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Black White Denim's journey to Cheshire champion

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Jo Davies is setting the fashion agenda in the north-west with her award-winning womenswear independent, Black White Denim. 

“Change yourself”, a neon blue sign reads through the window of Black White Denim – an invitation to follow in the steps of founder Jo Davies, who eight years ago opened the Cheshire-based premium womenswear independent with no previous fashion retail experience.

Low-hanging vintage lighting casts a welcoming glow over the store, which hums with pop music. On the sleek black rails, flashes of leopard print peak out from behind romantic dresses and boyish leather jackets. White trainers are lined up smartly below.

[The Black White Denim concept] gave us permission to steer away from some of the trickier, more trend-led pieces

“If you can get your new brand into Black White Denim, it’s a stamp of approval,” says Lucy Walsh, founder of womenswear sales agency the Brand Ambassadors. “Lots of people look to Jo because she has a good eye and buys into brands that often go on to be really big.”

Black White Denim’s “excellent brand mix that caters to and challenges its customers” caught the eye of the judges at last year’s Drapers Independents Awards, who went on to name it Best Womenswear Independent. It beat strong competition, including Reigate-based Gerrards and previous winner Katie & Jo. Drapers joins Davies in her store to discover the secret of her winning formula. 

Cheshire set

Black White Denim opened in the affluent town of Wilmslow, 11 miles south of Manchester, in 2010 with just 14 womenswear brands. These were J Brand, Paige denim, Markus Lupfer, Lara Bohinc, L’Agence, Carvan, Equipment, Rag & Bone, Theory, Bolongaro Trevor, Marithé et François Girbaud, Acne, Current Elliott and Browns Focus. Today, the 900 sq ft store stocks 40 women’s, men’s and footwear brands, as well as its own range of women’s basics.

Next on the agenda is the launch of its own limited-edition womenswear collection in May, named 50 Pieces to reflect the fact there will only be 50 units of each style released. 

Black, white and denim were, and still are, at the core of any stylish woman’s wardrobe

Although Davies remembers a time when the balance sheet was “not [in] a very nice place”, thanks to overly optimistic buying following a bumper first month trading, the business is now flourishing. Turnover has doubled in the last four years and, in the same period, the business has gone from breaking even to a net profit of around 15%, although Davies declines to give figures. 

“This has genuinely become an extension of my home now,” she says of the store, describing her team of three full-time and six part-time staff as “family”. Aware of how infectious the staff’s enthusiasm is with customers, Davies ensures the buying process is democratic. Although she makes the final call, the team is always encouraged to share lookbooks and voice their opinions.

Career change

Yet Davies’s move into fashion retail might not have happened. After putting a sales career in the fast-moving consumer goods industry, for companies including Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, on hold in 2007 to have her son, Gabriel, Davies wanted to return to a more flexible job.

She loved the “transformational power” of clothing and toyed with the notion of opening a store, but struggled to come up with a strong concept, so she put the idea on the back burner. However, in 2009, she attended a friend’s baby shower. Guests were asked to describe the mother-to-be’s style in three words, to which Davies replied: “Black, white, denim.”

Interior5

“I’d wondered myself what always made her look so together. I thought, ‘I’ve got something here’,” explains Davies. “[The concept] also gave us permission to steer away from some of the trickier, more trend-led pieces that I was worried about. I’d never bought anything professionally, and I was going to showrooms thinking, ‘What do I buy?’ [But this] meant it was very easy not to be derailed from our belief that black, white and denim were, and still are, at the core of any stylish woman’s wardrobe.”

Personally financing the new store, she spent £100,000 on the shopfit and £200,000 on the first full year of stock. As “the centre of Cheshire’s golden triangle”, and with its “vibrant shopping hub” Wilmslow seemed a natural location – and was just eight miles south of Davies’s hometown of Bowdon.  

Wardrobe winner

Davies is the embodiment of the Black White Denim ethos. Wearing a long black Anine Bing blazer, blue J Brand jeans and a navy Bella Freud jumper emblazoned with the word “kiddo”, she looks effortlessly stylish.

“I can’t stock something I wouldn’t wear myself,” she says. “We constantly listen to our customers and a lot of them we know so well now that, when we’re buying, we’ll go, ‘Oh that’s a Nicola dress or a Sam jacket, or that’s a Jackie top.’ If we can’t think of five people who would buy it, we don’t.”

We wasted a lot of valuable time and money trying to chase something that we were never going to be in with a chance of winning

Although buying strategy still focuses around the store’s original concept, over the years the team have injected pattern and colour, first through accessories and then into ready to wear. Still, when in the changing rooms customers often ask if they can try the items in black.

