When fashion retail entrepreneur Gifi Fields launched his career at the height of the swinging Sixties, clothes were designed with Twiggy’s waifish figure in mind.
However, the reality is that women come in all shapes and sizes and plus-size, to use retail jargon, is increasingly becoming the new normal.
But, Fields argues, many retailers are still selling clothes as if the gamine figure that epitomised the look of Carnaby Street in its heyday is still standard.
His belief that larger women are underserved led him to launch Scarlett & Jo, bringing a designer aesthetic to clothing for women sized 14 to 32.
Originally designed for Arcadia’s Evans chain, Scarlett & Jo is now primarily run as an etail business by Fields.
“Women with fuller figures are big into retro fashion, the Forties and Fifties. That’s the last time people designed for their figures – it’s crazy”
Gifi Fields, Scarlett & Jo
Fields says: “From 1968, from the moment Twiggy sensationally appeared, a woman without a figure, women with figures, were forgotten about. It’s as simple as that.
“When I started Scarlett & Jo for Evans I soon discovered that. There had been no design work done for those women.
“A lot of fashion-conscious women with fuller figures are big into retro fashion, the Forties and Fifties. That’s the last time people designed for their figures – it’s crazy.”
The online opportunity
Fields has a long history in fashion. His first shop, cult boutique Rag Freak, opened in Kensington in 1970, and he went on to own the Snob chain in the Eighties.
He has also supplied some of the biggest names in retail through his Coppernob business.
Fields, although personally more under the radar than some of his peers these days, has had one of the most influential careers in fashion.
“Fields was a co-founder of the British Fashion Council and became famous as the creator of that 1980s staple, the ra-ra skirt”
After his hippy days, when he started selling from his flat in Westbourne Park Road at the heart of the Notting Hill counterculture of the time, he went on to design for big names such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Nordstrom.
He was a co-founder of the British Fashion Council and famously created that 1980s staple, the ra-ra skirt.
Today, online retail has brought the fashion industry veteran new opportunity.
“In the half year to May 31 – the brand’s first six months trading online - revenue rocketed by 500% year on year”
As well as on Scarlett & Jo’s own website, it sells on third party sites such as Debenhams and N Brown businesses Simply Be and JD Williams, with a revenue split of 80% retail and 20% wholesale.
It debuts this week on M&Co’s site and will launch on Next’s Lipsy at the end of the month.
In the half year to May 31 – the brand’s first six months trading online – revenue rocketed by 500% year on year and currently stands at £3.5m.
Building a customer community
As well as allowing him to key in on a fast-growing sales channel, trading online is enabling him to forge powerful links with his customers.
“The review section is the most important part of the whole site,” says Fields.
“I have a closer relationship with the customer than I ever had when I had stores,” he maintains.
“The internet is very transparent. People are not shy online. If you serve people well or badly people find out about it very quickly”
“The advantage of online is we know our customer a lot better – it’s almost as much knowledge, as if you had a corner shop.”
He says Scarlett & Jo has a reach of more than 300,000 people on Facebook: “The internet is very transparent. People are not shy online. If you serve people well or badly people find out about it very quickly.”
Fields reckons that he personally corresponds with between 300 and 400 customers a week, gleaning invaluable insights and building a sense of community around Scarlett & Jo.
The retailer has 12,000 members in its S&J Club, which includes a rewards scheme and invitations to exclusive events such as the midsummer ball held at a central London hotel.
Scarlett & Jo also uses real-life customers, including bloggers, to model its wares online.
“What really makes S&J unique is our customers are our brand ambassadors,” he says. “On our site there are 150 women modelling sizes 14 to 32. We’re promoting body positivity.”
An underserved market
Stats about the growth of the plus-size market support Fields’ view and “underserved” is also the word used by GlobalData analyst Kate Ormrod.
Her report on the market, published last month, indicated that £1 in every £5 spent on womenswear this year will go on plus-size clothing.
Spend on plus-size clothing has risen by £800m since 2012 and the market is now worth £5bn.
What distinguishes Scarlett & Jo from many competitors, argues Fields, is its focus on design.
As many established clothing retailers struggle to hold their own in challenging conditions, Fields puts the problems of the wider fashion retail market down to a fundamental failure – product.
“The general high street retailer has been obsessed with following catwalks because they’re run by accountants”
“The general high street retailer has been obsessed with following catwalks because they’re run by accountants,” he maintains.
“There’s no longer any gut feel in high street fashion. If leisure and restaurant companies are doing well it’s because they’ve invested in the new – something that the public would rather buy than the crap put out there.
“The fashion industry has not been about fantasy, ‘look-great’ fashion. It’s been obsessed with compliance and nicking a bit of margin here and there.”
Having built up Scarlett & Jo in the UK, Fields is now eyeing further opportunities for the brand.
“We’ll need investment going forward to internationalise and take advantage of the global trend, as well as to extend the product range to include shoes and other categories.”
Half a century on from his retail debut, much in the industry has changed, including women’s body shapes.
But in Fields’ view, the importance of product never changes. He’s banking that his faith in design will serve him as well today as it did in the Sixties.