The owner of legendary Lancashire womenswear store Maureen Cookson looks back on her lifetime of achievement in independent retail.
For more than 60 years, womenswear store Maureen Cookson was a leader in the UK independent retail sector. The store was opened by its eponymous founder in 1956 and later led by her daughter, Hilary.
Located in a side street in the small village of Whalley, Lancashire, the store evolved into one of country’s biggest and best independent retailers: an innovative, influential and Drapers Independents Award-winning industry leader, putting the little-known northern village on the fashion map.
The journey to receiving this year’s Drapers Independents Lifetime Achievement honour has been a “real roller-coaster”, says Hilary from her home in rural Ribchester, Preston – a 20-minute drive from Whalley.
Every time she opened her mouth it would be a pearl of wisdom in some form
The era of the Maureen Cookson store is drawing to a close. Maureen sadly died in May, aged 89, and her daughter, nearing 60, with no succession plan and enduring a battle with cancer, made the difficult decision to close the business in September 2018. But Hilary, typically upbeat, grins: “We had a damn good time doing it though, didn’t we?”
Maureen Harrison married Alan Cookson at 18, and had two children, Ann and Peter, by the age of 21.
Her parents were retailers and she had a lifelong desire to follow in their footsteps. At 26, she opened a traditional haberdashery store at 47 King Street in Whalley, all without her husband’s knowledge, “which was kind of symptomatic of my mother’s way of doing things”, laughs Hilary.
By 1960, Alan, a commercial traveller, had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and Maureen faced being a breadwinner with two children, and a third, Maureen, on the way.
“Contrarian, as my father always was, he regained full health, but the seed was sewn in Mum that growth was the way forward,” recalls Hilary. She took on two sales assistants and added womenswear.
In 1974, Maureen was offered a derelict Co-op building on Whalley’s George Street. The Maureen Cookson store took a small ground-floor section, and other local businesses filled the rest.
At one point we were probably one of the largest independent womenswear retailers in England
Often found loitering in the store, retail quickly seeped into young Hilary’s blood.
“My first retail experience was at 11,” she remembers. Her school required all girls to wear hosiery, so Hilary got her father to source styles at cost price, which she sold to her classmates, undercutting the school’s prices. “They had to ask my parents to stop supplying me,” she giggles.
“Passport to paradise”
By 1979, Hilary had left school with “no intention of joining the family business”, moving to Liverpool to work for department store George Henry Lee, part of John Lewis Partnership, as a management trainee.
She rose through the ranks, becoming the retailer’s youngest woman to be elected on to the Central Council, which represents the partnership to the board, aged 19.
Convinced John Lewis was her “passport to paradise”, she took an offer of a section head role in the retailer’s new Bristol store and headed home to break the news of her move down south to her parents.
“By the end of the weekend I had agreed to come home and join the family business,” she laughs. “I still have no idea how it happened.”
She returned to Whalley in 1981 and continued her retail education under her mother.
“Every time she opened her mouth it would be a pearl of wisdom in some form,” remembers Hilary. “There were some right royal family fights, but we jostled along nicely, as long as I did what I was told. We both had our eye on the same long game but had different ways of achieving the short game. She taught me to be a very good manager of people, because she was.”
At its peak, Maureen Cookson took over all 11,000 sq ft of the Co-Op building. Originally known for its occasionwear, it diversified into women’s casualwear and footwear, and stocked more than more than 70 brands, which over the years included Kai Ming, Basler, Laurel, Mondi, Lucia, Almia, Lapidus, Marc Cain and Olsen. It had 31 fittings rooms, 48 sales staff and a workroom of six seamstresses.
“At one point we were probably one of the largest independent womenswear retailers in England,” says Hilary proudly. “Not bad for a store up a back street in a small village.”
In 1995 Maureen retired and Hilary bought the business out from the Cookson family.
“I had a brother and a sister, so two things were going to happen. Either I was going to make a rip-roaring success and I didn’t want to share the spoils, or I was going to bomb their inheritance and they didn’t want that. There was no golden hand-down. [I] paid open market value for the business. But I believed absolutely in the store.”
“Maureen Cookson was a shop that you aspired to be like,” remembers Anne Furbank, founder of the eponymous independent store in Buckden. Around 35 years ago, Furbank literally bumped into Maureen on her first ever buying trip.
We went from selling £1,000 suits to, in the end, chugging out hundreds of units of White Stuff and Be Young
“We struck up a lovely relationship. She took me under her wing. She was a very thoughtful, kind, passionate lady,” recalls Furbank. “A few years later I was introduced to Hilary: a real tour de force. She made me laugh a lot. She’s different to her mother, but her optimism is the same.
“Hilary was always full of ideas and everything was always going to a success in her eyes. She had the same ethos as us [as retailers]: service, product, environment. She focused on the same.”
Far from living in her mother’s shadow, Hilary steered the business forward, and in her own way. Warm and gregarious, she could often be found on the shop floor with her Labradoodle dogs – she, and the dogs, as much an attraction to customers as Hilary’s expert product selections.
