Josephine Parkhill left the comfort of the long-established award-winning house, Ellis Bridals, to join a retail start up, WED2B. Now, just a few years later later, she’s gone the full circle and is back at Ellis… and thrilled to be so. We asked her what she learned along the way on her journey
First, a bit of background… YOU!
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to design evening and bridalwear, and focused my education to help me achieve this. I completed a four-year Fashion Design and Marketing with 1st class honours, showcasing a collection of tailored evening and cocktail wear at Fashion graduate week in 2005.
When did you first join Ellis and what you were responsible for?
I applied to intern throughout the summer break after my first year at university when I was 19. I spent the majority of my time understanding and researching the market with our sales agents, swatch-making and working in all departments including box packing. This gave me an invaluable understanding of the whole company and how everything impacted on every department. I continued throughout the remainder of my degree, working one day a week, throughout the holidays and on a six-month placement in my third year, where I had the opportunity to work in our factories in the Far East.
I officially joined Ellis as Brand manager and junior designer straight after my degree finished.
Over the years I progressed to Head designer of Ellis and Kelsey Rose and designer for John Charles. No day was ever the same – multi-tasking, jumping from project to project across all the brands (from design to photoshoot production and direction to marketing), overseeing the design room, and communicating between departments.
And then what?
I left Ellis in 2015 to set up my own consultancy agency, which enabled me to work flexibly around childcare, with various brands in the luxury sector, focusing on design and creative direction. Six months later, I received a call from the MD of WED2B asking for help with a new Signature collection launch and support for their junior designer. It was in the early stages of the business after transforming it from The Wedding Dress Factory Outlet, and their seventh store, in Milton Keynes under the Head office, was due to open soon.
I consulted for several weeks on the project, in which time I was able to understand the business model, and could see the potential and market gap it could fulfill. I was offered the role of Creative Director/Head Designer, with the opportunity to create a design studio, put together a young and dynamic team, overhaul the supply chain and develop the brand image.
What most excited you about the environment?
I have always believed every girl should be able to have her dream dress, regardless of budget. Joining WED2B appealed to me because it presented an opportunity to design for, and retail directly to, the type of bride who may previously have chosen a high-street dress over a wholesale brand.
As a new concept there was no comparison. It was a fusion of high-street retailing and specialist bridal design. The retail stores enabled us to control the brand image and experience from design inception to final purchase. It fulfilled a gap where brides could try on their dress in the correct size and take it home the same day, an opportunity that was unavailable except through the high street or online.
We challenged the traditional concept of how bridal gowns were purchased, and offered larger brides a wider variety of styles to try on in their sizes. We were able to design hundreds of dresses per year over several collections, offering two to three styles every week, responding to the market trends and customers’ needs quickly. There was no season. Instead, a continual flow of new dresses to the market, and no sample was wasted – everything was sold. We created a separate label as a ‘one-off’ exclusive.
While at WED2B, what did you learn about modern-day retailing that traditional bridalwear specialists can benefit from?
Without question, the power of social media and how to best use it to directly target a specific market and align it to product stock and quantifying the success rates through to instore transactions. Interacting directly to customers, posting new dresses and questions, allowed for instant feedback, which instantly gained insight into the success of a style and guided future decisions. And there’s more:
– When you fully understand your customer, her needs and wants, you can connect and enhance interaction with carefully selected images that will connect and fulfill her needs. Creating a rapport of trust and alignment with who you are and how you are the best and only place she needs to shop.
– Social media and the Internet have created a culture of everything being instant. Most brides are still unaware there is a six- to eight-month wait for the average wedding dress from order and expect to try it on and take it away the same day. The appreciation of why it takes six to eight months to create their special dress is not emphasized to brides enough. In order to compete with the high street and attract a wider audience of this modern-day bride, bridals shops could look to vary their offering to incorporate a variety of options, including off-the-peg, which are exclusive and limited to their immediate areas.
– Take more evaluated risks, particularly colour and sexier styles. At WED2B, we listened to our customers and understood which brands and celebrities they followed. That gave us confidence to design sexier styles and be more confident with colour.
– Offer choice in price points and looks.
– Add excitement to the mix – keep it fresh with something new to interact with your customers… give them a reason to visit a second time if they didn’t commit the first time round. Or, if they’ve already purchased the dress, they may return to buy their accessories. At WED2B many brides came back for a second visit for those extras, possibly even buying an additional dress for the evening, which wasn’t in store on their first visit.
– Appreciate the power of customer service and deliver it consistently.
– Make larger sizes available for brides to try on. More happy brides equals more sales.
– Understand the percentage breakdown of silhouettes and sizes and the importance of stocking within these percentages.
What were the best lessons you learned while at WED2B?
1) How to increase ATV (Average Transaction Value) and ABT (Average Basket Transaction). Adding even small items to every basket… small margin increases, big effect, especially when the accessories can offer a larger % profit, which helps the overall margin calculated with the dress.
If a bride came in with a budget of £600, typically she would spend this on the dress, but having a variety of co-ordinated accessories to hand to help her create her ‘look’, adding a belt, veil, underskirt and dress bag, suddenly takes the total value a lot higher and increases the overall margin of the bride’s visit.
The accessories were priced very competitively, which offered the bride great value for money and an easy decision to add onto her dress purchase on the same day.
2) The importance of creating a consistent message throughout the company, from every touch point with the customer, through in-house customer service, across social platforms and ultimately in store.
