Meet the women breathing new life into the high street

How do you keep shoppers coming back to your store? These retail visionaries reveal all …

THE MODERNISER Jo Bennett, head of buying for womenswear, John Lewis
'As a working mother, I know how women like me want to shop,' says John Lewis's Jo Bennett
‘As a working mother, I know how women like me want to shop,’ says John Lewis’s Jo Bennett

Jo, 40, is responsible for John Lewis’s in-house brands (she launched premium label Modern Rarity in 2016 and casual denim line And/Or earlier this year) and the 106 labels that it buys in, including Boden, which launched in-store in September. Jo joined John Lewis as a buyer in 2010 and previously worked in similar roles for Jacques Vert, Arcadia Group and Austin Reed. She has two children and lives in Hertfordshire.

FLYING HIGH During the first half of the year, John Lewis’s total fashion sales were up 3.5 per cent with a standout performance in womenswear, where sales increased by 5.8 per cent.

THE JOHN LEWIS WOMAN  ‘It’s not about a specific age,’ saysJo. ‘It’s about a mindset. Our customers want to look good and feel good. Women have becomemore adventurous with their style and are choosing more unique pieces. We need to reflect that.’

HERO PIECES Classic-with-a-quirk luxe coats from Modern Rarity, in collaboration with hotshot young British designer Eudon Choi, are selling fast despite the £250 to £400 price tags.

SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS Recent headlines have focused on Paula Nickolds, John Lewis’s newly appointed female MD, the first in its 153-year history, who has made it clear she’s committed to boosting the store’s fashion credentials. Jo is one of her key staffers thanks to her talent for luring back women customers who had drifted away from John Lewis; women with an affection for the department store but who would only pop in for, say, a new baby gift or saucepan.

‘We want to make sure we’re front of mind for those women, so they can’t sneak past the escalators without a little fashion purchase for themselves,’ she says. This is down to more fashion-forward buying (‘perhaps five years ago, we wouldn’t have stocked dungarees’); bringing in previously online-only labels such as Finery (daywear with an edge) and Hush (luxe loungewear), because ‘touching the fabrics is so important to shoppers’, and developing John Lewis’s own brands. Jo talks a lot about flattering cuts – And/Or jeans, for example, have bottom-lifting, thigh-smoothing properties that you rarely find outside premium LA denim labels.

PERSONAL TOUCH ‘As a working mother, I know how women like me want to shop,’ Jo says. ‘We’re time-poor when it comes to thinking about and buying clothes, but really astute about what we want to wear. John Lewis needed to modernise – there was a huge gap in the market for women aged 30-plus.’

Two things that Jo is currently pondering: the brilliance of pockets (‘so practical,’ she says, ramming her hands into the ones on her And/Or midi-dress) and how to do occasionwear that doesn’t age you by a decade (she’s got a christening to attend and no idea what to wear).

WHAT’S NEXT? ‘By 2020, we want 50 per cent of the fashion we sell to be unique to us, by growing our own brands and having partnerships with brands that will curate exclusive selections for us,’ say Jo.

‘We want women to think of John Lewis first for fashion.’ She promises improvements to the store’s already renowned customer service, including enhanced personal styling. ‘We’re on the journey of revolutionising womenswear but we’re not finished yet.’ A new store will open in the newly expanded Westfield in West London in March.

 

 THE EVERYDAY LUXE LOVER Shailina Parti, product director, Jigsaw

'My job has been to take this brand with great DNA and give it back its mojo,' says Jigsaw's Shailina Parti
‘My job has been to take this brand with great DNA and give it back its mojo,’ says Jigsaw’s Shailina Parti

Fashion retail is in 53-year-old Shailina’s blood: her parents, who arrived from India in the 60s, worked in the rag trade, owning a number of London boutiques, and as a teenager Shailina was a shop assistant in Next, Topshop, Benetton and Harrods. She joined the (now in administration) heritage brand Jaeger’s graduate training scheme in the early 90s and spent 20 years working her way up to head of buying. After a brief stint at Monsoon, she joined Jigsaw in 2014, where now, as product director, she oversees the design, buying and merchandising teams. She lives in West London with her husband and their 17-year-old twin son and daughter.

FLYING HIGH The brand’s turnover grew by eight per cent between 2015 and 2016, and this year it launched a new concept store in London’s King’s Cross and 20 new concessions in House of Fraser stores.

THE JIGSAW WOMAN  ‘We talk about the school-run mum wanting a quick, easy outfit; the doctors, lawyers and teachers who feel Jigsaw gives them a sense of appropriateness in their environment, and the women who are retired empty-nesters,’ says Shailina. ‘They’re intelligent women looking for contemporary clothes with understated good taste.’

