Rebecca Morter is an entrepreneur who is taking the concept of retail in a whole new direction. Founder and CEO of the Lone Design Club, LDC is a portal which connects consumers with small and independent designers. Twinning an immersive pop up store experience with an online platform allows customers and brands to interact, to discuss the creative and design process face to face and of course to shop. All of this underpinned by a commitment to ethical and sustainable fashion and to brands who share that vision.
In these unprecedented times Rebecca remains ahead of the curve, having brought that immersive in- store experience online under the umbrella of a TV channel, LDC Digital.Rebecca’s contribution to the retail and sustainable fashion sectors has been recognized by Forbes magazine. They have chosen her from over 300 candidates for the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2020 in the Retail and Ecommerce category. A richly deserved accolade..
I interviewed Rebecca by email as the pandemic began to impact our daily lives in previously unimaginable ways.
1. You grew up on a farm in rural New Zealand. What did that upbringing teach you and which of those life skills have you brought to fashion and to the Lone Design Club?
I was really into horse riding and spending time on farm, a lot of hard work, horse riding is a very dedicated sport, every day riding and weekends eventing/competing, gave me drive and dedication, motivation, perseverance. I was exposed to a much more laid back and relaxed lifestyle – less comformative to UK and perhaps more open minded. NZ is laid back nation, and I was always encouraged to pursue ideas, think differently and push limits.Sustainability, buying organic and natural were integral parts of my formative years. Looking after earth and planet, eating well and knowing where you bought from – being part of the local experience.
2. What inspired you to move to London and study fashion?
NZ is great but isolated from rest of world. I was lucky my mum worked in IT at Air NZ so we travelled a lot – my parents are originally from Britain anyway and emigrated before I was born so we visited every few years. As with any young person, you want to explore the unknown. The buzz, excitement and culture of London really called to me and I decided after school I didn’t want to stay NZ. I had done my time of the quieter life, I didn’t want to be a vet and wasn’t into adrenaline sports so it was time to move on. I was interested in arts and applied to a bunch of art schools, I happened to be doing a fashion intern with an NZ designer, Trelise Cooper at the time after school and loved it so I chose the fashion route at LCF.
3. After graduating you had your own brand. What motivated you to change direction from creating garments to providing a platform for emerging designers to showcase theirs?
In early January 2015, being the naive early 20 something that I was, I up and quit my job as a designer, just a few weeks before launching my own brand at London Fashion Week. There was no business plan, no funding plan, just pure passion and drive. I was working with a friend at the time, we were designing and creating, we had been picked up by some pretty cool people, lady gaga, Charlie xcx, little mix to name a few – we had a great time launching at fashion week. We met cool people, we built great relationships, more press and buzz around us – everything was great! Then we looked at our order book, meaning how scarce it was… and it started to dawn on us… business is hard and how were we going to pay for making more collections and keep this going, let alone feed ourselves and pay our rent every month.
I remember being in one of these buying meetings with a big agent in London who manages a lot of big department stores in USA and taking her through the collection which she loved, but I remember her picking out pieces and saying ooooh this is great but could we do it in that fabric, or could we add some colour options or things like that and I remember looking at my business partners face and the look of “is she serious” just written all over it – we’ve got all these pieces to choose from but still she wants more options and she wants more samples and we had no money. We continued down this wholesale route, going to Paris (on the megabus £10 each way…!)
Dealing with buyers and then we looked at the numbers and realised that even when a store does buy – its small and even then they want discounts or sale or return and they wont pay for ages and basically we just make no money, more often then not it felt like you were paying to be in that store. And the part that was really interesting was that you had no relationship with the end customer whatsoever. You get a monthly or a weekly sales report that tells you how your sell through is going and if it’s not good you basically panic. I remember a designer I worked with at LDC awhile ago who used to sell to Harrods and I remember who telling me that they were always so petrified of being dropped and when sales weren’t going well her and her business partner would go in and spend Saturdays pretending to be sales associates to help push the brand!
Anyway, we were finding customers were starting to come to us directly, whether that be Instagram or industry friend or recommended by someone – and it was these relationships that were becoming key, these customers were loyal, they would spend, regularly and they spread the word that brought more loyal customers. It was also a crucial part of brand bustling that the wholesale could not supply – we needed crucial feedback from the end customer to understand what was selling and why, was it the materials, the fit, the colours, shapes? With wholesale you don’t get this, just a spreadsheet of what sold… how are we supposed to build an organic and sustainable business when we don’t have any interaction with the end customer.
