Words by CFE’s Bethany Greer
For young, emerging designers, wholesale proves a difficult path to achieve financial success. Unforgiving margins and order minimums lead many brands to go under before they even begin. Although direct-to-consumer is an easier path in theory, due to low cost and barriers of entry, standing out in a highly overcrowded market can make it almost impossible to connect with the right consumers. So how can small, independent brands reach their audience and grow?
Rebecca Morter, founder of Lone Design Club (LDC), and her business partner, Stephanie Fleming, are betting on their curated concept stores to unite the power of many customer bases and cultivate an empowered community. Since 2016, LDC has been hosting pop up stores all across London, gaining industry recognition for their unique designer-led experiences and focus on long lasting client relationships.
Morter is an LCF alum graduating from BA (Hons) Fashion Design Development in 2013, and Lone Design Club is currently on the fashion tech pioneer program at Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) – UAL’s business incubator & accelerator. CFE is a university project match-funded by European Regional Development Fund that offers programmes which foster innovation across fashion, fashion tech and business, for aspiring entrepreneurs and emerging fashion designer businesses in London.
Morter understands first-hand the difficulties a young fashion brand must face. Encouraged by the British Fashion Council, she co-launched her own label, REIN, at London Fashion Week in 2015. Despite its initial success, the brand was unable to keep up with wholesale demands or financial obligations and had little opportunity to engage with their customer. This experience led her to start LDC.
‘New retail’, as LDC calls it, means that independent designers can now authentically engage with their audiences and shoppers can feel empowered to shop transparent and unique products. Their last pop up, which took place July 4-24 in Covent Garden, featured everything from laser-cut silk dresses to body positive empowering underwear to stackable jewellery made in Bali.
We sat down with Rebecca and Steph to learn more about LDC and how they are paving the path for tomorrow’s consumer:
Could you speak a bit about the conception of LDC; how difficult was it to get off the ground? Where did you first look to support this venture?
LDC was initially set-up by a group of designers who were facing their own challenges getting their products in front of customers and growing their audience. Many were going down the wholesale route which is quite restrictive for a small brands, with oftentimes unfair terms and little opportunity to meet the customers. We then decided to take back the reigns of our own businesses and unite to create our first pop-up as a way to access our direct customers and introduce our products to new ones.
“Alone we did not have the resources to get a central London location, but 8 brands together did.”
We each harnessed our own social media following and customer base, which together was more powerful than just one brand. Our fist pop-up was for one day in Soho, where we actually started making money from direct sales, met customers and learned from them and each other. We realised that no one was really uniting independent designers in this way and there was a definite need and demand for it. LDC has grown 100% organically since its inception.
What have you learnt about today’s consumer since starting LDC and how has this informed your growth?
Since starting LDC we have found that today’s customer loves a story that they can support wholeheartedly. They want to meet the designer and hear the brand’s story, mission and purpose, and really experience the passion that goes into product creation. We aim to bridge the gap between shopper and designer, and really strengthen that connection as we grow and add more elements to the LDC experience. Guests to LDC can not only meet the designers in-store daily, but we now also have a series of designer-led workshops and demonstrations, and are now adding a “Behind the Brands” evening at our LFW store where guests can get a real hands-on experience behind the scenes of the designers we work with. Customers get a real immersive retail experience at LDC, and we are growing with them to develop this side of LDC responding to their feedback.
What trends have you seen from consumers this past year?
We find customers appreciating and often actively seeking out ethical and sustainable products; unique pieces with traceable supply chains and more mindful practices. In 2018 this should be a given, not a gimmick, and we are finding that customers are moving towards this way of thinking just as much as the brands, which is really exciting for us.
Creating a seamless transition between online and offline is a key pillar for LDC, could you talk a little about the new consumer’s shopping journey? For example, the shopper may start on social media, then go in to try in store but end up buying through their website later on.
Yes, we are all about online/ offline cohesion, with a goal to seamlessly traverse between our physical and online experience. This often starts on Instagram, where we share information of upcoming stores, events, designers’ stories, select products and more. Customers may discover LDC on social media, then either come to our next concept store or discover products on our online marketplace, where the participating brands can sell for a limited time until the next pop-up. Sometimes they may also stumble upon our store, then choose to buy pieces they have seen online after they have thought about it. We want to keep the online experience as immersive as the offline experience so as to cater to the customers’ shopping preference. We are now harnessing Instagram more to share live stories throughout the store where we introduce designers, products and experiences to both attract people to come and also give a snippet of the in-store experience to online shoppers.
What does the future of LDC’s online/offline experience look like?
We are taking things a step further with QR codes around the store; Each designer has a brand page on our website with a video of them introducing their brand, inspirations and products. Customers visiting the store can point their camera at the QR codes and be taken to the designer page, “meeting” them if they are not there that day. This takes the physical experience online. Those who cannot make it to the store can watch the videos on our website, taking the online experience into the physical store and opening it up to a whole new global audience. This is the first step in online/ offline cohesion, creating a global community, with a lot more plans in the works…!
How can physical retail add value to an emerging brand who is trying to connect with their consumer?
For emerging independent brands it’s extremely hard to get organic website traffic without paying a fortune. Trust is king and the consumer must feel that when purchasing from a brand they don’t know. Physical retail gives an emerging brand a place to show their collection, allowing the customer to come in and see, try, feel, explore before they decide to make the purchase. Once the customer discovers a brand in this way they often become loyal customers. Meeting the designers can really help to make the consumer to feel special and also, for the designer to understand their market.
As designers we spend so much time wrapped up in concept and inspiration that actually understanding our customers’ needs, wants and specifics gets lost.”
Being able to interact directly with consumers is a huge part of building a successful business.
As a graduate of LCF, what advice can you give young designers who are looking to launch their own brand?
WAIT! Don’t rush into it. Gone are the days of being able to launch a career purely on talent, unfortunately. Nowadays a successful founder has to perfectly balance talent and business acumen. The industry is oversaturated and there are too many wonderfully talented people. You need a strong USP, and a very strong visual story to really get a brand off the ground. I suggest working for brands you admire as long as possible, work for a big company and a small one. Make mistakes on someone else’s time and at their expense, and the most important thing is contacts – meet everyone you possibly can, hone your idea, build your network and make your life as easy as possible for when you do choose to step out on your own.
How do you select designers for your pop ups?
LDC is inclusive and we welcome all stages of business into our community, yet each location can only take so many brands, and so many product within each category. We then select brands based on location, customer demographic, LDC core customer, alignment to other brands etc. Of course we also analyse what the brand applying can bring to the store – whether its via an event or strong following, or that it complements the other brands involved. If we don’t think a brand is right for a location we still have other ways they can be involved in LDC like our events, networking evenings and online community.
Their next pop up will run September 11-23 on Greek Street in Soho.