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Interview: Designers at Debenhams


Interview: Designers at Debenhams

We look behind the scenes at ‘Designers at Debenhams’ in this revealing interview with
Jo Hooper, Debenhams Head of Design*

Mention “Designers” or needing something special to wear and most retail shoppers will automatically think of Debenhams. Debenhams has become THE high street specialists for “designer wear” and has carved out an important niche in the marketplace. From humble beginnings in 1996, when Debenhams decided to make a design statement at Debenhams, the market has grown at a staggering pace. The Designer turnover in Womenswear, Menswear, Home, Childrenswear and Accessories at Debenhams is now worth in excess of £100 m for this year.

Jo Hooper, Debenham’s Head of Design, gave the London Fashion Forum a unique insight into this major achievement. .

LFF Why did Debenhams originally decide to go down the designer route?

Jo “Customer expectations are high and rightly so. Excellent design, through colour, cut and fabric is a prerequisite in such a competitive market so the concept of “Designer” product at high street prices struck a chord at the time of it’s launch in 1996 with J by Jasper Conran.

“The concept of translating a £1000 dress into a very wearable version at £100, with the same designer essence preserved, appeals to everyone – John Rocha T-shirt at £25 – something for all budgets.”

LFF So what makes a good designer in the eyes of Debenhams?

Jo “A clear handwriting is absolutely key so the customer can identify with the collection. Look at the clean silhouette of Jasper Conran, the gothic glamour of Maria Gracchvogel, the handcrafter colour explosion of Matthew Williamson.

“All these designers have a clear understanding of their own perspective and somehow they seem to have found the art of understanding what today’s woman really wants to wear.”

LFF What is your current policy regarding sourcing new designers at Debenhams?

Jo “Debenhams is always on the lookout for new talent but the criteria remains the same. Designers need to have a clear handwriting, an understanding for the retail high street and also business accum.

“Designers can’t just rely on their design expertise they also need to realise that they are dealing with a professional major high street name and Debenhams needs to be dealing with a professional Design House.”

LFF Do your designers ever get into financial problems?

Jo “All companies in all industries will have peaks and lows in their cash flow. Designers are no exception. Yes it happens but Debenhams tries hard to support the designers each season giving them some stability.

“By giving Designers regular orders it helps the designers to have a sales plan and from here the Designers can plan their season. Planning in fashion is key to success… as planning in all business is.”

LFF So how did you get into the heady world of fashion?

Jo “After graduating from Durham University (English Literature BA Hon) – not very relevant but a fun three years reading great books, I gained a trainee management position with Littlewoods Home Shopping.

“I had a passion for clothing, demonstrated by my student overdraft, which they recognised and I was offered a trainee buyers position – a fantastic opportunity, and as so often a case, I was there at the right time at the right place.”

LFF What is it about fashion that you enjoy so much?

Jo “I love the constant change with one season closing and another opening. Fashion essentially means “of the moment”, so the challenge is non stop to find that perfect outfit, the new “must -buy” of the season, this seasons new colour for black… it is just so exciting and challenging.

“From a business perspective the challenge and the satisfaction comes from success in sales and problem solving.

“Retail is one long problem-solving exercise either in product, price, production, logistics etc. In addition we are a public company and it is important to keep our shareholders happy. We always have one eye on practical realities of business…the bottom line is profit.”

LFF What other projects are you working on?

Jo “Fashion is now moving faster than ever – our customers are better informed and they can see the current and forward fashion trends almost as quickly the couture designers are walking down the catwalks of Milan, New York and Paris.

“In particular the high street shopper is influenced by what the celebs are wearing so Debenhams challenge is to respond more quickly to these trends. This means looking at new markets, faster routes in established markets, trailing small quantities, liasing closely with fashion press so we can ensue that Debenhams are giving what the customers wants and when they want it.

“One of these initiatives is by working with Jenny Holloway and Devrim Zarif of LFF and Cutting Edge. Debenhams are networking directly with smaller CMT units to gain speed of response to small docket runs.

“We have already reviewed a cross section of units and selected a couple to test the concept of Dealing Direct.

This means that for smaller unique runs we can go to a CMT unit, pay them directly, ensure that we have design confidentiality and turnaround small collections within two to three weeks.

“If the trials are successful then we can roll the sales out to an all store distribution. It’s at it’s concept stage at the moment but it appears to be a winner!”

LFF In this issue (#4) of the Newsletter we are targeting the Accessory Market. Do you have any pointers for accessory designers reading this interview?

Jo “The same key points are important for an accessory designer as for any fashion designer – a distinctive look, a clear handwriting, whether through print, use of colour, shape, materials etc.

“Accessories represent a key profitable area within the womenswear area, not only for Debenhams but for the rest of the high street. You only have to look a the ground floor of Top Shop at Oxford Circus currently to see the sales being driven by this area. The belt you wear, the bag you carry is an essential part of the look.

“That’s why pricing is so important – the successful retailer is one who entices you to spend just a little bit more. You need that belt to create the finished look with your jeans and…it’s only going to cost you £20… and… while you’re there those beaded sandals are perfect for another £25!…”

LFF So any advice to the designers out there wanting to have space at Debenhams?

Jo “As I said previously we are always on the lookout for new talent and it is Debenhams raison d’être. I know it is hard for any designer to make that first contact but I also know how incredibly busy our designers and buyers are.

“If there are designers out there that really believe they have identified a genuine gap in the market with their collection, a clear distinctive handwriting, financially stable with a solid business plan, then yes, Debenhams would like to hear from them.

“But remember we have many many priorities including our exacting quality standards and time is at a premium. We can not just drop everything to review ranges. It takes time but this is one case when persistence can pay off.

“Also remember that whilst fashion is of the moment and we have rolling ranges, ranges that go on between seasons with open to buy budgets, there are peaks in sales for example millinery. Sales in millinery peak in Easter onwards until July as it is the wedding season, Ascot etc.

“We are constantly reviewing ranges and collections and it is more important for us to focus on the “influence” of fashion. Today people are after distinctive accessories to create their own individual look and there are this seasons “must have’s” such as the fringed bag, the cowboy boots, the Indian silver jewellery etc”

The LFF would like to express their sincere gratitude to Jo Hooper for giving up her precious time to conduct this interview and giving us an exclusive behind the scenes look
at Debenhams.

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