Pure. White. That’s No Lie.
“I used to be snow white. Then I drifted.”
The stands have been taken down, weary legs get massaged. Hard-earned team drinks quaffed in nearby hotels. Well-intended adrenalin-sapped partying to at least 6.30pm. Exhaustion. And then the real work begins: converting sales.
I wanted to follow up from my chats with Angie, founder and co-director of Little White Lies (LWL) at Pure London to see exactly what had materialized from their presence at this key London fashion event. It’s a trade show that seems to divide opinion as to it’s benefit, yet is an undeniable touchstone for understanding design and brand take up predominantly into the UK retail and wholesale market during buying season. Who dares wins Rodney?
Three months on from Pure, I visited the LWL showroom off Tottenham Court Road, the same day they happened to have a sample sale. Angie, ebullient as ever, promptly introduced me to Victoria Scott, her Sales Manager, the person tasked with converting prospect business generated at Pure into hard orders. No pressure there then.
It’s a bit of a fool’s errand trying to find the formula for guaranteeing brand success at Pure as an exhibitor. And yet, this fool thinks Little White Lies may have sprinkled just the right amount of magic dust around to have achieved it. And having done so are now reaping the benefits of dogged determination, attractive, keenly priced garment design and reliable overseas production.
Of course nothing happens in a vacuum, and Victoria set about explaining the business they secured as a result of attending Pure in February was in fact largely as a result of attending the year previously. “Most of the original customers came from Pure 2014, buyers who just found us.” I liked this matter-of-fact finding them explanation. It supports the idea that (if) buyers know what they are looking for and (if) you are ticking their boxes, they will find you, no? And yet, there’s a lot of brands at Pure who were not ‘found.’ And quite disgruntled at what they will have regarded as buyer apathy.
Is it stand positioning as a reason for limited interest? Location may indeed be one critical variable – supported by, or negated by all the other variables that the brand may be delivering on, or cataclysmically failing to do so. The shop window simply isn’t dressed enough, or right, like a look book, without a discernible look. Late decisions to participate and no pre event marketing will hurt. BUT. Buyers may just simply know what they like when they see it. And then like what they see as a design preference – at the right price.
So what did Little White Lies actually do? Cleverly, by design or accident, their stand was positioned between the two main halls, next to a key walkway. A natural hedge between what can loosely be described as ‘traditional’ (main hall) and ‘edgy/ younger styles’ (in adjoining smaller hall). And most importantly, a larger size stand with prominent visibility. Mug the onlooker for longer from a number of vantage points. Great real estate. Terrific aspect. Good business. Get the drift? What was doing the window dressing for LWL, “just happened to be” garments in brighter, vibrant, warmer pink and blue palettes, charming the retinas of the buyer visitor onto their stand. All perhaps obvious stuff. But is it?
Then there’s the other stuff you could do, if you plan ahead and decide to attend the Pure London open evening, bringing buyers together with brands. According to Victoria,
“A lot of boutique buyers attend this pre-event evening, including ASOS and head buyers for department stores. For many buyers one of the reasons Pure is so productive, is that the first time of seeing the collection is at Pure.” This works well for existing clients, keen to see the new collections, knowing that follow-up meetings can be arranged at the showroom, with a lot of the preliminary decision-making done, or in the process.
For a brand, there’s covering the obvious bases – the trade press bases, for example. “Angie makes sure there’s a lot of presence in Drapers magazine (the official sponsoring trade magazine at Pure), taking out ads, always doing interviews.” Not in everyone’s budget, and not necessarily requiring a PR agent, but news, clearly presented makes it easier for journalists to take news bites on your brand and new collection – if there is something catchy, or genuinely new about it. Trot out old, tired clichéd descriptions and well…
What happens if the buyers already know you, do they stop coming because they know what you stock? “If you go to Pure you are looking for new brands, new designs. Pure is also a meeting point for many buyers who have a chance to catch up with several clients at the same time.” Making the task of adjacency spotting a tad easier, the organisers try to put comparable brands together. “With bigger buyers, you want to be seen to be with adjacent brands. Makes it easier for them.” The subtext of this is you actually want to be seen to be favorably compared on design, style and price-point. Bring it on.
