In this edition of Against the Grain, Alicia Williams sat down with Julia to discuss the changing nature of the Fashion & Clothing industry, her goal of diversifying fashion for good, and how she’s planning to connect with her audience with the launch of Rey-House.
Alicia: To start please can you give me a bit of background about your amazing experience within the fashion industry?
Julia: I’ve been a retailer all my working life, since leaving school at 18. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. In 1999, I started the F&F brand for Tesco. It was called Florence and Fred at the then, which was ahead of its time!
It was subsequently abbreviated to F&F because Tesco thought it was too feminine and not masculine enough.
Even now, I think this was a mistake, particularly when fashion is much more gender-neutral and customers want to see a brand’s personality.
After more roles at Tesco that were particularly varied, I was CEO at Figleaves and after Figleaves, I was asked by KPMG to support Blacks Leisure. My background had been predominantly womenswear, but I’m a big outdoors person, so looking at sports, outdoor wear and ski was of personal interest to me.
Alicia: It was early days for women’s outdoor clothing back then - what challenges did you that you hadn’t had with your previous roles?
Julia: At the time it seemed that no one did outdoor gear well for women. Things have got better though.
Newer brands are focusing on women’s shapes like Sweaty Betty and Lululemon, who have made progress, but back then, it was a very male-dominated world.
The motto they had for women’s clothing was ‘pink it and shrink it,’ which is shocking really.
Rey-House, is born out of being in the industry, experiencing personal frustration and then talking to friends, family and peers. In fact, even the woman wandering around M&S struggling to find her fit is incredibly important.
Alicia: With Rey-House, you’re looking to turn the tables a little in terms of how products are marketed to women within your target audience. How did you develop this communication strategy?
Julia: As I’ve talked to more people, it’s not just my peers that feel frustrated about the current options available to them when it comes to women’s fashion.
To try and analyse why people feel negative when shopping is quite interesting.
For the demographic that Rey-House helps It’s less to do with being ‘ignored’ as a group (even though I do think that’s an issue), but more to do with the guts being smashed out of the fashion business in terms of quality and subsequently the fit.
Products have been too engineered around price, and not enough around wearability and sustainability. Putting someone in a cheaply made t-shirt that doesn’t fit is more beneficial to a brand’s profits than making a t-shirt that does fit properly and is sustainable. As a result of the growth in “fast-fashion,” the whole middle has been squeezed. You either pay a lot of money for top end designer clothing, or you buy cheap and ill-fitting.
We started our project with the research - we included qualitative and quantitative research and feedback from 150 people. This is a lot of data that considered the features of our demographic- we’re not out to make cheap clothes. We’re out for the women who want to feel good, and this improves their confidence. All the participants were between the ages of 45 and 70, but it was more about mindset than age range really. The biggest issue they felt, by a long shot, was fit and quality. Does it fit, and is it good quality? Price came about halfway down importance, and when it came to fashion and the latest trends, people couldn’t give two hoots.
A lot of participants talked about their body shape, and how they liked certain items in their wardrobe because it suited a particular part of their anatomy. The outcomes of the research confirmed what my thinking was in the first place…that even though they cost more money, there are things that I keep going back to and wearing regularly because they fit me well.
Alicia: And how are you using this to inform your future thinking at Rey-House?
Julia: From the research, we started to identify around half a dozen body shapes, and there are multiple things that we’ve done to the pattern for the clothing to better adapt to a woman’s shape and how their shape can change throughout a woman’s life. The different shapes present some challenges when it comes to production, because it’s not cheap to include all these dynamics.
Unfortunately, because a lot of the time people can’t find something that fits right, they’ll just “make do.” What we’re out to achieve, is for people to feel good about themselves in what they’re wearing. For example, when sourcing a button and trimming supplier, we met a woman who didn’t have great self-esteem when it came to her own body image. We had some sample shirts with us and asked her to try one of them on.
She was adamant that it wouldn’t fit, but she tried it on and when she came back, her whole face lit up and her entire body language changed. She said she had no idea she could feel that great and look that good. I said to the team afterwards ‘that’s what we need to achieve for everyone.’
Alicia: If that’s the end goal, for people to feel confident and look good in what they’re wearing, what’s your communication strategy to be able to make a customer realise this is what the brand will accomplish before they purchase?
Julia: We planned to launch the website last year, but I purposely put it on hold because it wasn’t what I wanted.
We are not having a transactional website to begin with. We first needed to start communicating to the people we are targeting, by building a community to get women talking about what is important to them. We’re going to try and gather more data and hear more people’s stories. We’re going to give away product and people will start talking about it.
I’ve got a freelance writer to help further define what these body shapes are, and we’re going to articulate the message in a really positive way. We’re going to start including more aspects onto the website through PR, the data and the outcomes of the research that we’ve done. It’s about educating people on how to put an outfit together and helping them create their own capsule wardrobes that makes them feel confident.
It’s much more sustainable to buy a £50 pair of jeans that you’ll wear over and over again, than filling a bag at the low-end high street with pieces you’ll only wear a couple of times before you don’t want to wear them again.
Alicia: So, as you’re building relationships and communicating these values to your customers, what sort of qualities are you looking for in external agencies, freelancers etc to make sure your brand stays true to its mission?
Julia: We want to work with people, particularly women who get it. It is important to work with agencies that understand our brand values and know what good looks like for us. I will be very specific about which third party help we use and will be calling on GO! to help.
It’s the women who share our ethos and have lived the shopping challenges that I think will really help build the brand. I am going to be naming all the women who are helping us…the button and trimming supplier, the pattern cutter, the sample machinist. I am going to feature them, and they are going to become part of our community.
Alicia: One final thing from us. If you could change one thing about the industry – if you could pinpoint one – what would it be?
It’s hard to pinpoint one, but what I’m thinking is to improve real sustainability, NOT just lip service and to get rid of that greed.
I want people to be open to change. The women that I work with, none of them ever mention what they’re getting out of it. There are a lot of online fashion retailers now who have a lack of ethics. Their clothes are produced in sweatshops. It’s cheap labour and they’re ripping customers off with poor standards and throwaway products.
I want women to feel powerful and confident wearing our clothes.
Alicia: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and being a breath of fresh air.
Learn more about Rey House at https://www.youngbritishdesigners.com/designers/rey~house/
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