Britain is consistently in the global style spotlight, providing a vibrant platform for emerging talent and every season, a new designer or label is hailed as the next big thing at London Fashion Week, feted by the cognoscenti and hailed across the industry for their clever concepts. Over the last few days, the collections for Spring/Summer 2019 have been showcased on catwalks across the capital and at the British Fashion Council’s Designer Showrooms exhibition, with established and exciting new brands jostling for attention and, ultimately, hard-won orders from international store buyers.
With the clothing industry as a whole directly contributing £32.3billion to UK GDP in 2017, representing a 5.4% year-on-year increase and a growth rate 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy, this is big business. Forecasters say it’s only getting bigger: according to Mintel, the womenswear market is currently worth £28.4billion and is predicted to grow by 14% in the next four years to reach £33.5 billion.
The constant challenge facing fashion start-ups is to marry creative vision with commercial sensibilities, and if a business finds that elusive magic formula, they tap into an incredibly lucrative market. Rixo London is one such success story. Founded three years ago by best friends Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey from their London flat, this label is now a fixture on the London Fashion Week roster of runway shows and boasts a seven-figure turnover.
A year ago, the pair won the inaugural DHL Award for Fashion Potential, in partnership with the British Fashion Council, which saw them benefit from industry mentoring and logistics advice, plus a £20,000 award to support their international growth. This enabled the fledgling brand to recruit a digital specialist to facilitate a global e-commerce push and as a result, Rixo has grown exponentially over the last 12 months growing from a team of three to a full-time team of 12. International web sales have grown 350% on the previous year, they now have an impressive roll-call of over 100 global stockists in more than 40 countries, and the business has moved from the girls’ flat to a dedicated new office and studio space.
So, how have they succeeded where so many others failed, growing their self-funded enterprise into a profitable venture loved by Holly Willoughby, Lily James, Kylie Minogue and Sandra Bullock, and selling in prestigious retailers around the world including Net-a-Porter, Liberty, Harrods and Selfridges in London, Saks in the US, Dublin’s Brown Thomas, Le Bon Marché in Paris, Luisa Via Roma in Italy, Australia’s David Jones and Takashimaya in Japan, amongst many, many others?
The pair first met when they enrolled on a four-year Fashion Management degree at the London College of Fashion and quickly become firm friends. “We were just drawn to each other because we were both very down-to-earth and comfortable in our skins, in a sea of people who thought they had to fit some idea of what a fashion student looked like,” recalls Henrietta, now 26. “We were a slightly different breed to many of our uni contemporaries. I grew up in Cheshire, and my dad had his own business as a used car dealer, while Orlagh was raised in rural Northern Ireland, near Derry, where her father had a construction business, so we both came from families with a strong work ethic and an understanding of what it takes to run a company. My four older brothers all set up their own businesses and I just always had the philosophy that it was do-able.”
During their placement year, Henrietta worked in the buying team at ASOS and Orlagh, by now her flatmate and sharer of Sunday morning hangovers spent trawling antique markets, headed off to learn the ropes with the buyers at TK Maxx. Their time spent at the frontline of fast fashion saw the pair plotting their path post-graduation, instinctively sharing a vision for a new brand that married their passion for vintage clothes with a take on contemporary style that was admired by many of their peers.
In February 2015, they registered their business at Companies House and set about building the foundations of their venture. “We weren’t airy fairy designers wafting around with sketchbooks and fancy ideas,” explains Orlagh, now 29. “We understood the complexities of overheads and production costs and the commercial realities of the fashion world, but we hardly had any capital to spend on making the first collection, which had 20 or so pieces in it. Rixo is completely self-funded, so we earned money baby-sitting, and did everything on a shoestring. Everyone said we were too young to start up on our own, but we had no responsibilities, no dependents, no big mortgages, and we were already used to living on very little. I think our naivety helped us. We lived, ate, slept, breathed Rixo and worked 24/7 on it, so we weren’t going out and spending money socially. To launch the business, we only invested in fabric and hiring a freelance pattern-cutter, then pulled in favours from friends, who modelled and photographed the garments for us.”
Featuring luxurious silk crepe de chines printed with flamboyant designs hand-painted by Orlagh and Henrietta in their living room, their debut range was inspired by the silhouettes of some of their favourite vintage garments, made modern with pattern and colour.
