From sleek brochures to online edits and pop-ups, the new niche brands are changing the way we shop. Angela Kennedy meets the women bringing us pared-down collections to suit the way we live now.
Delivering comfy luxury
Clare Hornby, founder and creative director of Me+Em
Manchester-born Clare, from a successful advertising and marketing background, founded Me+Em ten years ago with business partner Emma (who left the label in 2012) – hence the brand name. ‘Intelligent style’ is her mantra: problem-solving fashion that redefines modern luxury.
Obsessed with fit and fashion from an early age, Clare made her own clothes from Vogue patterns. While working in marketing, she spotted a gap for ‘comfortable luxury’ – flattering clothes for a certain mindset, priced between designer and mainstream brands.
She quickly identified that digital shopping benefited from great-looking visuals, and Me+Em immediately stood out in a fast-growing market.
How it works
Online sales are supported by beautifully styled brochures that are straightforward to navigate. Clare also sells through five London stores, which offer immediate customer feedback. Clare is heavily involved in all aspects of the business and delivers a new edit each month.
‘It could be a new colour that has suddenly exploded on to the fashion scene, or a new trend to incorporate into a classic look. Layering is key: if you bought trousers last month, add a slouchy sweater next month and build up to a jacket the following month.’
Need to know
‘We want to be known as a great British brand,’ says Clare. ‘We approach design through instinct backed up by data – lots of it. Everything is fitted on three body types before it passes muster.
The swing shape has become a signature, as it flatters and fits all figures. We’re very focused – our clothes should work on all levels, and always be fashionable and functional.’
‘Aged 28 upwards, though our core customer is probably 35 to 52,’ says Clare. ‘But it’s more about attitude than age. We don’t go down the route of celebrity endorsements, but know we are a favourite with many well-known names.’
Bestsellers have always been palazzo pants, which are reimagined each season. Side stripes on trousers have become a signature feature, along with the practical layering shirt. But top of the wear-it-forever list are the beautifully crafted leather jackets.
Concession partnerships, stores outside London in key city hubs – watch this space! Clare is also developing eveningwear, while staying true to the brand image of ‘effortless but edgy’ laid-back luxe.
Creating our capsule wardrobe
Baukjen de Swaan Arons, founder and creative director of Baukjen
Baukjen is the face of the company and the epitome of the brand’s ethos and image: a multitasking working mother. She runs it with her husband Geoff van Sonsbeeck from a converted post office in North London. The couple’s three children help out in the school holidays ‘for fun’.
Founded in 2012 to combine Baukjen’s practical, no-fuss Dutch heritage with a London sense of style, the label has grown steadily as a label women turn to for timeless clothes that match their busy lives.
‘I wanted to create a brand with women at the heart of it, to be their best friend, with clothes you can rely on,’ she says. ‘We’re all busy – I want to simplify life with relevant pieces and carefully edited trends.’
How it works
‘We add new pieces to our catalogue once a month,’ says Baukjen. Easy to navigate and simply styled, with a ‘girl next door’ feel, this accessible monthly edit sent out to subscribers is peppered with tips from Baukjen herself to create a warm, inclusive feel.
‘Our customers can be anywhere and shop at any time of day or night; we like to make things as easy as possible.’
Need to know
It’s all about the way pieces are layered and added each month, with the expectation that women buy as they see the items styled in the photographs. Prices have remained constant with just the occasional hike for something truly trend-led, such as last season’s leopard-print coat.
Women from 35 to 55, who want an easy, effortless, uniform style. Baukjen is fully immersed in the brand from the start and attends every photo shoot, ensuring her vision is reinforced.
‘We’re always learning from our customers, and act on feedback to earn their trust through regular surveys,’ she says. ‘These are so valuable – I pore over them to get information. We all want things that improve our lives, whether it’s a new app or the perfect striped T-shirt.’
Striped breton tops are cult classics, and skinny leather trousers sell consistently well, even though they are among the most expensive items. Current favourites are denim dungarees (a first for Baukjen) and the Everyday Biker jacket in candy pink.
‘To grow organically, choose our products carefully and continue doing what we know we do well,’ says Baukjen. ‘We want to get it right first time and share the things we love. We always get a kick out of seeing someone in a Baukjen outfit.’
