Jane Shepherdson: Top Woman

Your teenage daughter. The girl from accounts. The trendy mum. All of them will have a bit of Jane Shepherdson in her wardrobe. As the brand director of Topshop, she determines what the best-dressed high street will be wearing each season. And now she has designs upon the catwalk...
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By some reckonings, through her company-sponsored largesse, Jane Shepherdson, who is brand director of Topshop, is one of the chief reasons why London Fashion Week has been able to continue at all. Since 2001, Topshop has pumped money into the young upstarts of British fashion from two directions. Topshop sponsors the British Fashion Council's New Generation award (which this season enables 19 young designers to stage shows), while also paying many of them to design collections for their shops.

So far, so solidly philanthropic. On Monday night, though, Jane Shepherdson and her team will, she admits, be "sticking our heads above the parapet". For the first time, Unique, a collection designed by her 14-strong in-house design team, will be shown on the official London catwalk. "Some people will say it's not good enough. Some will say we shouldn't be doing it. I'm nervous, yeah," she says. "But you have to be brave, don't you?"

Whatever the reviews, Shepherdson has no expectation of the collection making money for Topshop directly. Staying ahead in fashion, she believes, is often a matter of "not doing things based on return, but on instinct". Now in her early forties, she has virtually won the right to carte blanche in her job - a privilege hard to argue with when Topshop contributed £100m to Arcadia Group's profits last year.

Shepherdson, though ranked by the trade magazine Drapers as the most powerful woman in British fashion, is still an employee. All the names above her (she appears seventh down the list of power-players) are those of the men who have enriched themselves many times over on the strength of the instincts of a workforce that is 70 per cent female.

Shepherdson, remarkably, has cut her way to the top woman's slot by stubbornly always staying in the same place. She is a Topshop lifer who joined the Burton Group in the early 1980s as a trainee and has never left. Her first break came when she was trusted to make an order on the jersey department, stuck her neck out about tank vests - and sold 50,000 in a week. Having the nerve to do that, and repeat it over and over again, is the essential quality of a great buyer.

What has set Shepherdson apart is that she is a patient, steely upward-manager par excellence. If staying in the same workplace for the past 20 years sounds these days like an anachronistically institutionalised career choice for a clever woman, that's not taking into account the money-loaded battles, scandals and highly personal inter-bloke competitions that have constantly reconfigured Topshop's parent company. Just by hanging in there, Shepherdson has contrived to work for (and outlast) most of the heaviest hitters of British retail since the 1980s: Ralph Halpern, John Hoerner, Stuart Rose. She now enjoys a sparky relationship with Philip Green, the current Arcadia Group head, who took the company private in 2002.

What adapted her to this milieu is a strong streak of rebelliousness; the sense, still obvious in her, of the bright, bad schoolgirl gang leader determined to find her way around any rule. Born in Bristol in the early 1960s (she is vague about the date), and schooled at Clifton High School for Girls, Shepherdson was the blonde sheep of an academic family. With a father who till recently was a professor of maths at Bristol University, a biochemist for a mother and siblings who took off for high-flying academic careers in the US, young Jane found her own way, somewhat less brilliantly, into a business course at the then North London Polytechnic. There, she heard the job of store buyer described by a visiting lecturer, liked the sound of it and applied to work at Topshop, then part of the Burton Group. With a good brain for figures and a feeling for ra-ra skirts, she was on her way.

Today, she is married to a criminal defence lawyer, lives in Camden, runs 10 miles a week, and cycles or walks to work at Arcadia HQ off Oxford Street every day (when she isn't revolving around the world from China to LA on buying and research trips). Presumably, since she was made brand director in 1998, she's had the budget to have their ultra drab offices made over many times before now, but Shepherdson revels in the ordinariness. "Pretentiousness - we fight it every day round here!" she declares.

That resolute style of tomboy management has won Shepherdson extreme popularity and loyalty among her staff. It also goes a long way to explaining the nature of Topshop's style, which is entirely predicated on what the girls in the office feel like wearing. "We don't do pretty, that's the thing. We're not very good at that 'going out' or 'lady' thing," Shepherdson will say with a barely perceptible sneer. "Because there's something intrinsically uncool about looking like you've tried too hard, isn't there?" Topshop admirers Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Maria Sharapova would doubtless agree.

Shepherdson's right to more or less do as she pleases has led her to associating Topshop with a higher-priced, more exclusive designer collection - at precisely the moment when the retail landscape is being reconfigured by plummetings in price at Primark, Tesco and TK Maxx. Philip Green has been good at chopping out central layers of middle management to give Shepherdson autonomy over everything from finance to window displays. Otherwise, quite how richly Green remunerates or indeed motivates this most prized of fashion executives to stay interested in her job is not disclosed. She has turned down many other offers, notably from M&S, finding the prospect less exciting than Topshop's freewheeling culture, but that still raises the question as to why she has never left to set up a fashion business of her own. "There's always something else to do, something that can be done better here, so I'm never bored," she has said. "But I have to say, it would be nice to have a business I had a stake in. Topshop's not mine; it's Philip's."

Perhaps tomorrow's show is Green's little way of indulging Shepherdson's career-long belief in championing creativity against grey corporate gainsayers. Then again, come November, there's another treat on the cards for the Topshop girls, when he will host a party at his home in Monaco to coincide with Fashion Rocks. As Green nips over on his private jet for the occasion, Shepherdson and her gang will be following on easyJet. Plus ça change. But maybe that's just the way she likes it.