In a sea of conventionally cut cashmere, Zoë Jordan's sweaters are easy to recognize.
The designer, a former bond trader, has attracted no shortage of local attention since she relaunched her eponymous label in 2011, nabbing two BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund nominations and the British Fashion Council award for contemporary designers along the way. Jordan's dresses, separates and outerwear are lovely — clean-lined and soft-edged, with a delicate, tonal approach to color and texture that's well-suited for both creative and conservative work environments. But it's her knitwear that has really taken off: Last summer, Jordan, responding to retail's need for more year-round styles, launched a "seasonless" capsule collection of six neutral-colored wool and cashmere sweaters and tunics, featuring distinctive circular cutouts on the shoulders and down the arms. It was picked up by, among others, Harrods in London and Saks Fifth Avenue, her first big U.S. account.
Jordan is the first to admit that her path into the fashion industry wasn't a typical one. The Dublin-born, London-based designer is the daughter of Eddie Jordan, former owner of the Jordan Formula One racing team, and she more or less grew up on the racetrack. After studying product design and architecture at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she went to work as a bond trader at HSCB in New York and later as an equity sales trader at Credit Suisse in London for three-and-a-half years. When Jordan decided to launch her own label in 2007 — "working from the kitchen table," as she describes it — she had never before worked in fashion. Today, she has a five-person team behind her and is stocked at some of the world's biggest department stores.
We spoke to Jordan in December about how she made it all happen.
Can you tell us how a girl who grew up on racetracks ended up becoming a fashion designer?
It was definitely not the most traditional route into fashion [laughs]. Fashion was always a passion of mine growing up; I studied design at school, went through to architecture and always had a kind of mathematical mind as well. So I ended up trading. It was very fast-paced and demanding and I learned a lot about economics, politics, everything you need to trade. That whole work discipline is a great thing to carry with you whatever you do going forward.
There wasn't necessarily one thing that happened that drove me into fashion; it was something I always wanted to do. Working in the City, it was a few years before I came up for air and started working out what I really wanted to do long-term. I started right from the bottom, putting together a set of samples based on the idea of a capsule wardrobe: the perfect jumper, the perfect silk top. There was a gap I found [in the market], a slightly tomboyish luxury I didn't feel that I could find. I traveled extensively to get those pieces made up. And it happened quite organically; I traveled around to stores showing them the collection. I always worked closely with the BFC [British Fashion Council], and I sought out people in the industry to get me help and advice, like Anya Hindmarch, Caroline Rush at the BFC, [former Harrods Fashion Director and Saks President] Marigay McKee.
What's your process for designing a collection?
I place a lot of emphasis on textures and fabrics. There'll be a concept to start with, then it starts to come to life through texture and color. The colors are very tonal; then we'll always have a pop of color in there to mix it up a bit. Overall the aesthetic is boyish, elegant, quite effortless, quite throw-on, easy to wear. It's very important to me that [customers can wear] pieces season after season. Early on my prints looked more digital; now what I want from a print is a certain natural energy — more of a hand-drawn feel because I feel that long-term they're more wearable.
How do you balance the creative and business demands of the label?
It's getting to a point where I'm not able to oversee everything, so I'm trying to work out those next steps at the moment. I oversee all the sales, take all the appointments with the buyers. For me, that's where we've separated ourselves from some of the other young labels coming through, by focusing on the buyers and creating good relationships with stores. That and responding to feedback from customers has really been paramount. Having a strong numbers background has been really helpful [for the business], making sure of cash flow, etc.
How would you describe your customer?
I describe her as the boy's best friend and the girl's confidante — equally comfortable with both sexes, quite savvy, quite international. I hope she's got quite a natural confidence to her and doesn't need to shout too loud; she's got her own style, and she's quite confident in that.
What things does she come back to you for again and again?
The knitwear, which there's been a really strong response to and is what's really set us apart. There's a lot of cashmere out there, but there hasn't been this contemporary shape with cutouts, which is a slightly cooler version of other knits on the market. And she comes back for some of the leather, the tailored jackets she can wear day to night. Outerwear was a really strong seller for us for autumn/winter '15. We introduced some strong oversized pieces and parkas, and played with a lot of textures there.
How do you balance consistency with newness every season?
Obviously the stores and the customers want to see pieces they know and love from you and want to come back to find those pieces, but you have to keep it fresh and new and keep people excited. It's continually something to consider. I wouldn't say there's an exact formula for it, but you have to bear in mind both sides. We're now international — in stores in Asia, the States and Europe — so we have to consider all the different climates as well, and the weights of fabrics.
Production is one of the biggest challenges for young designers — what advice do you have for those following in your footsteps?
Don't bite off more than you can chew. It's better not to take those bigger orders in the beginning because you can't afford to have these stores take a risk on you and not deliver. And it's a communication thing; you need your production [partners] to feel like they're part of the brand as well, rather than something you're outsourcing. Starting out, you have to sell them on the vision of the brand. And generally, you need to be very resilient. It is a tough industry and unexpected things will happen. Look after the stores and concentrate on sales to start with, listen to feedback. Be willing to adapt; what worked when I was starting might not work now.
We did a pop-up in London [leading into Christmas], and launched some men's knits at the beginning of the year — it's our first capsule collection, which we launched ourselves online. Speaking to big stores is paramount for the next stage in our business.
This interview has been edited and condensed.