Surviving Fashion – a victim’s story (Vogue)
For eight years I was involved in the fashion business and now I’m not. The world suddenly seems like a very different place.
You may not know my former business partner, Sarah Arnett, but you might know her clothes. Virtually, every dress that Kathryn Rayward wears in her current series ‘Cracking Antiques’ is one of Sarah’s – and they look stunning. Alexandra Shulman, Editor of Vogue, chose to wear one when meeting Michelle Obama at the G20 summit, Cindy Crawford popped into a boutique in Toronto and bought one, Christina Aguilera selected one for an In Style shoot, Erin O’Connor used to shop at our store in Brighton. Geri Halliwell wore us to David Beckham’s thirtieth, although we never used to talk about that much.
And the press, when they noticed us, were kind. Vogue.com commented that ‘dresses were in and Sarah Arnett’s are it’. The FT said the clothes were ‘mouth-watering’. Elle described Sarah as ‘A Rising Star’ and called our store ‘Shopping Heaven’.
In our time we sold in some of the best stores in the world – Harvey Nichols, Liberty and Fenwick in London, Nieman Marcus in LA, Luisa via Roma in Milan to name just a few. At our height we were selling to over 100 stores in over 20 countries and generating over £500,000 in sales each season. We even won the UK Fashion Export Award in 2007, presented by Princess Anne. Although I had to collect the award as Sarah was nervous that she would trip up on the way to the stage. I sometimes wonder if HRH simply thought I was just a very butch designer.
Sarah and I first met over 15 years ago in Brighton, when I walked into a fabric shop in the North Laine. Sarah had recently returned from running a wedding dress factory in India and was a freelance textile designer. I had moved down to escape London and set up a marketing business, although I always wanted to become a writer (At 45, it’s only taken me this long – I have a severe completing disorder).
We became friends and then, in 2002, decided to start a business together. Initially, we opened a shop selling other designer’s labels. Sarah then started to design her own clothes and would sit at the back of the shop making them. They became so popular that we began to use a factory and then eventually decided to start wholesaling. Around this time Sarah began to design her prints digitally and it is this rare ability that became her signature and her strength. I would argue that she is one of the foremost digital print designers in the world. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
Our first big break came when Liberty decided to buy our collection – a huge honour for Sarah as a print designer. We were then selected for London Fashion Week and this led to us meeting a sales agency who began to represent us. Within one season they had increased our business from 15 to 50 accounts. We raised investment in the company and began to expand rapidly, increasing our wholesale accounts and starting a bridal business. With hindsight, this was where the problems started. We were over ambitious and under prepared. But the hamster wheel of fashion – constantly looking ahead to the next season and never living in the moment – meant that we could never ever stop to see where we were going wrong.
Such is the paradox of fashion that despite our supposed success we were constantly on the brink of failure. One design issue, fabric problem, production fault or late payment would tip us into crisis. Despite its reputation for frivolity this is not an easy business. Ultimately it is about design, process and production for the human form rather than baubles and beads. And those that survive and prosper are tough, tough cookies.
Eventually the business began to fail. We couldn’t pay our creditors, purchase our fabric or deliver our orders and the business went into administration. Sarah and I had, by this time, been reduced to 12% equity each. We managed to buy the business out of administration with the support of our families, but this took so long and was so expensive that we never recovered and were forced to finally admit defeat a few months ago. Although, we did made sure that our existing wedding orders will be completed so that our brides could be secure.
Ultimately we couldn’t make it work and I have to take my share of responsibility for that. I am good at sales & marketing. I have an eye for an opportunity and Sarah and I built a team of talented, loyal and likeable people who will go on to do great things. We once employed 15 women (I was the only bloke) and turned over almost £1,500,000, so I must have done something right. We had a great product and, when we delivered on time, we would sell out immediately. Yet, we never made a profit. We could never get to grips with the issues of finance, cashflow and overheads that are so crucial to any business. People lost money due to us– both suppliers and investors – and I am truly sorry for that. I dearly wish that I could have been better but ultimately I could never make fashion work.
The business is a notoriously difficult one. More designers than you care to mention -or they care to admit – have gone bust two, three, even four times before finally finding the right formula. As Alexander McQueen poignantly said:
“I’ve realised that there has to be a balance between your mental satisfaction and the financial needs of your company. A collection is two-thirds artistic and one-third business.”
