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The Drapers Interview: Emma Cook and the reinvention of Warehouse

Emma Cook

As Warehouse relaunches for autumn 16, new design director Emma Cook talks to Drapers about print, elevating the brand and putting the British back into the great British high street. 

“It is about that missing piece of the British high street,” says Cook, as she gives Drapers a sneak peek at her first collection for womenswear chain Warehouse.

“Today [the high street] is full of big international players such as Zara and Cos, but we don’t have a modern British high street brand that’s really relevant, so I got excited about this opportunity,” she adds.

Cook, who joined the business in November last year from her eponymous designer label, along with Hunter creative director Alasdhair Willis to lead the revamp, says the autumn 16 range is a reflection of the way British women dress.

“As a team, we created a collection we would like to buy. [British women] dress in an eclectic way: the way we put outfits together, it’s quite unconscious and non-committal. We dress for ourselves more than any other nation. We will team a silk dress with trainers. It’s exciting.”

Warehouse autumn winter 2016 look 23

Warehouse autumn 16

Wearing a Warehouse jacquard print bomber jacket – one of her favourite pieces from the range priced at £120 – Cook says the opportunity to join the high street chain founded by Jeff Banks in 1976 was one she could not refuse: “It’s not often that someone wants to launch something that you believe in. With other retailers, there might be one or two pieces that you like or pick up but we wanted to create a range in which we, and the shopper, loved every single piece. I feel I know who the Warehouse customer is: if it’s not me, it’s my daughter or my best friend.”

I know who the Warehouse customer is: if it’s not me, it’s my daughter or my best friend

The collection is made up of three “stories”, each with 60 to 80 pieces, all showcasing Cook’s signature bold designs. The first features warm pink, caramel and butterscotch hues set against striking geometric monochrome prints, the second has navy floral prints and silk tie-dyed pieces and the final is a nod to mod with checks in bright yellow and lilac.

“It was about getting the team together and designing the kinds of pieces we always wanted to so we had that same approach and identity throughout. It’s the same way you would create a designer brand but with affordable prices,” she adds.

“There are three ranges but they all say the same thing,” she explains. Cook graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1999 and went on to work for Donna Karan, Martine Sitbon, Ghost and Liberty. She debuted her eponymous womenswear label at London Fashion Week in September 2001, and was creating four collections a year up until the end of last year, as well as teaming up with retailers such as Topshop on capsule collections.

Indeed, Cook, who gave up working on her own brand for the position at Warehouse, says her designer experience has parallels with working for a high street retailer.

“With Warehouse it’s the same as my own business – I’m doing what I love. It’s similar to what I was doing but on a bigger scale. I’m creating what I’m interested in. I love print and I love colour. I like pretty things that aren’t too girly and I love pieces with a sense of humour. It’s about modern prints you won’t find elsewhere – pieces that make the customers say, ‘I need to buy it now as I won’t get this anywhere else.’”

This sense of being unique and having a genuine point of difference is central to the relaunch of the 52-store business, believes chief executive Liz Evans, who joined Warehouse in 2013.

“We recognised that the market is highly competitive and we all felt the brand needed to strengthen its design and innovation,” explains Evans.

“There has been a huge challenge [in the market in general] around price, authenticity and trust from the mindset of the consumer. Our job is to bring the brand to life in an honest, authentic way.”

I like pretty things that aren’t too girly and I love pieces with a sense of humour

Evans adds: “When Paula [Stewart, Warehouse brand director] and I met Emma [through mutual friend Willis], we met a kindred spirit. We shared some brand values and we wanted to bring something fresh and contemporary to the high street at an affordable price. We have worked to reinvigorate the brand with a fresh, relevant angle.”

Warehouse autumn winter 2016 look 10

Warehouse autumn 16

Warehouse has not avoided the tough market conditions troubling retailers across the high street. In its most recent results at Companies House for the year to February 28 2015, the business made a pre-tax loss of £2.6m on a turnover of £126.4m, compared with a £900,000 profit and £130.3m sales the previous year. The business has 52 shops, 217 concessions and six wholesale stockists. 

Nivindya Sharma, analyst at Verdict Retail, says the womenswear market is one of the toughest in the UK, and one of the biggest challenges facing Warehouse will be communicating the changes in design and quality to shoppers.

“It’s the right time for the rebrand, as Warehouse hasn’t been at the top of consumers’ minds for a while. But the womenswear market is very tough and is one of the most saturated in the UK,” Sharma explains. “Consumers won’t buy the product just because it’s new. Warehouse needs to educate them about the new design and quality, as well as building on its heritage.”

Without alienating Warehouse’s core high street customer, Cook says the brand has been “elevated” to have more of a premium feel with greater “attention to detail” – for example, special touches such as popping buttons on the seams of jeans, peplum hems on roll-necks and detachable faux fur collars on jackets. It has also added more luxurious fabrics to the new line.

The retailer has kept its entry price point of £29 for a top, but has stretched its exit price to £250 for a coat, from the previous £195.

Entry-price pieces can still be beautiful if the print is great and the fit is right

“We’ve maintained our entry price but we’ve polished up the pieces,” she explains.

“Entry-price pieces can still be beautiful if the print is great and the fit is right. We have raised the exit price with the addition of silk and cashmere pieces, but the aim is not to make everything more expensive. It’s about attention to detail and we have put more effort into our design. We can achieve amazing things on the high street at a reasonable price,” Cook adds.

Sharma says stretching the price architecture makes sense, as shoppers are more willing to invest in quality pieces. However, she adds that justification for the higher prices will be crucial to the success of the relaunch.

Warehouse autumn winter 2016 look 20

Warehouse autumn 16

“During the recession, consumers were most concerned about price, but we are seeing that shift to value for money, which is a good thing for Warehouse, as shoppers are more willing to trade up. That puts more pressure on the retailer to justify those higher prices. Consumer education will be crucial in the first six months.”

Quality and design are certainly at the heart of Emma Cook’s business plan, along with the Warehouse customer.

The design director, who “always knew” she wanted to be a designer, says she is inspired by “every facet of life” but is most passionate about what she and “real women” want to wear.

“You have to understand who we are designing for and be passionate about it. If you think it is brilliant, others will too.”

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