Launching a new fashion brand is no easy feat. It’s a fickle, crowded and fiercely competitive industry – one where far more businesses fail than succeed. But in its first year of trading, online womenswear brand Finery London made £5 million in sales and shipped products to 100,000 customers. It has since earned a place on the rails of one of the UK’s best-loved department stores, John Lewis. It’s been a brilliant success so far – one that’s built on its founders’ commercial experience, attention to detail and focus on making beautiful but affordable clothes that won’t date after just one season.
Finery was started by Caren Downie, Emma Farrow and Rachel Morgans in 2014. All three have considerable experience in the industry: Downie was previously fashion director at ASOS, Farrow was design director at Topshop and Morgans was ASOS’s head buyer. But after decades of working for major retailers, the group had grown tired of fast fashion and the throwaway culture pervading the high street.
“Emma and I had come to the conclusion that there wasn’t a lot to inspire and delight us on the high street anymore,” says Downie, who is brand director. “With the economic downturn, everybody had decided to focus on the younger market, and bringing prices down while keeping margins up. Value for money and attention to detail in the product just wasn’t there anymore,” she adds. “The idea behind [Finery] was to be brave and do things that nobody else was doing any longer – to bring detail and value for money and love back to the product.”
Emma and I had come to the conclusion that there wasn’t a lot to inspire and delight us on the high street anymore…value for money and attention to detail in the product just wasn’t there
With most dresses priced from £45 to £80 and tops from £25 to £60, Finery is neither cheap nor particularly expensive. Its prices are similar to successful H&M-owned brands & Other Stories and Cos. “Value for money was really important,” says Downie. “We felt very strongly that people should be able to afford beautifully designed pieces.” There are some similarities with Cos – both brands aim to make pieces that are timeless and not based solely on trends – but Finery’s clothes are a little less minimal and a little more feminine.
Many of its products are wardrobe staples – black dresses, leather jackets and parkas – but each collection features several statement pieces. There is also a focus on bright colours, prints and patterns, as well as stand-out details such as frills and asymmetric hems. “We try to give everything a Finery twist,” says Farrow, who is head of design.
Colour is a key part of Finery’s visual identity, which was designed by London studio Assembly. Its logo is deep red – a shade that also appears on its carefully crafted packaging. Items are packaged in a Finery branded plastic bag placed inside a cardboard box to ensure they arrive crease-free and in perfect condition. On its website, clothes are pictured not against white backgrounds but shades of purple, yellow and green, something that has helped the brand stand out against a sea of black-and-white designs with thumbnail images.
“We were very aware when we started that it’s quite difficult to build a connection with your customers when you’re online only and that was one of the things that I was really concerned about doing from the outset, so we wanted to do something that looked very different from what was considered the norm I suppose,” says Downie.
“When you think about ASOS and Net-a-Porter, they were both born at the same time and they look, in terms of the black-and-white design and the size of the pictures and all that, in a similar ethos. And because they’ve been so successful, a lot of other brands have copied what they do. So we did set out to do something very different – and again to try and inspire and make beautiful pictures as well as beautiful clothes,” she continues.
“We wanted to make it look much more visually pleasing … we also wanted the customers to understand the quality of the fabric and the detail in the fabric – something that’s quite hard to understand unless you can see pictures at a certain size.” Conveying the look, feel or quality of a garment online is always challenge, but Farrow says great care is taken with lighting and the way clothes are shot to ensure that pieces look luxurious.
We wanted it to feel like it was a brand for everybody, we didn’t want to alienate people
The website is designed to feel luxurious but accessible. “We wanted it to feel like it was a brand for everybody, we didn’t want to alienate people,” says Downie. Bold colours and unusual type create a sense of fun and there’s a warmth that runs throughout the copy.
A section of the website titled Chapters offers a window into the brand, with articles about key collaborations and new product ranges. One chapter presents a collaboration with six inspiring women – including Vicky McClure from This is England, Hot Feminist author and columnist Polly Vernon, and TV and fashion editor Agata Belcen – to create a range of ‘forever pieces’. Another details the brand’s work with print house Ensell & Hall.
Each chapter details the making of a piece – highlighting the brand’s creative process and the level of craft and attention to detail that goes into each of its products – and also features Downie and Farrow talking about new collections. b “[With Chapters], we wanted to show what inspires us – it’s not just fashion … or what comes off the catwalks,” explains Downie. “We definitely have plans to develop those chapters and the editorial – it’s something we’ve always had bigger plans for.”
