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The Drapers Interview: Anne Wright

With an armful of Drapers Independents Awards, Young Ideas owner Anne Wright recounts how a store in a Derbyshire market town became a beacon of indie retail.

Situated within the faded grandeur of a 17th-century coaching inn that dominates the high street in the Derbyshire market town of Ashbourne, it’s easy to see why three-time Drapers Independents Awards winner Young Ideas has become a destination for premium fashion. Owner Anne Wright has steadily grown the business - which includes a second store in Derby - since buying it in 2008, transforming it from one store into a thriving multichannel operator.

Having won the Womenswear Independent and Independent Retailer of the Year categories at the Drapers Independents Awards in 2013 and the Premium Independent Retailer trophy in 2014, you would think Wright would be taking a moment to enjoy her success. But think again.

Instead, last month she bought women’s sportsbra and sportswear etailer Boobydoo for an undisclosed sum. The business, whose products range from £6.99 for Lock Laces elastic shoe laces to £70 for an Urban Gym full- zip hoodie, has a small but promising turnover of £500,000 per year. Its head office will move at the end of March from High Wycombe to a vacant unit in the Ashbourne building, with a view to later adding a retail element or stocking the brand within the Young Ideas store. Boobydoo’s digital marketeer will move across and the two owners, Richard and Carol Cottrell, are leaving following the sale.

“It has a synergy with our business in that it is complementary. It has a critical mass, a reasonable scale, and the skills within that business can help to support and develop our online business [by working across both],” explains Wright, who is dressed in a pair of black Diane von Furstenberg trousers and a white Boss Black shirt.

Explaining the reasoning behind the purchase, she says: “Online only accounts for about 10% to 15% of our turnover, but it has become very important as a marketing tool for our bricks-and-mortar business as a 24/7 shop window and footfall driver. But it is expensive to maintain, because as a boutique fashion business the way we buy - forward order and wide but shallow across a number of brands - is the opposite of what you need for online where you need to buy a more concise edit in greater depth.”

Young Ideas has a web team of three - an online manager, an assistant online manager and a marketing executive - but Wright would like to develop this further, and hopes that for now the Boobydoo acquisition will allow her to do that.

“The expertise needed for running an ecommerce business is different to bricks-and-mortar, there are specialist skills. We need scale to be able to support that resource,” she says.

The Boobydoo team will be headed by Wright’s daughter Charlotte, who has worked at Young Ideas across all areas of the business but at present works for the etailer in High Wycombe.

This all follows some serious investment in Young Ideas. When the 25-year lease came up for renewal on their old Ashbourne store at 23 St John Street, Wright and her husband Colin decided they wanted a freehold. Having struggled to find suitable properties in the town, they decided to buy the former coaching inn in December 2012, which had closed down as a pub two years before during the economic downturn. She declines to reveal how much she bought it for, but says: “We felt there was potential to convert part of the premises into retail for Young Ideas and for it to become a lifestyle destination.”

The business reopened with a 2,500 sq ft shop within the development in October 2013 at 10 St John Street, just 150 yards from Young Ideas’ previous location. The larger space allowed for menswear to be introduced - with brands including Boss Orange, John Smedley and Paul Smith’s London, Jeans, footwear and accessories ranges.

Since opening Wright has innovatively used the space. Last year, for example, one of the premises’ two courtyards was used to host a pop-up cafe serving drinks and tapas to shoppers looking to rest their feet, while inside there is an exhibition space at the top of a staircase for local artists, bathed in light via an atrium, and a boudoir-like personal shopping room located just off the passageway.

Her vision doesn’t stop here. Work has already begun on a gastro pub inside the coaching inn, and this will be followed by a cafe, brasserie and 13 boutique hotel rooms. Asked what the timeframe is for the development, she replies: “If you ask my husband Colin he’ll tell you 18 months,” but she laughs as she adds: “I think it’s more like three years.”

The site also includes a second courtyard with two retail units, which Wright initially planned to let out but has since decided to use to expand her own business. She opened a 300 sq ft dedicated Lexington store in one of the two vacant units, in which customers can shop the brand’s New England-inspired lifestyle offer of womenswear and homeware, alongside Crew Clothing, Joules, Riani and Gardeur. Showing me into the unit she explains that “we just felt this was really right for our customer and sits well with our current offer”.

Next door, a 850 sq ft unit will house the relocated Boobydoo. Despite her achievements, Wright didn’t start out in fashion. Raised in South Yorkshire by her structural engineer father and local government housing officer mother, she graduated with a BA (Hons) in French and Politics from Bradford University in 1984. Although she was accepted onto the Marks & Spencer graduate training scheme with ambitions to work in fashion she admits she “got sidetracked and tempted into the food industry”, where she worked in chilled food for 25 years.