Of course much of what physically happens, has to happen according to seasonal dictates. “After Christmas it’s all about getting look books ready for the main selling /buying season.” Little White Lies are willing and able to drop-ship (provide delivery) at three different times as part of the sales throughput of orders as opposed to an all in one delivery. This may stretch resources in fulfilling a more responsive client service, but it means helping a boutique maintain a newness to their ranges on display to attract clients. (Just ask Zara if this makes a difference!) This client-focused approach is supported by the constant monitoring of sales figures, between Angie, Donna (the designer) and Victoria, specific to individual garments, for re-ordering purposes. This dialogue, innumerable times per day, is the brain of the firm in action, synapses firing, engaging the collective wisdom of its major assets: the people who make the company tick.
Tock. It is this intuitive activity that takes the sales written on the day at Pure, into confirmed orders as follow-ups and ultimately, new clients as the meat and potatoes core LWL business. It’s not a homogeneous pot of new business brought to the boil solely around the time of Pure though, and some clients, by definition are harder to finesse. “New business and new boutique business in particular is tricky,” says Vicky. “New boutiques try everything and are still identifying who their customers are and trying to develop relationships with them.” Six-month pre-orders are not only unlikely, but unsustainable from these retailers – the cash flow won’t allow such a commitment. They are dependent on shorter-term sales-order turn-arounds to pay bills and let their boutique business start to breathe a little. It’s precarious and it doesn’t take much to remove the oxygen of sales for survival. However, like the first time buyer on the property market, they are an important part of the garment industry chain, priming growth. Small acorns and all that and LWL nurture these clients. A good old-style Boston matrix type assessment will however tell you, the cash cows for the likes of LWL are the “seven to eight year old boutiques that know their customer and can order in bigger numbers.”
All the numbers start to work in a different way, collectively and comprehensively with these more mature retailers. There’s a deeper engagement with the brand that enables a more sustainable relationship from design all the way through to end customer. A level that enables all-important feedback for garment designs to be fine-tuned and re-ordered based on specific customer inquiries and requests. Snip. Stitch. Stock. Made-to-order. And not a dressing room in sight.
The other benefit with the older retailer is their customer knowledge and experience is fed straight into your brand, with orders based on a customer ‘line of best fit’ and a smooth, seamless de-risking of the brand selection at the same time. One example for LWL, Victoria explained is What to Wear, a Swiss company selling online. “First time at Pure, with a huge blog following, who bought immediate forward-order stock from us on the stand. Theirs is a relatively wealthy, older customer with a much higher expectation of what they are buying, specifically quality and durability.” Interesting that an essentially online garment operation ‘takes stock, ‘ but by selling through Zalando, (German equivalent of ASOS, which incidentally LWL have sold through the first season), this, and other particular European markets become the target for LWL, with Pure as foreplay. This ambitious brand is keen to leverage its expertise and brand presence into bigger markets outside of Europe also. As well as selling the length and breadth of the UK now, the client mix for LWL, has rich content. Babington House in Somerset is a client, who may never deliver huge numbers, but it’s the type of client, everyone wants for brand image and publicity.
People are the major asset for this likeable, fast-growing sme, punching well above its weight and expanding inch by inch around the fashion-world’s tummy. I was curious to know what attracted Victoria to work at LWL? A background in a distribution agency, where she helped to set up a number of brands before critical mass capability inevitably took the roles in house. She had looked around for the challenge of where to take her talents and contacts and where there was scope to make a difference. “Someone that is in ASOS, Urban Outfitters and a number of boutiques, that I felt I could add my knowledge and experience to.”
