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'Relentless focus on the customer': the secret of SilkFred


In a demanding womenswear market, SilkFred’s Emma Watkinson has a unique dual approach to fashion retail.


Emma Watkinson, the 32-year-old CEO and co-founder of womenswear ecommerce retailer SilkFred, sits smiling behind her desk in the brand’s trendy, modern office in east London, wearing an elegant animal print wrap dress by womenswear brand Pretty Lavish. Behind her stands a rack of slinky midi-dresses in leopard print and shimmering neon tones.

Scattered across her desk are a sea of papers, documents and books on business growth. There are a pair of tickets to heavy metal band Metallica’s London gig taking place later that evening, and in the corner of the office is a globe bar complete with a half-full whiskey bottle and glasses.

The office offers a neat representation of SilkFred as a business. On the surface, it appears to be a conventional womenswear ecommerce site, yet it is more complex and eclectically sophisticated.

SilkFred is essentially composed of two parallel functions, catering to consumers with one hand and serving brands with the other. One side of the business operates as a traditional wholesale ecommerce site, where stock is held and shipped from SilkFred’s own logistics set-up in London.

We isolated what these brands would have difficulty with the most and what could we help them with

Emma Watkinson, SilkFred

The other side works as an online marketplace, showcasing and supporting independent and emerging womenswear brands. Independent brands use the SilkFred marketplace platform to sell their products and fulfil the orders themselves, with SilkFred taking a 25% commission on orders. 

This dual approach, along with Watkinson’s belief in the unique opportunities presented by being a solely online business and savvy use of social media, has allowed SilkFred to carve a niche in the crowded womenswear market.

Twin goals

Following brief stints on the shop floor at Whistles, in an independent boutique in Marbella and at now-defunct luxury ecommerce site working in buying and merchandising, Watkinson founded SilkFred in 2011, aged just 24, alongside co-founders Stephen Jackson – a friend and financial trader – and his sister, former lawyer Kate Jackson.

The site itself officially went live in 2012. After receiving early seed funding of £150,000 from three undisclosed initial “angel” investors, with later investments from private equity group Livingbridge and corporate advisory firm Seneca Partners, it has continued to grow steadily. In 2013, it raised a further £145,000 via crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, and now employs a team of more than 80 at its headquarters near Brick Lane in London’s Shoreditch. Although the business declines to give details on recent figures or reveal profits, it says that sales have doubled every year for the past three years. In 2015, it reported turnover of £2.7m. 

Growing pains

The idea for SilkFred stemmed from an attempt to address two issues in fashion retail: solving the order fulfilment issues that were faced by the growing number of small independent brands, and meeting the demand for unique product in a saturated womenswear market.

“There seemed to be a building wave of entrepreneurs [when we founded the business] that, rather than going to work for the big luxury brands or the high street, were choosing to create for themselves,” explains Watkinson. “When you think about getting those brands to market, we isolated what these brands would have difficulty with the most and what could we help them with.

“In addition, the high street is very saturated and there’s this risk of [shoppers] showing up [to an event] in the same thing as everyone else. We are bridging these two worlds: SilkFred solves problems and pain points for entrepreneurs [launching brands] and also from a customer view – it just makes sense.”

Silkfred brand dancing leopard (1)

SilkFred brand Dancing Leopard

At the time of writing, SilkFred has 847 brands available to buy online, covering womenswear and accessories, with notable names including Never Fully Dressed, Club L London and Dancing Leopard. Prices for dresses range from £10 for a bodycon dress by Want That Trend to £385 for a wrap dress by Sarvin.

If a brand takes off, the marketplace model allows Silkfred to capitalise on its success. When a label or product sells particularly well, SilkFred can pick up the brand on a wholesale basis. This improves customer experience, helps to meet increased demand and provides faster fulfilment. The etailer, meanwhile, benefits from higher margins.

Currently, Watkinson estimates that there is a 50:50 sales split between wholesale and marketplace, but notes that this shifts over time if certain brands pick up traction.

She is also keen to stress that the marketplace aspect is more than simply a sales platform or testbed for brands before they stock them on a wholesale basis. It provides support for the brands it works with and acts as an incubator for independent labels, providing mentoring and advice. Watkinson refers to SilkFred as an “ecosystem” for brands.

“SilkFred’s platform is built around the brands,” she explains. “They see SilkFred as a natural partner because they are entrepreneurs and we are entrepreneurs and they feel like they are on this journey with us. If you think about the relationship between a small brand and a big retailer, the power dynamic is really different.”

Brand favourite

When Drapers speaks to brands that work with SilkFred, there is great enthusiasm for the business, and Watkinson’s notion of a close-knit community is palpable. Several brands say SilkFred’s support has been key to securing their growth. 

They are very efficient and responsive – a lovely team to work with 

Shana Panesar, Girl In Mind

“I was a small start-up brand when we first started working with SilkFred,” notes Sarah Rawling, founder of womenswear brand Pleat Boutique, which has sold through the site via the marketplace since January 2017. “The team are really helpful, and I have an allocated brand manager for any queries. I have been on training days at their office on topics such as marketing or photoshoots and styling.”

“They are very efficient and responsive – a lovely team to work with and they’re really good at getting our name out there and working with us to enhance business,” adds Shana Panesar, fashion marketing and social media at Girl In Mind, which has sold through the site via the marketplace since 2017.

