Caren Downie Talks – Brands, Business, Social Media & Marketing…
On Thursday 21st January 2021, Caren Downie joined FashionCapital’s CEO Jenny Holloway for an online discussion regarding her extensive fashion career to date and the insider knowledge she has picked up along the way. Paul Markevicius reports on the highlights…
JH (Jenny Holloway): In the 20-years I have known Caren she always stood apart from the people who use artifice or politicking to secure position. It’s a real privilege to talk to you. Please, tell us how your career started…
CD (Caren Downie): After my LSE economics degree, I was accepted on a Warehouse course requiring within the year to manage a store, buy stock, sell it out and make as much money imaginatively. I’ve had a bond with fashion retail ever since.
JH: Your steerage of Topshop as Buying Director for 10-years, was a major lifestyle influence…
CD: Topshop led the way, the first retailer with models shopping there, alongside Vogue editors and buyers. A strong team and a designer business collaboration ethos.
JH: What made Topshop so successful?
CD: Jane Shepherdson as Brand Director understood product better than anyone, a woman who understood what women want to wear. You know it’s working when the people who work there wear the brand.
JH: Can you learn about a brand?
CD: A lot of it is instinctive, working hard, long hours. It isn’t just about the product. We travelled the country to increase sales. Everyone was made to feel part of building a successful brand.
JH: Why leave Topshop?
CD: Jane resigned, a lot of management left. Mr Green got more involved and I felt it needed fresh blood.
JH: ASOS approached you?
CD: Yes, ASOS was very small at the time. People asked, why ASOS? I saw the development for online at Topshop. It was obviously the future.
JH: How did ASOS compare in the early days when you joined?
CD: Surprisingly, they did not see what they had, nor understand what was a ‘best seller.’
JH: After 8-years of phenomenal growth, you decided to launch Finery?
CD: The high street had become a homogenised race to the bottom, and didn’t feel like a good place. I preferred slow fashion, doing something stylish for an older age group.
JH: Finery’s initial photography was different, more edgy.
CD: Net-A-Porter and ASOS styles were all black and white, 4 across and 5 down on a ‘page’, small images. We had bigger images showing more details 3 across, different angles and colour.
JH: How did Finery manage as a start-up to get smaller quantities made?
CD: It’s extremely hard to get small MOQs. We found a Turkish factory offering 500 per style, launching with 10 styles. We used stock fabric, travelling in vans visiting factories looking for fabric.
JH: Factory fittings can waste so much time. Caren, came with the model. We made amendments on the spot to save time. Time is money.
CD: We went into Selfridges with a pop up to promote the brand and worked off our Topshop and ASOS reputations. We couldn’t do Finery now the same way, the world has changed.
JH: Online takes away a lot of barriers to entry, but how does your brand stand out?
CD: Our Sunday Times supplement, ES magazine collaborations increased our database massively. All the press attended the Press Launch via a Press Agency and PR manager. We did a soft launch first.
JH: As I understand it, the margins were not times 3. The store usually wants times 3 margins…the B2C model is much more important now.
CD: We went into John Lewis, once we had decided we were in fact a B2C business.
JH: John Lewis has exacting standards. It can be stressful, not being able to say no to their order numbers.
CD: You have to work to their model. They will always ask for higher numbers. If you disagree, eventually it will end. There is more pressure on buyers now than ever before, trying to make safe decisions. Fashion does not really work that way.
JH: Retail is under a lot of pressure, but we still need to know our product, have flair and an intuitive feel.
CD: With online it’s easy to get feedback. But the customer doesn’t know what they want, you have to tell them, you see the vision earlier.
JH: After successfully setting up Finery you moved on again…
CD: I met Lemon Fuller, Lemonade Dolls founder while at Finery. She worked in the entertainment industry, she was confident, wanted to help other women. She came with her lingerie designs, and no money. With a small sample collection, we obtained angel investment, and launched offering girls in all shapes and sizes underwear. We sell online only using a subscription model. The range is small, backed by a lot of research. The high street copied Victoria’s Secret, it all got samey with push up styles.
