The duo behind Drapers Independents Awards-winning agency Chiltern Street Studio reveal their recipe for success.
Tucked away in the centre of Marylebone is one of the UK’s most prominent sales and distribution agencies, Chiltern Street Studio. Twice a year, its managing director Jane Wilson, commercial director Denise Tavernier and their small team of three become some of the most in-demand people in London. At the height of the selling season, a packed schedule sees up to 400 retailers from all over the UK and Ireland flock to their stunning showroom - located in a restored Victorian schoolhouse with a leafy courtyard, on the street after which the agency is named - intent on buying into their very specific vision of contemporary womenswear while also filling their stomachs with the agency’s now celebrated home-cooked lunches.
“If they just come for lunch and a gossip that’s fine,” says Wilson with a wink. “But hopefully they’ll buy something as well.” And people have been buying. Chiltern Street Studio saw sales increase 10% for autumn 14, and retailers helped it win the coveted Fashion Agency of the Year prize at the Drapers Independents Awards in November 2013.
Setting up the business in 2005 with Whistles founders Richard and Lucille Lewin, both Wilson and Tavernier brought vast industry experience to the agency. Wilson had been wholesale manager at Whistles and export manager at Nicole Farhi, while Tavernier spent time working for womenswear designer Sara Sturgeon and accessories brand Ally Capellino, and at London fashion agency Palladio. Wilson jokingly describes their current roles as “chief cooks and bottle washers”, with both getting heavily involved during the selling season - although apparently Wilson is the queen of spreadsheets, while Tavernier is the agency’s famous cook.
Having worked together for almost a decade, they are clearly a great team - full of funny stories, finishing each other’s sentences and giggling at every opportunity. But more importantly, they have a shared vision, an expertise and a level of taste that means brands want a spot in their showroom and buyers want into their world.
Chiltern Street Studio currently sells 20 carefully selected women’s clothing, footwear and accessories brands - including Antik Batik, Odd Molly and Leon & Harper - alongside a handful of lifestyle products. Occupying the privileged position between key brands and influential retailers, the agency is a barometer of the womenswear market. Between them, Wilson and Tavernier list the rise in business rates, the recessionary ‘no spending’ mindset, the effect of online discounting, the recent floods in the southwest of the UK and the unpredictable weather as just some of the many issues “conspiring” against the industry, although they feel things are improving.
“We’ve had a lot of reorders for spring 14 already,” says Wilson. “People were cautious and ordered less, and have now realised they don’t have enough stock. And that resulted in an immensely busy autumn 14 season - the busiest we’ve had for a long time. We ended up being 10% up on last season.”
Autumn bestsellers included French brands Laurence Doligé (wholesale prices range from €30 (£24) to €250 (£205)) and Mes Demoiselles (wholesale prices range from £30 to £130), with Wilson describing both as instantaneous hits: “Mes Demoiselles is very feminine and ethereal, there’s nothing else like it. And Laurence Doligé is really modern and cool, but everyone can wear it.”
Tavernier adds: “It’s a big collection, so buyers can buy into it in lots of different ways.”
When asked what they look for in brands and collections, both say the same thing: it’s emotive. Although their love of what they refer to as “lovely things” is obvious, there is always a business angle.
“You’ll just see something and think it’s so lovely, and you just know it will work,” says Wilson.
“It’s very instinctive,” explains Tavernier. “But if you look at a brand and think you can’t sell it to at least a certain number of doors, then they don’t have a proper business. You need a clear vision for your brand. You need to stay true.”
Wilson says: “You can’t be lazy. You have to do your research and move on and give the market what it wants at the right time.”
Part of the pair’s magic is that they appear to follow their own advice, doing plenty of research and constantly finding fresh product.
“People are coming to buy into our ethos,” Tavernier says. “We work really hard at trying to find new things, as the end user is much more savvy than they were 20 years ago - we’re trying to save the shops the job of looking. We just want it to be a nice place to come and find lovely things.”
And it seems they’re managing to do that, with buyers singing their praises. “Chiltern Street Studio has a real charm with a focused and individual brand identity that is set alight by the beautiful showroom,” says Fenwick buying manager Georgina Coulter. “There is an eclectic style running through the contemporary brand mix. You will always find something original and unexpected.”
Helene Rapaport, owner of luxury independent Bernard Boutique in Esher, Surrey, agrees: “When Chiltern Street Studio call me about a new brand they have taken on, I can guarantee it will be right for our store - they know my taste so well and wouldn’t waste my time.”
Anna Park, founder of womenswear retailer Anna, which has seven stores in the Southeast and East Anglia, has been working with the pair since they started: “They find really interesting brands and have a great eye for sourcing exciting product.”
Donna Ida Thornton, owner of four-store denim independent Donna Ida, trusted Chiltern Street Studio so much that when it came to launching her own denim brand Ida, she enlisted their help: “I went to Chiltern Street Studio because we are friends and felt they would understand the Ida girl. [They have] all the experience and know all the right people, so it was an easy decision to make.”
Tavernier says: “That’s the hardest thing for us - finding new things all the time that are different enough to the other brands we have, but not doing something that another agency would have.”
The team spend a lot of time “scouring”, according to Wilson, trawling blogs, visiting factories and combing store rails around the world for inspiration.
“What has changed is that we don’t find a lot at trade shows now,” Tavernier says. “We will always go to [London’s] Scoop. We go to [Paris’s] Who’s Next and Tranoï, [New York’s] Coterie, sometimes Berlin. We don’t go to everything every season. It’s often the same brands at the same shows. Maybe some of the shows should be smaller, with not so many brands.”
“It’s quite homogenised now,” agrees Wilson. “But when you do spot something, you get excited.”
On the eve of the agency’s 10th anniversary, neither feel like their roles as agents have changed, with them still acting as “the sort of middle man”, according to Wilson. She adds: “One thing that has changed, though, is the summer season. It used to be that you’d sell a lot more for winter, whereas now we sell more for summer. Retailers have a lot longer to actually sell it at full price, because if you get a shipment in December you’re not marking it down until June or July, as opposed to getting shipped in August and marking it down in November.”
However, both feel that agencies can’t just stay the same forever and say they are looking into new avenues. “We just wish there was a way of doing more short-order things in the same vein that we work,” Tavernier says. “People don’t want to commit all their money to forward order, so I think it would be really nice to find some short-order things.”
Wilson agrees: “At the contemporary end of the market, short order isn’t there because it doesn’t exist. You can’t get the quality and the designs. That’s something we’re addressing.”
And although they are secretive about the details, it’s clear that Wilson, Tavernier and their team have been busy scouring the world for the best brands and freshest collections, to ensure another successful season on Chiltern Street.