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An Army with All the Bells and Whistles


It’s hard to overstate Jane Shepherdson’s contribution to British retail. As the former brand director of Topshop—she stepped down in 2006, after twenty-two years at the company—she spearheaded the transformation of the brand into the superpower it is today. Now she’s using her industry expertise to revamp another British high-street label, Whistles, which, though founded in the 1980s, had been in a bit of a rut before her arrival.

Since coming on board as Whistles’ CEO in 2008, Shepherdson has facilitated a new sleek, youthful look (one that’s been favored by Kate Middleton). What’s more is that she’s elevated the brand’s international presence via new stores in prime destinations across the globe and a debut London fashion week show, which took to the runway last week. Held at the Dover Street Arts Club, the presentation featured Whistles’ premium range and included everything from cool camo looks to wearable leather trousers to cozy knits. Over tea, Shepherdson talked to about making the fashion-week leap.

When did you start thinking about doing a show?
Last summer we felt we were ready to start showing people what we are doing. We showed a small presentation at the Savoy, and we had a phenomenal turnout, about 150 different publications. So that was a start. We had stepped onto this international retail platform—our international online business is now about 20 percent, so it’s really starting to come through—and now we had to show people what we’ve got. And really, London fashion week is the only time to do that. We had already developed what we’d called our Limited Collection, which was this capsule collection of the essence of Whistles, the most coveted pieces that allowed us to use more expensive fabrics and let our design team stretch their wings a little bit.

Interestingly, I think that doing the show upped the ante across the whole business. When you are creating a collection that you know people are going to be looking at very closely, it really focuses the mind and pushes us to put that little bit extra into everything that we’re creating. And that has a knock-on effect with the rest of the collection, because once you have these pieces, you think, Okay, the rest of the collection needs to be at the same standard.

Tell me a little bit about the collection.
We started with the camouflage. I hesitate to use the term “urban warrior,” but somebody did say it was the “Whistles army,” and I thought that was really quite nice, actually. We loved this beautiful camouflage. It’s a jacquard with this three-dimensional look to it. It looks really luxe, gives a modern feel, and works beautifully for the sculptured pieces that stand slightly away from the body. We developed that in navy, too, and then we wanted to create a new silhouette, so this almost Mao uniform emerged, with the wide trousers and the little button-up top. Talk of uniform led to naval references, with these really big cable jumpers and a sea print. We always use the word “effortless” for Whistles, and for me it’s absolutely what it’s about: looking effortless. And if it can be effortless, too, if the actual dressing itself is effortless, all the better for it.

What’s next for Whistles? Will you keep showing at London fashion week?
We will keep showing—it’s an obvious platform for us. We also just opened a store in Russia two weeks ago, in Paris before Christmas, and also on Dover Street here in London. We’re talking to department stores in the U.S.—I’m very keen to get something going for Fall ’13. At the same time, we’re looking at Hong Kong and China. The feedback has been incredible, actually; we’ve had the most amazing editorial coverage from the U.K., and right across the world. A lot of people who didn’t know Whistles before have just been introduced to the brand and were surprised that they didn’t know about it.

Photo: Courtesy of Whistles