Interview: Mandy Watkins, CEO of Hush

Hush CEO Mandy Watkins
Hush CEO Mandy Watkins
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When the easygoing Aussie first arrived in the UK she wanted to keep cosy, so she created Hush, a fashion brand that has style all wrapped up

Who are you? What is your job? Where are you based?

Melody Floral Dress, �89

Melody Floral Dress, �89

I am Mandy Watkins – an Aussie who came over to the UK 17 years ago to be with my then boyfriend, now husband, and had a crazy idea that I could start my own fashion brand from scratch in a country where I knew next to no-one.

It was only two years later, when I was made redundant from the job I was doing then, that I had the time to pursue the dream. So, 15 years ago (almost to the day) hush came into being.

We’re now one of the country’s leading online fashion retailers, we have concessions in 32 John Lewis stores (including the ones in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and we have recently opened our latest pop-up shop in Leith.

What’s a typical day for you?

Pink Jones Lurex Jumper, �89

Pink Jones Lurex Jumper, �89

There’s genuinely no such thing as a typical day – at any one point in time we are selling one season, buying another season and designing a third season.

So, I spend a lot of time reviewing product, from the initial sketch and swatch meetings through various samples, right through until we receive the finished product. And then I spend my free time art directing our photo shoots.

What is your training/background?

I studied marketing back home in Melbourne, but I spent seven years at Adidas, first in Australia and then in Hong Kong – so that’s where I learnt most about product development and brand building. I’m not a designer, but thankfully we are now in a position where we have a great team whose job it is to create our collections.

Flori Bag, �110

Flori Bag, �110

Why did you decide to set up the company and when?

I had the idea for hush when I first moved to the UK and experienced a northern hemisphere winter for the first time. I used to get home from work and I wanted to put on something warm and cosy to settle in for the night, but at the time there really wasn’t anything that was both comfortable and stylish.

Most nightwear (which is where we started) seemed to be either very childish or very “sexy”, which wasn’t the message I was trying to send after a 90-minute commute home in the dark and freezing cold!

What is your aim?

Rye Boots, �220

Rye Boots, �220

As a business, our aim has always been to be the best we can be. I used to wrap every single order we sent out. I would put one of my mum’s soup recipes into the parcel. In time we started scenting the parcels with a fragrance we created.

It was all about trying to give our customers a very personal, very memorable experience – with a great product. That’s still our aim today, albeit we now have many more customers and I don’t personally wrap them anymore.

What’s different about your product?

Fashion has often existed in categories – daywear, eveningwear, workwear etc. But I don’t think that’s how women dress anymore. Our products are designed for how women actually live, so the same dress can be styled down with trainers, say, and maybe a jumper for daytime – and dressed up with boots, a jacket and jewellery for going out in the evening. It’s a sort of capsule collection of stylish basics.

Fashion is also supposed to be fun – so there’s a playful element to what we do. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

What challenges have you faced?

Black Jones Lurex Jumper, �89

Black Jones Lurex Jumper, �89

When I first started out I was given some advice by a friend of a friend who was involved in fashion. “It’s not about what goes wrong because stuff always goes wrong; it’s all about how you deal with it when it does.”

There have been so many challenges along the way, but we have a great culture in the office and I’m surrounded by people who seem to relish challenges. I love them for it.

What was the biggest surprise along the way?

I am constantly surprised by how big the business has become. It’s not that I didn’t expect it to be successful, but it is quite amazing looking around an office of almost 100 people and thinking back to how it started with just me, my laptop and, I guess, lots of really naïve optimism.

What is the fun part of your business?

The creativity and the variety. When I set up hush all those years ago, I wanted it to be the kind of company that I would want to buy from, but also the kind of company I would want to work for.

I love what I do, I get to travel a lot – and I do it with people whose company I enjoy and who are passionate about it. So, if I’m not having fun, then I’m doing something badly wrong.

How has it evolved?

We started off as a pyjama brand, but a pyjama brand which also sold throws and hot chocolate. We then branched out into loungewear, but a loungewear brand that also sold books.

And gradually we have graduated to become a fashion and lifestyle brand, but one that also sells our own jewellery, candles, chocolate.

What have you learned?

I know I’ve learned a million and one things along the way, but the most important thing is that there really are no shortcuts. Building a brand is a lot of hard work and you definitely need a lot of luck along the way – but the most important thing is to trust your instincts. I think brands come unstuck when they start second guessing.

What is your most popular product?

As a fashion brand, our most popular product changes from season to season, month to month. But I’m a bit of a jeans and t-shirt kind of woman, so you won’t be surprised to learn that we sell a lot of jeans and t-shirts.

We have a star jumper that has been a fantastic seller for us over the past few years, but it has been much imitated recently so it’s time to move on.

Who are your customers?

Our customer is the modern woman, someone who is interested in fashion but is not a slave to it, someone who wants to look good but also feel good.

Most of us are busy with jobs and kids and the various demands of everyday life, so we don’t have the time (or probably the inclination) to plan our daily wardrobes for the many different roles we play. Our clothes are versatile, practical and very wearable – but they always look really put together.

Which items do you have at home from your range?

I rarely wear other brands, so most of my wardrobe is hush. Having said, that I probably don’t have a very big wardrobe for someone who owns their own fashion brand – as I said, I wear a lot of jeans and t-shirts; I style them a lot with different jackets, scarves and footwear.

What are your goals?

I’ve always said I’d be happy when I had created the perfect collection, so maybe that’s my goal. I’m good with impossible ambitions.

What’s your style philosophy?

Find the shapes and colours that suit you – and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

Where are your products made?

Mainly in India and China, but increasingly also places like Portugal and Tunisia and the Maldives.

Who has influenced your style, what are your inspirations?

I am now 50, so my own style is probably now what it is – but I get a lot of inspiration from friends, from women I see on the street and from Instagram. I think my children are probably embarrassed by the number of times I have asked them to pretend to pose for a photograph so I can get a picture of a stylish woman walking past. Having said that, a lot of the time I’m not even that subtle.

Who are your style icons?

I find it very difficult to relate to women in magazines or on screen, so my style icons are more the women I meet in my daily life who manage to look amazing without the benefit of an unlimited budget, Photoshop, a personal stylist, hair and make-up artist etc.

Any fashion disasters you’d care to share?

Well, I was a child of the Eighties. Blue eye shadow and pink lipstick seemed a good idea at the time...

Izabella Jumper, �85

Izabella Jumper, �85

Anya Long Coat, '�170

Anya Long Coat, '�170

Upton Chelsea Boots, �185

Upton Chelsea Boots, �185

Satin Crepe Slip Dress, '�59

Satin Crepe Slip Dress, '�59