In September 2016, we got together with a bunch of other designers having the same thoughts and challenges and we put on our first pop up store – luckily I don’t have any photos from this – it looked awful. BUT people were coming in and they were buying. BUT the most interesting part of this was the relationships being created and the stories being shared. Customers wanted to know who we were, why we had made certain design decisions, what inspired us; they wanted to engage with the person behind the brand. They wanted to hear our story. And they wanted to be part of it.
It was as much the powerful feedback session we were hoping for, as it was a turning point. It was a very emotional and intimate experience for both us as designers and for the customers.
So we did another store, and another – making good cash, learning about our customers and all the while building a really strong sense of community, we were telling the stories of the products we created, starlight from us as the designers – an experience you just couldn’t get anywhere else, definitely not online and certainly not on the high street!
4.You provide brands with an online presence but also the opportunity to display their creations in concept stores. To what extent have you found this traditional style footfall has driven subsequent online demand?
The physical stores are actually the strongest part of the business right now, customers need a space to come see, touch and feel brands they saw online but didn’t buy because its hard to trust a small designer, you’ve never heard of that has got a small website. Its a lot to ask of a customer, especially when your asking them purchase a garment at a higher price point. Therefore creating a relationship with them directly via physical space is crucial and can really support the online offering. We definitely notice an uplift of online sale during and after our physical stores. Online is very important to reach our global customers and keep the communication and relationship alive – showing them new products and new brands.
5. How important to you is that quite unique LDC experience of bringing the designer and customer together in the same space?
Extremely important for both designer and customer – we want to take these small businesses and help build them into big ones – that’s our main goal. Its crucial the designer gets customer feedback on their brand – why they bought it, why they didn’t, was it the price, the fit, materials etc. This feedback is crucial to build a business organically and sustainably.
For the customer it’s such an important part of the buying experience, they hear the story, meet the person who created the product, connect on a human level. The designer sells better than anyone else – that person with the passion and excitement.
6. Sustainability and ethical fashion are at the heart of the LDC DNA. What do you look for in that regard from a prospective LDC partner?
It is important brands are making steps within sustainability and ethics – working towards a better planet. Naturally many are better due to them being 1-2 man bands, having smaller production and using local factories or making themselves. Most importantly they are thinking about sustainability and ethics at the core. Every brand does it differently and in there own way. In the fashion industry it’s almost impossible to be 100% sustainable but we can work towards it and do our bit.
We work with designers who are upcyling denim to move it away from landfill and creating garments that can be worn again and again to brands using newer eco friendly materials such as vegan leather and eco cotton. There are also brands that are reducing their carbon footprint with local production and sourcing, they are all in their ways helping to create progress and we encourage even the smallest steps.
7. The sustainability tagline is being used by an increasing number of brands from high end to the high street and some of their environmental credentials don’t stand up to scrutiny? Is the industry in danger of the “sustainable” tag being devalued to that of a meaningless advertising slogan?
The words have become trendy and buzz words, we prefer mindful, traceable and transparent, conscious. We want to be inclusive, this isn’t about being right, and it’s about making a change and helping companies get there, no judgement just positive change.
8. Would you like to take the LDC blueprint back to New Zealand and the Antipodes?
Maybe one day! Not anytime soon, we want to grow at a manageable rate. We do have online customers from NZ but the market isn’t for us just yet- its definitely growing but not quite yet, Australia could definitely be an option a year or so out though. We do see brands from Australia and NZ interested to come here and launch their brands so for now we will aim to support these designers.
9. After another hugely successful LDC presence at London Fashion Week, what does the rest of 2020 hold for LDC?
A LOT! We have around 25 sites planned for the UK this year, however our focus is now on our digital platform, with the global pandemic a lot of our designers and customers need our full support and we intend to be there for them in all ways possible. We have launched “A-Lone Design Club” a series of online workshops, panel talks and events that everyone get involved in from home. We are launching a new podcast, which will be a deep drive into the stories behind our brands and shop the look with LDC’s in-house stylist and prominent guest stylists. You name it, we will be covering it.
Huge thanks to Rebecca for taking the time out during what is a period of unprecedented uncertainty to provide such detailed , comprehensive and fascinating answers to my questions.
I’m sure that her entrepreneurial spirit and the innovative way LDC has adapted to the crisis will greatly help, both them and the brands they support, to navigate these troubled times. Many thanks also to Laura at Laura McCluskey PR for arranging our interview.