Me + Em founder Clare Hornby “will never do wholesale” and prefers an intimate relationship with her affordable luxury customer.
Spring sunshine is streaming through the large windows of Me + Em’s west London studio when Drapers arrives early one March morning. Hidden incongruously above a women’s jiujitsu studio, the office is an oasis of elegant calm: parquet flooring, white walls, art deco detailing and views spanning over the local rooftops towards Westfield London. Every so often a Tube train rattles past the windows, as impeccably dressed employees in the 36-strong team slowly trickle into the office.
It is a fittingly stylish home for the affordable luxury womenswear brand Me + Em, headed by co-founder and director Clare Hornby. Set up in 2009, the label prides itself on creating high-quality, reasonably priced designs, clothing that is neatly surmised by Hornby’s “Three Fs”: “functional, flattering and fashionable”.
The brand has hit its stride in the past few years, and growth has accelerated. Hornby says that net revenues have increased by 110% in the last two years, and the company reported revenues of £5.63m for the year to 31 January 2017, up 58.2% from 2016. However, it made a pre-tax loss of £1.3m for the year as it invested in expansion.
Whatever we do: put a side stripe on it – it will sell
Already this year two new London stores have opened: New Cavendish Street in Marylebone opened in January, and Draycott Avenue in Chelsea mid-February. They take the total store count to five, all of which are in London.
Hornby’s background lies in advertising, which she says has shaped her business approach: “It was quite strategic and creative. Advertising trains you to really think about the customer. It’s very consumer-centric.”
Having started her career working in marketing at Harrods – which, she says “gave me my love of luxury” – she spent almost 10 years working for marketing agencies including HHCL, before leaving to set up the brand Pyjama Room in 2007, self-funding its launch alongside former business partner Emma Howarth, who left Me + Em in 2012. Pyjama Room sought to tap into the burgeoning trend for luxury loungewear.
“That was my advertising head looking for a gap in the market,” says Hornby. “It was all about making women feel and look good at home. Beautiful fabrics, amazing cuts and details.”
In 2009, the business expanded from loungewear into daywear and rebranded to Me + Em, but retained the original ideology of high-quality designs.
“Me + Em has perfectly tapped into the concept of the capsule wardrobe and pared-back luxury,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at research company Stylus. “Consumers are increasingly looking to streamline their wardrobes, favouring higher quality and sustainable credentials over quantity of items. It offers beautiful fabrics, cut really well. The brand has really tapped into the whole casual and comfort vibe, but in a luxe way.”
Hornby’s formula is resonating with consumers, and, in a notoriously fickle market, the brand has built a loyal fanbase. Not only has it secured the backing of a series of high-profile investors, including Bella Freud, Alexa Chung, Pembroke VCT and Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone, who invested in 2015, it has also developed an active relationship with its customer via its crowdfunding campaigns.
In March 2017, the brand smashed its crowdfunding target on the platform Crowdcube, raising more than £1.3m on a £700,000 target. Overall, 80% of the 826 investors backing the brand were already Me + Em customers.
“Crowdfunding is all about getting a community of investors to believe in and back your business,” explains Luke Lang, co-founder of Crowdcube. “Me + Em’s raise on Crowdcube was hugely successful as it was able to engage its community effectively. It now has a crowd of people who will become its most loyal customers and fiercest brand advocates.”
We obsess about things having at least three roles in your wardrobe before we make it
Today, the product mix is dominated by elegant daywear – sophisticated cuts across dresses, separates, outerwear and accessories. The brand is particularly hailed for its impeccably cut trousers – bestselling styles include a modal palazzo pant, and side-striped items are also extremely popular with customers.
“Whatever we do: put a side stripe on it – it will sell,” jokes Hornby.
The age of the Me + Em core customer ranges from around 35 to 55 years, but it is also frequently worn both by older teens and the over-sixties. Rather than focusing on an age demographic as her target, Hornby says she aims to create clothing for “busy women with busy lifestyles”.
“We obsess about things having at least three roles in your wardrobe before we make it,” she explains. “We don’t want women to invest unnecessarily.”
As her “Three Fs” dictate, the focus is on creating functional items in flattering shapes, which acknowledge current trends: “We love trends and we think a modern woman wants to look modern. We edit them in a way that’s wearable and flattering.”
