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Whistles poised to return to the black

Shepherdson confident that the womenswear chain has “found its identity”.

Whistles is on the cusp of returning to profit after chief executive Jane Shepherdson said the womenswear chain had finally found its place in the market three years after she took the helm.

Figures seen by Drapers show that in the year to January 31, EBITDA losses at the chain narrowed to £400,000 from £1.1m the year before as the retailer improved its margins through reduced markdowns and also recorded like-for-like sales growth.

Total sales were largely flat at £34.3m during the year, impacted by the closure of four underperforming stores in undisclosed locations.

Shepherdson, who led a management buy-in of the chain in January 2008 after Icelandic investor Baugur spun the chain off from the now defunct Mosaic Fashions, said the retailer experienced a markedly different performance across the two halves of last year.

Sales were adversely impacted by the recession in the first half of 2009 and the disruption to the business caused by the collapse of Whistles’ financier Icelandic bank Glitnir at the end of 2008 and then Baugur in February 2009. Whistles reported positive like-for-likes in the second half, but Shepherdson declined to provide figures.

The sales bounceback continued in to this year, she added, with like-for-likes and total sales “strongly positive” to October 1. She added: “If current trade continues we are confident that we will move towards profitability this year.”

Shepherdson, who was brand director at Topshop until she left in 2006, said: “After two years of financial instability, closing and opening stores, rebranding existing stores, and redefining the creative direction of the brand, we have finally established an identity and begun to create a credible premium brand.”

She added that Whistles was now positioned between the high street and designer end of the market with a focus on quality and strong design that refers to fashion trends, “without slavishly following them”.

Shepherdson admitted that the first two autumn seasons after she took over had proved challenging. She said Whistles had been too cautious in autumn 08 and that the collection had been compromised by “a fear of losing the existing customer” who she said was “older, safer and not as interested in fashion”.

In autumn 09, “throwing caution to the wind” with an edgy collection endeared the brand to the industry but was “too edgy for some”, she said.

She said that this season’s collection was the “best to date”, adding that she had identified the Whistles customer as “independent, discerning and fashionable” and someone who “wants to dress in a cool, modern way”. She said the customer was aged between 25 and 45 years old and there was a trend for mothers and daughters to shop together at Whistles.

Whistles, which has 36 standalone stores and 56 concessions including those in the Republic of Ireland and France, has evolved its shopfit to reflect its new creative direction, with the opening of a standalone concept store in Westfield London.

The Westfield London shop is the retailer’s third store opening this year after openings in Bristol and Brighton. It will open another store in London’s Covent Garden on October 22. Shepherdson said that several more UK stores were planned for next year and for 2012.

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