How We Met: Safia Minney & Jane Shepherdson

'After being pulled along bumpy roads by oxen, you soon get to find out what a person is made of'

Jane Shepherdson, 45, is chief executive of the high-street clothing brand Whistles. Formerly creative director at Topshop, she is credited with transforming the chain into a fashion powerhouse. In 2005, 'Drapers' magazine named her the most powerful woman in British fashion. She lives in London with her husband

I first met Safia at a Fair Trade convention. We had started a corporate social-responsibility programme at Topshop and we were eager to meet people in that field. I'd already heard that Safia was a bit of a firebrand – her reputation as a passionate bundle of energy preceded her – and in person she was everything I had expected.

Safia is charming, beautiful, funny and very alive. But she is also completely driven and in some ways quite ruthless. Often, you don't even realise she has just made you do something that you didn't necessarily want to do – for example, although we weren't sure at the time, Safia persuaded us to take [Fair Trade fashion label] People Tree into Topshop as a concession.

At that point we only used to see each other at meetings, but when I left Topshop and hadn't decided what to do next, I kept getting messages saying Safia wanted to talk to me. Then there was an email, then a letter. I thought, "Oh god, I'd better go and talk to her." And that was when she asked me to become a non-executive member of the board at People Tree.

One of the nicest things about leaving Topshop was that I could spend time with Safia, helping her build up People Tree. Working in fashion, I never thought I had any transferable skills I could use for the greater good, but she gave me the opportunity to discover that I did.

Early on we went out to Bangladesh together and it was an incredible experience to share. It was a bit strange to go away with someone I hardly knew but we had fun together straight away – despite the lack of electricity and alcohol. My enduring image of Safia is of her standing in front of a group of rather gnarled-looking cotton farmers, looking like an exotic little orchid in her coloured dress, explaining the benefits of organic farming. I just looked at her and thought "My god..." From the boardroom to a situation like that, everybody loves her.

Safia and I talk a couple of times a week – if my phone rings at 7am I invariably know it will be her. Our offices are minutes apart, so we often pop round and talk through our ideas. Safia thinks we have the same fashion tastes but we don't at all. She has much more feminine, exotic aesthetic whereas I favour simple pieces. I'm sure she comes into Whistles and thinks, "It's so dull, why isn't there more colour?"

We disagree a lot. I am always having a go at her, telling her that her website is rubbish or that she needs to spend more money on models. She just laughs and says, "Oh Jane, you are awful!"

Safia Minney, 45, is the founder and CEO of the Fair Trade fashion label People Tree. Earlier this year her work was acknowledged with an MBE in the Queen's Honours list. She lives with her husband and three children in London

Jane and I met at the Fair Trade Fortnight event several years ago. I'd been hearing about her for years – mutual friends such as Wayne Hemingway had always told me she was great and I had to meet her. I thought she was going to be one of those fierce, hard fashion people, but in person she turned out to be unexpectedly sweet and warm.

We didn't see each other again for several months, until we were putting together the non-executive board of People Tree. I remember writing her a letter to say how much I thought she would add to the business. As usual she was incredibly busy and initially I heard nothing. I persisted, though, and wrote two or three increasingly rambling letters, and eventually she yielded and saw me.

Almost immediately Jane agreed to come to Bangladesh with me to see one of our projects, which was a good way of getting to know someone quickly. After being pulled along bumpy roads by oxen and surviving three or four power cuts a day, you soon get to find out what the other person is made of.

Jane is very driven, which is obviously a big part of why she has been so successful in what she does, but that is one of those words that is often used about women in a negative way to imply that they are willing to step on other people to get what they want at any cost. That's not her at all. She is especially keen to support other women – she is happy to call herself a feminist, and I admire that, because there isn't enough of it around these days.

The most important thing she has taught me is to say what I really think. So, if a designer shows me something that is really horrid, I can now just say, "That is really horrid." It has been quite revelatory.

Jane has worked in some high-pressure positions, but she never moans about being tired or stressed. When the Icelandic banks went down [threatening Whistles] she took it incredibly well – she would have been perfectly within her rights to tell me to sod off when I rang up asking for advice about this or that, but she took everything in her stride, as usual.

Jane is a lot more fashion-forward than I am, though we do share a love for a feminine style. The only thing we ever argue about is who pays the bill when we meet up for drinks. We both tussle to get our tenner out first.

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