Dressing up the boardroom
Libby Hart, Founder of Libby London
A former investment banker who was a director by the age of 28, Libby launchedher eponymous fashion brand in 2011, combining her strong business background with a passion for quality.
‘Smart officewear seemed too boring and expensive. I wanted to provide stylish, boardroom-ready clothes: modern, comfortable, flattering dresses that ticked the right boxes and would make me feel confident all day.’ Libby’s neat, fitted yet feminine dresses work whatever the day demands – ideal for busy women with other things on their minds.
Libby London is entirely self-funded by Libby herself. She used her business contacts to start selling through pop-up shops in City banks and law firms, building a loyal customer network who rely on her for fashionable, affordable officewear.
‘The loyalty we developed helped raise our digital profile and get us up and running. I was convinced there was a need for clothes like ours,’ she says.
How it works
Online and through strategically placed pop-ups, as well as regular corporate sales events. ‘I love that we have loyal customers who bought from us right from the start. I feel that I know instinctively what they like, and try to offer them a personal level of service – particularly in the fitting. It’s important to establish a dialogue and act on feedback. I say, “Come on, tell us what you think” – and they do!’
Need to know
Everything is made in the UK, with distinctive British craftsmanship and fabrics sourced from top-quality mills. Libby offers a discreet VIP personal trying-on service for London shoppers only, booked through the customer services team.
Businesswomen who lead busy lives and have client-facing jobs (including politicians, lawyers and bankers), aged from 35 to 65. ‘I know from my own experience that quality and fit matter most. Women want to feel confident, get on with the business and not have to worry whether an outfit is office-appropriate.’
It’s all about the dress, with a smoky colour palette for this summer. ‘I love a shirtdress: it works in any colour, print and on every body shape.’
Bestselling dresses have solidly reassuring British names such as Chatsworth and Henley, with prices typically hovering just below the £200 mark, making them appealing for multi purchases over the season.
‘Growing the collection without losing sight of what I set out to do,’ says Libby. ‘Developing our export business, currently to around 30 countries, and never underestimating the value of media coverage. Many customers have found us initially through the press and Instagram.’
Relaxing our 9-5
Kim Winser OBE, founder and CEO of Winser London
The first female director of Marks & Spencer, chief executive of Pringle of Scotland, CEO of Aquascutum and advisor to Natalie Massenet at Net-a-Porter, Kim was uniquely placed to launch her own luxe digital shopping brand. Her services to the fashion industry earned her an OBE in 2006.
A frequent traveller and savvy entrepreneur, Kim launched Winser London in 2013 after spotting a gap for affordable, luxurious, easy-to-wear clothes that work for every shape and transcend climates, countries and occasions.
Her silks, cashmeres and gabardines are sourced from top-quality suppliers around the world. Kim sits in on all design meetings and heads a formidable team hand-picked for their expertise. Winser London has seen phenomenal growth and celebrates its fifth anniversary this March.
‘Versatility is the key: nothing is too structured. Formality in the workplace has eased; everything is more relaxed now,’ says Kim.
How it works
Online and through pop-ups in key locations. ‘Networking groups are important to us; we talk to our customers, appreciate feedback and interact immediately,’ says Kim.
‘If you’re offering luxury, women like to feel the fabric. Our favourite silk shirt has been remodelled with a softer shoulder to suit demand. And our bestselling Miracle dress has been produced in a lighter-weight fabric as a result of customer feedback. We’re quick to respond!’
Need to know
Winser London has become a ‘trouser destination’. Traditionally difficult to sell online, trousers are popular with the Winser London customer who loves the fit. ‘Women want comfort plus style, so more stretch and leg-width options were introduced,’ says Kim.
Quality-conscious and ageless, epitomised through the brand’s muse, Yasmin Le Bon. ‘Yasmin represents the classy, cool look that defines the label, and the notion that mums and daughters can wear the same pieces, but differently. Amber Le Bon has been papped wearing Winser London pieces borrowed from her mother’s wardrobe!’
The Forever Five collection celebrating the brand’s fifth anniversary is an edit of essential wardrobe classics, including the bestselling Miracle dress and the Tilda silk shirt, which work as an interchangeable and versatile collection.
Global expansion. ‘We’re seeing a whole new scale of business in the US and Australia, and are already exporting 20 per cent of our business,’ says Kim.