Following Top Shop, Jane Shepherdson makes Whistles a must-have brand

Style guru Jane Shepherdson's revamped Whistles proved a hit with Chinese customers in London, and now it's our turn, writes Francesca Fearon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 10:27pm

It may be the hottest day of the year in London, but retail guru Jane Shepherdson still looks as fresh as a daisy. Wearing a boxy white top and black Capri pants, she rifles through the rails of Whistles' latest collection. But then, looking cool and relaxed is part of the design mantra at Whistles. "Whistles is about fashion, but not fad-fashion, as we don't slavishly follow it," Shepherdson says.

Perhaps it is the pared-down clean lines and feminine aesthetic that has driven Chinese customers in their droves to Whistles concessions in Printemps in Paris and Harrods in London. Shepherdson saw an opportunity to look east to build the brand, but was hesitant. "China is quite a scary region because we know so little about it," she says.

A chance meeting with Andrea O'Donnell, executive director of Lane Crawford, presented an opening that she could not refuse. Whistles' leather jackets, printed dresses, and chunky hand knits have just arrived at Lane Crawford's IFC Mall, Times Square and Canton Road stores, and will reach Shanghai in October.

Whistles, which was founded in 1976, is part of a growing group of mid-market contemporary brands that are sweeping through the retail scene in Hong Kong. There are US labels like J. Crew, Theory, Rag & Bone, French brands like Maje, Kooples and Sandro and also an influx of Scandinavian brands in stores around Wan Chai.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Lane Crawford, doesn't subscribe to the "middle market" label for such brands. She prefers describes the phenomenon as "democratic fashion and dressing", which she says is appealing to customers who buy both designer and contemporary brands. Fashion is not as segmented as it once was. The appeal of Whistles and J. Crew, she says, is linked to the fact fashion brands are available everywhere: "Whistles is still a UK-centric brand, just as J. Crew has been US-centric," she says.

These days, Rutson adds, it's not so much about whether a brand is luxury or not: "It's about its scarcity, or how difficult it is to get in the region, or even when travelling overseas."

By 2008 Whistles had become a chintzy store with mumsy, beaded cardigans and flouncy gypsy dresses. Then Shepherdson, the brand director credited with making Top Shop hot, came along. She had stunned the retail world 15 months earlier, when she walked out on Top Shop after 20 years.

Rumours suggested she had fallen out with owner Philip Green over the appointment of Kate Moss as a designer. She dismisses the suggestion and won't discuss her former boss.

Shepherdson began at the bottom as a trainee buyer and rose through the ranks to brand director. Sharp and single-minded, she transformed Top Shop from a tacky Oxford Street store for teenagers into an international fashion destination.

She was inundated with job offers but spent a year travelling in South America, while maintaining communications with private equity contacts. She organised charity sales of clothes donated by celebrities, and helped rebrand some of Oxfam's shops as fashion boutiques, where they could sell their more fashionable donations.

In 2008, she was lured home when an opportunity arose to buy Whistles off Aurora, a company that also owned Oasis and Karen Millen. So began her new mission to reinvent Whistles for the modern woman.

Together with a team of key players from Top Shop, she did a management buy-in with two other investors. "I thought when we took over Whistles that it would be easier taking something that existed and changing it, as opposed to starting from scratch. We had the opportunity to do either. I thought the former would be easier, but now I am not sure that was the case."

The brand came with a lot of history: it had a portfolio of stores (which Shepherdson has since increased to 50 in the UK and concessions in France and Germany), an existing place in the market and client base, all of which turned out to be more of a negative than a positive.

The new venture also coincided with the global financial crisis. "I don't think we started at the best time, if I am honest."

Nevertheless, they turned it around, revamping the brand beyond recognition and focusing on their core favourites. By the end of the year, Whistles' customers were out shopping again.

Shepherdson admits she is a fashion stalker. She visits stores and watches what people are drawn to, what they try on, and what they don't. Some customers who live on the outskirts of London want leather jackets, cool T-shirts, the right jeans, and the right boots. They just want to look cool and fashionable.

Then there are the Belgravia customers who visit the Dover Street shop. They are after a very different look, and can drop £2,000 (HK$24,027) in one go.

Whistles debuted its autumn-winter collection at London Fashion Week, following in the footsteps of Top Shop Unique and Jaeger. Those catwalk looks will be turning up on the rails in Lane Crawford. There also will be the top-end limited edition designs, which include leather, cashmere and silk.

The beautiful, high-quality clothes, which don't have designer prices, have become a favourite with London's style hunters. Perhaps Hong Kong's fashion pack will follow suit.



A simple strategy

Whistles is not a trend-driven label. But the new autumn-winter collection's camouflage pattern (a jacquard weave), slouchy cashmere and angora hand-knits, paired with polished leather skirts and trousers, are items that fit the mood of today.

Camouflage was noticeable in Milan, and the patent-leather skirt and zipped-leather jackets tapped into an anarchic spirit on some designer catwalks. But if you are looking for embellishment and overtly sexy dressing, then Whistles is not your label: the label is more Céline and Marni than Versace.

What you will find are lots of short, patterned dresses (all prints are designedin-house), sheepskin and leather aviator jackets, oversized pea coats, jacquard cigarette trousers, and sweatshirt tops. "We reflect fashion but within a framework of quite clean, simple effortless pieces," says Shepherdson.

The collection is richly textured, the palette is dark, but it has many cream highlights that give the look a sleek, graphic modernity.

They have also introduced a size 4 to the range for the Asian market, because their sizes 6 and 8 both sell out so quickly.

Francesca Fearon