Q&A: River Island’s brand director Farida Kaikobad discusses social media, the future of fast fashion and *that* blogger collection

A few months ago, there was a big old hoo-ha when Fashion Editor at Large published a post about River Island’s blogger-inspired range. The range is part of the River Island AW12 collection and was presented during the press preview but there was a bit of an uproar from bloggers feeling they were being lumped together in a ‘blogger style’ of clashy prints and OTT ‘please-photograph-me’ accessories. The collection is now trickling onto the shop floor so to coincide, I emailed some questions to River Island’s brand director, Farida Kaikobad to find out how a high street brand puts its collections together in these crazy speedy-to-market times, how blogging and social media affects the brand and how that blogger range came about…

DISNEYROLLERGIRL: How many womenswear collections does River Island produce a year? How do the timings work?
FARIDA KAIKOBAD: River Island works to four collections per year, however over the past 2 years the UK retail landscape has changed enormously. The thirst for ‘new and fresh’ is increasingly challenging and the lack of true seasonal weather has changed the way we all dress. So, in truth, lately we have been delivering new drops more regularly with a ‘buy now, wear now’ emphasis. Over the 3 decades I have worked in fashion, the mysterious slow burn of trends has almost disappeared to a flurry of many trends all at once. The A/W12 collection starts to be discussed just as we finish the previous Autumn; at that time you’re in the right zone.

DRG: Is it designed in house or do you buy from outside as well?
FK: All our collections are conceived and designed in-house. Over 5 decades we have built up one of the largest design teams on the UK high street – we have our own pattern cutters and sample machinists so we’re really like an ‘atelier’ on a larger scale. We really prize design and are proud to say that over the past decade we have offered work experience and full time employment to literally hundreds of graduates from our design colleges and universities. So we don’t become too insular we regularly meet with our outside suppliers to see what they are working on. At River Island we are all about teamwork and partnership for the good of the brand.

DRG: Can you tell me more about the blogger range? How does a collection like that come about?
FK: We recognised the need for a collection that represents the girl who isn’t afraid of standing out from a crowd. We also recognised that this style of dressing is common amongst the blogging community. Bloggers like Susie Bubble or Tavi, who will happily team a vintage Chanel dress with Kaleidoscope leggings and ballet pumps are able to express their creativity by the way they dress. I am not saying that all bloggers dress like this or should dress like this, it just became clear to us that bloggers are the ‘new models’ the new ‘faces of’ and as such, our customers are inspired by them.
It felt like the right moment to introduce this influence to our customers. Bloggers are becoming more and more influential and they share the spirit of having fun with fashion. It allowed us to show off River Island items in a fresh way that will appeal to an emerging sector of customer base.

DRG: What are the key influences in your collections? Is it pop culture? Magazines? Customer shopping patterns? Stylists?
FK: All of the above influence our collections. Being on the high street since 1964, we are also able to go back through our archives to have a look at past collections. These days, more than ever, we have to be on our toes all the time. It is harder and harder to predict where and when an influence might result in good sales – will Le Marais district of Paris have more influence than the great Gatsby? Than Jessie J?

DRG: Do you do research trips? Can you explain how this works? What are the best and worst bits?
FK: Our design and buying teams travel the globe, literally. We work as a team and different small groups cover different regions. Many of us never stop. Whether it’s holidays, family days out or organised shopping, our radar is on ‘Alert’ at all times. The worst bits are the 4am wake up calls, the best is the evening meal, laughing and having fun discussing that day’s finds.

DRG: Do you use fashion stylists as creative consultants? How does this relationship work?
FK: The best we can do for our brand is remain as informed as possible, so sharing ideas, getting support and confirmation from all levels of the industry is crucial. We enjoy great partnerships with a handful of industry professionals, from colour experts, to top stylists to bloggers.

DRG: How has the rise of social media, blogs and customer engagement shaped what you produce? How will it continue to change how the fast fashion industry develops?
FK: The rise of social media, blogs and customer engagement has definitely shaped what we produce as well as the turnaround from production to store. Our customers are very savvy and if a product is getting talked about a lot on social media, we will do our best to get the product in store as quickly as possible. As our customers have become a lot more demanding, we have had to become savvy in the way we retail. Fast fashion has never been as fast as it is now, customers see a product they like and want to own it as soon as possible. Things like the River Island App allows customers to shop on the go. We talk to our customers daily now, and have access to 100 countries via the web. Hopefully this very immediate sharing of information will help us satisfy them even more.

DRG: How important is timing? How can you be sure whether peach ponchos are a good bet for this season rather than in a year’s time? Is there a science or do you go on instinct?
FK: Timing is everything and we are able to test a lot more now with the web. The speed of response is immediate and with our supply chain skills we’re able to fulfill demand much quicker these days. It is just the right balance of gut instinct and savvy business skills; when you’re dealing in millions of pounds, same caution is required. It used to be a lot easier to anticipate the trends and the winners. The industry was privy to information that the public were not, so to some degree the stores controlled a lot more what the public perceived as ‘available fashion’. These days, the public can see the designer shows the very minute we do. They can then decide themselves what they may want or not want to buy that season instead of us filtering that information for them. The public are now their own editors. Timing is everything, it can make or break a season. Who said fashion was frivolous?!

DRG: How quickly can a store like River Island react to a trend and produce product in response?
FK: This depends on the complexity of the product. So a T-shirt could be within two weeks but a leather jacket would take 2-3 months. With good work from our teams, our delivery times have never been so short. We were one of the first high street brands to realise the importance of manufacturing in the UK. We have made in the UK for decades and we are proud to be supporting factories in London, Leicester, and Manchester that allow us to deliver speed to our customers and support UK employment and industry.

DRG: How soon do you know if something has been been a commercial disaster and what do you do to salvage it?
FK: After testing on the web and then delivering to stores, we try to minimise real disasters, however of course these do happen. The best remedy is to sell the goods at a price that makes them look attractive to the customers and hopefully covers the company’s costs. We give ourselves targets on disasters V success and we have one of the best track records on the high street.

DRG: What sort of trends are exciting to you at River Island now (not just fashion trends but retail, lifestyle, technology…)?
FK: Our e-commerce continues to thrive with growing customer bases over Europe and as far afield as Australia so our IT development is key. Our phone app has been recognised as one of the best on the high street. Our new technology will provide an even more satisfying experience to our customers both in store and on the go. We love retail and the in-store experience. Our store development team are always evolving our design to ensure customers have the best possible experience when they choose to shop in store. We are influenced by interior trends and cool stores all over the world. We are always immersed in fashion. Our teams are currently at festivals, on holiday or researching somewhere interesting in London. Celebrities are part of our culture and we enjoy seeing our items worn and mixed with high end. We love monitoring emerging artists, especially those who have fun with their fashion.

River Island AW12 moodboards and pieces from the blogger range

River Island AW12 is in store now