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The Interview: Diane Houston, founder and CEO, Gilda & Pearl

Tom Bottomley
23 December 2019

Starting out with luxury women’s loungewear, and now luxury lingerie, Gilda & Pearl is inspired by old Hollywood glamour, of which founder and CEO Diane Houston is a real fan. Established in 2011, and proving a hit in Harrods, we explore the story so far:

The inspiration behind the brand name stems from ‘Gilda’, the 1946 Rita Hayworth film in which her costumes were really extravagant and she became known as “the ultimate femme fatale,” as Houston puts it. And ‘Pearl’ is reference to something unique, as Houston’s creations are all handmade and “every garment is slightly different.”

All made in the UK, the process behind the designs is very intricate, requiring real expertise. Hence the luxury price points. “It’s been very tough at times and obviously there’s prices that we will never be able to compete on,” admits Houston. “But, at the same time, making here means we can get things made pretty quickly and for me it’s very important that we know exactly who is making every garment, and under what conditions.

“It’s also about growing and maintaining skills locally as we have a lot of people with amazing creative skills near to us. The sustainability factor is really important to me, it’s not something I’ll sacrifice. As the brand has grown, we’ve managed to keep that element of it.”

Currently wholesaling to luxury stores in the UK and the US, such as Harrods, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks, Houston says there’s now also a real focus on Gilda & Pearl’s online sales, with Farfetch also being a major stockist. Online sales from their own website have actually doubled in the last six months alone. “It’s really been phenomenal,” she comments.

But, with the nature of the Gilda & Pearl product, the look, touch and feel is of real importance, so having the product in major stores in London, New York and Los Angeles is the best way for customers to really appreciate the brand’s offer, and know what they’re getting.

“I’d say Harrods is our main partner at the moment, because they support the whole UK angle that we have,” says Houston. “They have a customer who really appreciates that. In these times it’s key to focus on things you know work well and retailers that you know understand the brand. It’s quite a niche product in many ways, so it’s better for us to grow that way rather than spreading ourselves too thin.”

A six-week pop-up with a Gilda & Pearl fitted out area in Harrods will be happening again in spring 2020, the fourth time the brand has been invited to take over a space, the last one being in April/May this year. “It’s a good time of year because, for the domestic market, you get a lot of the bridal customers coming in, and we do a lot of ivory and gold pieces,” says Houston.


“Our offer is very feminine and unique and I think it sets us apart when you walk in to a lingerie department. We’re not overtly super sexy, we just have gorgeous pieces that are really fun to wear. A lot of customers say it makes them really happy to wear them, in terms of the look and how the fabrics feel on the skin.”

A standalone retail shop in London is also something that’s in the plans going forward. “That’s something I’d really love to do,” offers Houston. “The concept behind the brand also lends itself to other items, like homeware, candles and fragrance, so in the long-term a small shop is definitely something we’ll be looking at. We’re also looking at moving a bit more in to womenswear, but keeping our aesthetic, so loungewear inspired womenswear.

“We’ve got some quite extravagant ostrich feather trim baby dolls that you can wear as tops as well. That’s the idea with a lot of our pieces – you can wear them out as well.” Camisoles, robes, slips, bodysuits and pyjama sets also sell well.”

Celebrity endorsement through the likes of Kendall and Kylie Jenner of the Kardashian clan has helped to raise the brand’s profile in the past couple of years. “By chance, they seem to have really taken to the brand. They just appear wearing it on Instagram – mostly our feather trimmed pieces. When we see it, we can share it, talk about and make the connection.”

Social media is indeed now playing a massive part and Houston says they have been getting a lot more involved with that over the last couple of years. “It’s certainly helped spur on the website sales. Instagram is a great tool for the imagery and getting the story of the brand across. We’ve now got about 14,000 followers on that, though we were quite late comers to the party. We’ve also got a lot of customers on Facebook as well.”

The ‘Diana’ marabou feather-trimmed range is proving popular at the moment, though Houston affirms that they are very careful to ensure that all the feathers they use are a bi-product of the food industry. “We only use feathers that would otherwise go to waste. We’re very careful about where they come from. It takes a lot of time and expense to see the supply chain, but we make sure that happens.”

The ‘Mia’ loungewear – all silk with feather trims – is also a best seller. “They are quite frou-frou and really our signature pieces that you can wear indoors or out. You can match them with daywear.”

The Gilda & Pearl robes sell for between £400-£600, camisoles start at £150 going up to £400, and the baby dolls are £300-£400. It’s what Houston terms a “good, better, best price structure which you can mix and match.”

A full lingerie collection was actually only introduced a year ago, for AW18, but that’s a growing part of the business. “We did previously have a couple of basic lingerie pieces, but they were designed more for aesthetic rather than functionality. But then we introduced lingerie that you can wear every day that didn’t compromise on beauty and style – the Gilda & Pearl aesthetic. That’s been really popular and now already represents about 20-30% of our business. We offer bigger cup sizes and bigger lingerie, as it’s really difficult to get beautiful things in bigger sizes, so we’ve been really trying to work on that.”

Houston describes her customers as bold, independent and women who appreciate good design. “A lot of them take interest in how the garments came in to being and the makers behind it. In general, I’d say they’re late 20’s to early 50’s. And, on the website, we do get a lot of men buying gifts.”

The run up to Christmas is therefore a very busy time at the brand’s HQ near London’s Spitafields Market on Hanbury Street, east London, where Houston says their ‘click and collect’ service is proving a big hit. It’s very much about a personal touch, and Houston and her small team also offer a gift-wrapping service. “It’s really been busy since the start of October with men and women coming in from the City,” she confides. Orders are also still be taken up until midday on 23 December for pre-Christmas delivery.

Houston founded Gilda & Pearl in 2011. She actually studied law at university in Glasgow, but it was her love of all things fashion that really drove her. “I was just totally obsessed with fashion,” she says. “I was interning at fashion magazines, working in fashion retail and doing garment construction classes. I then went in to freelance fashion writing and styling.

“I also had a stall at Portobello Market for a couple of years, selling vintage loungewear, accessories and dresses, but also my own early designs, though I didn’t have the Gilda & Pearl label then, I just went under my own name.” The stall was busy, and getting busier, so it was then she realised she was really on to something. “Eventually I started to get interest from department stores because it was appearing in the press as well. That’s when I came up with the Gilda & Pearl name and decided to make it more of a thing.”

A friend helped her to build a website, and she even had friends helping her sew garments. “That’s how it all started, working through the night to fulfil orders!”

With investors on board, in the shape of the William Currie Group, a private equity fund, and Terry Leahy – formerly the Tesco CEO – the business is in much better shape to grow these days. “That was a massive deal, a real gamechanger,” says Houston. “It definitely signified a turning point, as it allowed me to buy up all the fabrics I wanted to use, and do the designs I wanted.

“As a designer, it’s so difficult to get the capital up front to do these things, and wholesale is an expensive business – especially when you first start and you’re waiting for that first payment. It allowed us to go in to Harrods and grow the business from there.”

With appointments to see the freshly designed AW20 collection already in the diary pre-Christmas, including with Harrods, the demand for Gilda & Pearl’s luxury pieces is rapidly picking up pace. “Everyone wants new things all the time, so we really have to keep on top of it,” says Houston. It certainly sounds like they are.

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