JH: Not what a lot of women want now.
CD: We have a very deliberate soft product. No boning, no hard fabric, it’s about colours and nice fabrics. Subscribers pay £12 a month for minimum of 3 months, and first month is free.
JH: What do the subscribers receive for their money?
CD: They receive a pair of briefs each month, like a lucky dip.
JH: Can you explain the funding models you followed for Lemonade Dolls?
CD: It’s always been about investment. Now on our third round. To reach our seed funding target, we decided on crowd funding where you pay them a percentage of the money raised. A lot of regulatory requirements, documents to prepare, including a video. Everything must be well designed.
JH: And let the spirit of the brand come through.
CD: For investors, the team and finance person is very important. The investment deck must be interesting. Key elements are ‘who are we’ straplines; the gap you saw in the market; and who your competitors are.
JH: It’s all about engagement, having an edge.
CD: We send our ‘girl gang’, messages, have a huge following on Instagram, do quizzes. And Tit Talk – sharing information, providing females with confidence.
JH: At the launch there was one disabled model, one large build model – huge fun, not moody models.
CD: Its time for people to think differently. We set out to raise £90k and generated over £200k via crowdfunding. Next will be venture capital funding.
People underestimate the time it takes. Need to think ahead. It’s far easier to get a loan with money in the bank.
JH: The Lemonade Dolls story shows what can be done. What are the key roles?
CD: A social media manager; a website/admin/customer/email manager; Lemon, myself, Shaun on stock control, crunching numbers.
Q&A session after the masterclass…
Q: What does B2C mean?
JH: Business to consumer. Being in the mind of the consumer.
CD: We tried each garment on many different body shapes in Topshop and asked everyone what would you spend money on and why.
Q: What job role would you start with in your micro team?
CD: Depends on your own skill set. We all do many things, supportively. Need a multi-tasker. Use students, pay travel and lunch expenses. Must be a good team fit. Trialling people is very important.
Q: What about social media algorithms impacting your business?
JH: Teach yourself, don’t be afraid of technology. LinkedIn for networking. For sales Instagram and Facebook.
CD: The CPA price during lockdown went up, so it became harder to get a customer, but easier than you think to use the tools out there.
Q: What ratios to use for online marketing and media ads?
CD: Depends on the product. With Lemonade Dolls, traditional PR is not so effective because of the online presence of our customer.
Q: Do you think the ‘lucky-dip option is going to be fringe or mainstream?
CD: As a start-up brand it’s easier to do. It’s more about the customer retention than the lucky dip option.
Q: Customer service: does it help to offer a free delivery?
CD: ASOS was the first to offer free P&P but it ended up costing more in returns. At Lemonade Dolls the monthly item is free, then have to pay thereafter.
Q: How to balance being sustainable with materials, while keeping costs down?
CD: Sustainable in fashion is extremely difficult – elastain that we need for our product is not great.
Q: How many times do you design the product to get it right?
CD: Just have to trust your judgement that this version is really enough.
Q: How does the new designer without the live trade show option get their product out?
CD: Single out the boutiques whose target is similar and approach them personally, have a USP for your community, why they should take you. Build brand values by staging events.
By Paul Markevicius with thanks to Caren Downie.
‘I have gained great insight on the retail industry and practical information on setting up a new brand.’
‘I found most useful a number of things including various PR and fundraising strategies and tactics to stand out as a brand and survive.’ – Faty
‘I have learnt that I know so little about the business side of starting a brand – it was so helpful to begin to understand, along with vital tricks to know when starting – quantities, budgets etc.’ – Mia
‘I have found out SO much, a huge amount about an industry I’m forever wanting to learn about – found it most useful.’
‘The atmosphere of FashionCapital’s talks are always hugely informative with really sought-after knowledge, they are informal enough to feel really comfortable and are easy to listen to.’
‘Thank-you so much for doing these, they are invaluable!’