Your supplier base is everything – you can’t deliver anything without them
Fit is a particular focus in designs, and Me + Em invests a lot of time and attention in perfecting it. Hornby estimates the brand spends fifteen times longer perfecting fit than the average retailer. It fits on three differently sized models and has developed a “fit manifesto” to ensure high standards.
Prices across the range start at £25 for a camisole and range to £750 for a pair of matt leather trousers – most of the collection is priced at less than £200. Cashmere, wool, satin and crêpe are all core fabrics.
Alongside her self-confessed “obsession” with fit, Hornby is fastidious about product quality, and building a base of trusted suppliers has been core to Me + Em’s growth. It now works with family-run suppliers in Europe and China.
“In those early years you really have to invest the time and the energy and the passion into bringing those people on board with you,” she says. “We go and meet suppliers, and we talk about the strategy, investors and growth, and we really partner up with them. That has really paid dividends, and has meant we managed to get suppliers on board that might otherwise not have backed us.”
We will never do wholesale, because it would change our margin dynamic
She continues: “That’s really the biggest challenge, because your supplier base is everything – whether you’ve got reliable, good-quality suppliers. You can’t deliver anything without them. Product is key to everything.”
The combination of Hornby’s customer focus and the brand’s drive to keep quality high and prices within this more affordable range is the driving force behind Me + Em’s business model. It sells solely direct to consumer, through its own website and stores.
“We are basically offering luxury for less,” explains Hornby. “Direct to consumer is the way that we can deliver the quality that we do, which matches up against most [luxury] brands.” Despite its increasing popularity, Hornby is adamant that Me + Em will never enter the wholesale space.
“We will never do wholesale, because it would change our margin dynamic,” she says. “[With direct to customer], the customer is paying just for one margin, not two. Once you start to compromise on quality of fabrics then you move into the high street and that space is taken.”
Another pillar supporting Me + Em’s affordable luxury status is its approach to physical stores, as it leverages its growing store portfolio to enhance the brand image and connect with customers.
“Shops are important is because that is when you really identify with the quality-price proposition. They are a very important showcase for the brand,” explains Hornby. “People talk a lot about brands being built offline and converted online and I do think that is totally true. We still are human beings and we want to touch, feel, smell, taste.”
Shops are important is because that is when you really identify with the quality-price proposition
Paul Souber, head of central London retail at property services firm Colliers International, says opening stores such as these is a good way for online brands to future-proof their businesses: “The growth rate of e-commerce sales is forecast to flatten over the next four years and the online pureplay brands’ are increasingly looking at how they can support and increase future sales,” he says.
“[Having] ‘showrooms’ in physical shopping environments generates online sales, raises awareness of the company, promotes brand loyalty and offers the customer an opportunity to see, touch and feel the products.”
Hornby estimates that 90% of sales come from online, but expects the mix to shift as store numbers increase, and aims to increase in-store sales to around 30% of the total.
The brand is considering opening one more store in London this year. Hornby says it will seek to open an additional two in 2019, and may begin looking to areas outside the capital.
Other plans for Me + Em revolve around connecting the online and offline customer experience to enhance their multichannel offer.
“We need to treat omnichannel as the new way to be,” Hornby says. “Retail has become a sort of self-serve environment. Creating a personal, relaxing environment is really important for us.”
She describes the business as “very data-centric” and, to enhance its overall experience, Me + Em is in the process of replatforming its website and harnessing its tech capabilities and data focus to enhance both in-store and online experiences: “The store and online will be intrinsically linked. The replatforming is about fully integrating those systems.”
Currently, customers can have their orders delivered to stores and shop staff can order online – the new approach will enhance click-and-collect capabilities and link customer purchase data in store and online, allowing staff to better tailor their service.
The replatforming will come into effect in February 2019. It will help the business take a more proactive interest in the international market, making it easier to browse and order from overseas. Currently, 6% of revenue comes from international shoppers, most of whom are in the US. Gradually, Hornby hopes to increase this, and has already renegotiated a US shipping deal. While there are no set targets, she tentatively suggests the possibility of opening a New York store as a long-term goal.
Me + Em is growing fast, and alongside its more grand ambitions, Hornby hopes to expand the brand’s limited offer in shoes, bags, accessories and eveningwear to create a broader collection, while staying loyal to its original ethos.
“We want to really try and stay committed to this direct-to-consumer, luxury offering – offering luxury at this surprising price point. It’s a really exciting area to be in,” she pauses and smiles. “I would also like to be the best in the world at trousers.”