If you’ve ever found yourself rolling your eyes at the idea of “fashion”, cast your mind back to the famous The Devil Wears Prada scene in which Miranda Priestley (played so cuttingly by Meryl Streep) completely eviscerates Andy Sachs for failing to understand its relevance. In a two minute take town, Priestley points out that Andy’s outfit – chosen as a way to “exempt” herself from the fashion industry – was inadvertently picked out for her by the people in that very room… “from a pile of stuff”.
There’s no denying that fashion is a serious business. From the outfits we wear to work, to the towels we use on the beach, it infiltrates our daily lives in ways that many of us haven’t stopped to contemplate. According to the British Fashion Council, the fashion industry directly contributed £32.3B to the UK GDP in 2017 and supplies the UK economy with 890,000 jobs.
One of the industry’s leading entrepreneurs is Debra Hepburn- the co-founder of Young British Designers (YBD). Launched in September 2010, YBD has become the UK’s leading supporter of fresh talent, offering new fashion designers a platform from which to sell their collections to a global audience. Since its inception, its represented over 300 designers and has helped launch the careers of some of the UK’s most successful exports, including JW Anderson and Kate Sheridan.
By buying the stock outright, Hepburn has ensured that the company not only makes a profit but also that the designers are supported financially right from the off. As such, the company has been able to achieve a 250% financial growth in its first seven years.
Here Hepburn shares her insights on running two companies (she is also the founder and CEO of RBH – a creative communications agency), nurturing a team and developing a leadership style.
Bianca Barratt: Where did the idea for Young British Designers come from and what was the catalyst for starting the site?
DH: My partner, Julian and myself had been discussing starting an online fashion business for a little while, he was offered the chance for an early exit from a corporate career and we seized it to start Young British Designers. Why Young British Designers? We are obsessed with the huge wealth and diversity of emerging talent to be found here in the UK. We couldn’t believe a YBD didn’t already exist and so it was born.
BB: Who is the Young British Designers customer?
DH: We have people aged 18 buying Young British Designers and people aged 73 as well as every age between. Students, Barristers, Filmmakers, a famous 60’s model, a champion surfer in CA… it’s a mindset. A mindset that people mocked us for when we started and the world was all about the Big Brands. People believed we’d never sell unknown designers, that the quality would be awful, the deliveries late and that we’d regret it. But the world was slowly moving towards the more personal, the more authentic – the individual makers and creators as opposed to the mass manufactured norm. Some eight years later that desire for unique pieces with real integrity is all-consuming and, what’s more, the quality is excellent because every stitch is cared about and if a delivery is later because of some hand embroidery or ethical print process, we are happy to wait because it’s unique.
BB: You’ve said before that you originally wanted to be a fashion designer – was it difficult to let go of this dream, even when you realised it wasn’t the right fit for you?
DH: Not really – luckily I know when to stop chasing something wholly unrealistic! But I think it’s important that I had the dream as I am able to have frank conversations with aspiring designers, using that experience to either point them in a different direction or reinforce their own dreams.
BB: How did you work out where your talent truly lay – did you fall into your first job or was it a conscious decision?
DH: I’m a firm believer in taking risks; in not pursuing a linear career if that career isn’t making you happy. In trying different things as much as you can to find out what definitely isn’t right as well as what sets you alight. I left university just wanting to work in a creative environment. My first job was in copywriting, my second job in client handling in an advertising agency. I’ve always found it quite easy to work across both creative and business disciplines. I can’t imagine working within any kind of rigid framework.
BB: So, aside from the obvious, what qualifies someone to be featured on Young British Designers? How established do they need to be?
DH: Standout talent. Something unique. The start of a signature aesthetic. Something that makes me sit up and take notice. They can be established or at the very start of their journey.
BB: How do you set about finding designers? What factors are important?
DH: We frequent all of the usual haunts (fashion weeks, graduation shows and the like) but we are well known enough now to have some 15 or so approaches a day from designers. We also look at social channels and go out to market stalls and design fairs as some designers don’t actually know how great they are.
BB: How do you manage the balance of different styles and designs? Do you like to stick to a theme season by season or do you prefer an eclectic mix? And why?
DH: We buy what we love. This usually results in an eclectic collection but then that is one of the great differentiators of YBD – that each time you visit you discover the unexpected. We are not bound by season or trend. Our customers often comment on how much they love finding something unique, not the “same old, same old” found elsewhere.
BB: What do you wish you’d known when you started out?
DH: That we didn’t need to be “in fashion” with regard to seasons and being part of the fashion establishment. That we truly could forge our own path.
BB: How did you raise the funding to start Young British Designers?
DH: Julian’s leaving package and our own funds gave us enough to start out. Combined with a brilliant creative resource I already had in my own agency, who were eager to get their hands on a fledgling brand.
