Management / Rene Carayol: As Kim Winser proves, today’s retailers have to be brilliant to thrive

Rene Carayol: As Kim Winser proves, today’s retailers have to be brilliant to thrive

Kim Winser OBE is one of the most successful women in British fashion retail. Aquascutum, Pringle of Scotland and Agent Provocateur were all transformed by her leadership, so when she launched her own label it was always going to be special.

rene-199x300I had the privilege of working for Kim while we were both at Marks and Spencer; she was brilliant then and has only blossomed since. Winser said: “We’ve just opened in California, which is very exciting, a whole new level of business. And we took over a townhouse in Mayfair during London Fashion Week.”

This was straight after the arrival of Winser London’s bold and innovative pop-up store at Fenwick in Bond Street last summer. She adds: “There are still a lot of companies stuck in a period where everything is very bureaucratic, which is a great shame as the young talent kicking around in the business don’t get their say.”

And this philosophy is at the heart of her latest business, Winser London – an online venture selling high-quality women’s clothing at affordable prices. “We’re in the Primark generation, where people want three items for the price of one. It’s shocking how much the quality of clothing generally has deteriorated in the past 15 years.”

But while she fuels her own brand with an agile strategy, she has doubts for those who struggle to adapt to today’s tough and unforgiving environment. The downturn has decimated the likes of Peacocks, La Senza and her former company, Aquascutum. All have fallen into administration, although Aquascutum was
later saved.

The conventional wisdom has been that an increasing volume of business will inevitably be done online, and so bricks-and-mortar shops are surplus to requirements. The desperate and decrepit remains of out-of-town supermarkets, from the video and book stores to the white goods shops, are testimony to the scorched earth that the internet has left in its wake as it has cut through Britain’s retail sector.

But it’s not all one-way traffic. Some new and mature retailers are fighting back. Businesses that were originally online-only are now rediscovering the old-fashioned virtues of the high street. Boden, one of Britain’s most successful fashion retailers with annual sales of about £280million, has been mail-order and online-only (except for one store) since it was founded in 1991. It is now planning to open several actual shops in Britain.

But it’s no longer about either online or bricks and mortar, it’s increasingly about both. Rapha, which sells high-end gear for well-heeled cyclists, was founded online in 2004, but now has a physical outlet in central London. And it’s more than just a traditional shop. Cyclists meet to start rides together, watch the Tour de France over cappuccinos or buy specially designed cycling snacks. It is particularly important for businesses whose customers would like to feel the products.

The recent trend for pop-up shops has helped these brave businesses to navigate their way offline. Pop-ups hire spaces for just a few months to test the local demand, and then move on if it’s not working. The Rapha clubs started as pop-ups.

A survey by the telecoms company EE estimates that one third of all new retail businesses will soon be pop-ups. These may not save the high street but they have a part to play.

Back to Kim Winser. “I think business was easier up until the past five years. You could have really good people and you could have average people, but because there was so much money out there, lots of companies that should have been in more difficulty weren’t. What’s happening now is you have to be better than average, and those who aren’t, are struggling and falling into administration. You can’t be just average any more. That, in a way, is quite exciting because it’s making people work harder, and think differently, and I think there are going to be some brands that develop well.”

The threat of losing our shops just might have made us start to value them again – but they must be different from before.

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