She also threw herself into the industry, becoming a well-known and well-respected figure, winning several Drapers awards, including Independent Retailer of the Year in 1999, and becoming a stalwart of the trade show scene.
Who would get married when there is a fashion fair on?
“Any buyer that doesn’t go to a trade show is missing a trick,” she says. “We used to spend five solid days at CPD [in Dusseldorf]. I couldn’t miss a single show.” Not even for a holiday or wedding? “Who would get married when there is a fashion fair on?” she laughs.
Her prowess as a retailer led her to be elected as the chairman the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA), as well being a consultant to the retail masters programme at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
“One of the secrets of [the business’s] longevity was that the store had several different lives,” says Hilary. “We were able to re-invent ourselves. We rebranded, continually changing and evolving. We went from selling £1,000 suits to, in the end, chugging out hundreds of units of White Stuff and Be Young.
“We focused on customer experiences [early on] because Whalley is the most beautiful village but we were up a side street with no passing trade. It was all about bolt-ons, and bells and whistles.”
These “experiences” included 120-seat catwalk shows on the store’s first floor, and the opening of a successful cafe bar within the building called Benedict’s in 2010. It started with 44 covers, then 77, and eventually seated more than 3,000 people a week. A delicatessen was added in 2014.
“We were working on the principle of being a one-stop shop. Come for the day, have fabulous coffee and food then go shopping. It was all quite eccentric – in fact there was a fabulous degree of eccentricity. Because I could. And there were no rules,” she smiles.
Hilary’s trick was spotting an opportunity and having the courage to take the risk. “My father always used to say, if you can see a bandwagon coming, you’re too late,” she shrugs. “You’ve got to always be looking for trends, for the next idea. Never stand still.
“But my bank manager was terrified. She still recalls when I asked to borrow more money to do some madcap idea, she asked: ‘But what if it fails?’ There was silence, and eventually I said: ‘I don’t do failure’.
“You need that ballsy belief that what you’re doing is right. Even more so today. These are terrifying retail times.”
It is this turbulent climate that contributed to Hilary making “the most difficult decision” of her life: closing the store. Nearing retirement age and with a daughter who decided not to join the family business, her lease on the building was up in 2020.
I knew I’d have to do a massive [relaunch] or say ‘enough’. It was time
“Everything started to conspire to give me a very large smack on the head. We were trading on 9,000 sq ft. My stock holding was well over £1m a season. And my customer demographic was changing. I knew I’d have to do a massive [relaunch] or say ‘enough’. It was time,” she says sadly.
The shop closed in September 2018. Hilary half-jokes that it was the nearest thing to attending her own funeral.
“In those heady years when the 20th century became the 21st, Hilary was always among the Premier League of womenswear retailers,” says Eric Musgrave, former editor of Drapers. “She encapsulated the professionalism and passion that all the best independent retailers possess.
“Even able operators like Hilary cannot always outrun prevailing market forces. It was a shame, although not a surprise, to see her closing Maureen Cookson. Whalley as a shopping destination had been in decline for some years and a decade of austerity caused the reduction in footfall that has affected so many indies across the country.”
Looking back, would Hilary do it again? “Yes, in a heartbeat,” she says. “Absolutely. It gave me such a buzz. Even the tough times were exciting because you had to reinvent. The great times weren’t always the most profitable, but they’re the most energising.”
Would she recommend opening an independent business in today’s climate?
“If someone has that burning desire, they don’t need my recommendation,” she says. “Although I would say, if you’re not sure, be very sure. Do your homework, otherwise you’ll just become another statistic.”
Believe in your product. Believe in your customer. And believe in your staff
Just like her mother, Hilary is full of “pearls of wisdom”: “If I were a young retailer starting out, I would want my location to be right. I would want to be on a street with a lot of other dress shops.
“When people say: who is your competition? I would say the customer is my competition. She is the one who has the final choice.
“I would want to have a clear budget. I would want the ability to have monthly management figures, so that you can react. I would turn up to all my buying appointments on time.
“I would respect the agents. I would pay my bills on time.
I’ll always look back fondly. It was a lot fun. But we knew what we were doing
“I think too many people open a business with what they think the town wants, rather than opening a business with what the town needs. The secret of good retail is being able to bridge the difference.
“Believe in your product. Believe in your customer. And believe in your staff.”
Despite the sad circumstances around her mother’s death and the store’s closure, Hilary is rightfully proud of her career: “I’ll always look back fondly. It was a lot fun. But we knew what we were doing,” she says with a wink.
Looking to the future, Hilary is taking some time off as she undergoes treatment for cancer. But she remains as optimistic and inspiring as ever.
“It’s my next challenge. But we will kick [cancer’s] ass, that’s for sure,” she says with a smile. “Once I have all this out the way, I will reappear. Only with slightly shorter hair.”
The independent reign of Hilary and Maureen Cookson