The Interview: Kim Winser, OBE, founder and CEO, Winser London
With a new six-month pop-up shop in Canary Wharf a serious contender to be made another permanent retail destination – for women who like their style to go from boardroom to evening out – the inspirational Kim Winser, OBE, founder and CEO of the Winser London brand, talks about her career and rapid growth of her brand, launched just six years ago in 2013.
Why have you taken the pop-up shop in Canary Wharf?
I think that, because we are predominantly an online brand, and that was the heart of the business model, I like to look at where we drop a lot of packages. I’m a great believer that if you’re dropping a lot of packages into an area you’ve already got a very warm audience. To open a pop-up in that area, you give people an opportunity for to go in, try things on, get styling sessions and meet myself, the designers and our team. We do events in the store and it definitely causes excitement with the already warm audience. They tend to invite friends, and it grows. That’s exactly what we’ve done in other places, namely Gerrards Cross and in Marlow – which both started out as pop-up shops before turning permanent, and it’s been very successful. This one is also starting as a pop-up, but if sales warrant it then I’ll convert it into a permanent store.
What was your background prior to starting your own brand?
I was with Natalie Massenet at Net-a-Porter in an advisory role to review the workings of the business. Prior to that I was running Aquascutum globally and we tried to do a management buy-out, but we got outbid by the Chinese partners of the brand.
What prompted you receiving an OBE?
I suppose that was more to do with what I did in 20 years at Marks & Spencer. I originally started as a management trainee, then I went through the ranks into merchandising, then executive and then director. I was the youngest and probably the only female director. I did a lot of work with the industry at that time and I worked with the international offices in various roles. I had a terrific career at M&S, and I absolutely loved it, but then I decided that I wanted to own my own brand, so I left in a buy-out, buying Pringle from the Dawson Group in 2000, and becoming the global CEO. I was there for five years before joining Aquascutum.
How did you go about starting Winser London in 2013?
I’d been very lucky to have worked with some great businesses. By the time I left M&S in 2000 the share price was £7.20 – it was still then a phenomenal business. I learnt a huge amount about how to run a business at those price points, and working with various really good quality manufacturers around the world. I knew how the whole business operated. I also learnt an awful lot at Net-a-Porter, as obviously it was one of the first real digital fashion businesses. In between, working with the luxury brands was also really interesting for me, completely different but the attention to perfect quality, fit and everything gave me real knowledge.
I kept looking at product, post 2009 really, when the recession hit. You could see that companies were really starting to struggle to protect their bottom line. So, they started to find ways to cut costs, and one of the biggest hits was taking the quality out of the product. I could see this happening everywhere yet the luxury players, if anything, were moving even more upmarket. Globally there was a demand for even higher-end, more personalised and unusual products. So, there was this separation, and I was just really passionate about the quality from the luxury goods sector and the love of fabric, fit, pattern cutting and the care and attention. But I also liked the fact that you should be able to offer it to a lot more people. It was how you combine the two things that was my driving force.
How did you go about finding your customer?
There were too many shops and that’s what attracted me to launch online. From a consumer point of view, I didn’t like throwaway fashion – I find it a little uncomfortable. In today’s world, it’s also certainly not very sustainable. I wanted it to be about your wardrobe favourites and feeling good about opening your wardrobe and putting things on. I thought that if I could combine that with really good quality fabrics, finish and fit – at an appealing price point, I could attract women to investment dressing but at a good price. That’s really what drove to start my own business. There’s no question that for me, and so many of my friends, a conversation on a regular basis was that you could either have throwaway fashion or you’d be spending an awful lot of money. You’d probably be buying something beautiful but, my goodness, you’d be paying for it for a year. I thought there had to be something in between. Some gorgeous things that you could have, but without paying huge prices.
What are your real winning pieces that people come back for?
We definitely have some really iconic products. We love the old Hollywood style so, when we first put a collection together, I spent days in my front room with my designers and we were playing around with fabrics, drawings and images. We just kept falling back on how amazing Audrey Hepburn looked in a photograph of her walking down the street in a just a simple off-the-shoulder cashmere sweater and a pair of cotton capri pants. Products that really every woman can wear. So, we designed this gorgeous cashmere sweater and we called it "Audrey" out of respect for her style. The Lauren Bacall was another inspiration for our silk shirts and wide leg trousers, which we always do really well with. People come back for them over and over again. We also do a stunning and easy to wear throw-on, belted, edge-to-edge coat. Put it on and your wardrobe is transformed. Those are the pieces that we’ve become quite famous for, as well as our great quality jersey "Miracle" dresses.
What’s special about those?
They stretch every which way. You can put the dress on in the morning, travel all day and, in the evening, it still looks really good. For women that’s a real bonus. They are in the top-sellers at Canary Wharf already. We now actually have a "Miracle" collection – including pencil skirts, trousers and leggings. There are pieces that are introductory price points to the collection, then at our top-end we have limited edition British made Harris Tweed coats. We’re best known for our modern workwear, right the way from your first day in work to becoming the chairman of the board. We definitely have both in our client base. We sell to mums and daughters and, in some instances, they actually wear the same things – they just wear them very differently. One of my personal favourites is the Lauren boyfriend blazer. I can wear it with the matching wide leg trousers, or skinny fit trousers – it’s very versatile, and that’s really how I’d describe my style.
What’s new for AW19?
We’re got some beautiful leather coats, which we’ve introduced for the first time. They’re very "fashion" in terms of colour, such as a very soft turquoise shade, a nude colour and a brown. Brown is very hot this season. They are very modern and clean shapes. We’ve also got the new Gillian Anderson collaboration collection, launching on 9 September. We’ve started to send out little snippets about it on social media, and we’ve already got a very long list in customer services waiting for the collection to drop. It’s exclusive to us, including knitwear, coats, dresses and blouses, and it’s really lovely. She has great style herself, so I asked her if she would do it. We already had a relationship in that we’d previously dressed her in some films and TV programmes. We did it before with Yasmin Le Bon, and that was a great success. So that’s very exciting for us, and I’m so pleased she found time out of her busy acting schedule to do the collection with us.