ON REVOLUTIONISING THE POP-UP SHOP AND FEELING HAPPIER THAN EVER
By Juliet Herd
Donna Ida, the indisputable ‘Jean Queen’ of London, is her usual effervescent self, talking excitedly about her business plans, house-hunting with husband Robert (affectionately known as Bobby Dazzler), and her quarantine baking exploits – she makes a mean banana cake. Yet, her mindset, she admits, has changed. The nation’s prolonged lockdown has caused her – along with countless others – to recalibrate the frenetic lifestyle she maintained, dashing from place to place, hosting pop-ups selling her popular denim-based womenswear brand.
“I’ve really loved having this time at home,” says Australian-born Donna, who shares her colourful Berkshire abode with Bobby and their three precious Chihuahuas, Julio, Eduardo and Fernando. “I’ve achieved so much and sales are the same but I’m not running around like a mad person any more. The number of pop-ups I was doing – from Dublin and Edinburgh to York and Truro – was exhausting and not sustainable.”
Instead, she’s been forging ever closer ties with her loyal customers through the powerful platform of Instagram ‘Lives’, hosting sessions daily to talk about everything from facial massage tools to jean sizing. “Diet and beauty are the two areas that attract the most engagement,” she says. Once she realised just how enjoyable and bonding the experience was, she started inviting celebrity friends like Lisa Snowdon to take part and now shares her slot with a roster of health, beauty, fashion and fitness experts, and intends to carry on.
“What I love most is speaking to customers and creating product,” she says. “People have been saying, ‘You’re so friendly and nice’. They’d never heard my voice before!”
For Donna, Instagram has been a game changer. “It’s such a great community,” she enthuses. “I truly believe in putting my energy into the direct-to-consumer model, growing your own audience and doing everything to look after the customer. That way, you’re really getting to the person who you want to feel amazing and happy [wearing your product]. I’m much better off growing my own community and working on myself to be the best person to market my brand. I don’t pay influencers to wear my clothes – they either like them or they don’t – it’s not fair to the customer. I have to be my own influencer.”
It was her desire to connect more directly that saw Donna take the bold decision to close her two London stores in 2017 after more than a decade in retail, and sever her links with wholesalers the following year. By that time, she’d well and truly established her eponymous brand, launched in 2012, as well as her reputation as a denim expert, renowned for her knowledge of shapes, cuts and washes and beautifully designed collections. She’d also acquired an impressive celebrity following, with the likes of Davina McCall, Lisa Snowdon, Anna Friel and Donna Air, wearing her signature ultra-flattering high-waisted jeans, boiler suits and jumpsuits.
“When we looked at our business, we wanted to drive our own brand and not be a retailer anymore,” she explains. “I couldn’t ever see the point in being a third-party retailer; there was not enough margin in it. You have to be selling an enormous volume to make that work. Even when I started in 2006, it didn’t make sense to me but I did it to establish ourselves as denim experts. What we sold online was jeans; we were good at it and didn’t actually need the stores.”
“Overnight, we closed the stores, removing a huge amount of overheads and were able to operate a very nimble, easy-to-run and profitable business,” she continues. “Why deal with 20 wholesalers when we could be talking directly to the end user, the customer? The fashion industry has got a lot to answer for: making everything look so glam and fab with all the fashion shows but no one is making any money. People are only talking about it now, because the entire world is affected. When we had the massive financial crisis , you were seen as a bit of a pariah, a failure, if you didn’t survive as a business, even if through no fault of your own. Whereas with this [the coronavirus pandemic], everybody is in it together, which enables people to be open about it and not feel shame.”
Donna’s somewhat prophetic decision to streamline her business has certainly put her ahead of the curve. The enforced global shut-down has given her the time to fine tune her designs and production and, on a personal level, to slow down. “We were all busy fools, one way or another; all doing something just because we felt we had to. It’s given people time to rest,” reflects this pocket rocket Aussie, who moved to the UK from Sydney in 1999 to pursue a marketing career but switched to fashion when she couldn’t find any jeans that fitted properly.
