Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Jade Holland Cooper on building a £10 million fashion brand

When Jade Holland Cooper was seven years old, she started her first business. "It was selling eggs," she remembers. "I had 30 hens, and the other day I found my old notebook where I was listing variable costs and profit – I've always been quite commercially minded."

Today, the 31 year old has swapped eggs for clothes. But one suspects that there is still a notebook somewhere in which she scrutinises the accounts. Indeed, she reveals the best piece of advice she was given when she said she wanted to start a fashion company was from her father: "He said I had to make sure I combined creativity with knowing the numbers; so I learnt about the financials and now run the business strictly according to regular management accounts."

Holland Cooper's father is a farmer and her mother worked as a couturier in London and Paris. It is perhaps unsurprising that, with these dual influences, as a teenager she was torn between pursuing a place at fashion college and one at agricultural college. The Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester won out, but it didn’t take long for her to rethink.

"I was going to all these social events in the country," Holland Cooper explains. "I'm a country girl at heart – I grew up on an arable farm in Suffolk, after all. So, I'd travel around to the polo and horse trials, and everywhere I went I noticed there was a lack of stylish, fashionable clothing for women to wear at these sorts of places: clothes that had the flair of urban pieces, but with a countryside influence." She decided there was a gap she could fill and determined to have a go; she reasoned that if she ended up wanting to learn farming, she could do that at home with her father without the college time. She was 21.

"I was really young, I suppose, but I had this idea and I was convinced I could make it work," she explains. "And I am tenacious – like a dog with a bone once I make up my mind to do something. The hardest thing was persuading people to take me seriously and then having to hire and manage people who were often twice my age. But I soon showed that I knew what I was talking about and things quickly took off."

The principle behind the business is simple, she says. The town/country fashion divide is being broken down by widely available imagery on social media and online and the fact that now many people have places in both. "In Cheltenham, where I'm based now, this is so apparent," she explains. "We have great arts festivals and horseracing here, and there are good restaurants and shops. Many people live between here and London now, and they want sophisticated, elegant and stylish clothes that can work in both settings."

A look at the website (through which the label does 60% of its sales) shows how this philosophy has developed a modern take on classic country-influenced clothing for men and women. Scottish-tweed jackets stylishly cut to give a fashionable fit, waxed cotton capes that are as well suited to festivals as to the polo, skirts in houndstooth and brown Prince of Wales check that can do boardroom as well as outdoors, stylish short coats in camel and country check that are equally at home in the Cotswolds and Chelsea, as well as a wide range of accessories, including on-trend tweed baker boy caps.

Holland Cooper's hunch about the desire for this hybrid look was correct. In ten years, the firm has gone from being a 21-year-old's dream to a £10 million business, with two stores in the UK (and five new ones in development) and many others stocking its wares around the country and abroad, including Harrods, where it is the best-performing label on the 5th floor. Along the way, the founder has managed to build a successful relationship with a network of factories in the UK, and has championed British wool and tweed. This year alone she bought 800,000 metres of British tweed. The homegrown element of the business is something she is very proud of, as is the in-house apprentice scheme she has started for young people to get them into the fashion industry.

What advice, then, would this young entrepreneur give to others thinking about striking out on their own? "Do not be swayed from your vision," she says emphatically. "If you believe in yourself, be clear, understand your journey, your customer, and make sure the DNA of the brand is always there. Don't create products that your customer doesn't understand and doesn't want. Create for real people; don't just create product for the sake of it."

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Artificial Intelligence Could Help Generate the Next Big Fashion Trends

A fashion designer working on a new collection has an idea, but wonders if it’s been done before. Another is looking for historical inspiration—1950s-style wasp waists or 80s-era padded shoulders.

Soon, they might turn to Cognitive Prints for help. The suite of AI tools IBM is developing for the fashion industry can take a photo of a dress or a shirt and search for similar garments. It can search for images with specific elements—Mandarin collars, for example, or gladiator laces, or fleur-de-lis prints. It can also design patterns itself, based on any image data set a user inputs—architectural images, amoebas, sunsets.

“Fashion designers arduously put in efforts and time in coming up with new designs which could potentially be trend-setters,” says Priyanka Agrawal, a research scientist at IBM Research India, who has worked on Cognitive Prints. “Additionally, they have inspirations like architecture or technology, which they aspire to translate into their work. However, it becomes difficult to do something novel and interesting every single time. We wanted to make it easier for them by augmenting the design lifecycle.”

The AI image search engine, a collaboration between IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), was trained using 100,000 print swatches from 10 years of winning Fashion Week entries. Users can filter results by year, designer or inspiration (say, “Japanese street wear”). Designers can get inspired, or can make sure their inspiration is really their own and not inadvertent plagiarism (Gucci was recently accused of ripping off designs from legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan; they’ve since launched a collaboration).

