Meet the sisters behind local label Allium B
PUBLISHED: 16:43 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:55 20 February 2013
Between them, Brighton-based Mary and Clare Burgess have worked for many of the big names on the high street. Now they have gone back to basics with their own dress label Allium B. Interview by Jenny Mark-Bell
Although they are separated by eight years, Clare and Mary Burgess are almost eerily alike. Both have worked in the upper echelons of high street fashion, both have settled with their husbands and children in Brighton. They have even worked for many of the same retailers, albeit at different times.
As evidence of their utter accord, the day I meet the sisters in Clares Preston Park house, they are wearing the same dress from the new Allium B collection, with similar accessories. Hasty re-styling took place just before my arrival.
So working together on the label has been more harmonious than one might expect. With enough industry nous to sink a badly dressed battleship, theirs is a formidable union: Mary is a former Head of Buying at Topshop who also launched Designers at Debenhams.
Clare worked in merchandising (basically the numbers side of buying) and moved from Debenhams to Dorothy Perkins. Finally she became Head of Merchandising at Topshop where she stayed for ten years, looking after all product areas including Kate Moss line before resigning a year ago to focus on her own label.
Allium B dresses are flattering, beautifully finished and practical. Most items can be washed by hand and eschew trends in favour of cross-seasonal appeal. Early reactions to the range have been very positive: Daybreak presenter Kate Garraway wore Allium B on air four times in the space of three weeks, leading to a surge in website sales.
The team is compact. Everything is designed exclusively by designer Susanna Vasquezliston (a former Head of Design at Monsoon). Clare and Mary spend every Thursday with Susanna working on designs, examining samples and sourcing fabrics.
Susanna and I do quite a lot of vintage shopping too, says Mary. Theres a vintage fair in Chelsea and Clerkenwell is very good. So for example the embroidery on the Clara dress was inspired by an old Victorian lace glove.
The design for Lily, a chiffon button-down dress, is similar to one bought from Lily Allens now-defunct vintage shop in Covent Garden. Another dress is in a stunning heritage Liberty print.
Most of our range is made in one factory in Delhi, says Mary, which Clare and I have worked with for a long time. All the production is done in-house, the staff are all properly paid and well looked-after.
Lots of Allium B dresses have sleeves, often sheer and very flattering. Mary says: For our customers sleeves are very important, even if its just a little bit of a sleeve and the sleeveless dresses can usually be worn with a cardigan or a black top underneath.
When I ask Mary and Clare about the typical Allium B woman, they dont hesitate: Its us! says Mary. Clare and I are both in our 40s. We have grown up and we love fashion and we felt there was a gap when you reach your 30s, 40s and older, that the high street doesnt really cater for. We knew there was a gap in the market because we couldnt find what we wanted. The dresses that we did like were too expensive.
We felt there was an opportunity our range is priced between 80 and 140, so its top end of high street but well below designer level. We have a line on the back of our card. When deciding if a dress makes the final cut, we always ask ourselves do we love it? If the answers yes, its in. Essentially thats what holds the brand together and gives it a look that we dont step outside of.
At the moment, an Allium B dress is more exclusive than its price would suggest. Only 100 units are produced in each design, says Mary: Most high street retailers produce 6,000 dresses in each style and a Topshop bestseller will be potentially 20,000 in a season. We are very lucky because its purely because of the relationships we had with the suppliers beforehand that they are taking a bit of a punt on us. They see us as a business that will grow, but they realise that initially they have
to support us.
Currently, dresses are sold through the website and a combination of pop-up and at-home events. Clare and Mary enjoy the feedback they get through selling the clothes directly and the opportunity to see different body types in the range. We looked at wholesaling, says Mary, but we realised that was a whole different business model and the price would consequently be much higher because as well as our margin there would be the margin for the shop.
By selling directly to our customer they are actually getting a very good price. For example, our Liberty silk dress retails for 140 but if you actually go into Liberty and buy that fabric in the store it is 40 per metre. Other dresses made from those Liberty silks generally retail
for about 300.
The Allium B customer is discerning on matters of quality, and willing to spend more for a design that has longevity. As you get older, you buy less but you buy better, says Mary. We try to make things quite trans-seasonal, so you can wear the dresses with sandals in the summer, and then in winter with opaque tights and boots.
Clare adds: Thats why the events are so useful. However good your website is, you cant get across the level of detail and the feel of the fabric. Once somebodys found a brand and they know the sizing is good, and they know they are a size 12 or whatever, they feel comfortable going back and buying new things."
The sisters are in discussions with a Brighton boutique about stocking the line: It would allow us to get the brand out there and its good for brand recognition, but I think we both feel quite strongly that this is an internet-based brand. If we do a little bit of wholesaling it will complement what we are doing as opposed to being the focus of our business, says Clare.
At the moment, Clare and Mary are focusing their considerable energies on building the business as a dress brand, although they have been asked to diversify. That may come in time, says Clare: We would potentially like to become more of a lifestyle brand so we chose a name that could work for lots of different things.
For now, they are enjoying working in the industry they love in the city that they love, says Clare. Brighton has been home to both of us for a long, long time and it is the perfect place for a fashion business.