By September that year, the pair had built a website, and spent much of their summer cold-calling stylists and editors on magazines and newspapers, getting in touch via social media to introduce themselves and beg for ten minutes of their time so they could show them sample garments from their soon-to-be-launched label.
“We trawled across London with a suitcase full of clothes, going on endless appointments,” says Henrietta. “Everyone was bemused that we didn’t have a PR agent, but we couldn’t afford one. Ultimately, we were passionate about what we were doing and 100 per cent believed women would love it. We knew getting our brand out there was important, and this was the only way we could do it, just by putting in the graft ourselves. Amazingly, we got coverage in the September issues of major magazines, and the orders started to come in to the website. At that point, though, it hadn’t occurred to us to wholesale; we just imagined we’d sell direct to consumers.”
In the early days of the business, the girls would walk to the post office every day, having picked and packed website orders themselves, explains Orlagh. “Eventually, as we staggered along the street under the weight of ever more packages each afternoon, we realised something had to change, and we had that moment of inspiration that changed the business when DHL began to send a driver to our flat every day to collect the day’s web orders. We are naturally control freaks, but that took pressure off us, and allowed us to focus on using our skills to build the business. Knowing our garments were being despatched all around the world, and the brand was accessible from virtually anywhere, was exciting and meant we could market confidently on social media, knowing anyone who wanted to order from us could do so, wherever they lived.”
Within weeks, though, they were having to re-think their business strategy, as word of their enterprise rapidly spread within the ranks of the fashion world. A meeting with Net-a-Porter and the influential e-tailer’s ensuing order saw stock sell out within 24 hours of appearing on the site. Henrietta and Orlagh realised the power of selling through established channels, and began googling independent boutiques around the UK, hoping to secure more wholesale orders and a presence in key fashion retailers alongside well-known labels.
Once again, the twenty-something entrepreneurs found themselves carrying their suitcase of samples across the country, this time knocking on the doors of stores and begging them to buy stock in what was a very difficult retail climate. They were all reluctant to buy into an unknown label.
“We didn’t know any different, so we just got on with it,” the pair say, shrugging their shoulders. “Eventually, because we had such conviction that our garments would sell once customers saw them first-hand, we proposed boutiques took them on a sale-or-return basis, so there was no risk involved for the store. Everyone who agreed to take our collection on that basis called us within a week to say everything had sold, requesting more stock.”
One of the harshest lessons these young entrepreneurs learned along the way was that not all their wholesale customers would pay up. Henrietta’s father nagged her to be strict with those who were slack in settling invoices for their orders. “Even when they’d had the stock on sale-or-return, and every garment had flown off the rails, some stores still didn’t pay, and we got burned. We weren’t very professional and were doing invoices ourselves, without being on top of the cashflow. So, we had to toughen up and change our trading terms.”
Three years on from launching their label, the range has grown to a seasonal collection of 60 or so pieces, still featuring their signature prints, hand-painted in London, now printed on silks in Italy and in China, and made up in China for distribution all over the world.
The pair continue to use social media to increase awareness of Rixo, with 120k followers on Instagram, many of whom actively share images of themselves in the label’s designs. “We often wonder how we would have fared without Instagram. It allows us to talk with customers and press directly and engage with them,” says Henrietta, fresh from launching a new collaboration with influencer Laura Jackson. “It’s really important that our clothes are seen on a variety of women, and people can relate to that. We have customers in their teens right through to women in their eighties, of all different shapes and sizes, wearing our clothes as everyday wear or for special occasions, styling things simply or in a more avant-garde fashion. It gives other women the confidence to try new looks and to believe they can wear styles they might previously only have seen on a size zero model in a fashion magazine.”
“We’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but we wouldn’t change that for the world because we’ve learned lessons and it’s shaped how we do things now. We don’t want to live beyond our means or expand too fast, but we have big plans for Rixo. We’re often asked when we will raise finance and take outside investment, but we want to stay in control and invest everything back in the business so we can grow. We plan on launching knitwear, accessories and to add to the collection in other ways, with different styles to suit different body shapes and more embellishment, but the silk printed dresses will always be the heart of what we do.”
Watch this space….