Chain reaction

In 21 years, it has gone from a simple idea to a way of life. Melanie Rickey charts the rise and rise of Warehouse

Almost 21 years ago, "Warehouse The Utility Clothing Company" opened its doors on Duke Street, a narrow by-road off Oxford Street. Its mission: to sell fashionable well priced clothes to women of 20-30 years old, who earned their own money, had a disposable income, time to party and work, and, of course, were very clued up on fashion. Two decades later, Warehouse may be a household name, but it has stuck to its roots.

Jeff Banks opened the first shop on 6 September 1976. It wasn't the first of the high street stores as we know them today - both Jigsaw and French Connection began trading in 1972 - but it opened with a firm goal in mind: to sell designs straight from the warehouse (hence the name), and thus cut out the middle man and keep prices down.

Banks had become disillusioned at the cost of designer clothes available at the time; in fact he found his designs beyond the reach of his own pockets. In 1979, Warehouse was selling dresses for about pounds 16.99 (today the average dress costs pounds 45.99), and trousers for pounds 9.99 (now about pounds 40). All the clothes were designed by Banks and graduates from St Martins and the Royal College of Art. It took off immediately, and within five years 25 branches had opened nationwide. Today there are 79 outlets in the UK and 10 across the US - including a store in New York - with more to come. But the road to success has not been easy.

In 1986, when the store was 10 years old, it produced an anniversary brochure dedicated to Norman Parkinson and featuring the work of up and coming photographers and stylists, including Kim Knott and Lucinda Chambers of Vogue, who are responsible for the Tilda Swinton picture, left. The brochure stands as a half-way point for the company, and the beautiful images had as much power then as they do now. It was even possible to buy limited edition prints of the images, which are now collectors' items. Then things began to change.

In 1987 the company was bought by the mail-order giant Freemans, which launched Bymail (Warehouse by post), featuring a very youthful Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Christy Turlington as models, and a menswear range, which although successful, didn't last long. Sears PLC bought Freemans in 1988 and Warehouse was sucked into a conglomerate of brands that includes Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Richards and Adams. Derek Lovelock, managing director of Sears Clothing, saw Warehouse lose it's identity between 1989 and 1992. "It was languishing badly," he says. "We had placed Warehouse inside Miss Selfridge stores and their two images became blurred." Basically, it lost its oomph, and as testimony to that there are very few archive pictures from that early Nineties period.

Fast-forward to 1993, when a saviour in the form of Yasmin Yusuf, a former senior fashion buyer for Harvey Nichols, joined Warehouse first as both fashion director and managing director to restore brand image, the customers faith and, of course, to inject a serious dose of oomph into the clothes. Passionate about fashion, Yusuf reinvented the Warehouse woman, and reverted to the original brief. "We always ask ourselves, `Will she like it? Will she understand it? Can she afford it?'" she says. "We don't dictate to our customers - we want to create fashionable clothes for girls and women everywhere, so they can create their own style." It sounds like a corporate manifesto, and it is. Competition on the high street is fiercer than ever before, and companies have to be extremely focused to get their girl.

It is a widely held assumption that high street chains wait for the twice-yearly catwalk collections to enable their designers to copy the major trends and get them into the shops in double-quick time. This is not true of Warehouse. Its team of designers constantly travel the world looking at fabrics, street trends, and the clothes women are actually wearing. As Yusuf says: "We read fashion. It's not our business to look at a designer like Helmut Lang and copy him. We look at where he is coming from. So if he is doing punk, say, we look back to the beginning of punk." Warehouse is currently buying the fabrics for winter 1998, and designing the clothes for next spring, long before the fashion designers show us their vision.

Yusuf and her team have done such a good job of repositioning Warehouse in the marketplace that the store is now up there with the best of the rest. It has been nominated for the high street retailer of the year award three times, but so far this title has eluded it. Madeleine Christie, senior fashion editor at a soon to be launched version of Arena for women, has been styling Warehouse shoots for a few seasons. "The clever thing about them is that they manage to pick up on the major trends before they happen," she says. " It's fashionable, but not too streety; real women can relate to it." This is the key to its current success.

The latest range to go in-store bridges the gap between summer and autumn, and Yusuf is confident that the team has hit the nail on the head. "We know that legs are back, so we've got great dresses to wear with high heels. Red and grey are back, so we've translated these colours into our existing `Definitives' range, and onto dresses and suits. Narrow trousers are back, too, but we will provide our customers with bootcut shapes until they don't want them any more."

Aside from new trends in fashion, Warehouse always aims to provide customers with their favourite items.

As Yusuf says: "We just want to keep them happy so they come back."

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