A couple of weekends ago I was invited to be part of Liberty’s excellent initiative, the Best of British Open Call. Sitting alongside associate womenswear buyer Stephanie Jones, I was on hand to give instant feedback to fashion designers who were chasing their dream of being stocked in Liberty. There were other buyers to see homes, accessories, jewellery and stationery designers and the event was organised with military precision. The set-up was a bit like Antiques Roadshow meets X-Factor (without the in-fighting). Each designer would have three minutes to pitch their work to us and hear our thoughts. In reality, that three minutes was slightly elastic but still only just enough time to get a look at the work, evaluate it (very quickly) and give some constructive advice.
Independent designers have the tricky task of pricing their goods competitively while making the entire exercise worth their while. Do some research on your chosen store’s pricing structure. Some stores have a mark-up of 2.5 while others are higher. We found that a lot of designs pitched to us would retail at a higher price than a similar piece by a more recognised designer. While it’s understandable that unknown designers don’t have the luxury of factories to produce their designs, it pays to be realistic. If a customer sees your dress hanging next to Stella McCartney’s and the Stella dress is cheaper, they will probably go for the name they know. If you can price your pieces as competitively as possible to start with, you can increase the prices later when you are more established. Another way to bring the price down? Go easy on the details. We saw a few designs that had a lot of detail (in my opinion, too much). Each extra pocket, buckle, ruffle or decorative zip adds to the cost price of the garment. By stripping things back slightly, you can save money on production and make your design easier on the eye.
When visiting a buyer, plan your presentation. Even outside an Antiques Roadshow-style format, you will probably still only have a few minutes to get your ideas across. Those few minutes are crucial so don’t waste time faffing with folders and unwieldy packages. The designers we saw were limited to showing four items which meant everything was focussed on those four and no time was wasted. Even if you’re not given a limit on what to bring, it pays to keep samples to a minimum as it’s less overwhelming for the buyer. But do bring other materials that might help sell your designs. Those who brought look books or professional photographs had a head start as showing some beautiful images instantly cuts down on explanation time. Plus it means the buyer has something portable to take away and refer to. I’d advise against taking amateurish reference materials. If you can’t afford to produce something of a high standard it’s better to give it as miss rather than leaving a negative impression. One designer brought along a model and her PR! Slightly cheeky but the product was of a high standard. If you’re not confident that you can sell your work adequately then why not take ‘your PR’ along with you if that person is better at explaining your work than you? Some designers were very good at telling the story of their work. Like the fancy look books, these things help leave a memorable impression so if your designs do have an interesting story, share it (succinctly), it might just swing the decision-making.
Your samples should be of the highest standard you can possibly produce. This is your one chance of showing your work to a retailer that you really want to sell to; don’t mess it up! Far better to show three beautiful samples and leave them wanting more, than ten so-so ones. You also want to demonstrate that dealing with you will be a positive, professional experience. The designers who made the best impression were the ones who showed beautifully finished samples or presented immaculate look books. If you want to be represented in a store like Liberty I guess you need to prove that your stuff deserves to be there.
I was intrigued to find out exactly what type of fashion we would be presented with at the Open Call. Liberty has been through numerous changes during the last five years and the store continues to evolve. Exciting yes, but not easy to keep track of, especially if you don’t live in London. I noticed a particular trend for ‘transformer’ fashion – functional pieces that turned from one thing into another or had sections that unfastened in some way so the piece could be worn in different configurations. Of course, these appealed to my practical side so I loved those designs! But remember that tricksy items need to make sense on the hanger – no-one is going to be standing there explaining how to wear them. Then there were the more homespun and upcycled items – some lovely, some less so. A few designers and craftspeople had an old fashioned idea of what Liberty is. Some designers were used to selling at local craft fairs and dreamed of selling at Liberty. Liberty is about quality so where designs were a bit too ‘crunchy’ or ‘market stall’ we suggested perhaps adding a more luxe trimming or other contemporary detail to their items, just to elevate them a notch. Christopher Raeburn is one designer whose upcycled parachute jackets were presented at a previous Best of British Open Call and now sell successfully at Liberty. Although upcycled, his designs are impeccably made and extremely fashionable. Not a hint of ‘crunch’ to be seen!
It’s so important to research your market. Even if you’re not from London, if you have an appointment at Liberty (or any other store) try to find out what other labels are stocked there, how the floors are laid out or if changes are afoot. Is your product really relevant to that store? Where do you see it sitting? Does it sell something similar already? In which case why should it sell your item? Your item might be more competitively priced or a better design in which case, great! But do your research to avoid a wasted trip. Also, know the answers (without dithering) to the questions that are likely to be asked. What’s your cost price? Where are your designs produced? Where are you selling currently? What’s your set-up? Can you cope with a big order? Research fashion trends as well. One designer showed 1920s accessories that were very in keeping with Prada’s jazzy SS11 collection and the forthcoming Great Gatsby film. Flag up anything particularly on trend about your designs if you think that will help your cause.
Be prepared to listen to feedback and take on board constructive criticism. If your collection isn’t right for the store at that time, there’s no point arguing, babbling and continuing to push your product onto the buyer. Far better to take on board the advice and try again next time. (FYI, there’s another open call in August.)
On following up
There’s nothing wrong with dropping your buyer a ‘lovely to meet you and thanks for seeing me’ email post-appointment. But don’t bug them with relentless ‘are you going to buy my collection?’ emails. If your work is right, you’ll hear from them. I think a short email with a few bullet points reiterating any useful information is perfectly adequate. No need for large attachments and definitely nothing that puts pressure on them to reply.
Here’s a little clip of Stephanie and I in action…
Liberty’s last Open Call was filmed for BBC2’s Britain’s Next Big Thing series which focusses on emerging design talent in the UK. The 7-part series, hosted by Theo Paphitis, airs tomorrow at 8pm.