So far, Finery has achieved success with next to no advertising. The brand has run some ads on Facebook but most of the buzz around it was created through coverage in fashion magazines and the style pages of national newspapers. “It’s nice to get other people who want to endorse the product on your behalf, because it feels a lot more genuine,” adds Downie.
BELOW: Pieces from Finery London’s AW16 collection. The idea behind the collection, according to the brand’s website, was to deconstruct classic pieces and turn pretty florals on their head with a graphic edge.
In February 2015, to coincide with its launch, Finery opened a pop-up shop in Covent Garden, where people could try on clothes and find their size. “We just had one of each style on the shop floor, which allowed us to showcase the product in a beautiful way and then we had a fitting room and a stock room downstairs and some advisers to help people put outfits together,” says Downie. Women could then order clothes online and have them delivered the next day.
While Facebook has been useful in bringing people to the site – “it’s the obvious channel that everyone uses,” says Downie – the brand is now increasingly focusing on Instagram to promote its products online. “I think with Instagram, you can keep things much more in the handwriting of the brand, and showcase things in the way you really want them to be seen.” Much of its business, however, comes from word of mouth, with people recommending products to their friends and family.
I think with Instagram, you can keep things much more in the handwriting of the brand, and showcase things in the way you really want them to be seen.
In the brand’s early days, Downie and Farrow imagined Finery’s core customers would be women in their 30s – a group who had outgrown high street stores aimed at teens and 20-somethings. Most of its customers are in fact slightly older, in their late 30s to late 40s, but range from 17 to 70-something.
Farrow and Downie didn’t initially set out to create age-neutral clothes, but are proud of their diverse following. The brand’s broad appeal is in part a reflection of Finery’s small but diverse team – all of whom are closely involved in the design process – but it’s also down to a focus on making versatile clothes that flatter a range of shapes, sizes and skin tones.
“I think we always wanted to be very democratic in our approach … and that meant we did appeal to lots of different women,” says Farrow. “[Having customers of varying ages] is a real achievement I think – just because you’re older doesn’t mean you don’t still want to be frivolous and have fun with fashion,” she adds. Older women are often overlooked on the high street– as Farrow points out, “unless you can afford to buy luxury designs, you can’t get anything that’s quite bold and brave and fun…. [For brands], it’s almost like you’re not meant to say you’re designing for an older age group. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a taboo.”
While Farrow and Downie pay close attention to trends, they are more concerned with making clothes that women will keep for years to come – and that can be mixed with pieces in their existing wardrobe. When designing new collections, Farrow finds inspiration in everything from art to architecture and vintage clothes found in thrift stores. This is a common approach in luxury fashion but less so on the high street, where collections are often informed by the most popular looks from Fashion Week or what sold well last year.
“We wanted to work more as we imagine a luxury fashion house might, starting with a creative concept … and thinking about each collection as a story in its own right, while still having those classic shapes in there,” says Farrow. As a new brand, Finery has more freedom to experiment than larger stores, “but we also have that knowledge and experience of coming from those high street brands,” she adds. “We know how to decode the DNA of a collection, and work out what’s going to be a bestseller, so you’re underpinning that newness with solid commercial decisions. We would never put anything in a collection that all of us didn’t like and we make sure every product is there for a reason.”
Over a third of Finery’s products are made in the UK – Downie says she is passionate about supporting British manufacturing, making clothes abroad only when they require a material or skill that is hard to find in the UK. (Embroidered pieces are often made in India and leather shoes in Spain).
As of this month, Finery will be stocked in 11 John Lewis stores around the UK – a partnership that Downie hopes will help build the brand’s presence outside of London. (It is also stocked at Brown Thomas in Ireland). Finery is also working on new collaborations and product ranges and hopes to do more business internationally.
There is, however, a desire to grow the business steadily – ensuring that Finery doesn’t lose sight of the slow fashion mentality that has won it so many fans in the first place. “There are categories that we haven’t even explored yet that we would like to, but I think the most important thing is to retain the authority and integrity of what we’re doing and not dilute our message,” says Farrow.
The brand’s success is perhaps an indication of a growing dissatisfaction with fast fashion, particularly among women who are less concerned with chasing the latest trends than they are with buying well-fitting and versatile clothes. Downie believes that many people are fed up with a high street where clothes increasingly look the same – which perhaps explains why brands such as Cos, Finery and & Other Stories are becoming so popular.
“The high street has generally become fairly homogenised so I think people are quite fed up with looking the same. I think they’re definitely moving towards smaller brands and something that’s a bit more individual,” she adds.