Launched only 2 months ago, online fashion boutique Never the Black Tote is the brainchild of  friends Grainne Nixon and Gail Murray. Both are well versed in retail fashion, Grainne started her her career in the UK at Topshop (under the guidance of retail legend Jane Shepherdson) and most recently worked for Pretty Girl Fashion Group and Specialty Fashion Group in Australia. Similarly Gail was previously in marketing for retail landlord, Stocklands.
Gail (left) & Grainne (right)

Gail (left) & Grainne (right)

These two pals-in-retail got together to create an online fashion boutique dedicated to challenging the same-ness of Australian fashion retail. We sat down with them to talk about their vision, how to differentiate and what’s missing in Aussie retail. Enjoy!
Q: How did you come up with the concept – Never The Black Tote?

Grainne: It has a couple of layers to it, first there’s the fact that professional women (like us) just don’t have the time to find what we’re after. It’s not about being a mother, but not having the time or the patience to trawl through a site with 200 pages of dresses. For me as a consumer, most fashion websites are all things to all people. They don’t know me as a consumer, I find myself fumbling my way through, trying to find a needle in a haystack. Plus, I’m the type of shopper that won’t make a decision until I’ve seen everything. Added to that, retail has become boring. If you removed all the signs off the front of the doors (of fashion retailers) and had to guess who was who you would struggle. There is not enough individuality. That’s a big factor. Plus with my (previous) job, I traveled the world, I’ve walked-down back alleys and seen all these (retail) treasures everywhere. So really it’s about getting that feel and putting it on a platform. A site for women that is thought provoking and inspirational but one when you want to shop like a man. 

The brands are very edgy and unique, it’s a site that’s trusted to buy those wow pieces, the statement pieces. It’s the backstreet e-boutique. 

Gail: Added to that we want it to be a bit of a secret, but somewhere you want to return because of the quality and editing of the pieces available. 

Q: So, who is the ‘Never The Black Tote’ customer? 
Grainne: It’s the adventure seeker. If they want their fashion fix, and also want to be inspired and challenged this is where they should go. As the name of the brand suggests ‘Never the Black Tote’, it’s a challenge to not go for the boring choice. Never the dull or ordinary Spend your money, and live a little. Our customer is busy, and either a very confident fashionista who wants to be ahead of the game – she wants to be in a brand that’s not oversaturated – or she’s someone who wants an adventure but needs to be led, a site she can trust but that will also challenge her.  To be honest a lot of consumers are treated like lemmings by retailers. The consumer buys it because main stream retail are offering it. We challenge this.
Q: You have some great brands on your site like Philip Lim and Preen, how did you choose these partners? 

Grainne: The brands that we select (and pitch to) must match our DNA, that means they have to have fearless design, forward, unique thinking on fashion that’s not necessarily trend driven. They have to be brave. The have to be edgy enough to fit us. 

When we are in the showrooms of these brands we have another set-of criteria about whether the pieces we’re being shown are too safe. We want the WOW pieces, so that’s the other thing we make sure we do. 

Gail: One of our criteria for this is – would one of the Australian department stores stock it, and if they would then we know it’s not for us. Because they would go for the more classic, safer pieces. 

Another pic of the beautiful @lilyjamesofficial wearing the pink #ErminDress at the #glamourawards @glamourmaguk last night .

A post shared by Preen By Thornton Bregazzi (@preenbythorntonbregazzi) on

 Q: What do you think of fast fashion’s impact on the industry?

Grainne: Don’t get me wrong, I worked for Topshop (UK). Fast fashion serves a purpose, but I guess it’s taken over a little and it’s stopped people from being conscious of their behaviour when they shop. But when you get to our age, we’ve traveled and you start to get bored with certain retailers. We don’t want people to make 6 throw away purchases that won’t last, but rather 1 piece that will last for years. We make sure that this is possible with how we buy, we don’t do the trendy pieces but rather stay true to our overall look.  Gail: It’s about stocking the items you want to hand down to your daughter, you’re not planning on throwing them out at the end of the season. It’s a sustainable purchase.

Q: You spoke about the sameness of middle market fashion, what advice to you do you have for retailers and businesses competing in this space?

Grainne: Be brave. Challenge everything. Just because everyone else is doing it does not mean to say it’s right. So many people are out there doing it wrong. Be innovative, take risks and be visionary. Retail used to be like that, when I worked in London at Topshop in the late 90s with Jane Shepherdson, we were all trained to take risks and there was an actual budget set aside for trials and risks. We would use the Oxford Street store to do this. We could buy 200 units for the store and we could work with our suppliers (who were local)…In fact, you could go and see them at lunchtime talk about a design and they would sample it up within 24 hours and then you could place your order. That’s what’s lost now. We need to give the young creative people in retail the opportunity to shine, don’t bury them with admin. Make it happen, work with suppliers to do this. The fun has gone out of buying.

Paula Bogaz (RetailOasis): It’s now all numbers and averages and black and beige

Grainne: The other thing is trying to repeat success, like “this worked really well last year so we’re going to take it and tweak it slightly”. The problem with this is that the customer has already bought this and doesn’t need two of them. 

Q:  It feels like there is a gap in training, what do you think is missing here when it comes to that training?

Grainne: It’s giving your team and each level – from assistant buyer to junior admin – the hope that they can make a difference.  It’s about making everyone feel like they are contributing to the future. I think what’s happening at the moment is that, people go into retail businesses with these big dreams – they want to make a difference- and then they realise that they may not have the voice they’d hoped for. It’s like the respect and the freedom is not being given to greater team. When I was training I worked like a dog, I worked crazy hours – so there’s no difference there – it’s just that I was given this little spark of ‘I can make a difference’ and that’s the only reason why you stay. The hard work will endure, but you have to give people something to be inspired by. 

The other thing is you need is a strong visionary in the business, a senior management person to let their people be creative. I think they need to share and train people properly. To have the confidence to nurture their team and not be frighten of the young people coming through. I think the owners and the boards need to allow creativity. This is a problem when you run a business solely on margin not on creativity. You get average product at the end and as such the merchandise teams become glorified administrators. 

Q: On that point, what do you notice most about Australian retail versus overseas practices?

Grainne: The thing I notice in Australia is there isn’t the money or investment put into visual merchandising or clever marketing. When you travel overseas and walk into those amazing department stores you feel excited and energised. It’s the full experience. Whereas, a lot of retail stores here feel like a store from the 70s similar to the old TV show”Are you being served”. First thing is make the store look fantastic. It’s as simple as when the customer sees exciting things when they enter, they get excited and they want to shop. 

Gail: and just customer service that’s the big difference from overseas. Just trying to find someone who can talk to you about a product, not just find a size. There is so much opportunity to break through that. 

Grainne: There’s an emotion in fashion. People shop with emotion and they want to be inspired. 

You can check out the awesome Never The Black Tote here:

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