A row of clothes, including a delicate pink silk blouse and a black cocktail dress, hang artfully from a length of rope in the Whistles showroom, like the prettiest of washing lines. It might not be a Paris catwalk, but these pieces are some of the most eagerly awaited of the season. This is the first Whistles collection to be overseen by its new chief executive and stakeholder, Jane Shepherdson, the celebrated former brand director of Topshop.
Shepherdson's move might have come as a surprise when she announced it in January this year, but when she explained that she wanted to fill the gap in the market for "people who want to buy beautiful quality clothes but can't afford designer prices", it seemed to chime with the Zeitgeist. As demonstrated by her decision to do voluntary work for Oxfam and take an advisory position at the ethical label People Tree after leaving Topshop at the end of 2006, Shepherdson has a reputation for accurately taking fashion's temperature. The buzz on the high street now is all about "premium" middle-market chains.
The prices, and corresponding quality, at Whistles might suit the current mood of investing in a few well-made pieces rather than an EU-clothing-mountain-sized heap of supposed bargains, but their clothes have hardly been setting fashionable pulses racing in recent years. A superfluous frill here and an inexplicable beaded corsage there gave the clothes a pretty but decidedly yummy mummy-ish air.
When I meet Shepherdson at the shop's Diptyque candle-adorned showroom she is enthusiastic and chatty, talking about her recent holiday in Tuscany and her penchant for canoeing in the canal near her Islington home with her husband. She is, however, diplomatically reserved about her perception of the brand's aesthetic when she took it over. "You know, not everything needs to be decorated," she says, referring rather cryptically to the label's penchant for overzealous embellishment. "I think perhaps some things should be slightly cooler, more pared-down. Modernity is the right word for it."
Shepherdson, 46, believes that the Whistles woman is "quite a diverse mix, I guess 25 through to 60, and they see the shop as somewhere they can get something a bit feminine". Would she like to attract a different sort of customer? "I'd like to attract more customers," she jokes, before adding: "There are probably a lot of people in their twenties and thirties who feel Whistles isn't for them, feel perhaps that it is a little bit safe and isn't going to offer them the most fashionable things. I would like those customers to come back to us and see what's happening."
What's happening is that the silhouettes have become cleaner, and the palette more sophisticated – baby pinks and lilacs have made way for olives, camel, china blue, tea rose and yes, plenty of black – and the detailing has a quirky vintage feel rather than being fussy.
The collection is designed by Nick Passmore, whom Shepherdson brought over from Topshop, and consists of modern wardrobe staples such as a navy peacoat, a super-soft wrap coat, blouses with vintage-style pintucks and buttons, and cocktail dresses that feel sexy and structured rather than girlish. Other new additions are cropped trousers and a fitted jacket, which Shepherdson has teamed with platform sandals and plentiful silver jewellery to create a sharp, expensive-looking edge. Prices are in the region of £190 for a peacoat and £140 for a silk shift. While there are unmistakeable echoes of Marni in the loose shapes and abstract prints, and of Prada in the full skirts, these are gentle nods rather than wholesale tributes to catwalk trends. The only ghost of the old Whistles is an excess of tea dresses. Shepherdson explains: "I wanted to maintain a sense of femininity, because that's kind of been there throughout the brand's history, but I don't think that has to be twee or prim. It can have a slight edge to it."
"Feminine with an edge" is a good description of her personal look. Combined with her delicately pretty face with its sympathetic, rich brown eyes, and her easy, friendly air is a confidence and determination that has helped her become one of the few women at the top of the retail trade. Not only is she widely credited with reinvigorating Topshop's fortunes after becoming its brand director in 1999 (in 1998, Topshop made a £9m profit; by 2006 she had built it up to £110m), she was also crowned the most powerful woman in British fashion by the industry magazine Drapers and has an MBE for services to retail.
Shepherdson says of the industry: "It's quite tough – you have to be quite bloody-minded sometimes, but there are more women coming through than when I started 20 years ago and that can only be a good thing... as a woman half the battle is won. At least I can go into my own shops and try my own clothes on, which I wouldn't be able to if I was a man."
This is certainly not a research method available to her former employer, Philip Green. Does she still see Green? "Um, we don't talk on a regular basis, we don't move in the same circles, you know."
Green said after Shepherdson's departure that her new role would be a test of her ability to develop a business, and that the revamp of the brand, which will extend to changing shop interiors to something "clean, fresh and contemporary" as well as the clothes and accessories, coincides with a rocky time in the economy. Given that she bought a stake in the company, is she worried? "Of course, I'd be a complete idiot if I wasn't. Yes, very worried, every day it appears to look more bleak. We just need to be constantly watching what's selling, whether the higher-priced items are moving more slowly." Shepherdson hopes that shoppers will respond to the economic downturn by "buying more classic pieces that will work with what's in their wardrobe, because that rushing out and buying loads of stuff habit seems to have petered out", before adding, "it's really hard to say whether they will".
Shepherdson's enthusiasm for the middle market might seem at odds with her legacy at Topshop, but she disputes being responsible for fast fashion, making a point that is often overlooked when people talk about disposable culture. Just because something is cheap, it doesn't mean that someone on a limited budget won't have it in their wardrobe for years. "What we did at Topshop wasn't about making fashion fast, what we wanted to do was make absolutely gorgeous clothes that people couldn't resist," she says, "and equally, fast fashion has been around for years – when I started, about 20 years ago, most of our suppliers were in the UK and our turnaround was about two to three weeks."
One area of high-street fashion that Shepherdson is keen to avoid, however, is exploitative manufacturing conditions. She is creating an ethical policy at Whistles, finding out exactly where everything is made, visiting key suppliers and ensuring that nothing is subcontracted. She wants to bring in more Fair Trade brands alongside smaller, boutique labels such as Humanoid and jewellery designers Alex Monroe. Part of the reason that Shepherdson was attracted to the brand was her desire to recapture her fond memories of its heyday in the Eighties, when Dries Van Noten was one of the designers stocked there, and "it was a bit of a barometer of what's going on". These days, it's Shepherdson herself who is a barometer of what's happening on the high street.
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