LWL seems to be a good fit for Victoria, someone who exudes confident professionalism, and who would be an asset in any number of companies, choosing to invest in a company that has the potential to stretch her talents, with the autonomy and respect her pivotal role is imbued with. It’s clear from the easy-going atmosphere at LWL that it’s a happy place, demonstrated by an Italian assistant designer, as a former intern, smiling at her good fortune at being exactly where she was. Angie has a talent for attracting a team of committed individuals able to deliver a quality service, leveraging collective strengths towards mutual goals. Victoria has brought a solid contact relationship with some major companies that include Zalando (hard to write without thinking of Ben Stiller), Nelly, Amazon, The Hut Group, Harvey Nichols and Fenwick Group amongst others. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s no small or simple thing to be networked to this tier of players, let alone getting the look books to them to be considered. Prepping to finesse these kinds of business deals requires ALL the boxes to be ticked. And then to invent some that they can be impressed you even thought of.
“Big department stores want to see there is a definite customer. They will want to see the garments being worn in magazines on these customers. And they will check where it’s stocked, and if the stock is selling or not.” Nevertheless, it’s still hard getting in front of them. Victoria has an answer for this. “You just have to be really clever about it, basically. And see who and where they are selling.” Natch. “Be prepared to do drop shipments, 3 x mark-ups, work on exclusives, and know the brands they have. And then point something out that makes them take notice of your brand.” Having a brand as a competitor is no bad thing “it helps to have those adjacencies, you need them to leverage the discussion in the first place about your relevance.”
The simple truth of maneuvering around incumbent brands stocked by a particular department store, (to get your brand’s foot in the door) is not for a let us be in the group hug too, but to demonstrate you have identified a weakness in the portfolio which is also your brand’s strength, and once highlighted, in a subtle, screaming Day-Glo sort of way, makes the store’s portfolio stronger, edgier or more customer friendly. Or just more commercially viable. Deepening the customer base by this association is good news all round. Being a me-too, just because you’ve spotted the generic adjacencies within a store, won’t get you taken into the fold, as Beth Pettet of John Lewispointed out at a recent brand buyer’s event, because you may be one me-too, too many.
One of the tick boxes LWL has invented, to provide a worthwhile value-added service offering for the bigger stores, is textbook sales-savvy. Find a way to extend the sales period of a department store with ingenuity and you may get a (big wholesale) group hug. For LWL, it’s a Christmas one that starts in October. They are already ‘selling Christmas’ in May, for delivery in October. Not using crass tinsel teasers, but “by selling key pieces for the party season, which also helps to bring AW back up, extend the sales cycle and help support sales through direct promotion of the AW collection in the store.” Help, as the Beatles well knew, is the key word here. It’s not just a case of being prepared to help sell your own brand, (err, hello?) it’s kind of expected by the big boys. All of this effort is part of a decent brand representation within the store to make it worthwhile of course, though LWL are highly responsive to the smaller boutique orders too. “We always keep back-stock, 20-30 units for immediate delivery. It’s just communicating what’s really selling.” Doing this might seem sensible client-supplier support behavior, but it’s an almost immediate divider separating those that want to be bothered, and those that maybe don’t and can’t. The fabric may be willing but the thread is weak.
I asked Victoria what’s next on her to-do list? “There’s a photo-shoot waiting to be done, a whole new target customer list to be worked through. There’s the Pure business list that didn’t materialize yet. I will be taking appointments for Christmas in May and taking sample sets around.” What’s her watchwords for success? “Have consistent pricing. We have the best pricing we have ever had, and the most attractive for the retailer.” And for global growth? “Agents are the way to promote a brand worldwide. Almost impossible otherwise.” I can understand why Angie took Victoria into the fold.