The Cognitive Prints team is looking at making several extensions to the tool’s abilities. They want to enable designers to make custom edits to Cognitive Prints-generated designs, like changing the background color or, say, swapping spirals for circles on a fabric. They’d also like to teach the tool to design entire garments given just a few specifications, like “red one-shoulder dresses with ruffled hem.”

The use of AI in fashion has exploded in recent years. Various online services use AI to peruse the internet or your own social media data to suggest new outfits it thinks might be to your taste. Indian designers Shane and Falguni Peacock used IBM’s AI platform, Watson, to search a half-century of Bollywood and high-fashion images—some 600,000 in total—to help them create a new East-meets-West collection. Tommy Hilfiger partners with IBM and FIT to use AI to help identify trends in real time, for a quicker design-to-store time. Amazon has created its own AI designer as well, capable of generating new garments.

Agrawal thinks we’ll be seeing much more of this in the near future.

“As AI progress continues to advance, fashion [will] see more transformations,” she says. “For example, with the rise of conversational agents and virtual reality/augmented reality technology, it should not be long until users can not only query fashion catalogs but also interact, iterate and [be inspired by] the technology.”

Muchaneta Kapfunde, founder and editor-in-chief of the technology and fashion site FashNerd, agrees. AI is becoming common at the retail end of fashion, she says, with stores using algorithms to predict customers’ needs. It’s also being used in attempts to create more sustainable materials, an important consideration in an industry that’s one of the world’s top polluters.

But Kapfunde thinks it will be a while before AI tools like Cognitive Prints are ready to design quality garments on their own.

“The idea of using technology to design a perfect dress, it sounds great in theory, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s not so easy to implement,” she says. “We still need the human touch.”

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Major Fashion Names Among Worst Offenders in Britain Gender Pay Gap

LONDON — This week, as the final hours ticked down to the deadline for British companies to report their gender pay gap data or face a fine, a flurry of last-minute filings revealed a stark and unflattering trend: Fashion and beauty brands, predominantly focused on female consumers and audiences, and often employing an overwhelmingly female staff, are among the worst offenders in the country when it comes to paying men more than women.

The explanation, according to several companies? A coterie of men in a handful of top-tier executive roles, while the majority of entry-level, retail, design and distribution center jobs are held by women, creating a gendered, pyramid employment structure reflected across sectors in the fashion industry.

Take Condé Nast Publications Limited, publisher of magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour and GQ. The company reported data on Tuesday that revealed it to have the largest mean gender pay gap favoring men among all British media publishers and broadcasters, despite having more women than men at every pay quartile.

The company reported a mean gender pay gap of 36.9 percent (in other words, when comparing mean hourly rates, women earn 63 pence, or 83 cents, for every 1 pound, or $1.40, that men earn) and a median gap of 23 percent (when comparing median hourly rates, women earn 77 pence, or $1.08, for every £1, or $1.40, that men earn).

In a statement published alongside the data, Condé Nast attributed its salary skew to its longstanding and male-dominated senior leadership team. The chairman of Condé Nast Britain, Nicholas Coleridge, for example, has held various roles across the executive team since 1991. Jonathan Newhouse has led Condé Nast International for over 30 years. The statement said that across three-quarters of its business, the company had not found evidence of an appreciable gender pay gap. Three-quarters of all Condé Nast employees are female, with the bottom two salary quartiles particularly dominated by women.

The disparity of wages that exist within most fashion businesses was further underscored by the figures produced by many brands and retailers. The middle market women’s wear brand Karen Millen pays women 49 percent less than men on a median hourly basis, meaning that, companywide, men’s median pay was double that of women. Women made up 84 percent of the company’s top positions, with a female C.E.O. and C.F.O., and the same proportion of men and women received bonuses, yet women’s median bonus pay was 96 percent lower than men’s.

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In a statement, the company said that this was because the majority of its retail assistants and distribution center staff were women, and that the small percentage of male employees worked mostly in its head office.

“Our gender gap paints a misleading picture about our commitment to gender diversity and equality,” the statement read, adding that when head office roles were excluded, the gender pay gap dropped to 6 percent. It did not, however, address why so many head office roles were filled by men instead of women.

Other high-profile names included Victoria’s Secret, with a median hourly rate gap of 19 percent, and Benefit Cosmetics, which revealed a 30.7 percent median hourly rate gap, although women made up more than 90 percent of each pay quartile at the company. At Burberry, where women make up 70 percent of the luxury fashion group’s employees, there is a 26 percent gender pay gap in favor of men, who get higher bonuses too. None of the companies in this article wished to provide further comment beyond the statements released with their data.

“While we continue to take steps to ensure employees at all levels are able to fulfill their potential and further their careers at Burberry, and are recognized for their contribution, we know we can do more,” said the Burberry chief executive, Marco Gobbetti, when the company released its data last month. “This report shows that we have a gender pay gap in the U.K. The gap is influenced by the fact that we have fewer women in senior positions, however we are committed to narrowing this gap as we work to develop more women leaders to drive the growth and success of our business.”

