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Liliane Harris

With a foot in both the retail and wholesale camps, the owner of indie Larizia and agency M&L Harris has a broader perspective than most on the womenswear market.

As both an agent and independent retailer, Liliane Harris is in the privileged position of understanding both retail and wholesale at first hand, although ‘privileged’ – given today’s tough economic climate – is not a word she’d choose to use. When I ask her who is bearing the brunt of this climate the most, Harris initially sides with her indie persona.

“There are too many brands on the market and the number of independents is shrinking; children aren’t taking over their parents’ businesses anymore,” she laments in a thick French accent. “I’ve had to employ a security guard for my [womenswear]shop [Larizia] in St John’s Wood after three burglaries in one month. Landlords need to help us more as rents should be cheaper, and the parking needs to be better.”

Bright outlook

Not that indies should be held up as the saints of the fashion industry. “They don’t always pay on time,” Harris says diplomatically (there’s a sense she’s being kind here). “And when we offer stock swaps, they’ll sometimes say ‘Oh, I don’t want that’.”

But enough of the negatives. As we sit in her agency M&L Harris’s showroom in Camden surrounded by spring 12 collections from womenswear brands including MW by Matthew Williamson, See by Chloé and Schumacher (Blauer, another brand in the portfolio, is the only one which also offers menswear), Harris believes next season’s trends will help both indies and brands alike.

“Bright colours will do well for spring and you can see mistakes a lot more on brightly coloured clothes – on the seams and creases, for example – so it’s harder for the high street to copy,” she explains.

Quality and attention to detail will help the branded market to differentiate itself from the high street next season, she believes. “Newness for spring 12 will come from quality; what else can we invent?” she asks, her petite, Marios Schwab-clad frame walking determinedly towards a Paule Ka top. She holds up its huge, wide-brimmed hat-like sleeves as an example of how brands are innovating.

Harris calls out across the showroom floor to sales manager Beverly Barnett, and asks her what she thinks are some of the key trends for spring 12. “Colour blocking, prints, details, something with a bit of a twist,” Barnett concurs, as Harris marches over to the Schumacher rails, pointing to the bright red, pleated panelling on the side of one of the brand’s tops as yet another example of the branded market’s point of difference in terms of attention to detail.

“The season has started off pretty well,” Barnett adds, saying prices have largely been consistent with last season. “Buyers are spending their budgets so quickly; they want really early deliveries.”

This hunger for constant newness is both a challenge and an opportunity, Harris believes. Of Burberry’s initiative to allow consumers to buy directly from its catwalk collections with a seven-week delivery window, Harris says the luxury brand is “killing fashion”. She adds: “What are we going to give them [the consumers] that is new in stores? There’s no more secrecy.”

But she admits the two-season fashion cycle is outdated and that brands need to develop four distinct collections each year, with a “marked difference” between early and late summer deliveries, for example. “We have no Christmas trade anymore because of [early] Sales, and department stores now go on Sale in mid-June, so they push indies to do the same,” says Harris, demonstrating further how the traditional seasons are out of kilter with retailers’ selling strategies.

It’s who you work with

And what about her own agency? M&L Harris most recently took on diffusion label MW by Matthew Williamson for autumn 11 and is inundated with requests for representation from brands. “I have four look books in my office to look at right now,” says Harris. “But 80% is about the people you work with. I also think it’s good if the [brand is category-led], like Equipment for its shirts and Current/Elliott for its jeans.”

Both brands are performing well for M&L Harris. “We are more than doubling our turnover with them, but it’s tough to grow the business because the budgets aren’t there anymore, not even with the department stores. We’re doing our turnover,” she says, declining to give a specific figure.

Having launched M&L Harris 31 years ago, Harris has seen the industry evolve to the point where she isn’t sure if she would start the same business in today’s climate. “[The market] is so unpredictable. We offer the service, the know-how, the guidance, but you wonder if there’ll be a need for a middle man because of the internet. People will do business on Skype; my son is doing his degree using Skype.”

Harris looks across the showroom and calls over a buyer from five-store designer indie Choice to ask her what she thinks about the agent’s destiny.

Luckily for her, Choice owner Yochy Davis disagrees with Harris, adding that she will always want to see a collection in person before buying it. “No, but wait a minute,” Harris presses on, determined to play devil’s advocate with her own destiny. “What if brands put [virtual] collections on a rail, and merchandise just for the buyer?” But still Davis disagrees.

Whoever’s right, you sense Harris will work out a way of staying ahead of the game. After all, this is the woman who convinced Christian Dior and Ted Lapidus to join her brand portfolio when she set up M&L Harris all those years ago, at a time when few women were in the agency and distribution business, according to Harris.

The labels were initially reluctant, but she told them: “What do you lose to let me try?” Lanvin, Sonia Rykiel and Kenzo were among those to follow suit. If the opportunity is there, Harris will take it; if it’s not, she’ll create it. 

CV

2011 Becomes agent for MW by Matthew Williamson

2007 Opens a Larizia store in St John’s Wood, north London

2001 Opens Larizia womenswear store in Temple Fortune, north London

1998 Opens Larizia footwear and accessories store in St John’s Wood

2000s Takes on brands including Lanvin, Julien Macdonald and Christian Lacroix

1990s Takes on brands including Kenzo, Sonia Rykiel and Moschino

1980 Sets up agency M&L Harris, representing Ted Lapidus, Christian Dior knitwear and Nina Ricci

1977 Sales agent, Yves Saint Laurent, Bidermann (later Marchpole)

Q&A

What is your most treasured fashion purchase?

It has to be shoes. In particular, a pair of Guiseppe Zanotti shoes. They look like Cinderella’s. I’ve only worn them once, they look like a piece of jewellery.

What retailers do you admire?

Feathers [womenswear indie in Kensington], 10 Corso Como in Milan, Collette in Paris and Dover Street Market in London.

What about the brands and designers you admire?

I like British designers more than the French designers, like Marios Schwab. The British are more adventurous while the French are more elegant. I also admire Lanvin and smaller designers such as Thakoon and Rodarte.

How would you describe your style?

It’s classic with a twist, and I like to mix and match brands and designers. I was wearing some printed trousers the other day and my husband asked: “Why are you wearing pyjamas?”

Who is your mentor?

My husband [the M for Michael in M&L Harris]. He’s always been there to support me.

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