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Hello Harpenne: River Island owner's new womenswear label

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River Island Holdings is launching a new womenswear label, Harpenne. Its managing director explains why challenging times demand bold decisions.


From fast fashion to mid-market and high end, the industry is crammed with labels, all hoping to carve out a slice of precious customer spend. Nonetheless, River Island Holdings believes that there is still a gap in the market for women who are not properly served by an array of homogeneous young fashion brands

In September, the owner of River Island will launch new womenswear label Harpenne, which is spearheaded by Fiona Lambert, managing director of business development, who is confident that Harpenne’s carefully selected offer, dedication to ethical production and start-up mentality will allow it to thrive.

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Fiona Lambert

The 120-piece collection will be completely separate from the main River Island business and has been designed to appeal to a different customer, Lambert explains: “I love talking to people and, when talking to family and friends, I was hearing how disillusioned they were with what was on offer on the high street.

“They felt a lot of the high street looked the same and that a lot of brands were very amorphous. They wanted something that felt more edited, that was feminine but still had a bit of an edge.”

Fittingly, “Harpenne” was once a common surname for those working in the dressmaking trade, and Lambert’s mother, grandmother and great-grandfather were all dressmakers. Lambert says the brand will not “chase trends”, and is choosing to focus on building an offer designed to stand the test of time.

Retail prices for the brand range from £25 for tops to £100 for dresses. Key pieces include a printed handkerchief dress with eyelash-lace detail (retailing at £89) and a reversible fake leather and Borg coat (£249). The collection also includes denim, knitwear, tops and skirts. New pieces will be released on the Harpenne website on a monthly basis. 

The brand will launch direct to consumer, but will also be available via Next’s branded online platform Next Label. Lambert adds it has not ruled out a wholesale offer in the future, and is taking a “never say never” approach. Although it will start with clothing, it could also explore other product categories in future.

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Lambert is no stranger to launching brands. She has previously held senior roles at Next, Marks & Spencer and Asda, where she worked alongside industry veteran George Davies to create the supermarket’s George clothing line. She now hopes that a start-up mentality – the eight-strong Harpenne team are all doing everything, from steaming clothes to packing boxes – should help to keep the brand nimble.

River Island Holdings declines to reveal how much it has invested in launcing the brand.

“The most challenging times in retail also bring the most opportunity,” Lambert insists. “We’ve started something new, so we haven’t got stores, and we haven’t got legacy systems to contend with. We can look at the best way to do everything, from building a team to distribution. There are no historical sales to think about. There are no handcuffs. We’re behaving like a start-up and driving that really courageous mentality.”

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This lack of legacy obligations has allowed Lambert to take an ethical approach to its sourcing relationships across India, China, Turkey and the UK: “We’ve worked very hard to ensure we’re partnering with factories with strict audits. My background in the industry has been an advantage when it comes to finding good suppliers, and a lot of my team come from big retailers so, between us, we’ve found a strong supply base.”

These suppliers will produce Harpenne’s pieces in relatively small quantities, and there will also be some limited edition items, which Lambert says was in response to market research: “When we were talking to people before the launch, they were loud and clear that limited editions were really desirable to them, and that they want that element of exclusivity.”

The fashion industry is crowded with brands, but there is also a clear segment of shoppers whose needs are not being met by an often youth-obsessed, trend-hungry high street. These customers want to look stylish without chasing the latest craze, and demand high-quality products without a hefty price tag. If Harpenne can appeal to this neglected customer base, it should be able to stand out from the crowd.

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