John Lewis’s head of womenswear has overseen a revolution in the retailer’s fashion offer by luring fashion-forward brands to sit alongside high street favourites and developing impressive own labels
Fortune favours the brave”, the old expression goes, and John Lewis head of womenswear Jo Hooper agrees. Her mantra has rubbed off on the department store chain, which two years ago would not have immediately been associated with the adage.
Since her appointment 20 months ago to work under buying director for fashion Peter Ruis, Hooper and the rest of the fashion team at the 28-store retailer have turned John Lewis into a fashion force to be reckoned with. Last month, John Lewis, which won the Department Store of the Year accolade at the Drapers Awards 2009, reported flying fashion sales and said it would finish its financial year with a “flourish” as a result.
Hooper has worked at high-profile retailers including catalogue business Freemans, womenswear chain East and Debenhams during her 25-year buying career. At Debenhams she was closely involved in the launch of the department store chain’s Designers At collection, with designers including Matthew Williamson and Antoni & Alison.
“It was amazing,” says Hooper of her time at Debenhams. “There were a lot of people in the business who were very sceptical [about Designers At]. They thought it would never make any money.” However, the project has become a mainstay at Debenhams.
The experience made Hooper well-placed to take on her role at John Lewis five years later, at a time when the employee-owned retailer was renowned for its homeware and electricals offer and not for pushing the boundaries with its middle England shopper.
Almost two years into John Lewis’s assault on fashion and it is a different world. Hooper has attracted the kind of fashion-forward womenswear brands found in key independents, mixed them with strong high street retail offers and a growing own-label collection.
“When I met Peter [Ruis] I realised he thought about John Lewis very much the way I thought about it - a fantastic business, so well known for home[ware], but fashion? God, we just needed to turn up the volume a bit.”
Fashion now represents a third, if not more at certain times of the year, of the business, says Hooper. And John Lewis has targeted adding £70m to its online fashion sales by 2011. “That makes people within the business and outside sit up and take notice,” says Hooper.
This Christmas, fashion had three record weeks in the run-up to the festive period and was a “key driver of sales into the new year”. With the roll-out of John Lewis’s luxury womenswear shopfit, first unveiled in Cardiff in October, Hooper believes it is all to play for.
“You want to feel you are getting something different,” she says. “Where we do score is that the customer is able to look at Nicole Farhi and then Oasis and then she is in Ted Baker [John Lewis operates sale or return departments rather than concessions on behalf of high street retailers] and she can still pick up a sweater for £50. And the service is second to none”.
Hooper was “thrilled” to recruit brands such as Paul & Joe Sister, Tara Jarmon, Les Petites, Hudson Jeans and People Tree, and recently signed an exclusive deal with contemporary womenswear brand Damsel in a Dress, which is designed by Alison Mansell - creator of the infamous grey polka-dot M&S dress from its 125-year special birthday collection worn by Samantha Cameron, wife of Tory leader David Cameron.
So why have brands flocked to join John Lewis? “In difficult times, we’ve done very well because our customers are extremely loyal,” she explains. “When nobody knows which direction trade is going to go in and who is going to get paid and who is going to go bust, we’ve been able to say, ‘OK, this is where we are, these are our plans for the future.’”
She adds that brands have responded strongly to John Lewis’s sexier way of treating the look of the offer. Combining what she terms the “boutique factor” and John Lewis’s reputation for service, she says it is a winning combination.
“We work closely with the brands,” she says. “Everyone gets communicated with to an extraordinary extent in the business,” she adds with a wry smile. “Partners [John Lewis employees/owners] go to Nicole Farhi and get told about the collection, they go to Ted Baker and see what the concept is, where it came from, what the colour palette is all about.”
So, in 2010, which is set to bring political instability and more fears over unemployment, what does she think the customer psyche will be? “Purchases are becoming much more considered,” she says. “We are still selling coats for £500 but customers are not buying them without a second thought. They are also happy to spend £150 on a dress that they know will take them from the office to dinner and it’s that versatility people are after. It’s about people saying ‘as long as I feel I’m not being taken advantage of and I’m buying something I can wear, I’ll be inspired by it’. In a recession you have to stay true to your philosophy. It’s a period when fortune favours the brave.”
2010 will also see price rises as commodity costs increase and the supply chain is pared back. Hooper muses: “Prices are going up but the exciting thing for us is that volumes are going up.”
She adds: “It goes back to the value equation. The customer is prepared to pay a little bit more if she can see it represents value. If she knows her cashmere sweater - OK, it’s not going to cost £25, but she knows she can love it and wash it and the more she washes it, the nicer it becomes. We have seen that happening, probably as a backlash against the supermarkets.”
And the strategy is paying off. In the week to January 23, fashion sales at the business rose 21.3% year on year, outperforming those areas for which John Lewis has traditionally been known.
Hooper says proudly: “The business has had to wake up to the fact that selling fashion is different to selling kettles and egg timers, and it has paid off”.
Which brands have been successful for you at John Lewis?
Paul & Joe Sister, Tara Jarmon, Les Petites, Odd Molly, Belstaff, Hudson Jeans, Nicole Farhi and René Derhy alongside Oasis and Ted Baker. But not forgetting the classic end of the business, Phase Eight is a phenomenal brand - record week on record week. Our brands which were once classic I now call them the new classic brands. Jaeger is having a great time.
Which brands do you admire and aspire to offer?
What Comptoir des Cotonniers is doing looks fabulous. Also, See by Chloé and Sonia Rykiel - all the French brands - feel right at the moment.
What trends are you backing for autumn 10?
The great thing is that confidence in colour will continue. Purple is becoming a basic for everybody. We are going a bit more folky, focusing on attention to detail. Embellishment - studs, sequins - will continue in a different way. The jacket has to have slightly exaggerated shoulders but the key trouser might be a cropped peg that you would wear with your shoe boots - not cutting edge but appealing to our customer who has seen that is what she should be doing and now feels confident to do it.
Which is your favourite shop?
Anthropologie in the US. It’s been going for more than 15 years and it has captured that whole magpie shopping feeling. Its visual merchandising is the best. You come away with a door knob, a bar of soap you don’t need and a cute dress. It’s the one that gets my juices flowing.
2008 Head of buying, womenswear, John Lewis
2003 Freelancing and consulting with designers including Clements Ribeiro and Tracey Boyd
2001 Head of design, Debenhams
1998 Head of buying, Debenhams
1992 Head of buying, womenswear, Freemans
1986 Various buying positions, Otto Versand
1984 Trainee buyer, Littlewoods/GUS