More than 2,500 companies, equivalent to one in four, submitted their gender pay gap figures in the 48 hours before midnight on Wednesday. Last year, the government ordered all British companies with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap reports by midnight on April 4.

The hope, it said, was to shame companies into doing more to close the divide. On the final day of results, findings indicated that 78 percent of companies showed a pay gap in favor of men, 14 percent had a gap favoring women and 8 percent had no gender pay gap. The government calculated that Britain’s overall pay gap is 18.1 percent.

Prime Minister Theresa May called the gender pay gap a “burning injustice,” and added that the whole of society would remain “poorer” if outdated employment practices went unchallenged.

The effort in Britain is one of a growing number of initiatives among countries to promote equal pay. Australia recently mandated gender pay gap reporting for most companies, while in Germany a new law will require businesses with more than 500 employees to reveal their pay gaps. The fashion industry, riding high on selling female empowerment via T-shirt slogans and social media hashtags, is starting to look like the employer equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Spring Fashion Captured by a Photographer Who Hides Faces

The 23-year-old photographer Arielle Bobb-Willis rarely shows a model’s face. “I want their egos to be taken away,” she says. Her fashion photographs are kinetic, snapped as models twist and manipulate the bright color-block clothing that contains them. Without a face, she says, every element in a photograph’s composition has equal play: the clothes, the setting, and the model tell a single story.

For this fashion shoot, Bobb-Willis went to New Orleans, where her mother is from, with a box of our fashion editors’ favorite looks from the spring 2018 runways. She photographed women who live in the city wearing colorful dresses, accordion pants, and plastic knee-high boots, all while contorting on sidewalks and in abandoned fields. “The colors and the composition of the city have always inspired me,” she says. “There’s just this heaviness to it. It’s so vibrant, but there’s a spooky undertone that runs through.”

Bobb-Willis developed an abstract, dissociative style while struggling with anxiety and depression, using photography as a form of therapy. “I felt like my body was something I was renting more so than something that was given to me,” she says. “When I’m shooting, I’m focusing on what’s in front of me and nothing else.”

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Exploring Femininity With Fashion at the New Orleans Museum of Art

When fashion curator Sofia Hedman first assembled “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes” in St. Louis in 2013, she did so with a psychological approach typical to her exhibitions. But now, as a revamped version of the largely avant-garde presentation opens this week at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Hedman’s vision has shifted, along with the collective zeitgeist.

“One thing I’ve learned in the past five years is how politically aware people are today,” explains Hedman, who holds a BA in psychology from Stockholm University. “We wanted now to do something that is quite contemporary and touches on pressing issues such as sustainability, race and inclusivity.”

Comprised of over 100 gowns, shoes, headpieces and jewelry from more than 50 renowned and up-and-coming designers, the museum’s first fashion exhibition explores how pieces of “bold couture” can illustrate various forms of femininity. Iconic pieces from Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons and Gucci stand alongside works of photography, sculpture and art including experimental video from South African designer Rich Mnisi.

Calling the exhibition a “celebration of femininity,” Hedman focused her scope of “QA Queen Within” to include only designs of the past decade, building on mythological personality archetypes to illustrate how wearable art can tell a woman’s story in real life.

“We look at the [archetype] of the ‘Thespian,’ who is blessed with imagination,” continues the Swedish-born curator. “We also look at ‘Mother Earth,’ which [investigates] how to make the world more sustainable for the future. Then we have the ‘Explorer,’ who is an independent-minded pioneer, the ‘Enchantress’ or femme fatale, the ‘Heroine’ with a very strong personal morality and, lastly, the ‘Magician’ who is the visionary artist and inventor. She is reimagining a new future.”

Masterfully presenting these lofty concepts has become the norm for Hedman, who in 2010 acted as London-based archivist for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.”

“There’s been a huge shift politically in just the last five years,” she observes. “I’m very intrigued with looking at fashion from a sociological perspective, but also trying to understand why we dress as we do and what it means.”

Susan Taylor, the director of NOMA, offers a more straightforward assessment, describing the museum’s latest installation as “definitively [demonstrating] that fashion is art.”

Hedman, who describes New Orleans as “bubbling with creativity and culture,” understands the many layers of symbolism may not reach each visitor of the collection, which is open through May. Instead, her hope is that people “see it as a celebration of femininity, but also makes people think about their own lives and how they dress every morning.”

Integral to each of Hedman’s projects is to create a provocative experience that inspires self-reflection for the visitor, which she argues is often easiest with fashion (over other visual arts) given its daily role in our lives. “Today, you can see a lot of people want to create more communities and it becomes very political. You buy clothes to belong to a community or show you have certain values.”

“Some people say they don’t care about clothes, but then they use fashion to tell a story,” she adds. “There are a lot of possibilities with fashion as an art form and you make a statement when you dress every morning. It’s good to be aware of it.”