“I am the happiest I have been in 15 years; I can say that without a shadow of a doubt. I don’t have any of that Monday morning anxiety anymore; of feeling sick and not sleeping the night before. I felt overwhelmed, fearful and anxious most of the time. It was building for years but I got used to feeling sick with all the things I had to worry about and do; making sure we got the deliveries – even when we didn’t have the stores – and hosting all the events and pop-ups. Bobby says I’m much more relaxed and happier and we’ve been able to spend more time together.”
While Donna’s daily routine still sounds alarmingly productive by most standards, she insists that lockdown has allowed her to ease up. Instead of jumping out of bed at 5am, she now rises at the rather more leisurely hour of 6.30am and is at her desk by 9. She makes a point of doing her hair and make-up and planning her wardrobe each day. “I really think about what I’m going to wear,” she says. “In the past, I’d chuck on the same thing three days in a row because I was so busy. Now, it gives me joy to get dressed. I wear Donna Ida jumpsuits and dungarees most of the time, and dresses with a nice slide or sandal, when it’s sunny.”
Like many of us, she’s also been channelling her energy into baking, whipping up cakes for Bobby and his 86-year-old mother, who lives nearby, but admits she rarely gets to enjoy the fruits of her culinary endeavours. “I follow quite a strict eating plan called Metabolic Balance: eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch and beef for dinner with five hours between meals, plus an apple a day and two litres of water,” says Donna, who confesses to a sugar obsession. “I went on it to keep my weight in check but it makes your mind very clear. If you keep eating food, your body gets tired. If you leave a longer period of time [between meals], you start burning fat.”
Fortunately, resident chef Bobby is unfailingly supportive, occasionally able to tempt Donna to cheat. “He made lobster thermidor with a big green salad and chips for our wedding anniversary,” she smiles.
Being confined to home for the past few months has given her the time to refine the pop-up model. Rather than resume dashing from one venue to another, she plans to roll out a Tupperware party-style system, whereby she trains Donna Ida ambassadors around the country to host events in their own homes in exchange for a commission and hefty discount on product. “I can phone in on the day or they can send me videos,” she says. “We can have Donna Ida pop-ups in kitchens all over the country!”
As a designer who has always based her business on monthly deliveries rather than seasons, Donna wholeheartedly agrees with the current move towards a more seasonless approach with fewer collections. “The fashion calendar is ridiculous and I don’t understand why it wasn’t done before,” says this eternal pragmatist. “When I got into business in 2006, nobody could tell me what the cruise collection was. It harked back to 40 years ago when department stores needed something fresh, but with the internet, it’s now irrelevant and unsustainable to pump endless product into the market.”
She has a close relationship with the factory in Tunisia that produces most of her denim, and each pair of jeans comes with an Environmental Impact Measuring (EIM) score, rating them low, medium or high. “Pale blue denim needs loads of washing so that’s high impact, whereas white and black jeans are made with fabrics containing Tencel and have a low impact score,” explains Donna. “Mostly, the rating is low but it gives that visibility to the customer and allows them to choose.”
She’s in regular touch with the factory, communicating via WhatsApp and visiting in person once a year. She was particularly grateful recently when the ladies on the sewing line helped out by modelling the designs as there was no time to send them to the UK for approval. “They also made denim masks for us as a surprise, embroidered with ‘Stay Safe Donna’,” she grins, clearly chuffed by the gesture. “They are a really nice team. They have to like you because you want them to do a good job.”
As part of her new, more balanced approach, Donna is already looking forward to her first post-lockdown holiday – to Mykonos with a group of gal pals to stay at her friend American jewellery designer Diane Kordas’s idyllic house. She and Bobby are also planning a move further into the countryside. “I’ve always wanted to do that and now we don’t need to be so close to London anymore,” she reasons. “I’ve got everything I have ever wanted without the stress or distractions.”