We caught up with Debra Hepburn, founder of Young British Designers, whose love of fashion has led her to become one of the industry’s fiercest champions
Dedicated to discovering and nurturing emerging UK talent, Young British Designers (YBD) was spawned in 2010 by Debra Hepburn and Julian Whitehead out of a love of fashion and a desire to create an online retail space allowing fresh designers to bring their collections to market – a massive struggle for young creatives.
It takes roughly five years to make any money as a fashion designer, so inclusion on YBD is a big deal. Such is its track record at providing a launch pad for the brightest British talent, once a designer is part of YBD, large brands like Liberty and Matches take notice. High profile designers such as Rejino Pyo, Eudon Choi and JW Anderson have flourished having launched collections on the platform.
As well as the exposure it brings, the numbers stack up too as YBD buys a designer’s entire collection which is unusual in the fashion world and it also rejects the notion that designers should be asked to rent space on retail fashion platforms. Debra is fiercely passionate about mentoring young talent in addition to stocking their creations. She explains: “These young creatives have to be business people as well as designers working out branding, pricing structures, managing cashflow, chasing payment. It’s a lot to take on.”
Around 15 hopeful designers send in look books every day. Debra considers every one and gives feedback to each. Even if it’s a no for now, Debra offers her advice. The designers are chosen because collectively they represent the broad range of talent from within the UK fashion industry. Debra says: “We can’t buy everybody. The budget’s not infinite but it’s important to give some guidance.”
In truth, as a youngster Debra would have loved to have been the one designing, but a stint at Moseley Art College studying fashion design made her realise she wasn’t cut out for it. She recalls: “I couldn’t sew a garment to save my life!” The episode did little to quell the fashion bug and as a founding partner of PR agency RBH, Debra worked with a lot of retail and fashion brands which fuelled the fire.
The inception of online fashion brought consumers things they couldn’t find on their doorstep with Net-a-porter and Matches Fashion leading the way. The decision to champion British designers in this arena was a simple one for Debra. She explains: “I think British designers are the best in the world capable of ripping up the rule book. They take risks and push boundaries with an energy that’s unique to them. A sort of ‘sod it and do your own thing’ attitude.”
With customers across the globe and now a dedicated fulfilment team, Debra’s still keen on the personal touch. For instance, each order goes out with a handwritten note. Debra’s a proud Brummie and I wonder if being based outside the capital in rural Warwickshire has been a hindrance.
She thinks the opposite. “When you’re in London there’s a lot of noise and it’s hard to step outside of that and see anything else. Being away from London means we’re not blinded by brands.” In the early days getting products where they needed to be for photoshoots quickly was an issue, but they have the system nailed which means that’s no longer a problem.
The biggest challenge to British designers right now is Brexit. Speaking days before we were due to leave, Debra explained that for young designers, the uncertainty of leaving the EU is having an awful effect. “Designers set their pricing strategy a season in advance which is impossible right now. The cost of materials and customs duties are complete unknowns.” Worse than that designers have lost valuable people and partners like pattern cutters who have given up on the UK and gone home because they feel under threat or just don’t like the atmosphere.
Currently YBD is purely womenswear and accessories, but discussions are underway to expand to include menswear possibly childrenswear and even ceramics and art. Debra’s energy for finding and nurturing talent and providing a global shopping experience that’s unique, independent and inspiring is hugely impressive and one of the reasons she is increasingly asked to comment on the homegrown fashion industry in the media and to judge emerging talent.