One coffee and a sandwich down, Angie had graciously found time in her busy diary to share some of her homespun fashion wisdom with me. Straight off the bat, “We are not egotistical as a brand. We take on board what people say and respond to the common feedback from our retailers. For AW some of our pricing was a little too high. We adjusted the pricing and found our sweet spot. And a point of difference with adjacencies. We don’t ever compromise on design or style.” She demonstrated with a sweatshirt-styled top how they go about deconstructing to arrive at a cost-effective price point. The garment industry dark arts practiced for centuries, about to be laid bare. But sworn to secrets, all I can say is it involved this kind of convo…“Well, you just trim a bit off here, and take some of that unnecessary embroidery away that is stopping the fabric and garment hang properly…” And so on. Well, what did you expect – spilled beans?
The ‘science’ behind making fashion work is many things working in unison, and different for everyone. One common denominator and key to the price point persuader, is finding the right manufacturer. For many low–to mid-priced brands this means unequivocally, Asia. If LWL have a secret weapon, it’s monosodium glutamate wrapped, in China and delivering highly responsive garment-by-garment production in tune with LWL customer requirements. The millions of pounds of orders going through the manufacturer has arguably made a difference to their responsiveness, but even so, having a factory ready, willing and able to fulfill to this level is crucial for LWL to consolidate and build on the reputation of their brand, without enduring the all-too common stop-start hiccups associated with poor performing unreliable manufacturers, thousands of miles away. “Not only will they do smaller runs, we have such a good rapport that pre-manufacture, their input is invaluable in saving time and money on best production for each design. It’s a tiring trip. But necessary,” says Angie, clearly grateful for the particular production relationship she has secured, crucial to her business. I’m kind of thinking it’s no less than she deserves by being a straight shooter, abiding by her word. People warm to and trust this type of person in the fashion industry and life. Me too.
Mid several fashion-related non-sequitors, and a few interpersonal exchanges with her team, (trust me, Angie is able to pick up any or several conversational threads at any time) Angie continued her philosophy-of-the-cloth and the LWL usp, sounding almost Churchill-ian in its delivery, “We will bring margins down, increase volume, shrink the range, make it narrower and deeper…but we will always be all things to all women, to create the perfect product.” And if beaches need to be fought over, there’s the new summer beach-ware collection about to drop. So there.
I asked Angie what’s new that she is excited to talk about, since Pure? “The Boyner Group in Turkey, with something like a hundred department stores in Turkey, bought for eight stores, mixed across premium, youthful brands, sitting next to each other, as a test to see if it works. We are signing up an agent in Germany, following on from the penetration with Zalando. We have a new agent in the US for the last two months. In fact, I’m pretty much fully engaged with looking for agents to open markets around the world.” (Are you listening agents?)
The sign of a company growing from a stage one, seat of the pants organization, to a stage two, is the development of hierarchical structures. Usually in the form of core activities assigned to specialist roles, drawn from what the founder/ entrepreneur has tried to do by themselves, and typically behaving like a control-freak headless chicken while doing circus act juggling. If you know this person, hug them.
“We have taken on a great logistics guy who handles all the comms to do with shipping, web orders, bulk shipments, managing the warehouse.” You could almost hear ‘Born Free’ playing in the background as she announced this shoulder-sagging role dump onto her (now bestest friend) colleague. Strategically though, it’s gold, as it frees up the entrepreneurial time of arguably the chief sales finesser to where it needs to be: global brand business development. Mature cheddar thinking. Where does she see herself and the brand heading? “France, Spain, Japan, Benelux, Middle East (we can easily adapt to modest styles for this market, and want to do so), but probably not Italy – not an easy market.” And the icing on the cake after global domination? “A flagship store would be great at some point. In Carnaby Street of course, where it will still mean something,” she says laughing.
As luck would have it, there was a sample sale on and I got to meet the designer and key architect of the LWL style, Donna Kernan, who was excited at the prospect of meeting the end customer. Less so about meeting me presumably. Donna was in at the start when the company was launched (co directors are Angie, and Angie’s brother Johnny who looks after finance and marketing). She had previously owned her own design business in Shoreditch “at the time when it (Shoreditch-mania) all started and always women’s design. Still gives me such a thrill to design and see other people wearing it.” Perhaps I could snaffle some of the LWL design secrets from her?
