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The Drapers Interview: Rachel Riley, managing director of Rachel Riley

Meet the London designer pushed into the spotlight by the selling power of a mini monarch

With another royal baby due any day now, the UK babywear sector will be watching as avidly as the crowds that gather outside St Mary’s Hospital in London, keen to see which brand receives the royal seal of approval when he or she makes their first public appearance.

One designer who knows all about the positive effects of such an endorsement is Rachel Riley. On Wednesday April 9 last year, her phone rang more than 100 times. It was the day Prince George was taken on his first public engagement in New Zealand - and rocketed the designer into the global spotlight. 

When the then eight-month-old heir to the throne wore a pair of Riley’s sailboat smocked dungarees (wholesaling at £31), she was completely unprepared for the resulting media frenzy.  

“I had no idea it was going to happen in advance,” she says. “I knew he had some of our clothes [as the royal family had ordered them], but I didn’t know when or where he was going to wear any of them. For all I knew, he was going to wear them behind closed doors.”

The prince wore at least five Rachel Riley items on his parents’ official tour of New Zealand and Australia in April 2014, including a blue striped polo shirt and matching blue shorts on his second engagement. As a result, sales at the brand’s Marylebone High Street store in London rose about 10% that week.

“The cause and effect in retail is so interesting. I did think at the time, why is no one else doing this?”

London-born Riley, a 51-year-old former model for the likes of Vogue, Marie Claire, Kenzo and Agnès B, far from engineered the situation, but it did not come about by chance. On learning of the Duchess’s pregnancy in December 2012, she began work on a 30-piece collection to tie in with the birth.

“Within a few weeks I had designed the two-part Heritage collection, comprising My Little Prince and My Little Princess pieces, copyrighted the prints and had it sampled so we could show it at the Bubble London kidswear show in January 2013. We wanted to get it delivered to stores at the same time the new baby was born - and we did.”

Other pieces in the Heritage line - which currently wholesales from £10 for a hand-embroidered bib to £49 for a cashmere blanket - such as a soldier outfit, sold out within a week of George’s birth in July that year.

“The cause and effect in retail is so interesting,” Riley says. “I did think at the time, why is no one else doing this? But I guess for larger companies it takes longer to go through all the stages, whereas being a small operation we have an advantage to be able to react quickly.”

As well as the Heritage range, the brand has its mainline for boys and girls aged one month to 14 years, at £8 for leggings to £54 for a party coat.

Rachel Riley has about 90 stockists worldwide, 40 of which are in the UK, including Harrods, Selfridges and House of Fraser. Riley describes wholesale as the “growth area” and plans to focus on increasing this. The current split is 70% retail versus 30% wholesale, but she declines to reveal what she would like to change the balance to.

In addition to the Marylebone store, Riley sells online via Rachelriley.co.uk. With completely new consumer and wholesale sites launched in the UK and US for autumn 2014, online now makes up around 20% of total sales.

Riley’s career did not begin in kidswear. She jokes that, beyond an O-level in needlework and dressmaking and a short course in patternmaking, she lacks any formal fashion qualifications. As a child she would make clothes for her dolls and teddy bears, but she was pushed by her parents to go to Cambridge University to study social anthropology in 1981.

“I’m not the sort of person who says ‘I need 100 accounts and then I’ll be happy’ or ‘I want to dress Prince George and then I’ll be happy’. I don’t set goals like that.”

During the summer breaks she travelled to Paris and later Japan, working as a model. After graduating in 1984, she modelled full-time in Paris, where she met her husband, fashion photographer Daniel Jouanneau. Following a year-long stint modelling in New York, Riley returned to Paris in 1985 to settle down with the Frenchman, swiftly giving birth to Felix, followed by Alfie and Rose.

“I made all their clothes and that’s when I knew I wanted to start my own business,” she says. “I knew exactly what I wanted it to be because I couldn’t find it anywhere.”

The Rachel Riley brand was founded in 1994, starting with a mail-order catalogue with about 30 to 40 pieces, all photographed by Jouanneau, which the pair sent to friends.

“Everything we did was made to order. I bought fabric and then made all the pieces, and we had a four-week delivery time. Very quickly, I knew we had a business because we had a lot of demand.”

Riley wanted her children to receive a British education, so in 1998 the family relocated to England. They moved in - quite literally - to their first bricks-and-mortar store on Pont Street, Knightsbridge, taking the flat above it too. 

Rachel Riley store on Marylebone High Street

Rachel Riley store on Marylebone High Street

At this time Rachel Riley womenswear was launched, featuring retro-inspired, print-based styles that complement the kidswear. Wholesale prices are £37 for a blouse to £62 for a cashmere cardigan.

Riley ran the store until 2001, when property firm Howard de Walden offered her the chance to open Marylebone High Street’s first kidswear store. Her 1,000 sq ft flagship opened that year.

Around the same time Riley saw an increase in the brand’s press coverage in the US, sparking a decision to begin wholesaling through trunk shows, which still take place today. It led to the opening of a 1,000 sq ft shop on New York’s Madison Avenue in 2005.

The UK wholesale launch came in 2009 when Harrods and Selfridges began stocking the label, as well as Childrensalon in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

Fellow kidswear designer Holly Hastie says Riley’s clothing “can be cherished for a generation”, while Childrensalon digital and brand director Sorcha Harriman-Smith hails the brand’s ability to deliver an “above-average sell-through”.

“Positive feedback from our customers supports the strength of the brand. The dresses are well made but reasonably priced at around £16. Since we first launched Rachel Riley on our website, it has performed well, achieving a 70% sell-through before Sale last season,” she adds.

“Children have such different needs; they’re not scaled-down versions of adults, so why should their clothes be?”

Just over a year since the Prince George effect took hold, Riley is coy about revealing her plans surrounding the arrival of his younger sibling, reiterating her love for reactive retail. 

“When the birth happens, of course we’ll do a congratulatory ‘something’. Having a shop is theatre; what’s to stop us getting all the pink or blue balloons out? We can work so close to the day the baby is born. We can do either a pink or blue window display and order vinyls for the windows in 24 hours.

“I don’t know if we’ll be lucky enough to see another royal baby wearing our clothes.”

She believes her plans for expanding wholesale in the UK will increase the following for the brand, which has had annual turnover in excess of £2m for the past few years. She insists this will happen “organically”. “The business is all owned by my husband and I. It’s very small; we would never be in a position to open more shops, so wholesale means we can work through people who already have their own set-ups. It’s so lovely to support other independents.”

“I’m not the sort of person who says ‘I need 100 accounts and then I’ll be happy’ or ‘I want to dress Prince George and then I’ll be happy’. I don’t set goals like that.”

Another growth area will see Riley launch a range of casual pieces for spring 16, such as T-shirts and pull-on dresses, as well as dressed-down styles for the second season of her footwear collaboration with British kids’ shoe brand Start-rite, which started in February, for spring 16.

The 50-piece casual collection, so far unnamed, is still in the sampling stage and is due to be edited down. Riley says it will focus on jersey, easy-care, machine-washable, non-iron play clothes with a much lower price point, wholesaling from around £8. 

“However, our clothes aren’t mini-mes, so you won’t see any leather jackets,” she explains. “Children have such different needs; they’re not scaled-down versions of adults, so why should their clothes be?”

For now, Riley is enjoying the calm before the storm. Whether that’s another media frenzy or a queue of shop owners wanting to stock the brand remains to be seen. What is clear is that for this designer, all of her young customers are princes and princesses in her eyes.

Rachel Riley store on Marylebone High Street

Rachel Riley store on Marylebone High Street

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