HERO PIECES Luxe basics that are anything but, well, basic. Sharply cut coats in beautiful wool blends and diverse colourways. (It’s no surprise that coat sales have doubled in the past two years). An extensive cashmere collection that comes in three different weights and price points. Plus Jigsaw is ankle-boot nirvana. So, the building blocks of your wardrobe, but all luxuriously rendered at high-street prices, albeit the top end.

SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS Shailina has worked hard to win back the women who once flocked to Jigsaw in its 90s heyday. ‘These women loved it in the past but felt it had lost its way and they became bored with it,’ she says. ‘So my job has been to take this brand with great DNA and refresh it – give it back its mojo.’ In the midst of a high street teeming with unashamed catwalk rip-offs, Shailina has had the confidence to plough Jigsaw’s own furrow, nodding to high fashion trends if relevant but ignoring them if not.

‘We use the catwalk as a gauge rather than studying it too closely,’ she says. ‘For instance, there are a lot of oversized, double-breasted blazers around at the moment, but we’ll tweak the design to make them right for our customer – an average British woman who’s 5ft 6in rather than a model.’ Shailina also encourages her designers to seek inspiration beyond the obvious places – last year they created floral prints influenced by a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern.

PERSONAL TOUCH ‘We embrace looking after all different shapes and sizes,’ she says. ‘I have gone from being a size eight in my early 20s and being a fitting model at Jaeger to now, in my 50s, being a size 14. My life has changed, as has the way I dress. But I still feel I can look as good now as I did then.

And I want Jigsaw to do that for all women.’ Shailina is also big on field research, admitting to having hundreds of pap-style photos on her phone taken of random women she has spotted wearing Jigsaw. ‘It’s useful to see how they style the pieces and I still get a real buzz when I see someone in our clothes.’

WHAT’S NEXT? Not sitting on her laurels, that’s for sure. ‘Shopping is no longer women’s favourite pastime. We have found other things that make us tick, from wellbeing and travelling to organic food,’ she explains. ‘Because people no longer spend all their Saturdays shopping, we have to find new and clever ways to engage the customer.’

Shailina promises a greater focus on the in-store experience (Jigsaw’s concept stores have cafés, jukeboxes and art installations, and there’s a Christmas gift collaboration with Rococo Chocolates and a revamped jewellery line on the way). Meanwhile, Jigsaw’s capsule luxury collection, Å, which launched last year and is shown at London Fashion Week, has just gone on sale at Harvey Nichols; proof that Shailina and her team are setting the fashion agenda rather than following it.

 

THE VETERAN VISIONARY Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative advisor, H&M

H&M's creative advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson says: ' I have to know what the customer wants before she does'
H&M’s creative advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson says: ‘ I have to know what the customer wants before she does’

Ann-Sofie, 54, is an H&M lifer, celebrating 30 years at the company this year. After falling in love with the brand as a teenage shopper in her native Sweden, she got a job as an H&M shop assistant in 1987, working part-time while studying fashion and art.

She then became a design assistant before working her way up to her current role of creative advisor, which sees her briefing a design team of 300 and coming up with H&M’s pioneering, renowned designer collaborations. She lives in Stockholm with her husband.

FLYING HIGH H&M is launching eight new online markets this year across the world and opening around 430 new stores. The H&M group (which includes Cos, & Other Stories and Monki among others) unveiled its eighth brand, the upmarket and minimal Arket, in London this autumn.

THE H&M WOMAN ‘She ranges from the little girl dressed in our childrenswear through to the older woman, like me, who still loves fashion and will spend more money on cashmere or silk pieces and special collections,’ says Ann-Sofie.

‘She’s anyone who’s interested in fashion, basically. We don’t talk about age any more, it’s not relevant. Today, fashion matters to more women – and for a longer period of their lives.’

HERO PIECES The intricate, whimsical floral frocks from H&M’s latest collaboration: this year it’s with acclaimed British occasionwear designer Erdem. The collection launched this week and we predict every wedding this winter will feature at least one guest decked out in Erdem x H&M finery.

SECRETS OF HER SUCCESS When Ann-Sofie and her team first started working with top designers in 2004, kicking off with Karl Lagerfeld, they had no inkling that the annual collaborations would become such a huge talking point, prompting queues around the block and copycat ranges from other high-street brands.

But it’s not just the high-profile initiatives that count, she says: offering variety is key. ‘I loved how when I was a teenager I could find whatever I needed in H&M and I still want every customer to feel that. H&M should be a life-saver in that way.’

