Jeans Queen Donna Ida Thornton reveals what her Scottish customers crave, and how to achieve casual, easy glamour
Donna Ida Thornton, is CEO and creator of DONNA IDA, the denim-based fashion brand she started in 2006. With two eponymous boutiques in London stocking premium jeans brands, alongside her own range, and an online store, donnaida.com, it’s the ultimate denim destination.
Managing an international brand and commuting between London and the Berkshire home she shares with her husband and three chihuahuas, the 44-year-old Australian needs a wardrobe that takes her from home to work and back again. And for this committed jeans expert, what could be better than your own jeans label to choose from?
What’s a typical day?
There isn’t one but I get up just before five and clear emails and phone calls abroad otherwise it’s overwhelming and stressful. Then I’ve got a clear head and can focus on meetings and talking to staff. I like to go to bed early at 10pm, and nowadays I’m less of a people pleaser, so I say yes to dinner, but it has to be early so I can get home and have time to myself.
Who wears your jeans?
Everyone. Because jeans are so easy to wear, utilitarian, universal, democratic. Everyone wears jeans – presidents, pop stars, jailbirds, everyone.
What is your biggest seller?
Rizzo, a skinny jean with the high waist band and Jeanie with a high top and cigarette legs.
Which of your products do you have at home?
I don’t have time to shop, which sounds crazy, but once a season I’ll just pick three or four things and wear them over and over. The black jeans I’m wearing now and a blue pair – if I lost them I don’t know what I’d do. And this Lauren jumper I’m wearing, I have it in black too and wear it to death.
I love wearing jeans, they’re just such a uniform and you know it works. It takes the decision out. Tom Ford said find your uniform. If you look at successful people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Simon Cowell, they just wear the same things every day so they don’t have to think about it and they’ve got an extra half an hour thinking space.
How many pairs of jeans do you have?
I’ve probably got 20 or 30 and wear four or five all the time. During the summer I was wearing ankle length ones and now it’s winter I wear skinnies tucked into boots.
What’s your training/background?
I don’t have any at all. I was raised in Sydney, Australia and finished school at 16. I wanted to do something like beauty or hairdressing or making things, and my mum said I had to do a year at business school first. Then I was a PA at a property developers and loved reception and talking to people, then moved to London in 1999 as PA for the president of a big marketing company. I learnt about communicating and harnessing people’s passion, and when I wanted to start my own business, his daughter said ‘you love jeans and wear them every day, why don’t you open a shop that just sells jeans?’ Amazing idea. A year later I opened the first DONNA IDA store in Chelsea. It’s still there, plus another in London, with 40 stockists in the UK and internationally.
So when I hire someone I never look at their education, I look at their experience and attitude. If someone is full of energy and passionate, interested, wanting to learn, that’s perfect; they can learn on the job.
What was your first pair of jeans?
A pair of black, acid wash Guess jeans with a big plastic logo on the back. I absolutely loved them. I was about 12 or 13, my first designer jeans and so cool. As the acid ate them away I would patch them with Liberty prints and blanket stitch, and I made my own peasant top to go with them.
My grandmother Ida sewed but she died when my mother was 21 – I was named after her – and I learnt to sew at school and made an electric blue taffeta evening dress with a fishtail. Sewing I would get the gist and work out myself, but knitting I followed the patterns exactly, then I learned how to crochet in London – crochet squares, it’s easy and relaxing to do.
Why set up your own company?
I just didn’t think I was a very good employee. I like doing things my way and wanted to be in charge of my own destiny, making my own decisions.
Do you do the designing?
Yes, and for more technical things, I’ll use a designer. She’ll say how do you want the arm, how do you see it?
What’s your aim with the brand?
I want to grow the company to become a big international fashion brand. I want to grow the categories – denim will always be the basis, and cashmere and silks are big. It’s T-shirts next and we’re moving into candles, lifestyle, leather goods. Do one thing at a time, otherwise you confuse people.