BB: What do you feel are your greatest strengths as a founder and leader?
DH: Having an eye for brilliantly talented people who I surround myself with across both companies. I try to give people the room to flourish and grow without micromanaging them but at the same time ensure they know I’m always there. I really advocate taking risks – even making mistakes as long as lessons are learned from them. How else do you push creative boundaries? I despise hierarchy and, above all, ask people to care. About what we collectively create and about how we treat each other. It almost sounds crass but too many people think showing they care is “weak” or “career limiting”. I think it takes real bravery to be kind.
BB: What do you still find challenging as a leader?
DH: Being where the buck stops. When the going gets tough it’s always a lonely place.
BB: How do you overcome self-doubt?
DH: A trip to the Atlantic Ocean where I can walk for miles or just sit and stare. A word or a hug from those I love. Remembering other times when I’ve felt that way and it all worked out fine after all. Failing that a rather large G&T and a proper sleep.
BB: What have been your proudest career moments so far?
DH: I’m proud that I still love coming to work every day. I love the fact that RBH is still a fiercely independent creative communications agency after 22 whole years. I’m proud of the fact that, through Young British Designers, we’ve helped discover and launch some of fashion’s finest new names, including: J.W Anderson, Regina Pyo, Klements, Kate Sheridan and Eudon Choi. I love seeing those names in Liberty, Net-a-Porter or FarFetch. It’s just a great feeling.
BB: What advice would you give on pitching?
DH: If a designer is “pitching” to us we always advise they stand out (for the right reasons) from the first touchpoint. Get our names right, make sure your submission doesn’t look like a ‘Round Robin’. Send a lookbook and line sheet (if available) that marry together to save a buyer’s time. Tell us why they feel the brand is right for YBD. Tell us the story. Be confident, unique and proud of your ‘product’ and articulate the difference you can make.
BB: Do you multitask or do one thing at a time? How do you manage your schedule?
DH: I have a reputation for multitasking. And for “eating up” workload. I think I’ve always been so busy that I don’t know how to do anything else. Running two companies means that every minute has to count. My schedule changes hourly/daily, sometimes by the minute and part of the thrill is keeping on top of it and going with the change of priority flow. Until I collapse anyway!
BB: Fashion is sometimes disregarded as ‘frivolous’. How do you overcome this presumption and what place do you feel that fashion has in society and everyday life?
DH: I’ve thought about this a lot. I think fashion has found its voice again and I’m really rejoicing in that. In its simplest form, a beautifully created piece can make its wearer feel happy and confident. That’s a daily thrill at Young British Designers. Beyond that, fashion has become a force for change again – across politics, conservation, environment, workers’ rights, #MeToo, Brexit and so much more . It’s pushing an agenda of kindness and compassion but with a real backbone. It should be given its due importance in terms of economic contribution and the part it plays in all of our daily lives.
BB: How would you define your leadership style?
DH: I think I’d rather you asked people who work with me! I have always been quite proud to run my companies “like a woman”. I’m not being derisory to any other genders I work with but I do believe kindness is my first “go-to” in any situation. That standing back and listening and trying to see any situation from the other person’s viewpoint is essential.
Working in a creative industry highlights the need for everyone involved to be encouraged to contribute their ideas and talents – that way we can give the very best results to our clients and customers.
Good ideas can come from anywhere and at any time, so my philosophy on leadership and management is to encourage that flow of ideas from everybody, irrespective of their ‘formal’ position. In taking that view, it’s also important that all of us are generous minded enough to encourage debate and to support and run with those ideas. Personally, I despise rigid hierarchical organisations and always seek flat, wide structures – I sit right in the middle of my team so everybody can see and talk with me at any time. I encourage everyone to give guidance and support but to also let people express their own talents in their individual way. This is not an easy approach – it requires much patience and time spent with everybody – but it is the most rewarding.
BB: Do you feel that mentorship is important?
DH: Yes. But not for everyone. Some creative people I work with would be needlessly distracted by input from mentors. Others are encouraged and supported and realigned by industry folk or other designers. I am always happy to be there as much as I’m able for designers. Sometimes it’s for brand or pricing strategy, sometimes it’s just a word to keep them believing in themselves.
BB: Do you have any mentors and how have they supported you in your career?
DH: Not directly. I’m more inspired by brilliant people who’ve made or are making a real difference to our world. I meet them, read about them, listen to them or see something they’ve created and I’m energised to try even harder tomorrow.
BB: As the founder of Young British Designers, how do separate your heart (the reasons you started the business in the first place and your passion for it) from your head (the sometimes tough business decisions that have to be made)?
DH: I am unable to separate head and heart. In making tough decisions and having tough conversations you have to do it with empathy and honesty. If you employ both head and heart you can communicate the caring and positive parts as well as the more negative issues. That way something good often comes out of something that’s not very nice to do.