And then there’s the matter of being the high street’s Mystic Meg: ‘My job is to give the customer what she wants and know what she wants before she does,’ says Ann-Sofie. ‘Some years back, it took ages to convince customers that skinny was the silhouette for the bottom half – it took ten years of doing skinny trousers in different fabrics and colours before people caught on.

And now it’s taking as long to move away from that silhouette. We are trying with slouchy, wider-legged trousers but skinny is still there. We have to offer both options, but we won’t give up! That push for change comes from a gut feeling, based on years of experience.’

PERSONAL TOUCH Once a shop girl, always a shop girl – Ann-Sofie returns to the tills a couple of days a year to reconnect with that shop-floor experience and observe the women who wear her designs.

In fact, she’s in-store most days, loitering around the branch below her Stockholm office. ‘It’s very interesting to eavesdrop on what the customers are saying. Teenage girls are the harshest critics – they’re the ones with the most honest opinions.’

WHAT’S NEXT? Those designer collaborations aren’t going to disappear, despite the competition. ‘Everyone is doing them now but maybe this is the way we’ll all work in the future, with brands collaborating to exchange ideas. It’s a nice thought,’ says Ann-Sofie. Sustainability is a major focus, with H&M one of retail’s biggest buyers of recycled polyester, organic cotton and Tencel (an eco-friendly cotton alternative made from eucalyptus trees).

‘We want to lead the way and there’s a huge appetite for this from the younger generation. We want to create new clothes out of old clothes, so we can continue to love fashion without hurting our planet any more.’

THE FAMILY FAVOURITE Chloe Ward, creative director for Joules

'The young mum has always been our key demographic, even when the idea of motherhood wasn't as fashionable as it is now,' says Joules's Chloe Ward
‘The young mum has always been our key demographic, even when the idea of motherhood wasn’t as fashionable as it is now,’ says Joules’s Chloe Ward

After working briefly as a design assistant for Jasper Conran, in 2002 Chloe joined the Joules team – which back then comprised founder Tom Joule and just a handful of staff – as the brand’s first (and only) designer. Today, as creative director she oversees the womenswear, menswear, kidswear, homeware and in-house print design teams at its Market Harborough HQ. Chloe, 37, lives in the nearby village of Hallaton, Leicestershire, with her husband and three sons aged one, four and seven.

FLYING HIGH In the past year, pre-tax profits have leapt by 34 per cent, from £7.5 million to £10.1 million, with sales increasing by 19 percent (of which online sales were especially strong – up almost 30 per cent). The brand opened 11 new stores this year and expanded into the US.

THE JOULES WOMAN ‘The young mum has always been our key demographic, even when the idea of motherhood wasn’t as fashionable as it is now,’ says Chloe. That core customer is in her late 30s, her family is her world and she most likely lives in the country or a market town. ‘I am her, and my life informs the way I design.’

HERO PIECES Joules is a wellington wonderland, with 18 different iterations in various colours and heights, while welly refuseniks might be tempted by the cleverly designed waterproof chelsea boots. Coats – waterproof, naturally – are enduring bestsellers, ditto breton tops with floral details which are ubiquitous at many school gates. And anything featuring a dog print: ‘Dogs on socks, on jumpers – our customers love their pets.’

SECRETS OF HER SUCESS Joules has stuck to its key values from the off, says Chloe, and benefited from both motherhood and the outdoor life becoming cool. ‘Mothers are more aspirational these days – take the rise of the yummy mummy – and that’s been a huge opportunity for us. It’s the same with living an outdoorsy life with an allotment and chickens. When we started that wasn’t fashionable but it’s what we believed in – Tom started Joules [in 1989] by selling at country shows. Now it’s a huge trend.’ Chloe’s designs are always focused on ‘real lives and real people’, with an emphasis on beautifully designed practicality. ‘Our starting point is: what is our customer doing right now? In the autumn that will be walks and blackberry picking, so what does she want to wear to do that?’ she says. ‘We think about the end use of our products, whether that’s a cosy pair of socks for snuggling on the sofa, a beach bag that’s big enough to hold the whole family’s stuff or waterproof ponchos for when you take the kids to a festival. And that’s why you’ll never see a pair of stilettos in our stores – they’re just not practical.’

PERSONAL TOUCH Chloe understands how hard it is trying to browse with small children in tow, and has instigated changes in how Joules shops are designed. ‘We made our seaside stores more of a family experience. There are lots of products outside so you don’t have to lug the buggy into the shop, there’s a café so you can get the kids an ice cream, and you can buy them a bucket and spade alongside your sunhat.’

WHAT’S NEXT? ‘We’ve made great progress but there’s so much more potential,’ says Chloe. ‘There are plenty of places in the UK that could have a Joules shop that don’t.’ Expanding the homeware range is one of her next key tasks.

-By Kerry Potter