For every McQueen, Matthew Williamson or Alice Temperley there are hundreds who have gone by the wayside. Some of them rise again like Allegra Hicks and Amanda Wakeley. Others drift away never to return. Consequently the banks run a mile when they hear the dreaded F word, particularly since the credit crunch. It is now virtually impossible to finance production or get credit insurance. We actually had over £300,000 of orders when we ceased trading. It is so sad that we couldn’t deliver them because it was one of Sarah’s most beautiful collections. But ultimately it wasn’t the economic crisis that killed us. It was the business model that didn’t work.
It now seems clear to me that the traditional structure of the designer fashion business is designed to fail from the very start. A designer must predict fabric, colour, shape and trend two seasons ahead of the shopfloor. They then have to finance sampling and marketing for goods that won’t be delivered for another six months. Then, the store wants winter coats delivered in July and summer dresses delivered in December. And when they get them they want a discount and often won’t pay for 90 days. Magazines want expensive images and celebrities want free clothes. It’s true to say that you can begin expenditure on a collection and not finally collect the money until 12 months later. And no small business can finance that gap. Your only chance is to get bought, do a deal with a factory or license your product but that is a tough deal to get right. And when a designer such as Luella Bartley – twice British Designer of the year and backed by a huge multinational – goes bust you realise that there must be something wrong.
The other difficulty is that there are so few reliable manufacturers left who are capable of producing low volumes of high quality goods on time and at the right price – at home or abroad. As Alice Temperley says:
“A lot of the factories we worked with in Britain have gone bust,” she says. “Really they should be supported, because it’s crazy to lose British industry, and impossible to bring it back.”
If I were to offer advice to any aspiring designer it would be to get a decent accountant and learn about finance. You might be the greatest designer in the world but you still need to understand the commercial imperatives. You can be Paul Smith or Ossie Clark – it’s up to you, but it’s cash that will make the difference. Not being murdered by your Italian lover also helps. Another option is to have a rich daddy, become friends with a supermodel or act in a few bad movies.
The colleges, industry and British Fashion Council could do far more to help. Things are getting better but a concerted effort to improve business skills within fashion would pay huge dividends in the long run. Perhaps the great and the good could set up a summer school to give intensive training in the business. It might just begin to redress the balance after all those ideas that the High St just happened to ‘borrow’ from the independent labels.
Now that it’s all over, I genuinely hope that someone will recognise Sarah’s talent and enable her to be the best that she can be. She has a rare gift. She designs beautiful dresses that make women feel special – that create an emotional connection. She has a unique signature and her digital prints are truly works of art. Importantly, her clothes appeal to women of all ages and all sizes – real women not just pipe cleaners. Perhaps one day she will have the success that we always dreamed about. Perhaps one day, someone will be able to support her properly.
As for me, I’m a lucky man. I’m getting married to Fiona, who I love and who has always been there for me. I have two lovely boys, Finn & Rufus, who bring me more joy than I have ever known. I’m doing a bit of marketing consultancy and working on a few magazine features. Plus eventually I’d love to write a novel. I’ve seen ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and frankly if a plot as thin as single georgette can succeed, then why can’t mine?
Whatever I do, I will never regret my time spent amidst fashion’s foolery. I travelled to some great places, met some amazing characters, had some wild nights and made some lifelong friends. I had to put my house on the line to do it and I will be repaying my debts for years to come, but at least I tried. At least, for a brief moment, we created some beauty in the world and made people happy. That has to count for something.
My favourite moment? Showing at the Ritz in Paris. Each season, the very posh and very French organisers would cover the swimming pool in the basement for the trade show, which was closed off to the guests. One day, an elderly gentleman appeared, Mr Ben like, from a side door, dressed only in swimming trunks and a robe with a towel neatly folded under his arm. He proceeded to walk up one the aisles before, suddenly realising where he was, he turned and walked with a dignified step and a wry smile back to the door and disappeared. It was the best catwalk I’ve ever seen. Not quite, the emperor’s new clothes but even hardened fashionistas managed to laugh that day. After all. It is only fashion, darling – only fashion.