Mint Velvet, born out of the ashes of Principles, is the latest brand to target the over-30s womenswear market. Its brand director and non-executive chairman explain what sets it apart from the pack.
Setting up a business from scratch in less than six months is no easy feat. But for the former Principles team who are behind womenswear start-up Mint Velvet, the most difficult task has been getting a phone line installed at the new High Wycombe head office.
That is the single biggest frustration that Liz Houghton, brand director of Mint Velvet, has on the eve of its launch online and into House of Fraser as concessions in Birkenhead, London Oxford Street and Westfield London. Houghton and her colleagues have been working tirelessly since May to get the venture, which is backed by former Principles boss and Clarks chairman Peter Davies and his former Principles co-directors Chris Inman and Richard Sims, off the ground.
Davies himself is taking a back seat as non-executive chairman, handing the day-to-day running to the core team of Houghton, design director Jane Rawlings, buying director Lisa Agar-Rea and Stuart Grant, who recently joined from New Look as commercial director. It is expected to open standalone stores, the first of which will likely be in Chichester and Windsor. Certainly a roll-out will focus on affluent areas and secondary towns rather than major high streets.
“It’s been very stressful and crazy but thoroughly enjoyable,” says Houghton. “We’ve been working 24/7 but we have had the best time.”
Houghton knows the team has a huge challenge ahead but they are nothing if not fervent about Mint Velvet’s prospects. In fact, the whole concept is a very personal venture, particularly for the female directors who feel they are plugging a hole in the market for clothes that they, as 30-plus fashion-conscious women, cannot find elsewhere at an affordable price point. Watching Principles, which they built into a big success earlier this decade, fall into administration earlier this year undoubtedly also spurs them on.
Starting from scratch
Davies is convinced that this is a great time to be setting up. “The negative side is that times are tough. No one is doing stunningly well. But there is space in the market, so if you believe in the proposition, what better time to do it?”
He adds: “I always felt there was a space in the market that Principles tried to fill. It was difficult for Principles though because of its scale. When it disappeared from the high street there was a great opportunity to launch what we always thought should exist [with Mint Velvet].”
Davies acknowledges that Mint Velvet is in a lucky position to have the capital to start from scratch. Davies himself has stumped up much of the cash – he shared a reported windfall of £130m when he sold the Principles and Warehouse brands off in 2005. “It’s very hard to get finance at the moment, even though if you look at the Government’s website they say they have money for new start-ups.”
Davies tried to buy Principles out of administration in March but the speed at which the sale was pushed through meant he was unable to bring together the bid in time. However, Houghton and Davies are both keen to distance Mint Velvet from the Principles comparison. Houghton feels Mint Velvet is a lot sexier and wants it judged on its own merits. “People have been seduced by the idea who did not even know about our Principles link. Principles was born out of a corporate organisation, while Mint Velvet was born out of the passions of individuals so there is a higher degree of individuality and personality which I think is lacking on the high street.”
Houghton describes Mint Velvet as “relaxed glamour” which focuses on mix-and-match separates with a nod to seasonal trends. Davies thinks the high street has become polarised. “There are either cheap offers or investment in quality. We think in terms of design handwriting and quality,” he says.
Retail research firm Verdict analyst Maureen Hinton says the real challenge for Mint Velvet will be to make an impact in a crowded market. “Mint Velvet and the likes of GIVe will really need to find their feet and have a wow factor to begin with,” she says.
She adds that US lifestyle chain Anthropologie, which also targets the over 30s and launched in the UK this week, will have that wow factor. “As it is a well-established business in the US it is able to put a huge investment behind this,” she says.
Mint Velvet’s mid-level price architecture means it will have to work even harder, according to Hinton. “If it comes across as luxury at good value prices, that could work well. But that’s also what the rest of the middle market is trying to do,” she explains.
But Houghton is confident Mint Velvet will carve a niche. “I believe in attitude over age,” she says. “It is about a mindset that changes around how you perceive quality and fit. Stores see you as young or old but you don’t get older in your mindset,” she says.
She adds that the high street is beginning to wake up to this, with the likes of Wallis’s recent collaboration with supermodel Yasmin Le Bon and M&S’s extended own brand offer, including new casualwear sub-brand Indigo.
However, Houghton says the Mint Velvet management team is more in tune with that customer than its rivals. “We are that customer and that is what makes us different,” she says.
Q&A with Liz Houghton
Who in fashion do you most admire?
I admire Burberry for its beautiful colour palettes and how it always puts a unique twist on key items. Also, designer Isabel Marant – she has a lovely casual but sexy eye for design.
Which is your favourite shop?
Scoop in New York. I love the “ultimate closet concept”. Every time I visit I want to buy everything in there. I also love Marylebone High Street in London, although I couldn’t pick a particular shop.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Other than my three fabulous kids, who are a joy to be with (most of the time), it has to be seeing our vision for Mint Velvet become a reality this week. It’s been six months since we sat around my kitchen table designing the first range, and it’s so exciting to see our first concessions open and the website launch. We’ve had a great response to the clothes and I’m so proud of the whole team.
What would be your dream job?
I honestly already have my dream job. I’ve always been passionate about product development and working with customers and starting Mint Velvet has let me go back to the grassroots of the business. Also, I work with people that I respect, in a warm and creative culture.
What do you like doing when you are not at work?
I’m working almost 24/7 at the moment but usually I enjoy a great work/life balance. Given the opportunity, I love to walk or cycle in the Chilterns or along the coast, and enjoy long Sunday lunches with friends and family.
Peter Davies (most recent only)
2009 Chairman, Mint Velvet
2008 Non-executive chairman, Whistles
2005 Non-executive chairman, C & J Clarks; Non-executive director, First Friday
Liz Houghton (most recent only)
2009 Co-founder and brand director, Mint Velvet
2005 Brand director, Principles
2000 Buying director, Principles