Premium womenswear label Rixo London has taken the industry by storm since it launched in 2015. Drapers meets founders Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey.
Best friends and business partners Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey share a lifelong love of vintage shopping. Cheshire-born Rix met McCloskey, from Northern Ireland, in 2010 while they were both studying a degree in Fashion Management at the London College of Fashion. The two became fast friends, and spent their Sundays combing the country’s vintage markets for forgotten gems.
It was a university professor who first noticed that Rix and McCloskey made a good team during a shared group project. He urged them to consider working together again in the future. After graduating, they saw a gap in the market for good-quality, feminine clothing that put a fresh spin on the timeless shapes and styles of vintage pieces, such as flowing printed dresses from the 1970s.
Rixo London – the name is an amalgamation of Rix and Orlagh – launched in February 2015 and has since captured the attention of buyers, customers and a host of influential fans. This spring it launched at Harrods and ran a pop-up at Liberty London.
The idea was to create something that had that vintage element, but still felt modern
“When we started Rixo, the contemporary brands we were seeing in the big department stores were very minimalist and monochrome,” Rix tells Drapers as we sit in the west London flat where she lives with McCloskey. “You could be paying hundreds of pounds for a simple logo T-shirt and the materials were often polyester.
“We thought, ‘You know, if you could make something beautiful in silk, at around a £300 price point, people would buy it.’”
McCloskey adds: “We felt the high street was a bit ‘samey’ and that often, the shapes weren’t as flattering as they could be. The idea was to create something that had that vintage element, but still felt modern. We’d always loved the thought of doing something together and really thought the idea had potential. After we graduated, it felt like a case of now or never.”
I’d say to anyone [who wants to launch their own fashion brand] that you don’t have to throw money at it
Eye-catching hand-drawn prints, which, for autumn 18, include ditsy florals, abstract spots and delicate stars, have quickly become the brand’s signature. Rixo is also tapping into a growing demand for affordable luxury. Retail prices range from £65 for printed silk scarves to £365 for a bestselling sequin midi-dress with blouson sleeves.
The pair built Rixo on a shoestring budget: each invested £3,000 of their savings to get the brand off the ground. Costs were kept tight. Rix and McCloskey had to be savvy, asking factories for surplus fabric to make test garments and working with a student pattern cutter, helping him to notch patterns at weekend, to further cut costs. Rixo’s first lookbook was shot in one of London’s derelict buildings after a chance meeting between Rix, McCloskey and a friendly squatter in a branch of Costa Coffee.
“I’d say to anyone [who wants to launch their own fashion brand] that you don’t have to throw money at it – you hear about some brands that are millions in debt without having sold a single dress,” says Rix. “We had no investors. We were two young girls, people could see what we were trying to do and I think because of that they got behind us.”
Building a close relationship with their supplier, which is UK-based but manufactures in China, was crucial.
“When you’re a small business, it can be hard to get a supplier to even look twice at you,” adds McCloskey. “We managed to make it work because we were helping them and they were helping us. Although they were really good at manufacturing, they had a bit of communication barrier with buyers in the UK, so we would act as a go-between them and other retailers. We were almost working there for free, but we wouldn’t have had production if it hadn’t been for that supplier.”
Chelsea independent Baar & Bass became the brand’s first stockist in September 2015. Rix and McCloskey spotted the shop when driving back from another buying appointment that summer, and were so impressed they decided to take the collection in there and then. Owner Maddie Chesterton placed an order on the spot.
“The girls walked in by chance – it only took me second to realise I had stumbled across not only a very special brand but two amazing designers,” Chesterton tells Drapers. “Rixo crosses generations and caters to all shapes and sizes.”
But despite Rix and McCloskey’s confidence that they were filling a crucial gap in the market with a unique product, building a wholesale customer base did not initially prove easy.
“I can’t tell you how many UK boutiques put the phone down on us when we were starting out,” says Rix. “It was disheartening at times. We had an Excel spreadsheet of boutiques in the UK, and every Monday we’d sit down and ring them. We’d picked up Baar & Bass and we’d had also had some press, so our own website sales were growing and doing well, but we knew we needed that visibility in stores, because people couldn’t see the actual product and they tend not to trust something they haven’t seen.”
Even if we’re in a nice independent boutique, we can’t be in every nice boutique
Determined to get their designs in front of customers in bricks-and-mortar stores, Rix and McCloskey decided to shoulder the risk and offer stock to independents on a sale-or-return basis.
