JC Report: Why do you stock cutting-edge designers alongside vintage merchandise?
Nina May: I believe independent designers are more interesting than those in big groups. On the one hand, they have to keep being original and outstanding, and on the other, be very aware of what customers want. There’s no big group with perfume licenses behind them that will iron out a bad season, so the challenges to independents are much bigger. Cutting edge—it’s just what I love and like to wear, and I am not the only one. Intelligent customers who don’t want to follow the fashion herd prefer something more avant-garde. They demand quality and interesting stories behind collection and designers. And vintage—it’s a way of life. When I moved to London 10 years ago, vintage was still mostly “second hand” and maybe a bit more grubby than today. Over the past five years I think vintage has moved into the mainstream. Still, many women don’t have the time or energy to go vintage hunting, so I do that for them. My vintage selection is not aimed at collectors but at people who like to complement a designer outfit with something totally unique.
JCR: How do you seek out new talents to add to your global roster of brands?
NM: The start-up list of nine designers were mainly people I knew through the book. I met a few more through them. This may sound very selfish, but I buy only what I love and want to wear, and so far my bestsellers have been my personal favorites, too. There are a lot of designers now who approach nina&lola but very few are right. But then that makes it all the more exciting when I actually find someone I want to stock. It’s this “oh that’s why I’m doing this” moment.
JCR: How important is e-commerce to the fashion business?
NM: It gives small companies a better chance to get a foot in the market, so I think it’s very important. A lot of websites, no matter if e-commerce or just brand representation, look quite alike though, so I think there is still room for improvement to make websites as personal as they would be in a real-life format.
JCR: As a small retailer, how will the American recession affect the focus of your buy?
NM: I just bought my first American clothing label, JF & Son [full disclosure: JCR style editor Robert Cordero co-founded this label last year]. The low dollar is amazing for us, and if there are two labels that are quite alike, the Americans have an advantage at the moment. It does, of course, pose a problem for euro- and pound-nominated labels. At the last London Fashion Week, there were very few U.S. buyers, which was a shame. I find that my American customers have not been deterred from buying. In fact, I sell some of my most expensive pieces, such as Hannah Martin jewelry, to the States.
JCR: You’re celebrating your first anniversary this week—why mark the occasion with a pop-up shop in London?
NM: It’s been the plan from the beginning to do regular pop-up shops (5 times a year). I just needed a year to get the website to where it is now. My labels have little or no distribution in the UK, so I want to showcase them to my customers. Just come by and have a look—even if you buy later at the website, check out the pieces and be inspired. Each shopping event will also spotlight a particular designer, collection, collaboration or occasion. On a slightly different note, I have some of the nicest customers you will ever meet. Since I do everything myself, including customer questions and order processing, I get to know them online pretty quickly, and then to say ‘hi’ is just so nice. People appreciate the personal touch, which they don’t expect from a web shop.
JCR: How will the pop-up store affect your website?
NM: I did a sales shop in February, which already showed how it works: customers see new labels that they didn’t know before. They love it, get to know their size and what fits them, so they’ll come back later online. I am stocking the same online as I do in the shop, so it’s easy for my customers to keep shopping even when I’m not popping up with Lola in East London.
JCR: What’s next for nina&lola?
NM: The online offer will not grow massively—I don’t want to have more than 30 designers (at the moment we’re 25). I think it gets too confusing if it’s too big. Net-a-porter has become like Amazon—unless you know what’re looking for, you’re lost. I don’t want that. I want to keep working with independent designers and build the idea of the “nina&lola family,” encourage collaborations with my designers, find and introduce people who could be good for one another, and ultimately have a shop that is special to everyone involved. I also think nina&lola can do a lot in terms of product education, so that customers learn more about quality, cut and what suits what shape, and maybe even fashion theory. It’s my shop, so I guess I can sell and publish what I want! The whole thing is based on a very organically developed idea, personal connections and a lot of gut feeling. I’m not a retailer and I do things differently as a consequence.
This interview was conducted by Robert Cordero.