Where do the materials come from?
Our cashmere and silk are from China, our London car coat is made in Bulgaria, the tops and cottons in Italy, and the jeans in Istanbul and Tunisia. We’ve just started working with the Tunisian factory so I’m going there to see for myself which is important. I like to go to our factories, check their quotations and that there are no little four-year-old fingers in there. It’s also great to have a relationship with the people who make the clothes, otherwise DONNA IDA’s just a name to them. I want to meet the girls in the sampling room or shipping, have personal contact.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Turning the business from a multi-brands business to starting our own brand in 2012. We still have about ten brands in the boutiques like J Brand and Paige, but having our own collection was like starting another business, completely overwhelming.
But once I started I couldn’t back out. It was almost like having a baby, there’s no going back.
About 18 months ago I started working with a finance director who made me prioritise our own brand, focus on designing and getting it delivered. So in the last six months the Donna Ida brand has gone from 30 per cent to 70 per cent of the business.
What has been the biggest surprise?
That it worked. When I was starting back in 2006, I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation, then all of a sudden I had this one moment of terror. My mum and dad said it’ll be fine, my sister said ‘stop it you’ll be fine’ and then I always do that Elizabeth Taylor thing, pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick and get out there.
Then I got my first staff member and she taught me how to serve customers and display things. Then our first customer spent £600 and that gave me confidence. Before that I was scared nobody would ever buy anything, but it went on to sell really well.
What’s the fun part of your job?
The hands-on bits, creating the collections – getting the colour cards and denim, doing mood boards, naming the products, getting samples, seeing production arrive and go out to stockists, seeing how they’re selling. And I love the social media part too, promoting the brand and explaining why it’s good.
What are the new trends?
Autumn/Winter 18 is jewel tones, pinky reds, raspberries, a lot of gold and silver, metallics, leather and that coated black shiny denim. I love things that are rich in colour and deep denims, things that make people feel good.
Spring/summer 19 is more yellows and sea blues. People are scared of yellow but it just needs to be mixed around blues or reds and it’s amazing.
Is there anything that sells well in Scotland?
Yes, red! We have this amazing red top called Every Day in St Tropez which everyone’s buying, and the Studio 54 jumper which is off one shoulder with metallic stripes down one arm. That looks good on everyone, with just a little bit of skin showing – it’s cold here!
Are your jeans better quality?
Ha! I think so. We use quality denims, our black stays really black, and I love how hardwearing it is. Our jeans are £155-£180 roughly and if you’re spending that much on a pair of jeans it’s got to be good, and it is – very good.
What do you say to people who say that’s a crazy price for a pair of jeans?
I say you’ve got to think about price per wear. It’s better cut, better quality so you can wear the same jeans three times a week for five years. If you buy cheaper it costs you more in the long run because you have to keep replacing them. Better to buy one pair of really good ones than ten pairs that aren’t.
Does it help that you’re a woman?
Probably. So our curved waistband is higher up at the back to lift the bum up and push the stomach in and pocket placement is important. And you have empathy with the customer – I don’t like to bend over and have my bum coming out and customers say ‘yes, you’re singing my song’. If someone comes in and says ‘I’ve got big hips and a small waist, I’ll say me too’. Or if they say ‘I have a big bum, you’re never going to have something to fit...’ trust me, we do.
Will you open more boutiques?
We’ve got amazing brand partners here – Jane Davidson and Harvey Nichols – who know their customers, so why would you do more?
We love pop-ups at the moment – we’re about to do one in Hong Kong and could do one in Manchester, New York, Sydney – they keep the business nimble.
What’s your style philosophy?
Casual, easy glamour, dressing things up with a bow, a heel, a bit of detail. As long as you’ve got good quality jeans, cashmere and a good bra, you can add hair, make up and sparkle!
DONNA IDA is stocked at Jane Davidson, www.janedavidson.co.uk, 52 Thistle St, Edinburgh EH2 1EN and at www.donnaida.com