“We just believed in the business so much and couldn’t believe they couldn’t see what we were showing them,” continues Rix. The independents contacted included St Albans’ The Dressing Room, Cambridge’s Elegant Atelier and Cheshire’s Black White Denim, “We had to think of another strategy and were sure customers would love the brand. Within a week of delivering, we had boutiques ringing us saying it had sold out and asking for more stock.”
Worldwide, the brand is now sold in 130 stores and has around 100 wholesale accounts, including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Net-a-Porter in the UK, Paris department store Le Bon Marché and New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue.
“The collection has this vintage-inspired, 1970s British vibe, while still remaining contemporary” explains Alexandra Gordon, womenswear buyer at Liberty. “The cuts are also very flattering and appeal to a wide range of customers.”
Maria Milano, general merchandise manager at Harrods, adds: “Bright colours, feminine prints, contemporary shapes – this is what our customer wants to be wearing and what Rixo excels at.”
Bethany Rowntree, founder of Studio B, has stocked Rixo since she launched the independent retailer last year.
“The fit is great, the shapes are flattering and it is premium quality at a good price point,” she says. “The prints are also unique to the brand. My customers like that it can be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion.”
Rixo has grown from a team of three to 10 over the past 12 months, moving out of Rix and McCloskey’s living room and into an office, also in west London, in November last year to accommodate the growing workforce. New hires include an accessories designer to help the label ready a range of bags, belts and jewellery for spring 19, as well as a commercial director, Rachel Stechler.
Rix and McCloskey have found their own strengths within the business, although they still work together closely and make key creative decisions as a pair. McCloskey focuses on creating the brand’s hand-drawn prints, Rix on wholesale, social media and marketing. Both say they could not imagine running a business with anyone else.
“Even if we don’t have all the answers – we’re definitely not experts on everything – I know I can rely on Henrietta and she knows she can rely on me,” says McCloskey.
Although the founders acknowledge that silk dresses will always be a key part of Rixo’s offer, they also have ambitions to expand into wovens, knitwear and even denim, to enable customers to buy into a full look. A range of swimwear, which includes cosmic-print high-waisted bikini bottoms (£65) and swimsuits (£125) launched on Net-a-Porter for resort 18.
Building a brand from scratch is not easy. As Rixo has grown, it has faced criticism from some independents, who argue the business has prioritised larger stockists, such as Net-a-Porter, over them by offering online exclusivity, and that it runs the risk of becoming overexposed as its profile increases.
“It did phenomenally for us when we first bought it,” says the owner of one independent. “But it has got tougher and tougher as there is more Rixo in the marketplace. I was basing my buys on what I had bought the previous season, but was then faced with Rixo creating exclusive collections for stockists like Net-a-Porter and increasing its distribution into big department stores like Selfridges and, as a result, our sell-through fell.
“Hats off to them, they’ve built a brilliant brand, but some independents have not been given the respect they deserve.”
Rix counters: “We have to protect the brand we built and worked so hard for. We’re stocked in some very small boutiques who have supported us for a long time, and we’d never dream of placing order minimums on them, which is what most brands do.
“We have been open and honest, and said we need to be careful. We can’t be everywhere. Even if we’re in a nice independent boutique, we can’t be in every nice boutique. We don’t want everyone at a wedding to turn up wearing Rixo and for customers to say ‘Oh, I’m not going to buy it now,’ because you do hear about that happening to brands.”
The brand’s focus now is on expanding internationally in markets such as Europe, Australia, the US and the United Arab Emirates. Other current international stockists include Saks and concept store Kirna Zabête in the US, as well as Harvey Nichols and etailer Ounass in the UAE.
Growing its ecommerce offer is another goal. Currently, around 65% of its business is wholesale and the rest comes from own ecommerce, which the brand hopes to move closer to a 50:50 split by expanding ranges and improving the customer journey.
Rixo’s next big ambition is to open its first bricks-and-mortar flagship London store, although an exact timeline and location has still yet to be decided.
A combination of design-driven product and the pair’s determination to not take no for an answer has helped Rix and McCloskey build Rixo London into one of fashion’s most talked-about new labels. Both still eat, sleep and breathe the brand.
“I think the reason Rixo has grown so quickly is because we think about it 24/7,” concludes Rix. “We’re always thinking about the brand and what we can do next. It’s never a drag for us – we love it and we’re obsessed with it.”