3) The importance of a shared vision and mission to every person in the company, from senior managers to sales staff. Focus and investment was poured into staff training with a consistent brand message of who we were, how we differentiated from the competition and how we could best satisfy our customers. This created a company culture of confidence in the product and brand and is something every bridal shop can create regardless of size.
4) The need to train staff regularly to keep their product knowledge, and mostly confidence in their product, high. Setting staff incentives and rewarding them for exceptional results, was a great way to focus and push specific product throughout the year. Offering an in-store beauty pampering session to the best-selling shop of the month instantly uplifted ATV and sales, as well as recognising staff who had achieved outstanding results weekly throughout the whole company. I distinctly remember one sales assistant reaching nine items in one transaction during an incentive programme.
5) Working closely with an experienced merchandiser to quantify sales data, formulating purchase decisions into silhouettes and sizes gave a great insight into which silhouettes where most commercial and in what sizes.
The importance of having the correct stock on the floor in the right silhouette and size was crucial to optimise sales. Accessories were styled only with dresses that would drop together, meaning shoots, catwalks and social media could offer the full in-store experience allowing brides to re-create the look effortlessly.
This is something independent retailers can do… dress up a display, or sales assistant in a gown and style with only your accessories to hand – inspire your brides with your products and link your marketing to create unique looks that your brides can purchase from head to toe.
6) Marketing the limited availability of each dress across the store network, encouraged brides to make faster purchase decisions, creating a sense of exclusivity and satisfaction they were one of the ‘lucky ones’ to ‘find’ their dress.
Why did you leave WED2B
The company grew rapidly, changing the culture to a corporate environment, which shifted the vision I originally bought into.
So, full circle and back to base – what appealed to you about rejoining Ellis?
The opportunity to be part of a small, privately-run, fourth-generation family business and creating beautiful gowns that make dreams come true.
As with many British heritage brands, it is difficult to keep up with large US companies that have larger volume power and investment. However, social media – if used cleverly – evens the playing field so you can connect directly with the target audience. Working closely with James Ellis, we will be looking to enhance the Ellis experience online to support our amazing stockists, and increase demand for an Ellis gown.
Describe your responsibilities now?
As head of design and creative, I am designing for all our labels (Ellis, John Charles, Kelsey Rose, Kelsey Rose bridal, and Eveningwear), managing the design team, and working closely with Regine Ellis, our Creative Director, to devise the vision for each collection. And I am working with fabric suppliers and our factories to create beautiful, unique designs at a commercial price point. I head up photoshoot production and direction making each brand stands out from our competition and I work closely with James and our social media team to focus our marketing and communication strategies. Connecting with our retailers and getting feedback on our designs is key to my role.
What do you peg as the key trends for the season ahead?
Feature trains, sexy fitted gowns, fresh takes on the classics with clean lines and single features. And sleeves… from detachable to solid and illusion in all lengths and shapes.
For Ellis there is a focus on ‘British design’– clean and regal, with new fabrics and laces that will include a wide variety of satins and cottons. It’s a timeless look… the bride will be able to see value for money.
KR Bridal, meanwhile, will feature soft fabrics like chiffon, jersey, crepe, tulle and lace, whimsical pleats, cut-out trim details and feature backs, while John Charles boasts sassy necklines and silhouettes, striking colours alongside classic hues,
new jacket silhouettes, and a focus on event dressing for a variety of occasions such as races and cocktail parties.
Where do you source fabrics and embellishments?
The most beautiful, commercial bridal fabrics are made in Korea or Taiwan, while we source 80% of our fabrics for John Charles from Europe. We regularly have fabric suppliers visit our office with new collections throughout the year and we attend the largest fabric fair, Premier Vision, in Paris twice annually.
From the time you started in bridal, what have been the biggest changes you have seen?
When I first started, the fashion was very simple, with the majority of brides choosing A-Line strapless dresses; satin and taffeta were the popular fabric choices. Today, it is so much more exciting, with couples increasingly self-funding their weddings, themes and venues giving vast options, and the explosion of sexy designers such as Berta and Inbal Dror who inspire brides to be daring.
Social media has transformed the way brands can interact directly with their brides, and developments in technology mean that online sales are slowly growing, with high-street retailers like Monsoon and Debenhams among the largest to push online sales, stocking a limited offering in-store with easy returns and fitting-room appointments. Pre-loved dresses are becoming more widely accepted, too, and a viable option for brides looking for a particular dress
or designer they couldn’t afford
The fall of the GBP has affected everything across all UK businesses, putting costs up across the whole design process, from buying fabrics, CMT (cut, make and trim) costs, logistics and even travel for the design team. To keep the cost to the wholesalers and brides in-line with the average RRP of £1,200, profit margins have been drastically hit and silk has been limited for use by only higher-end designers.
If you have three bits of advice for retailers today what would they be?
1) Don’t stop fighting! Create the buzz – put passion into what you do best. Stand out and shout about how you are the best and only option for your brides. Know your customers inside out – understand their unique tastes, venues and price points, what they value and want.
2) Understand your products and support your selected labels.Link up with other businesses to create packages and benefits your customers will only receive through you.
3) Limit or increase your brands to those that offer your customer a variety of looks –something they will not find on the high street. Try some off-the-peg designs, hold stock of best-selling silhouettes for brides who want quick turn-around times.