5 Minutes With Debra Hepburn, Co-Founder, Young British Designers

Debra Hepburn is the founding partner of Young British Designers, the Net-A-Porter for the indie set and online store focusing entirely on the best and brightest of British fashion. Launched in 2010, it has been responsible for discovering Sophie Hulme, JW Anderson and more. We caught up with Hepburn to find out more about YBD's unique fashion retail business model.

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Debra Hepburn

Tell me about the Young British Designer story.

YBD was founded in 2010 by myself and Julian Whitehead. It’s a second career for each of us: Julian hailed from a career spent in the automotive industry, in the main senior positions in marketing and environment; while I headed up Rees Bradley Hepburn, an independent creative communications agency.

We had the desire to create a platform that would showcase the very best of the UK’s emerging fashion design talent.

What is the importance of celebrating and highlighting the work of young British designers?

When we began YBD the world was all about known brands and conscious label flaunting. Today the hunger to seek out the new and unique is irrepressible and emerging designers are far more appreciated than nine years ago.

However, despite the UK having the very best, most extraordinary and original fashion talent in the whole wide world (we are biased) there was no single global platform promoting and showcasing this vast resource before YBD launched.

It’s crucial for fledgling labels and even small labels to gain a presence and profile as quickly as possible. We generate a wealth of PR for our brands which would be hard to do individually and we drive volume traffic to their own websites.

What gap in the UK retail market does YBD strive to address?

“We had the desire to create a platform that would showcase the very best of the UK’s emerging fashion.”

YBD has created a global destination for self-assured style seekers to discover the very best of emerging UK-based fashion talent. To find something truly unique from creators who are still at the very heart of their brands, still caring about every stitch.

How is YBD’s business model different to other online retailers or marketplaces?

Fashion is an incredibly tough business. Young designers, emerging brands are fragile no matter how talented they are. A lucky few are selected by retailers in their first seasons. Some retailers are truly supportive but others do take advantage by only working on a consignment basis or even charging designers to take floor space.

We buy our designers’ collections. This is unique in a world comprised largely of consignment, sale or return models. By investing upfront, designers are able to plan cash flow and, vitally, next collections.

Consignment can mean months and months of being strapped for cash, huge admin and worry. It can also mean being “chucked out” unceremoniously after one season when the optimum sell-through hasn’t been achieved. At YBD, we know some labels grow quietly and brilliantly over a few seasons.

We support our designers (where needed or asked for) with networking, collaboration, help and advice on everything from branding, curating a collection, pricing, manufacture, studio access, look books, line sheets, PR, press days, social media, websites and hopefully positivity and encouragement at every stage.

What’s in store for YBD for the rest of 2019?

A plethora of new names, some of whom will be entirely exclusive to YBD. We find with each new season more and more designers approach us and 2019 seems unusually full of feisty young standout talents. It does seem that a tough economic climate sometimes produces a vanguard of truly determined creatives. Then there also some names we’ve been mentoring and watching grow with real delight over the last year or so who will be launching in 2019.

How is YBD addressing some of the challenges facing the retail industry?

For us, Brexit is impacting everything. In the first instance, Britain is losing its “Cool Britannia” status on the world fashion stage. We now appear a small-minded, insular tiny island when, conversely, anything to do with creativity is about the borderless flow of ideas across country, culture and creed.

“For us, Brexit is impacting everything.”

Our fashion industry thrives on people from all over the world coming to study, live and work here and likewise our young people having the opportunity to widen their experience in the fashion houses of Europe. Our designers tell us of their very best pattern-cutters up and leaving the UK because they no longer feel welcome or have no certainty of citizenship.

Designers’ costs have escalated already whether that be materials or production and still they have no idea of how to put together costs for collections launching post-Brexit. What will happen with customs charges? What will happen with delays when a single garment can be constructed from component parts from all over Europe and then hand finished in the UK? Our major industries have no certainty over this so what hope an emerging designer?

At YBD, our European sales appear to have suffered in this past year and we believe this is very much down to the UK’s own brand image and decrease in desirability.

Describe your role and responsibilities as co-founding partner of YBD.

YBD is still a very small team. We all flex and flow across roles but my main responsibilities lie in seeking out the new and unique, buying and designer liaison.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before YBD.

I studied at Moseley School of Art which was an amazingly creative and inspirational start to my education. I then went on to the University of Birmingham and graduated to start a career in advertising. I co-founded a Rees Hadley Hepburn (RBH) in my early 30s and I’m still running this while working on YBD.

I hear you have your foot in various other retail sectors. Care to share?

Via RBH and my own passion for fashion and retail I’ve worked with – still work with – some amazing organisations and brands. RBH works with Wacoal Lingerie and has launched major retail destinations including Bullring, Grand Central and Highcross Leicester.

We also work with several unique Midlands shopping centres: Great Western Arcade, The Cube and Mell Square. Almost everything we do has to do with creating footfall to a retail destination whether that be automotive, airport, food & beverage, or fashion. Digitally and/or physically.

“I absolutely love great retail.”

What got you into retail in the first place?

I absolutely love great retail. Not piling it high and selling it in volume at a discount but seeking out unique brands with real authenticity and introducing them to the right audience. I firmly believe online retail can be full of character and offer a personal experience just like the best bricks-and-mortar boutiques do. There’s something intoxicating about helping people find something they love, something that makes them feel joyful each time they wear it. It’s not solving major world problems but great fashion created by our bright and brilliant young talent is a wondrous start to every day.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

I have two jobs although they are not “jobs” to me, more a way of life. Each career fuels and inspires the other. My experience in brand creation and growth was obviously paramount when it came to YBD, particularly as we started off on an absolute shoestring and still today the majority of our budget goes into funding the buying of designers’ collections.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Being honest and straight with a designer who is desperate to be on YBD yet is not right for us. Likewise not being able to showcase all of the designers we’d like to because we do have a finite budget.

And the most rewarding?

When press and other retailers seize our finds, when we proudly watch them flourish and fly. That’s a great feeling.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Don’t do it if it’s a fleeting fascination. It’s bloody hard work and relentless, 24/7.

However don’t not do it if it’s the thing that fills you with passion and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. It’s exciting, unstoppable and endlessly invigorating.

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