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Feel the fear and do it anyway by Jenny Holloway


When I was asked to write an article for 50/50 the brief was to give an example of jobs within the industry – could be a deathly boring subject thought I, so I decided to give a review of the industry from a personal perspective instead.

What a fickle but exciting world fashion is. Just look at the variety of jobs that are available from retail (display, management, and visual merchandising) high street head office (distribution, buying, and merchandising) to design. It can be as glamorous and exciting as the glossy pages of Vogue but it can also be an enormous thorny road to climb. But one thing is for sure, if you never put your head above the parapet and have a go you will never know what you are missing.

To introduce myself I am Jenny Holloway, industry advisor to the London Fashion Forum. I could literally bore you to tears now about what I have done during my fashion career, so I am going to summarise as best I can. I have had some great highs but equally devastating lows where I could not even afford milk for the wee baby bairns!I always think people who give advice should be honest – I read so much literature about what is out there and how fantastic the world is through rose tinted spectacles that I would rather tell you the warts and all side.

First of all there is a huge misconception that if you want to get into the world of fashion you have to have a fashion degree or an equivalent qualification, not necessarily so! I failed my 11 plus and the Secondary Modern school which I went to was so low down in the pecking order that you were not given the choice to select O levels – it was CSEs or nothing. My father was appalled, actually I wasn’t at first, but as time went on I realised that I really had to give it my best and study and as with everything in life, you only get out what you are prepared to put in.

To cut a long story short I did try, I went on to technical college, then obtained a Business Studies Degree, was sponsored by Rolls Royce Motors and my first job was as a trainee buyer at Littlewoods chainstore. Actually I went in as a Marketing Assistant, however, Arthur Railey the Ladieswear Director of chainstore Littlewoods persuaded me to go into the world of fashion and lured me into the buying function with promises of foreign trips abroad, fast cars and a fast life! This wasn’t strictly true as you can imagine, but this does come with time.

At Littlewoods I was the lowest order of the buying chain and I worked like a dog. The job of an Assistant Buyer was not particularly demanding; I had to measure garments, press garments, keep the sample room tidy and liaise with suppliers but it did introduce me to the interfaces of the other departments. Merchandising was a key function ensuring that the right garments arrived at the right price to the right matrix of budget allocations. Distribution ensured that the garments were correctly defined into top store ranging, all store ranging and so on. Quality Control was key and actually credit to Littlewoods and Elaine Motrom, I learned a lot about the importance of 11 stitches per inch, fullness in sleeve heads, roping hems and the mired of other critical faults that could deem a garment unworthy for Littlewoods.

In short it was easy to moan; it’s easy to think why did I just spend the last four years of my life learning how to conduct strategic plans and acting out the big Chief Executive to become a lowly paid skivvy, but I could always see light at the end of the tunnel! You have to start somewhere in large organisations and who wants to listen to a moaning Minnie. My attitude was ‘get on with it and make
the most you can of it’.

I was there for two years and in particular I had grounding in the complex world of politics! Office politics are never easy, always there, always simmering under the surface but remember just be true
to yourself, as much as you can, otherwise you will just lose yourself along the way.

I then went off to Marks & Spencers as a fast track Selector in Training and this job was just another ball game completely. There were routines and systems for everything. They used to call the head office based at 47 and 57 Bakers Street the warren – it had a labyrinth of corridors and they were affectionately known as the corridors of power. I was keen to progress and worked hard, put in some long hours in the delightful world of Formal Blouses with a talented senior selector Lorraine Mawer. Within 18 months I was promoted to range selector of Formal Blouses and I was in heaven..
for a while anyway!

A selector is neither a buyer nor a designer. A selector, as the name implies, has range presentations from suppliers and garments who then selects and slightly modifies garments for a total range presentation to the senior selector – who in turn has a range presentation to the Merchandise Manager, who then has a presentation to the Executive and finally the garments are shown to the Buying Director. Can you imagine how many people interfere within this range presentation process and how many times garments end up being altered from the original concept? No wonder M&S lost their way for a period of time. There was no accountability!

I had a fall from grace and ended up in the raincoat department, lovingly known as ‘Broken Biscuits’ because there was so little to do! Fortunately I was in the department the same time as micro fibre was hitting the high street, so I had some winning raincoats in the range.

I then went to knitwear where I had the awesome job of selecting jumpers and cardigans for the 9.99-17.99 range of pointelle (holes!) plain and designs range, that was super! Luckily I did well here and stood my ground on various occasions with a difficult senior selector (I think this gave me more credibility than my selection skills but there you go!) and finally I worked for a fantastic lady Carole O’Brien (now at Pringle) in the tailoring department with mad as a hatter Ronnie Stone (Merchandiser) and loved every single minute of it.