Watkinson notes that as SilkFred continues to grow, the incubator aspect of the site will remain integral: “We take people from their idea or a product to a full brand. That’s a big part of the vision of the future of SilkFred – not just helping brands of today grow but helping build the brands of the future as well,” she says.

“We do all the heavy lifting for the brands. That’s where the opportunity is – solving the relatively ‘unsexy’ issues. Brands want to be creating and designing. They don’t want to be thinking about warehouse negotiations.”

In the future, Watkinson hints that SilkFred could eventually also offer support on manufacturing for small brands. Although she is not actively developing this at the moment, she describes it as “the next logical step” for the business.

Silkfred brand pretty lavish ss19 (2)

SilkFred brand Pretty Lavish

Elizabeth Melhuish, ecommerce account executive at vintage-influenced womenswear brand Angeleye, which sells on the marketplace, notes that SilkFred’s focus on independent brands helps to set the business apart – both for consumers and also for brands seeking retail opportunities.

“I think it’s refreshing to have a marketplace that encourages shopping for new up-and-coming brands instead of fuelling the same big names,” she says. “Big-name brands have been getting larger and even more popular, which I think may be leading to a lot of shoppers wanting to branch out and find more unique styles.”

Running parallel to the marketplace platform is Silkfred’s wholesale-based, own-buy proposition, led by Charlotte Dare, head of brand partnerships – and the approach to this side of the business has been built and driven by data and customer interaction.

When Drapers meets Watkinson in the East London headquarters, there is a worn yellow Post-It note with “Relentless focus on the customer” scribbled on it in biro stuck to her desk, as a permanent reminder of SilkFred’s ideology.

The customers decide who we are and what we stand for

Emma Watkinson, SilkFred

One area where this is notable is Watkinson’s insistence that the entire SilkFred brand identity is based on data and therefore created by the customers themselves, as the site’s aesthetic and product mix is evolved by the SilkFred team in response to customer behaviour rather than looking to wider industry trends.

“The customers decide who we are and what we stand for. One year we were very boho [based on what they were buying], the next year very glam. It shifts and evolves over time,” says Watkinson. “By being completely customer-centric we have that flexibility of not getting stuck in a certain time, or in a certain zeitgeist.”

She is also adamant that, far from hindering customer interaction, SilkFred’s entirely digital footprint allows them to be closer their customers: “We are a company that was built on social media – through live and real-time interactions with our customers. People say you lose the customer connection when you move online but I completely disagree.”

“Having a store network means you have to rely on your team to feed that customer information back to you. We can see them all. There doesn’t have to be a survey or a questionnaire. Just look at Instagram and you can see what people are thinking. That’s the beauty of being online.”

SilkFred currently has more than 337,000 followers on Instagram, and over 750,000 likes on Facebook. Styling videos, behind-the-scenes glimpses and “meet the team” style content perform particularly well, says Watkinson, as they make customers feel like they are part of the SilkFred family.

One example of how SilkFred leverages its customer connection is the site’s breastfeeding and nursing edit, which launched in 2018 and came about as a result of a customer’s Instagram post.

“She posted a photo of herself breast feeding in a wrap dress from one of our brands. It was just a mirror selfie, and the caption was ‘Mama still got it’,” explains Watkinson.

SilkFred reached out to the woman, asking her to test more dresses for practicality as a new mother. They then began talking to other mothers in the SilkFred network.

“We sent them different dresses to test and slowly put together this edit,” says Watkinson. “We got so much good feedback on social media – people were saying it made them feel good, sexy and special. Of all the things we’ve done in the company, I’m really proud of that.”

Watkinson is aware that strong product and positive feedback alone are no guarantee of sustained success. To compete with the operational sophistication of other ecommerce players and marketplace giants such as Farfetch and Zalando, SilkFred must continue to focus investment on delivering what the customer demands and expects – across both product and services. As Watkinson herself notes: “people aren’t loyal like they used to be,” and the battle for online dominance is fierce.

Looking ahead, the business is investing in infrastructure and building foundations for the next stage of growth. The co-founder describes the business as “well funded” by its current pool of investors.

Silkfred cy boutique spring 19 (1)

Silkfred cy boutique spring 19 (1)

“It’s about taking everything that we’ve done so far and trying to marry process with our very agile and entrepreneurial mindset,” she says. “Scale is going to be about how we keep growing this fast without imploding. What steps do we need to take as a business to ensure smooth running? Now, the size we are, it has to be about delivering service.”

Back-office functions such as HR and legal are also focuses for development, as is technology – an investment that will pave the way for the retailer to focus more on international markets.

Silkfred already ships to 65 countries, and it is beginning to develop regionally specific platforms. Although Watkinson stresses international developments are still in early stages, an Australian site is currently undergoing testing and the brand has hired a staff member in the market as it dips its toes into international waters. Watkinson says she wants “to see how it feels to be building a team and a proposition internationally,” before taking the plunge fully. Watkinson picked Australia for the first international focus because a high number of SilkFred shoppers already exist in the market – as well as the practical similarities of language and trends.

SilkFred’s dual proposition of supporting unique brands while also offering shoppers product with a clear point of difference sets it well to capitalise on current trends. But in today’s over-crowded market, no retailer can rest on its laurels. Watkinson’s eye on international markets and engaging use of social media to find new approaches will help SilkFred to stand out.



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