Last night I had the opportunity to speak to inspiring businesswoman and good friend of mine, Jane Shepherdson.
Jane came to LCF to discuss her journey through fashion and role as the CEO of Whistles. Her intelligence, determination and strength of character I am sure inspired many of our students and staff who came to listen.
From a young age Jane has always been clear on what she wanted to do. She explained how she was determined to go into fashion, but was realistic enough to know that designing wouldn’t be her bag.
Jane felt she lacked the imagination or creativity to design, however she found her place, aged 22, as a buyer at Topshop. She needed a job in a pub to pay her rent, being on £5k a year, but she made it happen.
Glad to realise that you didn’t have to design in order to have an impact on fashion, Jane said being a buyer she enjoyed trying to create the “balance of a range…I had to decide what would sell and what wouldn’t…and it all had to work together”.
When asked about her success Jane modestly explained that a lot of it was down to luck. However, I know her passion and confidence are other hugely important factors.
When she saw a product she liked, she fought for it, regardless of what anybody else may have thought. It was this passion that took her from Assistant Buyer to Brand Director at Topshop.
Jane said: “I was so outspoken. I kept arguing with people, and then one day I was running the place because I had just run out of people to argue with!”
After 18 years, Jane left Topshop in 2006 and joined Whistles as their CEO just over a year later. Since taking the helm, she has transformed the ‘slightly boho, slightly girly-frilly’ brand into the fashion focused, aspirational and contemporary label it is now.
“Lots of women loved what Whistles stood for, its quality and its place in the market, but it had just lost its relevance. We tried to make it contemporary and cool again.”
Jane has certainly achieved this with her minimal and intelligent aesthetic. Mainstream fashion has been driven by Phoebe Philo’s modern, clean look for some time, but Jane’s takeover of Whistles really predates Celine.
Jane said the idea behind the Whistles look was that “if you look like you tried hard, you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere.”
“The Whistles woman is intelligent, innately stylish and confident within herself. She doesn’t talk about fashion, she’s got other things to talk about. We look for women who know who they are.”
Jane expects her customer to know who she is because in a similar way, she has such a clear idea of what Whistles is:
“I know exactly what Whistles is, you have to be exactly clear on who you are. I can look at something and think straight away, that is not Whistles. I think it is just as important, if not more, to know what you’re not, as it is to know what you are.”
One of the most interesting points of conversation was the way Jane has used collaborations in different ways in order to remain relevant.
One of Whistles’ weaknesses in the past has been its occasion-wear offering, so in 2010 they joined forces with Roksanda Ilinic to create three collections of evening dresses in order to learn more about this area of womenswear. They have done similar collaborations with other designers such as Markus Lupfer (accessories) and Frame (sportswear), in order to penetrate and learn more about these aspects of the market.
However, interestingly since launching Whistles Men, Jane said they have used collaborations differently.
“With the men, we have used collaborations as a signpost, to associate ourselves with similar brands, to show what we are doing is OK.”
Jane explained this is because men are very different shoppers to women: “Men are quite geeky about how they shop. They want to know if you are using 8oz or 12ox denim, they want to know the provenance of clothes, where were they made? Whereas I just want to know if my bum looks big in this! With women it’s much more emotional, with men it’s more practical.”
Whistles Men’s collaboration with Edwin, a high-quality denim label, was hugely successful. By associating with these types of small, heritage brands, Whistles Men is saying to its customer, this is what we stand for, you can trust us.
As well as a fascinating discussion, Jane also answered many of our students questions on starting their own business, going into Asia, sustainability and marketing.
Having being involved with our own Centre of Fashion Enterprise, On/Off and Vauxhall Fashion Scout, Jane has always been keen to support fashion’s next generation and we are fortunate to be able to draw on her experience.
I am sure many of our students were inspired by Jane’s story. It was not only entertaining, but also fascinating to gain insight from someone who has sat at the top of two hugely significant British brands.
The Business of Fashion had it right when they said: “From her earliest days in the fashion industry, Shepherdson has been known for taking risks and having her finger on the pulse of what’s cool.”