The Business of Fashion by Jane Shepherdson

I’m currently the CEO of Whistles, a brand that offers contemporary effortless fashion at affordable prices for both women and men. I haven’t always done this though, I started at the very bottom, in the late 1980’s at Topshop. At the time, I really didn’t care what the job was, nor the salary attached to it, I just wanted to get into the ‘fashion industry’. The job was mundane, and the salary so poor that I had to take a part time bar job to pay my rent, but I was in!
I worked my way up through buying, eventually becoming Brand Director for no other reason than that I was incredibly passionate about what we were offering our customers, and felt that we owed it to ourselves to give them more than they expected. I had this theory that our customers wanted pretty much what I wanted, which was designer collaborations, in store theatre, VIP service with styling advice thrown in, a market place of rapidly changing concessions, customisation, constantly changing collections – in fact everything that was relevant and exciting about fashion, all the time! To give you an idea of the sort of things we did, one weekend, an assistant buyer took home a batch of faulty jeans and made them into long denim skirts, using vintage scarves to fill in the gaps – she made 100 skirts and we sold them the following week… immediately… She never caught up with demand…
To do all this, was both expensive, and required a huge amount of effort from everyone involved, BUT, it worked. Our customers loved it, and came back in their droves. Not only our existing High St. customers, but those who had previously only bought designer, now came to Topshop to see what was going on, and bought selected items to mix with their designer wardrobes. I think it worked, because it was real. We were excited by fashion in the same way that our customers were, didn’t think we had to adhere to any of the rules, and it therefore had an authenticity that couldn’t be made up.
Whistles Resort 2015 lookbook
Whistles Resort 2015 Lookbook.
I left Topshop in 2007 for pastures new, and happened upon Whistles, an unloved 70’s brand that had been pedalling boho for the last decade, and clearly needed a little re-positioning. It was a brand with a lot of residual love attached to it, for what it had been, which was an aspirational boutique combining its own collections, with designer finds, and great essentials. We felt that there was room for such a brand to live again, so set about changing pretty much everything about it. We started with the collections, and in 6 months had put together a debut collection that started to move in the direction we felt was the right one. It took much longer than the eighteen months that we had predicted to really develop the DNA of the new Whistles, and we are still learning more about our style each season.
Entering into new international markets, especially the US and China has forced us to further analyse our brand proposition, and to gently nudge it in a slicker, more commercial, direction. We have relied heavily upon PR to communicate our message, and it has been successful, but only because the product lives up to expectations, and because most of the fashion journalists are wearing it.
We’re doing OK, but still have a lot of work to do. We will never be finished, because by its very nature, fashion changes all the time, and it’s our job to stay ahead and predict what will happen next, and what could be more fun than that?
Jane Shepherdson CBE is an English businesswoman, and is currently the chief executive of UK clothing brand Whistles and was previously the brand director for high-street women’s wear store TopShop.