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How Whistles Reemerged as One of the Most Exciting Contemporary Brands in Fashion

It's hard to reinvent a brand. It's especially hard when the economy goes into recession and one of your key investors goes under.

2008 was not an easy year for many in the fashion industry -- least of all, perhaps, for Jane Shepherdson. The former Topshop brand director, once described as "the most powerful woman on the high street," had just become chief executive of (and a substantial investor in) a fading British brand called Whistles. Days before the brand was scheduled to unveil its relaunch, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

"It was terrible," Shepherdson recalls. "The whole year was just really, really stressful -- I lost about a stone."

It's clear that things are not so terrible for Shepherdson now. We're sitting inside the new Whistles shop -- the brand's first retail location in the U.S. -- on the second floor of the Bloomingdale's 59th St. store in Manhattan Wednesday morning, hours before the store will open to customers. Shepherdson and her team have just flown in from London to promote the new venue over the next few days, and will soon be returning to London to relaunch Whistles's website before heading off next week to Paris, where they're opening another shop in shop at BHV Marais.

To say that it's a busy time at Whistles is an understatement. It's also, clearly, a very exciting time. After weathering the global economic recession of 2008-2009 -- during which one of its major backers, Icelandic investment company Baugur, went bankrupt -- Whistles has reemerged as an up-to-date contemporary brand with cool-girl appeal, a professional polish and a spot on the London Fashion Week calendar. Profitable since 2011, the Kate Middleton favorite is now ready to go global.

We asked Shepherdson about how Whistles survived -- and reinvented itself -- during those tough early years, its plans for international expansion and its hopes for a show at New York Fashion Week. An edited transcript of our conversation can be found below. 

You started at Whistles seemingly at the worst possible time -- right before the Lehman collapse.

Yes, it was terrible. The whole year was just really, really stressful, not knowing -- I lost about a stone. First of all, sales were of course terrible because we were changing product completely, our existing customer was thinking, 'Oh I don't like that all,' and we hadn't brought new customers in yet -- we didn't have enough coverage, people didn't know enough about us. So sales were dwindling, then it got to September and Icelandic banks went under [one of Whistles backers was Icelandic investment company Baugur, which went bankrupt in early 2009]. We lost our working capital and for a month or so weren't sure if we could pay the staff. Sales hadn't really increased yet, so we didn't even have an inkling that we were doing the right thing, that we would get a new customer in. So in all, it was a really hard year. But if you can survive that -- it was the worst possible situation -- you can survive anything.

What was the turning point?

It probably wasn't until about mid-2009. For a lot of 2008 we didn't really focus enough on the product because we were distracted by the financial situation. But by mid-2009, we got into our stride, started to see the results, and the collection started to resemble something of the vision we originally had. We saw new, much younger customers who were quite passionate about [the brand]. We felt that we were right.

How would you compare your old customers to your new ones?

Before we bought into brand, I visited something like five stores, and every single person there had gray hair. It struck me: this is a brand, where's the future if you're not getting the younger people coming in buying your product? You need a customer who is 20, who can stay with you for 10 years. [Whistles] wasn't relevant, it was as if boho was a creative direction, while for me it was a trend that was very big one year, dwindled a bit the following year. You couldn't base a whole business on it, it wasn't relevant anymore. It was a time for a change.

How would you describe the aesthetic and customer now?

The word we use often is "effortlessness." To wear our collection is to look like you haven't tried too hard -- they're easy pieces, not too dressed up, slightly minimal and pared-down and also slightly sporty. We put pockets in things, for example. Our customer is between 25 and 45, confident about fashion, has her own innate style, knows what she wants to look like, quite independent, works in creative industries like media, fashion, the arts.

Is the Whistles woman in New York different than the Whistles woman in London or Paris?

No, I don't think she is. We provide dresses and 'solutions' outfits. For example, if you're going to a wedding, we have the perfect all-in-one looks, and it looks like you haven't really tried, you're just absolutely chic and perfect and contemporary. Even if it's a pretty dress, we put a big fat zipper down the back to make it more contemporary.

Coming from Topshop, you have a lot of experience with fast fashion. And yet Whistles isn't a fast fashion brand.

No, it isn't. I wanted to do something different, I didn't want to do Topshop. I'd grown older, I myself wanted nicer, more expensive clothes that lasted longer, that weren't completely throwaway. Yet I wanted to retain the excitement of trends, to offer not just classics or basics. It's about a combination of longevity and fashion excitement.

