‘That girl who was in that pink Preen jumper was obviously roasting. But she’d have bought that and thought I have to wear that for fashion week, otherwise it will be a waste.’ It’s a balmy September lunchtime during London Fashion Week and I’m squashed in the back of a car with Laura Larbalestier, Womenswear Buying Director of Browns Fashion. It’s just after the Roksanda show and Laura is talking about the street style scrum we’ve just battled our way through to find the car taking us to the next show. ‘It’s why I’m always really interested in the pre-collections too. Those trends drop in-store at a better time weather wise for our customer.’ Weather, currency exchange rates, a looming Brexit impact and whether the street style paps will snap it are just some of the considerations, Laura has to keep in mind while making one of the world’s biggest sartorial shopping lists. As Womenswear Buying Director, Laura is responsible for choosing exactly what we’re going to be wearing each season. ‘This might sound really weird but I sometimes get nervous about buying the things that I really like for myself,’ she says in-between scrolling through her phone deciding on which front row photo to upload to Insta. ‘Every time I go to a showroom I have to get my head around what’s going on and what the best pieces are.’ Managing a team of five, Laura sets the budget and tone for each season before spending about five months travelling to different cities including Paris, New York and Seoul to buy the 198 brands Browns Fashion stock. ‘It’s so much harder than it used to be. Before you would either see something in the show or a look book and that would be it. But nowadays someone can wear something that might not even be the best piece but suddenly it’s what everyone wants. You really have to think ahead.’ Fast-forward to two weeks later, I’m in Paris with Laura on her Roksanda showroom appointment to see her buying skills in action. With a dedicated sales director, there’s no need for Roksanda to be there but it turns out her and Laura are friends having first met at Roskanda’s very first sales day. ‘At the beginning, I used to do my own sales,’ says Roksanda. ‘I love people, but I understand some designers are introverted. They do the show and that’s it. I’m much more hands-on.’ Over spreadsheets and sparkling water, Laura and Roksanda go through each look while Laura mentions tweaks they’d need ‘A little shorter,’ ‘Maybe a sleeve.’ Two hours later and the order is placed but it will take another five months before they reach stores. By that stage Laura will be in Paris again, but this time shopping for the next season. Here Laura talks streetstyle, best-sellers and what women really want…
I read all the reviews and if anyone in the company loved a particular look then I’ll note it. Plus if Sarah Bonser, our features editor likes it then we’ll know it will work well in editorial too. But after the show I tend just to jump in the car and talk about what’s next. I don’t buy from the runway. I think when you’re a buyer, you always have the need to think ‘Will that sell and is it commercial?’ so sometimes I just try and enjoy the shows and try not to think like that all the time.
I see stuff all the time on the runway that I know will never sell. Sometimes it has to do with the price, or the practicality of it. And depending on the designer a lot of things don’t get made, or in reality they just won’t work in real life.
At the actual buying appointments we will discuss tweaks to the collection. These are called commercial adaptations. Like a dress might be really long or open in the back on the runway but we can discuss changing this before it goes into production. There are always pieces that aren’t shown on the runway too.
I have to think about what will sell well online versus in-store. Brightly coloured pieces do really well online. Black and white not as much. When I used to just buy for stores, you’d worry more about how things go together and how the whole rail looks. But shopping online is much more about individual pieces.
When things get delivered to us and become available has a big impact on whether they sell. I think that’s something designers still have to address. Personally, I would hesitate to buy something that was really summery that would be delivered in February or March. I don’t think people really shop like that. Maybe if you had an event but most people aren’t buying their holiday wardrobe when it’s that cold. Also our customers are really savvy. They are very tuned in to sales and will wait.
The Browns customer is very aware of fashion, she has her own style and own point of view. She wants to shop with us because she wants to be surprised and have a sense of discovery.
I like to think of Browns as being akin to a mini-Waitrose. A store that has all the essentials and an edit of all the best brands plus then there should be something you wouldn’t expect either.
Street style does have an impact on how we buy. It can work in our benefit. For example last fashion week everyone was wearing those Saks Potts coats and having their picture taken. We knew they were going to be the ‘it’ coat so bought them and even when it was still really warm they started to sell.
Other times you wouldn’t think something will be that important and then all of sudden it’s trending in street style photos and there is a demand for it. Like those Balenciaga striped bags. I saw them in the showroom and thought they were really cool. But then Balenciaga wanted to re-launch the brand so didn’t want people to buy that many. They don’t want everyone to be seen carrying one. The same goes for those metallic boots. That wasn’t a situation where I could say lets buy 400 pairs. Some brands like to limit supply to increase demand.
ROKSANDA has become a big business based on a couple of key shapes. There were a lot of pieces on the runway that will sell. What I love about her is that she has her signature but manages to update it each season. And she has an amazing use of colour. It’s strong but cool.
It is very exciting to see a designer such as Roksanda develop. But not every designer is as approachable as her. You might buy the collection from for years and never meet them. It’s different personalities.
What Laura bought…
Look numer 10 - 'This will probably be one of the best-sellers. The shape works really well and it includes all the signatures of the show, like the colours in a wearable way. In the show it was more of a tunic but it’s going to be a dress in construction.'
Look number 18 - 'Out of all the printed things in the show, this one feels really special. It’s patchwork and again the shape tends to sell well.'
Look number 34 - 'This is really beautiful. It is slightly more commercial as it has a sleeve. But it’s expensive. I will buy one of it, max two.'