Tuesday, 15 October 2013 00:05
By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
There may be many who dream of doing great things, but it is only a few who dare to dream big. Co-founder Knickerbox and Victoria’s Secret former Chief Creative Officer Janie Schaffer is one of those who did dream big and is now reaping the dividends of her efforts.
From a curious trainee buyer at Marks & Spencer (M&S) to a successful entrepreneur, Schaffer certainly made a name for herself in the lingerie business. Very early in her in career she was known in the UK as the ‘Underwear Specialist’ and soon was tagged as the ‘Knicker Queen’.
Sharing her experience as an entrepreneur, Schaffer was the highlight of the South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum, which was held last week in Colombo, as she inspired the audience with her talk on ‘Knickerbox to Victoria’s Secret: Lessons of entrepreneurship and creative design’.
A shift from fashion design to retail
Although brands and retail had always been a part of her life, Schaffer once aspired to be a fashion designer. Having attended the London School of Fashion, young Schaffer (then Godber) was quick to realise that she lacked an important element that would make her big in the fashion industry.
“At first I had real aspirations to be a fashion designer. Soon after I entered design school I quickly realised that I lacked a fundamental piece of the puzzle: talent. I thought to myself that I am flogging a dead horse and it is absolutely pointless. I knew, thanks to my father, that I was never going to be the next fabulous thing in fashion,” she quipped.
The birth of an entrepreneur
Discarding the idea of being a fashion designer, Schaffer changed her track rather dramatically and decided to become a trainee at the well-established M&S where she was thrown into a factory to learn the basics of the business. It was then when the 22-year-old realised that she wanted to do more.
“Being in the factory on Brick Lane, where I was told on how to sew up paper bags and all that, I already had the entrepreneurial spirit lurking somewhere and the big world of M&S became a subject of curiosity for me,” recalled Schaffer.
Somewhat stuck in the blouse department of M&S at the time when speciality retailing was coming through in the UK, Schaffer started to focus on other areas of the business that she could perhaps get into. Soon enough Schaffer found she was interested in lingerie.
“I noticed that every piece of fabric that came into the business was sent to the underwear department, where they were made into knickers. They were piled in an extremely unattractive fashion and would just sell,” Schaffer recalled.
Stating that underwear was an absolute commodity product in the UK back in the 1980s, she noted that M&S was holding a colossal 40% of the market share with no competition whatsoever.
Opposed to the tie market which had revenue of 100 million pounds per year and the socks market which had annual revenue of approximately 300 million pounds, the opportunity for undergarments and lingerie in the UK at the time was two billion pounds per year. This Schaffer identified as a raging opportunity for her to venture.
With her enthusiasm coupled with the encouraging entrepreneurial environment where the banks in the UK were keen on supporting new businesses at the time, Schaffer jumped on to this with what she calls the “worst” business plan.
“I went to four banks and managed to get 75,000 pounds. It was part of my research and I just wanted to picture how sophisticated it was. I sat outside a sock shop, in a café opposite, and counted every individual that went to the till point and I based it all on a five pound average spend and that became the business plan. This times 365 days a year was my deeply sophisticated study. With the money and my plan, out I went to start the business,” said Schaffer.
By that time, Schaffer had also met a merchandiser at M&S, Stephen Schaffer (her future spouse), to help her plan and the duo were plotting their next move.
Presenting lingerie to UK in a whole new fashion
Confidently moving out of M&S, the two were quick to come up with a name, and in October 1986 the first Knickerbox store opened on Regent Street, London.
“The philosophy was relatively simple largely because I was able to pick up on the great philosophy of M&S in the early ’80s. Knickerbox started to present lingerie in a new fashion and that was some sort of innovation in the early ’80s. Nobody had an underwear shop in high street and actually convincing the landlord was not an easy task. We had to persuade them that this was a very wholesome concept,” stated Schaffer.
Offering fashionable underwear at M&S prices meant one thing. She had to tap the suppliers of M&S and persuade them to produce for Knickerbox.
Courageous Schaffer asked the British supplier who supplies over 20,000 dozen of undergarments a week for M&S, for three dozen only, that too in three colours and four different sizes. “The quantities I increased since I was too embarrassed to ask for what I really needed. I think just to irritate M&S, they were prepared to do it,” she said.
Expressing that it was really a great start, along with managing her business, soon she was in the limelight writing book reviews, judging fashion competitions, and doing television shows where she was featured as the ‘underwear expert’.