How often do you bring new merchandise in store?

We know that the thing that drives sales is newness of course -- we're obsessed with having something new all the time, so every week we have about 20 new styles that come in. We kind of phase it so that the collection is constantly moving and evolving. It doesn't just come in, sit there and then we replace it with pre-season. And also we'll take pieces out, and mark them down if they're not right. There's a little bit of the fast fashion trading mentality still within what we do, keeping that flexibility and excitement coming through.

Have the price points changed?

They've pretty much stayed same.

You showed at Fashion Week in London for the first time. How come?

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We have been building towards it since we started. We kind of quite like breaking the rules a bit. If we have great design, and we think that we do, we don't know why you think you should be told that you're high street and this is about high fashion or design. We always felt we should have a place there. And if you think about New York Fashion Week, there are a lot of contemporary brands there. Where New York goes, everybody follows, in a sense. Felt it was right for us to be there. Also knew it was the only time you could get the kind of exposure to international press and buyers who could see the collection and then try to sell them.

Would you consider showing in New York now that you're building a presence here?

I'd be very tempted!

I read that you spend a lot of time hanging out in your stores, talking to customers. Do you introduce yourself as the CEO?

It's true! About twice a week. I don't say who I am, but I'm not a stalker. I do like hanging outside the fitting rooms, watching what [customers] are trying on, hearing what they're saying about it, their reactions to it. I try stuff on myself. When you try something on and it doesn't fit at all, you think, 'No wonder this isn't selling.' Things do slip through.

When did you decide you wanted to establish a store presence in the U.S.? It seems like you were looking for an appropriate location for some time.

I started talking to Bloomingdale's about two years ago. They were keen, we were keen, but we weren't ready, we hadn't really developed the brand sufficiently, and they didn't have a space available for us. So we kept that dialogue going.

Did you think about opening your own store, or were you targeting a department store space from the beginning?

We were nervous about opening a store of our own straightaway. It's very risky. People do think America and the UK are so similar because we speak the same language, but it's not true.

It's been very hard for many UK brands to come here. And vice versa.

Absolutely. And with good reason. We are still finding out what people want here. So for us a department store is the obvious thing to do, it lowers the risk, we can learn some lessons and move to stores if we need to. We're not just opening in Manhattan, we're also opening in [Bloomingdales's] White Plains and Chestnut Hill locations in August. Because Manhattan is so different from the rest of America.

Did you plan to open in Paris simultaneously?

It was the plan, but it was not the plan for them to happen in the same week, along with the replatforming of our website in seven days. But Paris was a city we felt we should be expanding in. We've realized over last six to 12 months, and this is quite obvious, but Whistles works much better in cities with big appetites for fashion -- Moscow, Hong Kong, hopefully New York.

You've also said that you're eager to open in Australia, that there's a lot of consumer interest already there.

Yeah, but that's a long way away. It's something we think every day, mmm, right, Australia: How are we going to do that with any kind of ease? That's a tough one.

How many stores do you have in the UK now?

We have 50 stores in the UK. We had a similar number to when we started, but they were kind of different stores -- we have a lot more stores in London now.

Presumably your largest store is your online store. Can you talk to me about the investments you've made there?

Oh god, yeah. My strategy for Whistles is by this time is to have a small physical presence in the right places in the world -- London, Paris, New York, Moscow, Hong Kong -- and to really drive the rest of our business online. I don't see a reason not to. We do want to have a small hub in each of those cities so we can offer the same kind of service offered in the UK with next or even same-day delivery. But otherwise I don't know why you shouldn't get the full Whistles experience online. It's easier to do that in a way because you can have content and editorial on the website -- you can give the customer almost more, apart from that one-to-one service, that style advice that [store] staff give to customers to try new looks and things. I want to get that online. At the moment we're just about to replatform, just invested a huge amount of money, we'll have an American, French website, German website. We're in catchup on the website to be honest.

Would you say you are more involved in design and creative than the typical CEO?

You kind of have to be. If you just come from the financial side of things you don't understand what the life blood is. It's not formulaic.

Don't you feel that buying has become much more formulaic?

Yes. A lot of people look at history way too much. I think that leads you into compromise and dilution of creative core of what you're doing, a bit. You have to kind of ignore that and identify what's new, what's the exciting thing, then look at the numbers afterward.