Celebrity hype, red carpets and glitzy advertising campaigns may go hand in hand with the fashion industry today, but in Sharon Wauchob’s warrenlike Marais studio in Paris, it’s elbow grease that’s behind the designer’s success.
This story first appeared in the November 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Much of luxury comes with mass production, computerization and effective machinery, and, in a way, fashion is the opposite,” muses Wauchob, as members of her creative team huddle around a table looking at patterns for fall 2010. “The real luxury is that you actually need the people, the minds and the handwork.”
With sewing machines and cutting tables wedged jigsawlike into every corner and narrow passageway in the 2,700-square-foot converted garage, which serves as her atelier, the Irish designer’s hands-on approach to business is paying off.
“I came from a hard-working farming family. My grandmother ran her own business, her own farm. It was unique at that time,” Wauchob says. “I would spend a lot of time with her and she encouraged me to paint and to be independent.”
Since launching her namesake brand eight years ago, Wauchob’s business is small, but growing steadily, today generating revenues of about 5 million euros, or $7.5 million at current exchange, according to market sources. Her spring lineup of edgy-but-feminine designs garnered critical and commercial acclaim. Orders for spring are up 15 percent, according to the designer. “We’re not so vulnerable—no more vulnerable in the last year than we would have been previously, ironically,” shrugs Wauchob, who finances her label herself.
The understated 38-year-old attributes her success to “direct control of the business, focus on the product and sell-through,” as well as good old-fashioned teamwork. “The whole team is involved in the sales process. People involved in patternmaking also go to the salesroom. It’s a really good education and a way for everyone to be closer to the consumer,” she explains.
In a moment when many fashion firms are scaling back, Wauchob is expanding, introducing her first shoe collection for spring. A fragrance and jewelry collection are in the pipeline for fall. Other medium-term projects could include her own store, leather goods and even men’s wear.
International retailers including Liberty of London, Seoul’s Galleria department store and Isetan in Japan are among a new pack of merchants who picked up the under-the-radar collection for the fi rst time this season. Meanwhile, stores including Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, L’Eclaireur in Paris and Curve and H Lorenzo in Los Angeles have carried the label for some time.
“This collection was a breakthrough for her,” says Liberty’s buying director, Ed Burstell. “All the handcrafted elements and unusual materials that are her strong suit really came together this season and are on par with what’s happening in the industry. She is very clever in realizing where the rest of the world is. It’s very smart.”
After graduating from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 1993, Wauchob was hired by Koji Tatsuno to work in textiles and spent four years in his Paris atelier. She then did a stint at Louis Vuitton working on accessories in 1997, as Marc Jacobs was arriving at the company. A lot of what she learned there she applies to her own collections. Despite her young designer status, Wauchob uses a constellation of artisans who also work with some of the biggest names in couture.
“It is not expected of an independent designer to use [sophisticated] processes and textiles, so automatically people assume it’s not luxury,” says Wauchob, who blends her taste for sophisticated fabrics with accessible designs and pricing. “Inaccessibility defeats the purpose of what I am actually doing, but I want it to be exquisite.”
This ethos governs her work, with collections that are directional yet wearable and pieces that “can be worn for more than just one season,” she says.
An intricately hand-embroidered and pleated silk jacket, for example, is the most expensive item in her spring collection, wholesaling for around 300 euros, or $450.
Inspired by her native Northern Ireland, Wauchob grafted embroidered motifs onto gauzy silk shifts and jackets, which she then pleated, and coated antique-looking tops
with techno details. Roomy shirts in broderie anglaise designed by Wauchob were among the standouts. “I am always looking for the two sides of femininity: softness and fragility, but not weakness,” she explains. “This collection was about nostalgia, taking elements from the past and sending them forward.”
Of Tyrone county, where her company is registered and where she returns when possible and indulges in some horseback riding, she adds: “It’s very remote, but a very good escape. It’s a contradiction, a bit like my approach to design. It’s an idyllic location and a bit rough at the same time. It’s true luxury.”
Black is also a trademark that started at home. “In Ireland, our light is very different, almost sepia-toned, so we focus on textures—as opposed to someone from Italy or the South of France, who is surrounded by vivid color palettes,” she says, herself dressed entirely in an all-ebony affair of delicately layered knits and roomy trousers tapered at the ankles.
Her grounded approach to business has certainly helped her weather the economic malaise as an independent designer, but she admits she is ready to consider investors to help take her business to the next level. “I closed the door before because I felt it would detract from the focus, but things are ready to move now,” she says.
In the meantime, Wauchob says she’s got to buckle down for the next season. “I like the unexpected,” she says. “I like to throw it on its head a little bit, and I’m feeling that again—why not a bit of color? Let’s see…”