“The rewards are tremendous when you start your own business but things don’t always go smoothly. However, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur. You always go back and do other things that people will admire. My advice is if you are passionate about something, never be afraid of doing it because the rewards can be fantastic – not just from the monetary perspective but the enriching experience you get by being involved in every aspect of the business,” she told the South Asia Apparel Leadership Forum.
Speaking about her absolute passion, Schaffer said for her it is storytelling. She firmly believes that a brand cannot be relevant and successful if it doesn’t have a story. “It is so important to have the organisation to constantly go back and look at the heritage. It is important to remind the business about the philosophy and the ethos that has brought it to where it is today,” opined Schaffer.
Having identified the importance of storytelling for Knickerbox during its growth phase, the Schaffers had told their story so well that the press identified them as two young people who had “defected” M&S.
“Those were the stages where I didn’t really know it was truly about branding a story, but it was. I think it is imperative for any brand to look at what is it that stopped it from being a shop, a commodity, and turned it into something that is emotionally connecting to a customer,” she expressed.
Schaffer added that storytelling is not only good for brands but is also good in a personal perspective since one can get a clear picture of themselves, and where they will be in the future.
The selling of Knickerbox
Having over 200 stores all over the world in 1995, the Knickerbox business was now a serious deal and no more a small, easy to manage venture.
Although the business was generating about 30 million pounds turnover per year on average, Schaffer was having a little too much on her plate with the birth of the triplets and the pressure of the rapidly growing business.
Keeping the best interest of the brand in mind, it was decided to sell the business. Stating that she was not saddened with the decision, Schaffer said: “I think every entrepreneur has to look at that stage and say now is probably the time to bring in someone who can take it on to the next level. It doesn’t always happen that way since very often when an entrepreneur leaves, the brand loses its essence. With Knickerbox this was the case. After it was sold it did lose its soul.”
Eventually the successful Knickerbox was sold to Ann Summers in 2000. “She would not have been my choice, but Summers did try to keep the brand essence. Nevertheless, I am happy that Knickerbox helped change the shape of lingerie retailing in the UK,” added Schaffer.
The consultancy phase
Following the sale of Knickerbox for which she gave an identity and nurtured throughout her career, Schaffer’s expertise was highly sought after. Soon she found herself consulting the Oasis Group where she developed and launched the ‘Odille’ lingerie line, where she built the brand with a character from Swan Lake, ‘Odille’ (The Black Swan).
“Doing consultancy work for firms, I spent my time building plans for the retailers in high street, where I studied their brands, looked at the detail, and gave them a new category to work in,” she said.
A call from Victoria
In 2007, Schaffer received a call that opened a new chapter in her career. Victoria’s Secret reached out to Schaffer to be its Chief Creative Officer. She recalled it was rather a funny call since when the company asked if she wanted to know anything about the brand, she responded by saying they could hear from her instead since she had studied the brand throughout her life.
“I knew everything about Victoria’s Secret to the extent I even knew the car service they used. I was a true stalker. When they opened their showroom in San Francisco I went to see it. It was a brand that has a magical name and a connection with its customer. My concern for Victoria at the point was that it had 98% brand recognition, and the company had done a brilliant job in making it a household name. However, very often, when those from abroad went to the store, the store and the product didn’t quite match. It didn’t deliver the perception on what the brand was. I felt that was the opportunity there.”
Once again doing what she is best at, Schaffer narrated the Victoria’s Secret story based on her view. Repeating what she told the management at the time, Schaffer said: “Imagine Victoria as a beautiful glamorous woman who went out and conquered the world and lives on Broadway in a 10,000 sq. ft. store. Now she is at a stage where she has children. She has child called ‘Pink,’ who is a playful child, getting a bit too big for her boots, taking over way too much space in the bedroom and is almost at a stage where she needs to get her own apartment. Then you have ‘Body’ by Victoria, which is a frumpy child, who is always at the back looking a bit sad and miserable. Then there is ‘Sexy Little Thing’ where you have to curfew and need to be kept at home. There is ‘Angel,’ a flighty child with no focus and needs to be given a direction. And lastly there is ‘Intimacy,’ which feels like a sleep over that needs to go home.”
With that introduction, Schaffer spent five years of her career at Victoria’s Secret. She emphasised it was interesting because it was about storytelling. The brand had a story to tell, and the story needed focus and required everybody to understand it.
Secret to success
Creativity is the key to success, according to Schaffer. “If you look at the Fortune 500 companies, what you will notice is that there are very few creative people sitting at the top of the pile, and that has to change. Your secret formula, your ethos, and your philosophy is: always know what you are best at and what your core business is. Identify that and stay focused,” advised Schaffer.