Largely steering clear of trade shows, the team uses its social channels and trusted agencies to find new exciting brands that are not stocked elsewhere. Davies took on Rixo London – Premium Brand of the Year at Drapers Awards 2018 – before founders Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey were even looking for stockists, demonstrating her discerning taste.

“I’ve made it my personal mission to try and introduce brands to [the north-west of England], to give confidence to our customer who is a little nervous of adopting things too early,” she adds. “We bought Zoe Kaen to the north-west for the first time, and Bella Freud.”

bwd men

Bloke White Denim

Davies launched the menswear department, Bloke White Denim, in 2017 in response to demand from her female customers and it now accounts for 10% of sales, while womenswear, including accessories, is 90%.

This season, bestselling brands include Set, Anine Bing and Bella Freud in womenswear, and Samsøe & Samsøe, Rails and John Smedley in menswear. Prices range from £50 for a Zoe Kaen t-shirt, to £595 for a Duvetica down coat. For Spring 19 new womenswear brands include Olivia Rubin, in its first wholesale season, and the reintroduction of contemporary brand 5 Preview. 

I’ve made it my personal mission to try and introduce brands to the north-west of England

Olivia Rubin, founder of the eponymous brand beloved for its prints, says: “We have a big customer base from our online sales in their area so it made sense for Black White Denim to be one of the first independents to launch with. We love their brand mix and feel we can make a successful impact in store.”

“Jo is known for her ability to sniff out hot new brands, rather than riding the crest of the wave,” says Claire Burrows, founder of footwear brand Air & Grace, which has been stocked by Black White Denim since January 2018. “There was never any question that I wanted to partner with her as one of our chosen stockists and I turned down others in the area.

“That doesn’t mean it was easy: we had to prove our worthiness of a place in the Black White Denim store. But once our shoes hit the floor, we couldn’t supply enough.”

Online adventure

While the bricks-and-mortar store has flourished, online has been something of a learning curve. The team invested a lot of time into it when the store first opened, expecting that within six months of launching 30% of sales would come from the website.

“That was a big mistake, but we did it in ignorance and eagerness,” Davies says. “We wasted a lot of valuable time and money trying to chase something that we were never going to be in with a chance of winning.”

The site now accounts for 10% of sales. Davies intends to double this over the next 18 months by focusing on “highly desirable brands that are not massively available”, such as Bella Freud, Golden Goose and Olivia Rubin.

Online growth will partly be driven by social media. Davies describes Black White Denim’s 10,400 Instagram followers as “a premium fillet steak”: although not a staggeringly large number, she says “there is no fat” to her following – group of loyal women use the platform to support each other as well as to shop.

Things become more successful and they grow as a result of your attitude towards other people

“It’s a little bit of everything really,” says Davies of her plans to expand. “If we do a bit on womenswear, a bit on the menswear and a bit on 50 Pieces and a bit online. It’s amazing how those few small changes can actually add up into quite a big thing.”

Through this dialogue with customers online and in the local community, she hopes that menswear will grow to 20% of sales in the next three years, while womenswear keeps to a steady 10%. 

Single minded

Black White Denims will not be popping up around the country any time soon, though. Davies has been approached about franchising the brand, but she is wary of opening more stores.

“I’ve seen a number of independent boutiques who’ve had a really successful store, and opened another one, and that’s the end of them,” she says. “The moment I start splitting my time across other geographies is the moment we’d lose what is so special here, and that is the people.”

Over the past four years, Davies has offered mentorship and free store space to new brands, such Jennifer Gibson Vintage Jewellery, which is currently on display in store. Understanding how hard managing a fledgling business can be, Davies values giving the brands exposure to her wide customer base. The goodwill agreements also allow her to try new things without having to make a long-term commitment of floor space or brand budget. 

It’s amazing how a few small changes can actually add up into quite a big thing

Expanding into consultancy, for which she charges an hourly rate, Davies is working with a new womenswear indie Storm, set to open in Ribble Valley, in Lancashire, in May.

“It’s really important to me because no one did that for me when I started,” she says. “I’ve realised that things become more successful and they grow as a result of your attitude towards other people, not trying to protect what you’ve got and not let anyone else in.

“If someone was to come along and say, ‘I want to do what you’ve done, Jo,’ I could provide them with enough information and hindsight from experience, almost like a boutique in a box.”

Davies, however, has earned her status as a respected industry name by “surviving” the journey from start-up to success, relying only her own intuition. 

Basics wall

Printed on the wall downstairs a sign (in black and white, naturally) gives the “Black White Basic Truths”: “They keep their shape, they last and last, every wardrobe should have one, you’ll live in them.”

Designed to advertise the store’s basics line, launched in 2014, this philosophy underlines the simple but effective concept that has been the key to Black White Denim’s success.

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