Jane Shepherdson is the woman behind the early success of Topshop, the fast fashion behemoth where she served as Chief Brand Officer in the 2000s. After this and her subsequent role as CEO of retailer Whistles, however, Shepherdson found that her complicity in one of the world’s biggest polluting industries was overriding the joy she once found in fashion. Here, the Director of the London Fashion Fund talks to Ella Johnson about her pivot to luxury rental start-up My Wardrobe HQ, and why rental is key to bringing the fun back to fashion
LUX: You are often associated with Topshop’s success as one of the early pioneers of fast fashion.
Jane Shepherdson: I always wanted to be a buyer – to structure and create ranges without actually designing them, and to work closely with designers. I got into Topshop at the very bottom, starting in the accessories department, and moved up to the jersey department, which was the biggest. It was where you could make the biggest impact, because you had responsibility for tens of millions of pounds worth of the company’s money. We travelled an awful lot in those days, and we did not worry about the environmental aspect. It was hard to beat as a lifestyle.
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LUX: When did you start to think about the environmental and social side?
Jane Shepherdson: We started our drive to better understand the supply chain at Topshop in the 1990s. We brought in a team of experts to do it, but Topshop had thousands of suppliers: it was very difficult to start establishing exactly what the supply chain was from the beginning like that.
It wasn’t until I moved to Whistles in 2008 that we really started to address the environmental side of things. We were a small business and we got to know each of our suppliers as well as we could, working with them to improve their practises. But it is still difficult to be completely sure that the factory you’re using is doing everything you expect them to be doing.
LUX: You are now Chair of fashion rental platform My Wardrobe HQ. What prompted your move to the rental fashion sector?
Jane Shepherdson: I left Whistles in 2016 because I was unsure that running a fashion business was something I could continue to do. I started looking at the possibility of creating a platform to display sustainable fashion, but I realised that I couldn’t find enough credible fashion brands that were sustainable. There is no point in endorsing fashion brands that I don’t think are any good: their practises may be perfect, but if the garment that comes out of the other end comes out as a hair shirt, there is no point doing it.
I had also just come back from a year travelling around America in Airbnb virtually every night. Fifteen years ago, you would never have considered sleeping in a stranger’s bed for the night. Now people are far more relaxed about renting apartments, cars, scooters. Why not fashion?
LUX: How have luxury brands responded to the rental proposition?
Jane Shepherdson: In the beginning, they were slow. They couldn’t see how rental worked within the luxury world, with the feeling of exclusivity. But in the last year we have started to have conversations directly with the luxury players – including Burberry, Liberty London and Harrods – because they are starting to realise that rental is not going away.
Think about it from the designer’s point of view. Most of their catwalk pieces end up just being that – catwalk pieces. The wholesalers don’t buy the avant-garde or brightly coloured pieces because they are too risky. Conversely, it has been proven that people are much more experimental when it comes to what they rent: consumers are much more likely to rent something that is covered in feathers or bright yellow than they are a black dress.
LUX: Has that been true of your own experience of renting clothes?
Jane Shepherdson: I have spent a lifetime trying to dress myself for events, typically spending £1000 on something that was quite discreet, in navy or black, and assuming that was my sense of style. When I was first introduced to rental, however, the first thing I wore was this floor-length lilac Sharon Wauchob dress that was covered in feathers, with a matching tailored coat. Lisa Armstrong then called me one of the best dressed women of the year – the first time that has ever happened to me! It was completely different to what I had ever worn before, but it felt completely me – because I was allowed to experiment. Rental brings fun back to fashion.
LUX: Can second-hand ever be incorporated into ‘mainstream’ luxury?
Jane Shepherdson: The stigma associated with second-hand clothing is becoming less every single day. Most of our marketing and social media is really based on showing the beautiful, over the top creations that don’t look like they have come from a charity shop and are a bit more glamorous. I hope people will get that feeling and then prefer to rent a few pieces that were beautifully made that made me feel amazing, rather than have a wardrobe of cheap clothing that cost the same and they aren’t going to wear again.
LUX: Some say that rental perpetuates the appetite for newness which drives overconsumption in the first place.
Jane Shepherdson: I think telling people that they can’t do or have something is tantamount to saying to them ‘go on, do it again’. You have to find ways of allowing people to have fun, but in a different way.
Rental isn’t perfect, and I know that. There are plenty of environmental factors that I am still trying to overcome, like ozone cleaning and having to dry clean clothes all the time. But I hope it changes people’s mindset and relationship with fashion. Rental slows you down: you have to plan ahead.
LUX: How important is diversity to My Wardrobe HQ’s offering?
Jane Shepherdson: We want to be accessible to as wide of an audience as possible. That is difficult, though, because the individuals who lend us their wardrobes tend to be in small sizes. It is easier with the clothes we get from brands, because they give us a full size range. But we are continually trying to get a broader selection of clothes on the site.
LUX: Is there scope for designers to bring out collections for rental alone?
Jane Shepherdson: We have to think of different ways of doing things. I have had many conversations with [sustainable fashion designer] Patrick McDowell about how designers might do that with deadstock. If rental takes off and we get to some kind of scale, then it would certainly be a business model that designers would be happy to adopt. Think about the difference: designers selling their product to a wholesaler get back about 30% of retail price; if they rent it, they have only got to rent it out two or three times to have made more money than they are going to get from the wholesaler.
LUX: In what other ways are you seeing fashion innovate itself?
Jane Shepherdson: I am Director of the London Fashion Fund, which is funded by the Mayor’s office to find environmentally and socially responsible businesses who will be the future of fashion. We are currently looking at one business that is growing cotton hydroponically, which uses 90% less water. There is another which is looking at creating garments that photosynthesise when you wear them. They are alive, since they have these microbes, so instead of putting your jacket in a dark wardrobe, you hang it on the back of the chair in front of the window. They claim that one square metre of the cotton jersey they produce absorbs as much CO2 as a 100-year-old oak tree, and are talking to a high-street retailer about putting a collection together.
It is early days for a lot of these things, but there is so much that is happening that makes me feel optimistic. At least we can mitigate some of the damage. I am so desperate that someone doesn’t come along and say, ‘you can’t have fashion anymore: it is too trivial’. We have got to find ways.
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