Interview with "Currency News" - Business through COVID
Rae Feather is the founder of her eponymous lifestyle label, based in the UK, and up until this year, was designing the kind of pieces stylish holidaymakers wouldn’t leave home without. From monogrammed straw bags to pom pom-adorned accessories, Rae Feather’s joyful designs could be spotted in the arrivals halls of almost all international airports.
Last February, the Northern Irish designer launched her second brand Le Hat, a sustainable hat brand for stylish travellers. It was a simple, but genius idea that would provide a sustainable solution for anyone who had cradled a structured straw hat through customs with the care they’d normally reserve for a newborn infant. Le Hat offered the wearer rollable options in environmentally-friendly packaging. But of course, as we all know, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The arrival of Covid-19 grounded the airline industry, holidaymakers and Feather’s business plan indefinitely.
“We launched that just as lockdown happened, so we haven’t done very well with it, as you can imagine, but I’m still happy with where we’re at. It’s a 99% sustainable brand and although I should be more concerned right now, I’m not.”
Feather’s cheery attitude didn’t come organically. “Back in March, if I’m honest, I was thinking this is it. My business is not sustainable through lack of travel – it’s not a stay-at-home brand. There was very little I felt positive about when all this happened. Everyone was furloughed, so I was working by myself.”
The UK-based businesswoman decided to focus on the areas she could control, and found strategies for survival in her main line. “We made so many adjustments within our business. We cut our collection drastically for spring / summer. We adjusted all our pricing. We adjusted how we dropped. Normally, we’d have two drops a year, we worked out six drops so we’d be bringing newness to the site and cashflow. We had no cashflow so we had to bring out drops, and that worked in our favour. We timed it quite well because we had amazing weather too from April right through to September. I had a whole bunch of ex stock, which was perfectly good, but orders weren’t significant enough to get rid of it, so I threw myself out there. We built up our audience online, built up our community and sold all those pieces at a discounted price.”
“Stores are going to really find it difficult to get back brands that have struggled throughout this whole pandemic.”
She fine-tuned the business and upgraded her website, which impacted the demand for customer services almost overnight. “The phone stopped ringing because we upgraded all sorts of areas on it. We invested money in it. We were always going to do it pre-Covid, but it’s made a massive difference. I say this with every ounce of modesty; it worked for us, but I can imagine, no, I know, for others it’s been a disaster. Some brands are on their knees right now.”
Like many retail brands, she was forced to cut back on her wholesale business. “Wholesale was really tricky for us because we didn’t have a healthy enough critical path really from the start to finish. It was all over the place. [The decision] worked in our favour because we would have been letting stores down. This has happened to a lot of brands. I was speaking to a large chain last week and they were saying they had to pull out of so many collections, and there has to be manufacturers in places like India and Bangladesh who are really screwed over by this.”A design by Rae Feather
The decision to cut out wholesale conflicts with the designer’s enduring passion for department stores. She remembers when Selfridges and Harrods came knocking on the door, it was a signal your brand had arrived. “It was amazing. You knew you were on the road.” Her love affair with luxury stores started with Brown Thomas and recalls what a treat it was to travel from her family home in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone to Dublin as a young girl for a day shopping in the store, relishing the theatre of it all. She’s been fortunate to call many of the major European players customers over the seven years she’s been in business.
Professionally, however, she feels the retail landscape has changed irrevocably in the last ten months. “I think stores are going to really find it difficult to get back brands that have struggled throughout this whole pandemic. Some brands have developed their own websites, while others are being charged 90 days credit, that’s three months of your money tied up. A lot of [stores] insist on SOR (sale or return), which means if they don’t sell, you get the stock back again. You can’t discount, you don’t have the flexibility to act on Black Friday. They’re the kind of things that are restricted if you’re supplying wholesalers. Anthropologie were keen to do something and if I had have gotten their call a year ago I would have cried, but this year I had to say we can’t do it.”
Based in Northamptonshire in the UK, and working with many European suppliers, Feather’s next challenge is Brexit. “I don’t even know what to say to you about that. It’s been hidden under a big heavy blanket since Covid. There are definitely going to be implications, but we still don’t know what they’re going to be.”
Whatever the future holds, adaption has been the hallmark of Feather’s professional survival. Having started her career in a cookery school in London, she landed a job as a hostess on the Formula One circuit working for McLaren and Ferrari. The job took her all over the world, inspiring a love of travel and what would later become the inspiration behind her lifestyle brand. Eventually she moved on to the marketing end of Formula One, before leaving to set up her own luxury marketing consultancy. There, she worked on accounts such as Sandy Lane in Barbados, amongst others. She even did a stint of marketing for her sister, the celebrated Interior Designer, Helen Turkington, before dreaming up her own brand.
“It’s been an uneven road. I started with a small household edit, some really simple cotton shirts, a few cashmere sweaters, comfortable trousers, but I went in too big and I should shave started really small and built up. We started like we were going to conquer the world and ended up on our asses. I wanted to build a White Company. I don’t know what planet I was on. The arrogance!”
The ready-to-wear label soon found itself cash poor but “rich as hell, stock-wise”. Feather was forced to rethink her approach. The introduction of accessories boosted sales and signalled a change in direction for the brand. In 2017 they introduced a monogrammed straw basket, which became an Insta-hit. “It became the It bag for about two years. That elevated the brand in quite a major way because we appealed to a more luxury customer. Then we brought out beachwear to sit next to it. It did okay, and appealed to a certain market, but it didn’t appeal to all audiences. After that we were still scrambling cash-flow wise. We brought out monogrammed slippers and they have been such a hit. They replaced the basket, and certainly through lockdown have been one of our major product categories.”
A spring / summer collection followed and this year saw the launch of their first autumn / winter collection. There are plans to add tableware next year and expand on her Raecycled range – quilted cushions made from factory off cuts. “They don’t make much money, but I want them on there, I love them. The figures don’t quite work out on them, but there has to be a certain soul to your brand. It’s important you’ve got an edit out there you’re proud of. Everything the customer is going to get will be unique and I think it’s great from a brand perspective that we have them.”
There are also plans to work with a renowned Irish family brand on a collaboration that will see Rae Feather showcase traditional Irish fabrics internationally. “I think after this whole lockdown period people have become a little more traditional. So it’s something we’re working on. More than ever, this year has taught us we should be creating pieces that are timeless, seasonless and have a place in your wardrobe. It’s about investment pieces and knowing you would wear every single piece you own for years.”
Like her feel good designs, Feather is full of optimism for the future of her business post-Covid. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re a long way from being out of the woods, but where we are right now is a much stronger position to build a proper brand. It’s not just financial, it’s knowledge. That’s more important than money, and I’ve learned a lot this year.”