled in three years.”
Hush has also been developing its pop-up store strategy, and is gearing up to test the waters internationally. It is not an aggressive expansion strategy, but Hush is not an aggressive brand. Privately owned by Watkins and Youngman, it has no external investors to answer to, and the pair follow their hearts as well as their heads when it comes to business decisions.
Watkins studied marketing economics in her native Australia, and worked in various marketing roles, including for Adidas in Australia and Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that she met British-born Youngman, who was working as a journalist. In 2001, they moved to London, where they are now raising their two children.
It was very much started at the kitchen table. I knew nothing about mail order
Mandy Watkins, Hush
The idea to launch Hush came to Watkins during her first English winter. “I’d never done the northern hemisphere winter before,” she says, the Australian twang still clearly audible. “I was working in Maidenhead at the time [for mobile phone network Three], which is an hour and a half by train from London. I would get home in the dark, cold, wet, and I didn’t want to go out again.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to be spending more time at home, and I want to be spending that time in nice, comfy clothing’.”
Drawing on expertise gained at Adidas – where she worked in womenswear – in 2002, Watkins launched Hush as a website and small catalogue that sold pyjamas and loungewear: “It was very much started at the kitchen table. I knew nothing about mail order because mail order didn’t really exist in Australia or in Hong Kong. I knew about design production and sourcing from my time at Adidas, and just had to learn about the rest. The barriers to entry were much lower [than today]. There wasn’t anywhere near as much noise on the internet, and you weren’t being compared with people who had massive budgets, like Zara.”
Nonetheless, Watkins soon realised the brand needed a stronger summer proposition if it was to maintain momentum. Today, the core range includes dresses, tops, skirts, shorts, trousers, jumpsuits, jeans, knitwear, jackets and coats, and lingerie, swimwear, pyjamas, footwear and accessories are also sold. It is keenly priced at £25 for leggings to £295 for a leather jacket, and the average price for a dress is around £79. It sources from suppliers in China and India.
As creative director, Watkins oversees Hush’s product and brand handwriting, while Youngman – who was a journalist for 14 years before officially joining Watkins at Hush as a director in 2005 – looks after the marketing and ecommerce functions. The business has 128 employees in total, including 40 retail staff across its concessions and pop-ups.
Watkins has instilled the brand with a relaxed, Australian aesthetic. It does not target a specific age group, but says the biggest customer group is women aged 35 to 45.
Suzi Avens, a consultant whose previous roles include product director at Cath Kidston and womenswear director at Boden, says: “Hush has mastered ‘relaxed cool’, which is really tricky to get right. Because Mandy’s style is so clear and at the heart of the brand, it almost feels like you are shopping from a curated boutique.”
She adds that Hush could “dial up” the surprises in its collection even further, and bring in fresh and unexpected products to keep customers coming back for more.
One of the ways Watkins is doing this is by introducing small third-party brands that are not readily available in the UK. Recent additions include a range of printed beach towels by Australian brand Destination Towels, and bright pink glasses frames by Swedish brand Thorberg, both of which she discovered on her travels.
However, Watkins says the third-party offer is not a significant part of the strategy: “It’s more about sharing discoveries with our customers, which is part of what we’ve always done. We share the books, movies and music we really love.”
There’s been so much interest around them because they are so good at telling stories
The brand’s first catalogue included book and film recommendations, and in 2009 Hush began sending out printed newsletters with every online order. This was paused in 2018, but it is relaunching this week.
“It’s quite hard to measure the effectiveness of things like that,” she explains. “There is a school of thought that simply says, ‘If you can’t prove that it works, then don’t do it,’ so it got paused, and the pause became longer.
“We were desperate to bring it back because a number of people were asking what happened to it. We think it says something about us, and things that we’re interested in beyond clothes.”
One womenswear veteran says this approach to storytelling is a big part of the brand’s appeal: “Hush is a great success story, and there’s been so much interest around them because they are so good at telling stories, both in the visual ‘stylish’ sense and with their blog posts. They’ve always felt accessible.”
Hush exclusively partnered with John Lewis in 2016, and now has concessions in 36 of its 52 stores across the UK, as well as online. They account for roughly a third of the brand’s turnover.
Perushka de Zoysa, womenswear buyer at John Lewis, says: “Hush has been a runaway success from the get-go. It is consistently one of the most popular brands in our shops and most searched-for brands on our website. The collections offer a very wearable, casual aesthetic that really appeals to our customers – they love the soft fabrics and beautiful cuts.”
You need a mobile site that’s super-fast, and really robust
Youngman explains that the launch of concessions offered “a low-risk way to get in front of a whole new audience”. It also allowed them to keep control of pricing – Hush avoids discounting outside of planned Sales – and how the product is presented.
He shrugs off the challenges facing department stores: “I don’t worry about it in the short term. The best way to mitigate risk is to make sure that our direct business is as healthy as possible, because that’s the thing that we have control over. John Lewis is brilliant for us, but we’d like it to become a smaller part of the business as other parts grow.”
Around 85% of Hush’s sales in are online, 78% of which are through its own website and the rest through John Lewis. The brand is in the process of replatforming from BluCommerce to Salesforce, a process that should be completed early next year.
The new platform will better support mobile sales, explains Youngman: “There’s been a massive shift over the past two years towards customers using mobile, and you need a mobile site that’s super-fast, and really robust.”
Hush is also working with cross-border ecommerce solution provider Global-e to internationalise the front end of its website. From this autumn, the brand’s website will be overlaid with basic translations of key information, and local currency, local payment options “in every market and currency they offer”. International sales currently account for about 5% of online transactions, and the hope is to grow this to 10% in the first instance.
“It’s a way of testing overseas markets without having to build a site specifically for them,” says Youngman.
Another focus for growth is the regional pop-up strategy. The brand’s first pop-up, on London’s Fulham Road in 2015, ran for a few weeks. Today, the stores are typically open for six to nine months. It currently operates pop-up stores at the Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet in north-west England, Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, and on Grove Promenade in Ilkley, west Yorkshire.
Watkins says the plan is to open “more and more” pop-ups, and grow them as retail channels rather than using them purely for marketing. It is also looking at longer-term leases of up to two years.
We’re much more flexible than other businesses because we can get stores open really quickly
“There’s a lot of empty retail space around at the moment,” says Youngman. “It depends on the location, it depends on the deal, it depends on the length of time we can have it for. Some of [the existing pop-ups] are open ended, and some have a fixed closing date. We’re much more flexible than other businesses because we can get stores open really quickly.”
He adds: “It doesn’t have to be a pop-up. It just happens that we quite like that model for now while we’re learning. If you go somewhere and it works brilliantly, why would you leave?”
Underpinning the expansion will be a new emphasis on sustainability. The business hired “sustainable Steph” – former River Island ethical assistant Stephanie Shaw – as sustainability and ethics co-ordinator in February. Hush is also working with the Centre for Sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion, holding workshops for its staff.
“We’ve made it a key objective,” explains Watkins. “We’re quite a sustainable brand in the first place because we’re not trend led, but we decided we needed to educate ourselves quickly and catch up with the sustainable brands entering the market.”
Watkins and Youngman are not big risk takers: the pop-ups, Global-e partnership and John Lewis concessions all allow the brand to expand without a large up-front investment. As a result, its growth is steady, which is a not insignificant achievement given the challenges facing fashion today. Their strategy of putting their personalities and passion for product at the heart of the brand is clearly resonating with customers, and is an important lesson for those trying to stand out in the saturated womenswear market.