Our first Women of Substance interview is with the women’s champion, creative aesthete and directional thinking chief executive of Whistles, Jane Shepherdson. She spoke to us about her views on women in business, things she would tell her younger self and what she carries in her Buckitt Bag.
What qualities do women need to posses to be successful today?
They need to be confident. So many women lack confidence and low self esteem and that’s such a shame as so many women are talented, skillful and clever but never really fulfill themselves because they feel that they’re not good enough. Confidence is certainly one of the most important things I’ve seen that women lack. And you need a lot of luck! Being in the right place at the right time as well as being prepared to try something and completely fail because if you don’t you’ll be too nervous to get anywhere.
Which women do you admire?
Well let’s start within my own field, Phoebe Philo is amazing as she’s just setting the standard for everybody, for a start she’s female- which within the fashion industry ought to be a given but when you look at the last Fashion Week only 20% of the catwalk shows are female designers- so I think she’s amazing, she’s uncompromising and she’s got a great creative aesthetic as well as being an ordinary straightforward person. Wow there’s so many! I admire Kirsty Wark as she’s running a new show totally on her own terms and not bowing down to the BBC white male classic presenter stereotype. I admire a lot of the female members of parliament, Harriet Harman and Margaret Hodge are doing an incredible job and get pilloried viciously all the time for the way they dress which has nothing to do with their jobs.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you felt the need to support and encourage women, a moment when you felt the call to join the sisterhood?
I’m not sure it was a sudden thing I think it was something that’s always been ingrained in me i’ve always said quite loudly that i’m a feminist. Growing up there was a very equal division of labour between my parents and I’ve never felt there was anything I couldn’t do because i’m female, because my mother was so strong. I’ve always thought the ones who look down are the women who pull the ladder up after them and obviously we have to make it better for everybody else!
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed as a woman?
No, not really, not as a woman. I feel the pressure of the business and it succeeding and especially after leaving TopShop and starting at Whistles and there was this real feeling of ‘all eyes on me’ and ‘maybe it was just TopShop she was good at’ so I was put under a bit of pressure there.
Do women measure success differently?
Yes I think they do. I think men tend to measure success by money and power and women tend generally to measure it more by quality of life. I think women want more things out of life such as friendships and family and I think women would say they were successful if there life had a balance whereas I think men are more single minded.
How have women’s relationship to fashion changed over your time in the industry?
We’ve become a lot more demanding and instant gratification is quite hard to escape from and when I first started in this business that didn’t really exist. We talk of fast fashion but it wasn’t really that fast and the expectation now is if you’ve seen something say on a catwalk the expectation is to be able to buy it straight away which of course you often can. Perhaps trends had longer to mature 20 years ago and they moved in slower cycles and now things seem to come back in again just a few years after they were last here which is a little bit disconcerting.
You look at the edges of society and the real influencers and last year or the year before we might have thought ‘what are they wearing?’ and now we’re all on it donning pool slides and socks and sandals, thinking of the least acceptable item and making that fashionable- look at Phoebe Philo’s mink lined Birkenstock, that’s hilarious that the utterly ugly and functional makes for a high fashion product, not sure whether she thought it was funny or not! Certainly back in the 80s it was all about having big hair short clothes and being overtly sexy and these days it’s about almost the exact opposite: the boxy top, the tracky bottoms, the pool slide almost dressing to look as awkward as possible.
I think what hasn’t changed is that for the women who are into fashion it’s about pleasing themselves and other women not men, especially in English fashion.
How have your own attitudes to it changed as you’ve grown older? Is fashion always a good thing?
I don’t think it’s always a good thing but i’m kind of obsessed with it, I have to be really don’t I? I look at things and think that’s ridiculous but then find myself thinking maybe i’d quite like that after all! I don’t buy into fads as much as I used to, well I sometimes do. I tend to take a much more considered approach and think whether I really need something or not. I tend to go for things that have an intrinsic value of their own and a bit of longevity to them.
You’ve worked in both fast and ‘slow’ fashion? Which has the brighter future and why? Have you any ethical concerns?
Well this is interesting. I’d love to say that people are going to move into much more considered purchasing but I see people all the time buying bags and bags of cheap products that will have cost the same as say three tops from Whistles which will last them and unfortunately I don’t see that changing. So much of it doesn’t see the light of day and gets thrown away so easily. So unfortunately I do think that fast fashion will always be the winner so to speak. At the ned of the day fashion is one of the least sustainable businesses as very few people really need new clothing.
There are very few women at the top in the fashion business (designers excluded). Why do you think that is?
Well I think designers included to be honest. I think most of the big fashion houses have men at the top as what they are selling is a fantasy lifestyle, the accessories, make-up and perfume and men are very good at selling that lifestyle concept. Miuccia Prada is an exception as she designs actual clothes for women as do Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, along with the lifestyle brand extras but they are in their minority. There are a lot of alpha males running fashion busineesses who a lot of women find very difficult to work with, they’re confrontational and lots of women just don’t want to work that way.
How can big business be persuaded to encourage more women to get into it?
I think it is getting there. Each new generation is prepared to stand up and be counted and we’re starting to get there. We need role models and women to stand up and say what its like to work in their jobs that it doesn’t have to be the way men want it to be. I’m all for quotas both for government and for boards and certainly within government we need a proper target.
The Buckitt is a bag for life – is this an important factor to you when purchasing a product and how does that fit in with your own style and your shopping habits?
I love the ‘pounds per wear’ model! It forces you to think about purchasing more carefully and that always goes through my head when i’m buying. Is this really going to live with me which is why I actually deliberated over the colour of the bag for quite some time. (Reader: she chose Navy)
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing, I sleep like a log!
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Be confident. Have faith in yourself.
What item do you always carry in your bag and cannot be without?
Factor 50 sunscreen, lipsalve, lipstick, mirror, Barclay’s Bike key, keys.
Do you ever go out without a bag?
Our next Women of Substance will be the journalist and publisher Debbi Evans of Libertine magazine.
All images by Jenny Lewis.