Suits and blazers were on trend – the time when M&S purchased Brooks Brothers for a somewhat over inflated price and the range did exceptionally well. I had three seasons in tailoring and jackets and the ranges sold out! True team effort by everyone concerned. I then went to work as a buyer with Principles for Women for soft dressing and tailoring – huge department, very different from M&S and very very creative! I just loved this new challenge and was allowed to visit far off places such as Hong Kong, New York, Paris, and Milan and so on. I had a great team, a great management team and the budgets were blown to pieces season on season. However, I did have a dodgy start. I had only been there a week and I didn’t really know what to do. It was a totally different environment from M&S which was far more regimented and organised. So I did a typical M&S trick – I wrote a report which took me ages! I presented my findings to my controller who called me in the next day. In a nutshell she said ‘Thanks for the report, great report, if you ever do another one, you’re sacked! Go out there and buy – that’s what you are here for!’ That was a great leveller! I was off like the clappers from her room and did I buy for England or what!

I was lucky again, blouses were on trend, had some great results with stock turn in just two weeks,

I introduced new open to buy budgets with a merchandiser which meant I could buy closer to the season and generally had a ball. I was then promoted to senior buyer and had a bigger ball! I loved the job and cherished the challenges as well as working with some fabulously talented people such as Christine O’Neil and Kathryn Horsfall (both at House of Fraser) and Jo Hamilton (now at John Lewis).

Then I had this overwhelming urge to work for myself! I wanted to be free, have an easier time (got this wrong big time) and start having a life outside of work. Despite being offered several incentives to stay within the (then) Arcadia Group, I just had to go and started working with suppliers to learn how the supply side worked within manufacturing. What a reality shock. It was really long hours, nothing was certain, I was an absolute nobody with the factories – no worse than that, I was wet behind the ears! It was one hell of a blow to your self esteem.

However, unthwarted I started to work on my own range of garments and sell direct into the stores. For ten years I had my own label Retro and we did supply to some great accounts such as John Lewis, Associated Independent Stores, Allders, Long Tall Sally and we also used the best sellers from this high end account to supply debased garments with Matalan, Littlewoods and Makro. We almost got to a £1m turnover in 1999! It was exceptionally hard work and by now I had married my childhood sweetheart who I had met when I was just 15 and was keen to start a family. My poor long suffering husband Tim was by now deeply entrenched in Retro and in some respects it was a nightmare. We must have been exceptionally boring because all we did was worse and worse still bore everyone with our trials and tribulations too.

We then hit a disaster. We diversified into Party Plan which was unexpectedly outstanding – at a peak we had sales of £34k a week. By now I had two boys and was pregnant with a third and wanted to go and join a commune. I was sick to death of working so hard, so I decided to change our course. I had, what I thought was, a brain wave! Lets amalgamate with our competitors in Party Plan. Even now, as I am writing this article I can feel a flash of anger.

To cut a long and painful story short we were totally done over. The competitors took our 2001 ranges, took our home selling force, took our systems and then pulled out of the deal at the last minute. We lost absolutely everything and even now the conversation still rings in my ears! I feel uncomfortable said Mr X.

What do you mean uncomfortable I said some what weakly, you have everything from Retro – what do you mean uncomfortable and then Mr. X landed the bomb shell I am pulling out and with that all our work over a ten year period evaporated into smoke. Can you believe that! I think I went into shock, I lost my voice and for those who know me this is unbelievable!

Tim and I had nothing – absolutely nothing! Our house was tied into the business, we had no money reserves, we had huge debts and we had to put Retro into liquidation. It was pure trauma of the worst kind. People had naturally helped us with Retro and I felt dreadful, totally dreadful. Even to this day I am still paying back debt to two wonderful people which had helped me out so many times.

But every cloud has a silver lining. I had a lease on a shop so I begged and borrowed stock and opened a company called Essential Elements. Some of the ladies from the Party Plan business were so horrified about the way we had been treated that they stayed loyal to me and to this day we are all close friends. I started again and slowly built up a strong company. I then sold the company 12 months later as a profitable concern and was pleased that in the face of adversity theres always a way forward.

During this time, just before I sold the business we decided to have a family holiday – the first in years – so off we trotted into the sun. Whilst I was sitting in the sun with hubby Tim and our three horrors Tom, Callum and Zachary I had another one of those brainwave ideas. I decided that with everything I had learnt I was going to be a consultant.

Once I had returned back from holiday I started networking. I found a great guy Devrim Zarif from Cutting Edge and hounded him to employ me! He did and the rest, as they say, is history. 

I worked for Cutting Edge for around 18 months and then I was employed by the London Fashion Forum. At the LFF we have real iniatitives that lead to real results for todays designers, manufacturers and retailers including two boutiques for designers (Kingly Court and Bluewater), run www.fashioncapital.co.uk which has 2.2m hits a month, a concession in Topshop Oxford Street branch, run a major fashion show for the industry Profile and a host of other projects including currently trying to find a showroom in New York.

So you can see that my philosophy is simple – you may be scared of the unknown, you may hate the feeling of failure but Feel that Fear and Go For It! Life is too short for regrets.

Make it happen.


Jenny Holloway


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