On the 21st of October, CEO of Whistles, Jane Shepherdson, and menswear duo, Agi & Sam, came to YCN to discuss their experiences of the fashion industry.
According to figures published earlier this year by the British Fashion Council, the fashion industry is worth £26 billion to Britain’s economy, making it an environment that’s ripe with opportunity yet notoriously difficult and intimidating to break into.
To help shed some light on it, we welcomed two pioneers from the fashion world into YCN to discuss the business of fashion from two very different standpoints: Agi Mdumulla and Sam Cotton of burgeoning menswear label Agi & Sam, and the CEO of Whistles, Jane Shepherdson.
With an audience consisting of illustrators, photographers, fashion designers, and product designers from brands such as House of Holland, Oliver Bonas, Lush, and John Lewis, Agi & Sam took to the stage first with the initial slide in their presentation simply reading ‘We are terrified’ – not that it showed. They then proceeded to tell the story of Agi & Sam from the very beginning, detailing how they met at Alexander McQueen and how the early days of the menswear label were spent watching Jeremy Kyle, eating pizza, going to club nights at Alibi and playing snooker at Efes in Dalston. Following some fairly serious experiences in the fashion industry, the duo wanted their new label to be a little more light-hearted with Sam explaining that “the premise of the brand was that we were supposed to have fun”.
They then talked through some of the inspirations for their recent collections, which included Agi’s grandmother’s house and Tanzanian heritage, Will Smith’s wardrobe in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an April Fool’s story that claimed a man had been arrested at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and was wearing “rather too much tweed for his age”, and bus seating fabrics. “Our collections generally come from a conversation, or from just being in a pub. We were in LA and realised that bus upholstery is actually quite interesting, so based a collection on that.”
Despite being an obvious choice in retrospect, picking a name for the brand took months. ‘Owls’ was one of the first options, ‘Edward and Adelphos’ – which uses the duo’s middle names – was another and ‘Sam & Agi’ was also thrown into the mix, before being ruled out for sounding too similar to Kim and Aggie of ‘How Clean Is Your House?’ fame. It was Agi’s mum who finally came up with the answer. “Why don’t you just call it Agi & Sam?” So they did.
After a few more entertaining stories about how the brand came to be, they then moved on to the more business side of things, talking about Paul Smith’s involvement as a mentor, the impact of the recession, timekeeping, people management, manufacturing, and finding the right price point for the label. They illustrated some basic details of costs and retailers markup, demonstrating just how difficult it is to make quality clothes at an affordable price when you’re a fledgling business. Despite being advised otherwise, they decided to drop their prices to make their clothes more accessible – a gamble that eventually paid off and provided them with a simple mantra: “If it feels right, it’s probably right. If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong”.
It was then the turn of Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles and the woman that’s been dubbed "the most influential person on the British high street” to take to the stage. She began by talking about the early years of Topshop and how she initially got involved. “When I left college I knew I wanted to work in the fashion industry but I knew I could never be a designer,” she recalled. She subsequently went into buying, and over the following years worked her way up to Brand Director, where she, along with her team, helped transform the fashion brand from ‘naff’ into ‘famously cool’ as The Daily Telegraph once put it. The secret? “We brought in the designers and the stylists,” she explained, creating the Topshop ‘Unique’ collection which allowed the brand to collaborate with esteemed designers such as Christopher Kane, Celia Birtwell and Zandra Rhodes, amongst a long list of others.
In 2007, she left Topshop to explore new avenues. “It almost felt as if we had done everything there. I felt it was very important to do something different,” she said, which led her to Oxfam and then on to Whistles in 2008. The vision was to turn the clothing brand into something more premium and contemporary, which “had gone the way of frilly and heart-shaped” as Jane put it. In 2009, the new Whistles brand was unveiled, leading to a mass exodus of former Whistles customers. “I can’t tell you how many customers we lost after the rebrand,” Jane recalled, “it was a pretty difficult time.”
Much like Agi & Sam however, the gamble paid off and with the help of an extremely supportive fashion press, the brand has grown exponentially. They now have 53 stores and 74 concessions across the globe, and an online business that accounts for an impressive 40% of turnover.
When asked what the biggest factors were in the reinvention of both Topshop and Whistles, Jane’s response was clear. “The product is always the thing that your business hangs on. Get the product right first, then shout about it afterwards.” It’s an approach that has served her well, and with the recent introduction of a menswear range to the Whistles armoury – which took a long time to develop and provided a steep learning curve for much of the design team – it looks set to continue.
A huge thank you to Agi & Sam and Jane Shepherdson for taking the time to come into YCN, to all of our Members who were in attendance, and to Propercorn for providing the popcorn. It was a hugely entertaining and inspiring evening and was great to hear about the fashion industry from two very different perspectives. Keep your eyes on our events page for more Two of a Kind talks in the near future.
YCN Members get priority places for all YCN events, both those hosted at 72 Rivington Street and externally. Not yet a Member? Find out the plentiful benefits of joining here.
Location:72 Rivington Street,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:21st October, 2014 at 6:30pm
End:21st October, 2014 at 8:30pm