Growing in style — the fashion start-up reeling in Rihanna & Co to shop online

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When you can count pop stars Rihanna and Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards as customers, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking your fashion start-up might have benefited from a serious delve into the little black book. 

But far from being the foray of a well-connected fashion editor replete with power suit, black Chanel sunglasses and an icy stare, SilkFred’s eye-catching growth has been masterminded by the youthful Emma Watkinson. The 29-year-old chatty entrepreneur has rapidly built up her online retail site, selling trendy gear from jumpsuits to jewellery. 

Using a clever mix of social media and carefully targeted online ads (my Facebook feed has been awash with its lavish dresses and floral prints for months), Watkinson notched up revenues of £2.7 million last year and is confident she can treble it this year. The site has already signed up 290 brands, including Quontum and Never Fully Dressed. 

So just what makes Watkinson and her two business partners — who combined have a 30% share of the business — think they can make big bucks in a crowded market that counts Boohoo and Asos among its major players?

For starters, the Paddington dweller believes her experience in the retail and online worlds can help.

Like many others of her generation, when Watkinson finished her English degree at Liverpool University in 2008, she found that the jobs market had dried up. “I thought I could be a writer but it was clear I wasn’t going to be James Joyce,” she laughs. While studying, she worked at upmarket womenswear chain Whistles’ first Liverpool branch, making it easier for her to find a retail job in Spain, where she moved shortly after graduating.

She worked for a boutique, Alta Moda, which turned over €20 million (£15 million) a year selling high-end brands to the likes of Real Madrid footballers. “I thought the business was doing so well and had such unique clothes that those outside of Madrid would snap up the goods. So I asked the owners if I could set up an e- commerce site for them. They gave me €5000 to set up the website and the site is still live and has grown.”

Having caught the travel bug, Watkinson headed to New York to intern for Guest of a Guest NYC, a popular magazine site covering the Big Apple’s elite, which offered her her first brush with fame. “At one fashion event, I shamelessly asked Vera Wang and Donna Karan to pose for a red carpet photo with me,” she admits.

On returning to the UK in 2010, she took a job at since-closed luxury  e-tailer MyWardrobe but soon got itchy feet. Inspired by working for a spate of women running their own business, Watkinson took the plunge, following in her parents’ footsteps, despite their scepticism. “My dad built his business from a market stall to owning 15 pubs and nightclubs, and my mum started her own fashion boutique, opening three stores in quick succession, catering at the time to stylish Liverpool ladies and footballers’ wives [Louise Redknapp was a customer].”

She teamed up with friend and financial trader Stephen Jackson and his sister Kate, and the trio raised £150,000 from private investors. With this, they created a platform for fashion brands to get their products to market and sell to shoppers online. SilkFred does not charge a brand to list, but it will take a 25% cut of the price of each item sold. 

After snaring 10 retailers in its first year, the business raised more than £145,000 on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube in 2013 allowing it to expand to nearly 300 today, of which 60 signed up between November 2015 and last month.

So what next? SilkFred, based in the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, plans to continue to invest heavily in marketing and expand overseas, wooing new international customers, and encouraging overseas labels to list on the portal.

And Watkinson is convinced SilkFred can offer something different. “I really feel we cut through the noise of online shopping, standing out from the crowd and providing a central destination for shoppers to find original yet affordable pieces that their friends won’t have,” she says. 

As I find myself hovering over an ad for leopard print ankle boots, it looks like she’s onto something.

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March 30, 2016 |
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