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By Hannah Karpel
etting your fashion brand stocked in a major retailer is a goal for many young designers. Not only does it help to reach a global audience but it also fuels the growth of their brand with the financial backing and moral support from industry experts.
Joan Burnstein CBE, who was known admirably as 'Mrs. B', and her late husband Sidney were the first to recognise the potential of multi-brand boutiques when they sent waves of excitement through the London fashion scene upon opening Browns on South Molton Street in 1970. As its popularity soared, they soon acquired shops 27, 26, 25, and 23 on the same street gaining a reputation for introducing European brands like Sonia Rykiel to a London audience and being the first UK boutique to stock American designers such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karen and Ralph Lauren. Recognised for embracing non-commercial designers, Mrs. B famously swept up John Galliano's 1984 graduate collection 'Les Incroyables' straight from the runway and was one of the first to introduce Alexander McQueen, Jil Sander, and Rick Owens to the world.
Over 50 years since it opened its doors, the retail space has drastically changed, and with the support of leading e-commerce marketplace Farfetch, even Browns have been keen to push their online presence. But after a long lockdown made it increasingly difficult for emerging designers to present their collections due to lack of studio space and cancelled shows, creativity has still flourished. Innovation and experimentation saw new ways of communicating collections from artificial intelligence to digital performances, even at the recent Central Saint Martins BA graduate show designers embraced the opportunity to model their own designs down the catwalk.
"One thing that impressed me over the pandemic, is how emerging designers managed to enthrall us with their creativity and intrigue, through digital presentations and appointments,” remarks Ida Peterson, Menswear and Womenswear buying director at Browns. “Potentially more so than traditional established fashion houses, they made sure to adapt to something very uncharted that we were all going through and shone through it".
Following the relaunch of Browns Focus, the initiative that celebrates Browns' legacy of supporting new talent, the company looks for those that have a voice on topics such as anti-racism, social inequality, and mental health. "These conversations are incredibly important to Browns and we wanted to be a vehicle to drive these narratives forward through our community", said Ida. As patrons of the British Fashion Council Fashion Fund, Browns offer upfront payment for the next generation of designers as they tend to have an immense amount of financial pressure with production and supply chains which can cause a devastating effect.
"We're ultimately looking for brands that are true to themselves, unique and groundbreaking"
Establish your audience, USP, and voice
Of course, there is an element of risk for the retailer when it comes to stocking an unknown designer. "We know that it takes time to educate, engage and discover brands so it is also about giving a brand time, a minimum of three seasons at least", explains Ida. Establishing your audience, point of difference, and voice is key.
The Browns consumer is savvy, open-minded, and 'on the lookout' for new designers, so they are open to being introduced to the next generation of names.
"I think Browns is a goal for every young designer", said Boy Kloves, a recent Central Saint Martins BA Fashion Design graduate, "They're a beacon for young new talent. I would love to be stocked there".
"I think that you start the sentence with your final collection. For me, it's time to go beyond the six looks and give a fuller idea of what my brand is about which I can present to retailers", said Boy. His collection looks at the 1982 West German-French queer film, Querelle directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder which centres around two sailor siblings which Boy combines with his Californian roots and his 'queer surfer gang'.
Make sure the retailer aligns with your values
As well as Browns, London is also home to aspirational major retailers like Selfridges, Liberty's, and Dover Street Market who lead the way in providing a springboard for emerging designers. The University of Westminster, BA Fashion Design graduate Molly Sellars dreams of being stocked in Selfridges. But with a collection that prioritises sustainability, using festival waste materials including sleeping bags and tents to create functional garments, would scaling up in a retailer such as Selfridges be the best option to align with her values?
"Selfridges has numerous sustainability initiatives, their biggest one being Project Earth which runs numerous smaller campaigns each broken down into smaller easy to understand categories", explains Molly. "Project Earth provides a space for sustainably-minded brands to be stocked and discovered by more consumers. A driving factor for me to be stocked within larger retailers is that if more sustainably-driven designers are stocked it increases the exposure of sustainable design. This gives consumers more opportunity to learn how to act more sustainably regarding their buying habits and hopefully purchase more sustainably produced products."
"I think that you start the sentence with your final collection"
Delegate tasks so you can focus on what you do best
Andrej Gronau is a German designer who has recently graduated from the MA Fashion Design course at Central Saint Martins. His collection aimed to create an escape into a nostalgic dream which questions how our society views masculinity. "I was drawn to this idea of creating different genderless characters who feel empowered to explore colours using video game-like silhouettes and the most infantile version of themselves whilst letting go of toxic stereotypes", Andrej revealed.
Since returning home to Germany from London during Covid-19, Andrej has struggled with the complications of managing a brand as a young designer on top of the restrictions caused by Brexit. "I've come out of college with basically no knowledge about tax, law, or customs and it can be quite frustrating at times".
These barriers can make it very difficult for designers to grow their brand without mentorship and support for the more administrative side of the business. "We have a dedicated buying team across mens and womens, who ensure that we support these designers, not just with launches and favourable terms, but also by helping guide and consult on all aspects of the process such as pricing, positioning, production, and range building as well as in-season feedback", said Ida on the level of support they provide the designer.
“We're very family-orientated at Browns. We love what we do and who we work with.”
Stay authentic and true to your vision
"There is still a lot of work to be done on the diversity front, and our team is working hard to source designers outside of our normal avenues,” explains Ida. “We’re turning to social media, and establishing contacts with colleges and universities to tap into graduates who we know are making waves and will be the new names to know.”.
East London-based designer, Aissata Ibrahima has worked towards developing a clear brand and product vision which she believes will make her more desirable to a retailer. "I know where I align myself in the market, and who I would be positioned next to in stores. I would say I need to grow the direct to consumer side of the business and make some more accessible pieces that are still distinctively me but also a good introduction to the brand for new clients, which is why my last collection had lots of separates and layering pieces as opposed to only suits". Her collection, which was an homage to the moments and memories she yearned for during lockdown, Aissata kept her focus on tailoring, maintaining her signature vision.
Whether through design or sustainable production, Browns is ultimately looking for brands that are unique and groundbreaking. “Above all, when onboarding a brand, it is important that the partnership between us is genuine, authentic and one that we pledge to support and nurture for seasons to come. We're very family-orientated at Browns. We love what we do and who we work with," explained Ida.
Overall, Browns specifications haven't drastically changed in what they look for, but what is clear is how emerging designers have had to become more business savvy and commercially aware if they want to make it into a major retailer in 2021.
Join us tomorrow at 6.00pm as we speak to Liberty's Buying Director, Sarah Coonan in a live event with our members as we find out how to get your beauty brand into a major retailer.
Since it was founded in 1970, Browns has continued to introduce emerging designers to the world by giving them a platform in London to showcase their work with the support of their team.
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