She joined supermarket own-label manufacturer Hazelwood Foods, which later became Greencore, as a management trainee in 1984, working across all parts of the company. “It was a question of whether I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond. Hazelwood was a smaller pond but it was a really fast-growing company and very ambitious in the 1980s, so I saw the opportunity to develop my career at a quicker pace there.”

The gamble paid off and within seven years she had risen to general manager of subsidiary business Hazelwood Desserts, which makes chilled puddings for Sainsbury’s. In 1993, following the birth of her daughter Charlotte, she rose to managing director of another subsidiary firm, chilled sandwich business Derbyshire Chilled Foods.

She left Greencore in 2004, at which point she was chief executive of its chilled foods division, overseeing a turnover of £400m and a staff of around 2,000, to become chief operations officer at chilled food business Adelie, which was backed by private equity firm Duke Street Capital.

Her husband also worked for Greencore and her decision to leave was in part influenced by the fact they would soon be competing for any further promotion. So they decided she would stay in corporate life and that he would lead an MBO of some of Greencore’s non-core activities - meats and sausages, which he then renamed Tranfield.
“He was in a position a few years later where he could sell out [in 2007] and that gave us choices. My work for Adelie was predominantly based in the London area and my daughters - Charlotte, now 21, and Harriet, now 17 - were young at the time, so I wanted a lifestyle change. We had lived in Ashbourne for about eight years and I had been a customer of Young Ideas and had great admiration for the business.”

In 2008 she approached then owner Dorothy Thomas, who had founded the business in 1965 and was then in her 70s, about buying the store and got a positive response, though she declines to reveal how much she paid.
Thomas agreed to run it for a further six months while Wright finished her duties at Adelie, at which point she “fully immersed” herself in the business for the first year to build knowledge and contacts and to learn about suppliers.

“We felt there were opportunities to develop the core business, and at the time ecommerce was growing and we felt we needed to have a presence online. So one of the first things we did on the growth path was establish a website in 2009, then relaunched it in 2011 to better integrate our store and online sales systems.”

The next step was to expand the bricks-and-mortar business, opening a 1,000 sq ft store in Derby in March 2011, with the benefit of lower overheads during the recession and by recruiting the staff from independents that had closed down in the city. The two stores feature a different but complementary edit, with shared brands such as MaxMara Weekend, and brands unique to each store, such as Marc Cain in Derby and Moschino Cheap & Chic and Armani Collezioni in Ashbourne. The customer profile doesn’t differ between the two - the aim is to offer something for all ages.

Today the business employs 22 staff, a combination of full- and part-time, with Ashbourne acting as the head office. Bestselling womenswear brands include MaxMara Weekend, Boss Black and Michael Kors, and for men it is Boss Orange and Belstaff, while Paul Smith does well across both. Overall prices range from £35 to £60 for a piece of costume jewellery or T-shirt up to £1,500 for a luxury outerwear item.

Wright admits she tends to do her buying in showrooms, instead of visiting trade shows. For autumn, Young Ideas has consolidated the number of brands it stocks, although Wright is too polite to reveal by how many or which brands have been dropped. Now, she says the retailer is focusing its efforts on brands such as Paul Smith, MaxMara Weekend and popular new brands including Fabiana Filippi and Stills.

Speak to the agents and distributors that supply Young Ideas, and they are full of praise for Wright’s eye for product. London-based womenswear agency M&L Harris sells French contemporary label Equipment and has worked with the store for 25 years. Its owner, Liliane Harris, says: “Anne and her team are always scouting for the next ‘It’ collection and are constantly updating their brand portfolio, which has made her store a huge success.”

Anais Wosnitza, senior sales manager at Lucy Wernick Fashion Agency, which distributes cashmere brand 360Sweater, agrees: “Anne knows what she likes. She is open to bestsellers but has such a good eye she picks them out herself anyway, and she is really professional.”

Trading is strong and, while Wright is reluctant to reveal turnover or profit figures for the business, which is split 75% women’s and 25% men’s in Ashbourne, she does say turnover is up 15% year on year. “We are having a good year and had our best Christmas ever. In December we had one week [the second week] where we were up 40% and we finished the month up 25% year on year.”

One of the central components of Young Ideas’ success is its database of 6,000 customers, which Wright describes as “our most powerful marketing tool”, adding that two product e-shots are sent out each week, with strong results from both.

When I ask what sets her apart from the competition, which she says are the likes of etailers Net-A-Porter and Matchesfashion.com and stores in London, Manchester and Birmingham, Wright pauses before replying: “A great edit that is tailored to your market, customer service, and thirdly, our drive and ambition - we want to go places.”

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