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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Fashion is a people business

Eric Musgrave
01 June 2023

How many independent fashion shops are there in the UK and Ireland?

I don’t know.

In all my 40-plus years observing and writing about the fashion industry I have never been able to get hold of a reliable figure. Whatever it is now, it will be substantially fewer than what it was 20 years ago, but the overall total of businesses must be skewed by the number of online-only enterprises.

This statistical conundrum came to mind again last week when I was talking with my old friend Glynn Alwyn-Jones, who with his wife Linda Marshall has run the Parkers womenswear fashion agency for 33 years, selling better-end continental labels to indies and department stores.

In passing, Glynn mentioned Parkers has a database of around 4,000 womenswear businesses in the UK and the Irish Republic, but he admitted it was not up to date (largely because it never can be, given how often shops open and close).

I was at once surprised, yet not surprised,  at the total. I can believe there are several thousand people trying to make a living in womenswear indie retailing, plus more in menswear, kidswear and footwear, of course.

Good luck to them all.

Funnily enough, in the past when I tried to get a handle on the size of the industry, I turned first to friendly agents, who were always among the best-informed of what was actually happening across the trade.

The most professional agents were literally travelling salespeople, constantly moving around the UK and often Ireland as well to visit existing clients and find new ones. A showroom, often a permanent one in past days, was the base during the then-rigid selling periods, but outside those windows, it was a case of getting in the car and driving around to see buyers in their natural habitat.

Like many aspects of our industry, the agency business has got tougher in recent decades, and the number of agents has decreased in proportion to the number of potential independent customers. Communication methods have changed and personal connections in many cases have been diluted.

I wonder if fashion agents are appreciated as they should be.

For around 20 years Glynn and Linda were able to run a showroom in Conduit Street in central London for 12 months of the year, employing five staff and offering up to 15 collections.

The finances of the game do not add up in the same way these days and now Parkers is offered temporary showrooms in W1 that cost £16,000 for just three weeks. Glynn and Linda, who now do most of the work themselves, would have to have to sell a lot of product on a 12% commission just to cover the rent.

And Glynn had plenty to say about how Brexit has added to agents’ everyday costs in dealing with European suppliers without providing any complementary benefits.

Glynn’s view is that fashion agents in the classic sense are an endangered species. I am not so sure, but if they were to disappear it would be to the detriment of indie retailers in particular. It’s agents who seek out new labels and bring them to the UK and Irish markets. They provide a free information service on what’s going on, what’s hot and what’s not, around the country, something that an owner-driver in a small concern would find impossible to do for herself or himself.

Despite Glynn’s pessimistic view, I am happy to note that the industry still does attract fashion agents. The one I am closest to is Lucy Walsh, a former colleague of mine who had a highly successful career in sales with Drapers and the Pure London womenswear show before setting up The Brand Ambassadors agency in 2015.

The brilliant work ethic and application I saw when we worked together has carried Lucy on in the past eight years. She is one of the relatively few agents who still rack up the mileage by visiting their stockists and potential stockists. She ceaselessly posts entertaining and informative social media and she has solved the problem of prohibitively expensive showrooms by creating The Huddle, a seasonal collective of more than a dozen agents who will present almost 100 ranges from 16 July to 18 August in Shortlands, a co-working space in Hammersmith, west London.

I hope in its second season it gets the support it deserves from indie boutique buyers. I am going to make the effort to get there when I visit the nearby Pure London show on 16 July.

Talking to passionate people like Glynn and Lucy reminded me of how this business is built on personal relationships, trust, mutual respect and shared goals. In my time the fashion industry has never been the place for the faint-hearted, but it certainly has become more competitive, more cut-throat and less personal in recent decades.

Or so it seems to me. Am I just being nostalgic?

I do not agree with Glynn’s prediction that fashion agents will disappear but how they work will have to evolve (and they might not earn as much as they used to do). They play a vital role in what might be called the fashion ecosystem. I’d love to hear from fashion agents, retailers and suppliers about how they see these relationships developing in the near future.

Remember, fashion is – or should be – a people business.

Image of Eric: Lloyd Smith 

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