As much as we love the high street for a quick fix, as we get older we like to make sartorial investments. Our secret weapon on such occasions is a boutique where the owners’ taste tallies so perfectly with your own that it’s as though they’ve edited the collections just for you. A boutique like Iris, for instance. It now has eight gorgeous branches across London (and a burgeoning website), selling exactly what we want to wear. Co-owner Annie Pollet tells us about building a business, having an eye for a great brand, and somehow managing family life on top of that.
What inspired Iris in the early days?
I worked in the fashion wholesale business for a few years before Iris, so the opposite of retail. I worked for brands such as Calvin Klein, Earl Jean and Nicole Farhi – selling their collections to boutiques and department stores.
When I had my twins, I realised that the long trips away that my job involved were just not compatible with looking after young children. However, I wanted to stay in the industry. I was living in Queens Park, a vibrant area full of young families that, at the time, had nowhere nice to shop. I wanted to bring a boutique to the area, with all the brands I had been involved with that I loved; and that also catered for little ones, and had a really local and friendly feel. So busy mums could get a fashion fix locally without needing to trek into the centre of London with young kids in tow. I joined forces with a friend and fellow Mum, Sarah, and Iris was born.
Did you have ambitions for it – or was it more a case of seeing what happened?
I had a vision for Iris, but I would say it was very much ‘seeing what happened’! We both borrowed the money for the first store and took quite a risk: at that time Queens Park was very far from the chic area it has now become. There was literally one gastropub in the area, The Salusbury, but that was it and people thought we were crazy opening a designer fashion boutique! Amazingly, it was an instant success, tapping into the trendy bohemian feel of Queens Park and opening just as the area started to take off.
Do you have a typical customer?
We don’t have a typical customer as such, but cater to an age demographic of woman from 25-65 who want to look stylish, and find interesting new labels to wear alongside timeless pieces which can be worn season after season. The Iris style is relaxed, not formal and provides clothes which can be worn for the weekend, a school run, to work, and then for dress up occasions at the weekend. She wants to look glamorous but not in a staid, stuffy or overly formal way. We try to cover it all, but in a signature ‘Iris’ style. This has at times been challenging with the expansion, as we are now catering to so many London village destinations, each with their own individual feel and ethos, and we want to keep all our customers happy whilst maintaining the Iris brand. We only buying or create what we love and would want to wear ourselves.
When making calls about stock/business, what’s the ratio of gut to experience these days, now you’re a seasoned pro?
I am a seasoned pro after 20 years in the business!! I feel that I know instinctively what works for Iris, both when buying and when creating our own-brand collection, but it’s also important to introduce new brands to the store and keep things fresh, so you can never stop taking some risks in business and can’t always just play it safe!
What are those first years really like?
There is no doubt it is tough. There are amazing perks of running your own business – the most important being that you are in charge of your own timetable and life plan, but I would not recommend anyone to go into it for a high salary or job for life security!
By Iris (one of my favourite lines in store) is growing apace: what prompted its creation?
The by Iris line almost evolved organically. After so many years in retail you garner huge experience with regard to what exactly women are looking for when dressing themselves, what occasions they need to dress for, their recurring body hangups (upper arms is always a big one!), and also what gaps there always are in the market. We have, for example, done a brilliant range of basic vests (long and short) that are ideal for wearing under sheer dresses and blouses. We design from a practical as well as a fashion view point, focusing on what women really want to wear, producing what we love and what we are asked for on a regular basis in all our stores.
Which 5 pieces should we have in our wardrobe?
- An amazing winter (midi length) day dress preferably in a print that can be worn with a chunky jumper and boots.
- A pair of leather loafers like the best-selling Marant Ferlyn style
- A tweed oversized blazer style jacket – we have had a gorgeous one in this season from Spanish brand Masscob
- A velvet party dress or unstructured velvet suit
- A frilled shirt
What does a typical working day look like?
We are now based in our new head office in Fulham, from which we run our website and where we hold all of our internal and design meetings. A calm day for me is when I actually get to me in the office and have a chance to catch on paperwork and the million emails that I receive (I often have to answer on the run) – it’s so nice to have the luxury of replying actually sitting at a desk these days! I am rarely in the office for a full week, as we have a multitude of buying appointments around town: I am frequently on the Eurostar or heading to one of our stores for an in-store event. So I am invariably in my car battling with the London traffic.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles facing women in business?
I wouldn’t say I’ve faced any obstacles with being a woman. Fashion is one of the rare businesses in which women dominate and have a brilliant chance of succeeding on an equal footing with men.
