Another British chain comes to Australia: Five lessons from fast fashion retailer River Island

British fashion chain River Island is headed for Australian shores after entering into a “partnership” with Australian company Retail Apparel Group.

The fashion chain is following overseas retailers such as UK-based TopShop and Spanish chain Zara into the Australian market.

The deal to bring River Island to Australia involves a partnership with RAG, which owns brands including Tarocash and YD.

RAG founder Stephen Leibowitz told SmartCompany the deal was three years in the making, although he would not reveal the terms of agreement between the two companies.

It will signal a change of direction for RAG, which is primarily a menswear retailer, while River Island’s offering is 75% women’s wear.

“We are looking for two sites initially and hoping for one in Sydney and Melbourne, but it depends what comes our way,” says Leibowitz.

“We would like a central business district site or a major shopping centre.”

1. Fast fashion

Similar to TopShop, River Island is a fast fashion retailer with a high turnover of stock at low price points, with most clothing priced below $80.

This allows the retailer to be very trend-driven and pick up on the latest fashions from street wear and catwalks.

Leibowitz told SmartCompany that River Island’s in-house design team would produce the same products for the Australian market as it sells in Europe.

“Our intention is to produce the same product at the same time, taking into consideration weather,” he says.

“For high fashion product, like a dress, quite often it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.”

Leibowitz describes River Island’s products as “very on the money and very commercially fashionable”.

He says River Island’s fast fashion products are already “very well liked and accepted” in Australia with Australian online sales making up the chain’s biggest market outside the UK.

2. Flagship large format stores

River Island’s flagship stores in the UK are located in prominent locations, with three on London’s famous Oxford Street alone.

The chain will try to replicate this in Australia with RAG on the lookout for the perfect site for two flagship stores, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne.

Leibowitz describes River Island’s flagship stores as “very large format”, covering multiple levels and up to 1,500 square metres.

“Location of property is the most important thing, after the product that is already very successful, that is followed by people,” says Leibowitz

“We run our business on a whole lot of P’s.”

3. Family business

River Island is a family business that was set up in 1948 by Andrew Hunt and Bernard Lewis and originally operated from a small shop in London as Lewis Separates. It has since gone through a number of name changes – Chelsea Girl, Concept Man – before becoming River Island in 1988.

River Island is led by entrepreneur and chairman Bernard Lewis and Leibowitz describes the family as “very conservative” and “very low profile”.

“They are one of the wealthiest families in Britain but their feet are on the ground. They are not like typical fashion people who like to be in the press,” Leibowitz says.

Keeping the business in the family means that staff have lots of contact with the owners and that the owners are very involved in the business.

“Clive Lewis, the chairman, who is a billionaire, everyone knows him as Clive,” Leibowitz says.

“The founder [Clive’s father, Bernard Lewis], who is over 80 years old, still comes into the business and looks at things before they are approved.”

4. Large number of stores

River Island is known as a “High Street” chain in Britain, as there is a River Island store in most town’s high streets.

The River Island model operates based on a large number of stores and Leibowitz says a similar model will be adopted in Australia once the first two flagship stores are established.

“We wouldn’t be going into it, and nor would they, if it was just two stores in Australia,” Leibowitz says.

“We have over 275 stores in Australia and, in Europe, River Island has 300. Last year they had 160 million people go through their stores.”

5. Celebrity factor

River Island has tapped into consumers’ fascination with celebrities by enlisting key celebrities to design collections.

The latest is pop star Rihanna, who will be designing a collection for the chain for spring 2013.

It’s certainly not the first fashion retailer to do this and TopShop achieved great success with its collaboration with Kate Moss and Madonna has designed for H&M.

It’s a great way to attract publicity and Rihanna has already circulated Instagram pictures of herself wearing River Island clothes.


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