Jane Shepherdson spent two decades at the Arcadia Group, excelling as brand director of Topshop, which she put on the global fashion map via her innovative strategy of collaborations and sponsorship with emerging British design talent. After leaving in 2006, she went travelling, before purchasing 20 per cent of Whistles, the then much-loved but beleagured label, for whom she is now chief executive. Over lunch, Caroline Issa discussed Shepherdson's career, conscious retailing and why feminism is back in fashion. The latter is a subject close to her heart and she is about to embark on a series of co-branded events with Whistles and Penguin Books championing women's achievements in the workplace.
Caroline Issa After 20 years at Topshop, what was your biggest accomplishment?
Jane Shepherdson Actually, I started as the underwear buyer. It was something I was quite embarrassed to say in public. At the time, Topshop had no real credibility, no fashion authority; it was just a cheap, teenage brand. To have made it into something that is regarded as interesting in fashion retail, that's a nice feeling.
CI How did you get there?
JS First, there wasn't much happening in retail at the time. The UK had gone from this period of everyone being able to sell pretty much what they wanted, to the '90s recession. We were thinking, "We need to do something different. We have to stand for something and be the fashion authority." That was on the wall: THE fashion authority. Once you get everyone behind a vision it gains its own momentum. Then to understand that people can shop anywhere they like, so if they are going to come to us, we need to excite them. Once that happens, you think of new ideas: "Let's offer attractive delivery guys on mopeds who deliver customer purchases in half an hour". You know it sounds ridiculous. The financial director goes, "It won't make money" and you say: "I don't care, they'll love it!" You have to have fun with it. The same applied to deciding who we should work with. Hussein Chalayan was our first collaboration, and we had to really persuade him. He came in thinking Topshop was a terrible brand. It was - but we had our vision. So things have changed; everyone does collaborations now. Designers are happy to do them, but in those days it was different.
CI You returned to the industry as CEO of Whistles, having bought a stake with your core team. What was your vision for the brand?
JS We saw this gap in the market at the time. The market was all the high street shops, plus Topshop doing really well. Then there was this enormous hike up to designer level and we felt there wasn't enough occupying the middle ground that was credible. There were quite a few brands that were doing quite classic or would appeal to older, working women but not something that said: "This is a relevant fashion offer." When Whistles started, [founder Lucille Lewin] did just that. She got Dries Van Noten to design womenswear when he was only doing menswear. He designed a suit for her. It was aspirational. It had a fashion authority that was lacking in the market. Strangely, that whole premium-middle market is now becoming full. It's really changed. It's been so fast, but that's the incredibly exciting thing about retail - things can happen just like that. Suddenly the whole landscape's different and you have to reconsider what you're doing and adjust. As long as you keep focus on the core that's running through your business and the essence of what you are, then everything else can and should change. If it doesn't, you get left behind.
CI You've gone from being a part of a huge organisation to running your own smaller business. Is it what you were expecting?
JS It's a huge learning curve. In Topshop, we'd say: "Let's do this." A hundred people would do it and two months later it would be ready. Wonderful. Now, it's "We should do this... OK, where do we start?" So there was this enormous learning of how to get it done. Coming from a big organisation, you don't actually know how the small things happen. You have to build a new network of contacts; we relied on people who were friends and existing contacts who were very kind and did us a lot of favours. It's hard work. In a bigger organisation, it's fine to be a specialist in any one part but being a small business, you have to do a bit of everything. You have to keep everybody motivated. I prefer it though. Not having to answer to anybody, which of course means you make your own mistakes and we have done. Loads! That's fine, you only ever learn through mistakes.
CI Does the online world excite or terrify you?
JS What I love about it is that nobody is an expert. Nobody really knows the answer because it's changing so fast that you can just dip in and do something that's really exciting and it's relatively risk-free. The opportunities are unbelievable. Customers are looking for interactivity, they want to engage, they want spontaneity. We're just about to spend huge amounts and recruit a team to manage it. We should have done it a year ago, but you have to prioritise.
CI PPR Group just publicised its social and environmental metrics for all their brands. Sustainability and responsibility are the topics du jour. How are you dealing with this issue?
JS We've been working with Patrick Neyts a global consultant for sustainability and ethical trading. He helps us put together a road map. The starting point was our clothing manufacturers. You have to find out who is actually making the clothes, because a lot of companies don't even know that. We've actually changed about 50 per cent of the suppliers we were working with for ones who are committed to working the way we want to. You learn very quickly that with a small business it's a lot harder to influence. Topshop can say: "I don't like you doing that and we're half of your business so you'd better stop". For us, it's much more about finding the people you know will want to commit to the issue as well. Anything that is sustainable, wastes less water and doesn't harm the environment will be the right way to go. We're midway through a three-year plan. And rolling it out to the rest of our business, looking at our carbon footprint, our use of water, electricity, waste both within head office and stores. Again, there will be cost savings for us in the end. It's something we've always done, and I've worked for Oxfam. All our old stock goes there. We try to complete the circle. A lot of people ask what we're doing. I think they feel that they're paying a bit more for our product and therefore they don't expect us to pay the workers peanuts.
CI Tell me about the impetus behind the recent Whistles and Penguin Inspire night recently when film director Beeban Kidron, Rosie Arnold, deputy executive creative director at BBH, and Lynn Thomas, surgeon captain in the navy, were invited to speak about their jobs. Now you're saying Whistles is a feminist fashion brand.
JS Virginia Norris, our press manager, and I are both proud feminists. We've been talking about how we should let it be known. Our customers are very discerning and we've been jokingly called "the thinking women's brand". At a recent awards ceremony, we sat next to a woman who was commander of a naval frigate and we couldn't imagine doing that. Having seen the feedback, we know the feminist debate is back. It's nice to get people talking about it. We should celebrate the fact that women can do anything they put their minds to. The more people who hear about that and become inspired, the better.
CI And you're about to hold similar events for customers.
JS Definitely, yes. Whenever I talk at events, everybody wants to know: "How do you get in? How do you navigate your way around the system? What are the success factors?". You can give people some idea of the more effective things to do. It'll be interesting to see if different issues come up in different parts of the country. But I think the difficulties that women face are exactly the same.
CI At my dinner table, we were comparing hideous stories of what guys have said and done in the workplace. How is it that each of us still has these conversations? Why aren't we talking more about this?
JS I agree, I've rarely spent an evening with so many incredible women where we're all talking about the same subject. Everyone has a lot of similar experiences. Rosie Arnold had wonderful Mad Men stories. When I first started at Topshop, they would have weekend retreats for work, and we'd go to some place in Hertfordshire. We'd stay overnight and it was just routine for me to have to put a chair up against the door at bedtime, because there'd always be some guy who thought he'd try it on with the blonde! That's incredible, isn't it? Ridiculous. Looking back, I wish I'd just slapped them in the face and said: "Don't you dare!"