Do you jettison the myth of work/life balance when you run your own business?
Yes! However there is a huge satisfaction to working for yourself and not pouring so much effort and and energy into what, at the end of the day, is someone else’s business. You do however forgo a lot of the perks of being employed by a company and of course it is also much harder to ever completely switch off from it.
I’m oddly fascinated by the idea of having children at both ends of the age spectrum (it must be so interesting – and present its own challenges) – how do you manage that perpetual work/family juggle that goes hand-in-hand with being a working parent – any tips to pass on?
You’re right: it has been fascinating! Coming at childbirth and child-rearing at a completely different stage in my life has been almost like doing it all again as a completely different person.
I am at such a different place in my life now to when I had my twins at 26! I think both ends have their own advantages and challenges, and I suppose it has been unconventional going back to those early years again when I am so busy at work and the business has grown so much. It would be easy, now my older kids are so independent, to dedicate myself almost exclusively to work, but having a baby again gives a new amazing outlet to middle age and I feel nothing but blessed to have been given this opportunity ( I am acutely aware that it is not a given). It actually really keeps you young and energetic: rushing around crazily again between work and childcare. Babies are so addictive that it really has been wonderful (in spite of the broken nights and childcare logistics!) to have been given the chance to do it all over again.
What’s the best thing about running your own business? And the most challenging?
Best thing- being the boss and in charge of your own timetable and decisions and doing something I absolutely love.
Worst thing – it’s hard to switch off, and very stressful when there are pressures from the world economy etc which there is absolutely nothing you can do about, but can have serious consequences for your business.
What would you change about your current set-up, if you could wave a magic wand?
Right now we are in an amazing set-up and at a really exciting time for Iris. We have a store in each London village that we could possibly have hoped to have had a store in, and now we just have to give it our all to make Iris a huge success story! In an ideal world I would have a head office closer to home (not in deepest darkest Fulham) so that I could spend a bit less time in my car, but this is a small gripe as we really are in a fantastic place right now.
My big gripe is Brexit! We could definitely have done without having to deal with that!
And what would you tell yourself about business, if you could go back to the early days?
That there will amazing perks to setting up a business doing something you love and incredible job satisfaction, but you will forgo the chance of a big salary, pension, all the perks of working in a more corporate world. You either have a small business that will pay you a living wage and you will have a nice lifestyle, or you grow and expand as we have done, which will make life more hectic, and you still won’t earn a big salary, but there is a chance that all the years will pay off one day if you have created a business that can actually be sold. Look at the huge success story of Matches.
What do/will you tell you girls about being a working mother – about the challenges facing women in the workplace?
I always tell my daughter she should be an orthodontist! A well paid, incredibly well-respected career with amazingly flexible work hours! (Of course she is not remotely interested.) I would never want to discourage my daughters from fiercely pursuing their career goals, but at the end of the day there is no denying the fact that babies get in the way and women are faced with the inevitable – and entirely natural pull – of wanting to be with their children, but not perform less well at work. I would say that is a constant battle for most mothers. A job which enables you to do both seems to me an ideal to strive for and there are just not enough of them out there!
What’s next for Iris? Please tell us about the new store launches – and any other exciting plans!
We have very recently opened all our new stores (we took over the Question Air business) so now have shiny new stores in Wimbledon, Barnes, East Dulwich and have just opened our big flagship store on Northcote Road. We will be pouring all our energies into getting these shops exactly right and ensuring that all our customers are as happy as they possibly can be in.
Aside from that our big and driving focus will be our By Iris collection which is growing by the day and continues to be a best-selling brand within our stores, which we are absolutely delighted with. We have taken on more design help and hope to increase the % of the own brand collection whilst retaining the gorgeous brands that Iris is known and loved for.
We have also recently introduced menswear to the stores which we have never bought before and are very excited about the new challenge this presents. After so many years of womenswear buying, menswear buying is a breath of fresh air and so simple in comparison! We are excited to curate a small collection of great menswear brands in our unique Iris style.
Here’s just a little taste of what we love (and is on my shopping list – ahem) at Iris.
- Blouse, £116 (was £290), Ulla Johnson; 2. Hoops, £65, Otiumberg; 3. Knit, £102 (was £205), Soeur; 4. Dress, £245, By Iris; 5. Print blouse, £135, Isabel Marant Etoile; 6. Star heels, £129, By Iris; 7. Tweed jacket, £355, Masscob