Donna as it turns out is a delightful bundle of energy, brimming with ideas, eclectic-shmectic, just needing the tiniest bit of coaxing and its pen, keep up time. “Buyers are fashion forward people. They like the edge, what’s different. They want to be stimulated.” I was to get used to the staccato bursts in the replies and the rapid changes of subject, which was either still answering the two questions back, in parallel, or the ones I hadn’t realized I was meant to be asking. “Lots of customers talk to me on Instagram. They delight in saying, just wanted to let you know I’m wearing LWL. Of course it’s flattering and I re-tweet and re-gram the photos as quickly as I can.”
As a temporary anchor in a speed-talking storm, I attempted the lame ‘what’s it all about Alfie design question: “where DO the ideas come from?” “I don’t do themes. I do stories. The ‘white lace’ story for example, combining old and new images. I start off with a mood board. Drawing on napkins, snapping things on my mobile. What do I like? Sure I like McQueen, very high-end, very catwalky. I like the French style. It’s still a bit flung together, sophisticated, cool, and random.” Oh, so just all those silly, really cool things other women have envied for decades. “It’s funny, when you go on Eurostar, you can see the London girls, much more trend-led, a lot more tribal, down even to geographic styles – west London a bit more designer based for example.” Donna shared her love of vintage as an influence. In her world it has its own references, without it being a vintage-elitist game, but with a touch of designer class. “The way I combine fabrics – lace with Georgette (sheer, lightweight, dull-finished crêpe fabric named after 20th century French dressmaker Georgette de la Plante) is more vintage Helmut Lang. And I love embroidery.”
And of course, the fabric has its own built-in set of dictates on the designer’s aesthetic impulses. “Where can I use this fabric in the most clever way…using the sleeves to get the effect, for example, sometimes it’s better than the whole garment.” It seems that Donna has a healthy restraint on her own design impulses that are channelled mostly when appropriate “if you want to do the really fancy stuff for a fashion show, for example…”
Donna like many in her field goes to PV for inspiration. She also uses Indigo to buy embroidery designs. Embellishment is an important dynamic within the design (could be up to 50 per cent), with the embroidery on their latest high-summer beach collection an important point of difference. This aspect has become something of a signature (though not necessarily comprehensively), so much so that “customers say, what I like about LWL collections is the details…can you pop a little Donna detail on there for me please, as if I go around doing this,” she says laughing.
The idea of a signature look is not necessarily something the designer is consciously aware of as Donna revealed. “To develop a signature, you don’t always know it, until you know your girl and you know what she likes. This comes down to the best seller. And sometimes, we are just a little bit too early for our girl.” It’s fascinating to think of this silent, almost telepathic relationship between Donna, LWL and ‘our girl’ being mediated by the designs, and legitimised by the very act of wearing the clothes. The fact that it is ‘our’ already suggests it’s an extended family relationship.
“I do a ton of research. I read the whole Internet every week. (She probably does). I’m in the shops; I’m looking at finishing. I always put a couple of new, different things in each collection, while observing the colours appropriate for the season.” It’s her way of giving herself and presumably ‘our girl’ a chance to respond from left field, without subverting the whole collection to what may be peripheral, or heaven forbid, a whim. Time had come to let Donna get back to staying several seasons, samples and styles ahead of the chasing pack (it was all about finished beach samples for June 1st: pre-marketing, shoots, product shots etc.). I had to ask one last question, what was her favourite part of the job, of being a designer? In a flash, with a beaming smile, “opening the DHL boxes and parcels from the factory. It’s like Christmas morning every time. And my favourite time.”
Life after Pure? Probably means getting ready for the next one. Or doing something else. Taking the knocks, bruises, life lessons with you and a fancy for what our girl may just want to be seen wearing. For LWL, this sounds like lots of our girls of all sizes around the world. Like a travelling Von Trapp family. Just with better styling. And haircuts. Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo.
By Paul Markevicius
Images courtesy of Little White Lies