How I #MadeIt: Caren Downie

In terms of highstreet heavyweights, it doesn't get much bigger than the three women behind Finery London, one of our favourite affordable womenswear brands to emerge over the past couple of years. There's Emma Farrow who worked at Topshop for almost 15 years, heading up design at Topshop Unique, who was instrumental in making the megastore one of the most prominent brands in the market. Then there's Rachel Morgans, a former head buyer at both ASOS and Topshop and finally Caren Downie, the former fashion director at ASOS, whose fast fashion expertise is unparalleled.

With such an indomitable and influential trio it's no wonder that they were able to create a new brand that perfectly bridges the gap between accessible clothing and directional, sophisticated designs that make up the perfect wardrobe staples for the discerning, modern woman. From party dresses and elegant tailoring to the most covetable footwear, Finery London – if it isn't already – ought to be your first port of call.

We caught up with Caren to discuss her career trajectory and the evolution of the online womenswear brand she started with her friends and former colleagues.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Finery has barely been around for two years, what do you think has been the key to your success in such a competitive landscape?
It's been 18 months! I think we offer something different; we're quite focused on our own perspective and what we like. We don't look at forecasting or anything like that. It's much more of a personal edit of fashion for us and we keep it very tight. Because we do that we can actually pay a huge amount of attention to the fabric that we use, the colours and all the details. An awful lot goes into every garment and I think that the customers understand that the value for money in the product is quite amazing really.

Coming from ASOS and Topshop, what do you think of fast fashion now and the whole 'see now, buy now' culture?
It's quite terrifying. We like to say we're into slow fashion. It's nice to be able to slow everything down and to make much more considered pieces. We always wanted to make things that people could treasure for a long time so it's definitely not about that whole throwaway thing. As far as the whole see now buy now thing, I think it's really confusing for everybody. People don't know if they're coming or going. We're very happy to be at a more leisurely pace as far as fashion is concerned!

How did you first get into the industry?
That was a very long time ago! I did an Economics degree and then decided that banking or accountancy was way too boring and I did a course that was run by Warehouse at the time. They were very tiny and they only had 15 shops I think and five of us did this fashion retail diploma for two years. At the time there were loads of these graduate things going on but this was quite a different course and the final project was for us to open our own shop for one month. The whole experience was really inspiring and exciting because we got to spend time in each of the departments in head office and by the end of those two years I was hooked. Then I went to Topshop as an assistant buyer.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Do you think that interning and that kind of experience is more valuable than a degree?
I wouldn’t say necessarily more valuable than a degree but I definitely think it's valuable and I really believe in the resurgence of apprenticeships. There are a lot of people who are much more suited to those kind of careers and they're just as valuable as a degree. I wouldn't say that my degree wasn't valuable because I just loved having three years at university!

It's quite monumental to have seen two female creative directors presenting their debut collections at Lanvin and Dior over Paris Fashion Week. As a women-led company are you ever frustrated by the lack of women in top level jobs in fashion?
It is very frustrating. I've not been in luxury fashion, it's always been highstreet but generally the business is always run by men. However good and amazing the creatives are, they don't get to lead it that often. That was one of the things that was inspiring about going to Topshop. When I went back to Topshop, Jane [Shepherdson] had just become the MD and it made a huge, huge difference to even what we could do with the product. It was much more about what women wanted and it wasn't so much about 'we need x amount of black dresses'. It could be a much more inspirational business in that way. And I think women are much more led by intuition and actually men don't understand that so well.

Are you ever nostalgic for that slower pace, before social media and before brands were churning out six collections a year?
In some ways. Social media has enabled customers to become much more knowledgeable about everything so they are much more demanding than they ever were but they understand a lot better than they ever did too. On the other hand, I think it's made people who work in the industry think that they can market anything to anybody. It's not necessarily about the quality and the beauty of the actual product and I think that's something that comes with a slower pace.

When people say there's no room for magazines anymore, actually there is, because things look way more beautiful than on screen if the paper's gorgeous and there's attention to the colours. You can get the colours to be true whereas on screen, it's something that we battle with all the time. However good we make the colours, somebody's screen is adjusted to a different colour and then they buy it and say: that's not how it looked on the screen. It's made things more throwaway generally.

I often used to think that fashion was a very, very frivolous career and in many ways it is but actually it employs a huge amount of people and it's very hard work – there's an awful lot to learn about business as well as about the product itself.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
Photographed by Luke & Nik.
What is the biggest thing you've learnt since launching Finery?
I probably didn't expect to learn as many things as I have. For me I suppose it's about how you juggle everything and what the priorities are. Everybody has to be happy to muck in at the lowest level. When we were first starting we would all sit on the floor and pack and label product. So I think starting a small business you have to be prepared help with everything. I've always felt that if you're not prepared to do something yourself then you can't ask other people to do it. In that way it's great for team building and everybody's focused on wanting to make Finery a success. And there are a lot of things that you thought you knew a bit about and then realise you don't know as much as you thought you did. You'd think that in such a small business you wouldn't need to be so tied down to processes but as you start to expand you start to realise yes we actually do need that.

Speaking of expansion, what's the future for Finery?
We have just opened up to Europe, that's our next focus. So Northern Europe, Scandinavia, France. Expansion with our wholesale partners is also quite a key focus. We've still got an awful lot of things to get right!

We've teamed up with Finery London to offer you the chance to refresh your winter wardrobe - win £750 to spend online! Enter here before the 10th of October.


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