Few people understand how British women dress as well as Jo Hooper does. You might not recognise her name, but as a buyer for some of the biggest fashion retailers of the past three decades, she’s played a huge role in what you and I wear.
Most recently, she was head buyer for John Lewis womenswear. During her 2008-2014 tenure, she injected much-needed designer sparkle, introducing diffusion lines from the likes of Alice Temperley and Paul & Joe, and turning the neglected fashion division into a powerhouse responsible for a third of John Lewis’s business.
Before that, she ran womenswear at Debenhams, helping to mastermind the successful ‘Designers At’ collection.
Hooper has lived and breathed womenswear ever since she started out in retail back in the booming Eighties. She has developed an instinct for what women want.
So when Hooper, now 55, with three grown-up sons, announced she was launching her own brand, the industry paid attention: what would this High Street fashion whisperer come up with?
The result is NRBY (as in ‘nearby’), an expertly edited collection of shirts, tunic dresses, jumpsuits and knitwear.
Hooper was inspired when a friend mentioned the Japanese concept of ‘one-mile wear’, i.e. clothes that aren’t OTT when it’s just you at home, but don’t feel slobby when you’re popping round the corner to do errands or grabbing a coffee.
We are in her London pop-up store, on a very smart street, but the store doesn’t feel intimidating. It’s bright and welcoming, like Hooper herself, who zips through the collection.
‘Women’s lives have changed — more of us work from home, or have flexible hours. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in informality in how we dress, how we socialise and do business,’ she says.
Her goal is that NRBY occupies the magic three inches of clothing in your wardrobe that you actually wear: ‘Your favourites; the things you go back to.’
Working with a designer, she’s stuck to timeless shapes and easy, wearable cuts. ‘It started with trying to come up with the perfect shirt,’ she says. The Chrissie poplin shirt (£59) has a flattering V-neck, small collar and is a pull-on style. ‘Shirts often gape over the bust. You’re always looking down to check. So: no buttons.’
A key pillar of NRBY is using natural fabrics. Washed linens, soft jersey, natural cotton with five per cent cashmere. Hooper is wearing the Lucy jumpsuit (£150) made from lyocell, that ‘looks like denim but feels like silk’. She styles it with white trainers and a striped sweater (£99) knotted around her waist. It strikes the perfect note: cool but not try-hard; casual but not sloppy.
The most popular piece is the Sleepy Joe knitted sweater (£99). It has a generous scoop neck that sits just below your collarbones — always nice to show off.
The debut NRBY collection may be meticulously thought through, but who in their right mind would want to launch a fashion brand right now? ‘The big guys are struggling; the little guys are where it’s at,’ says Hooper.
‘There’s a move towards curation. You walk into shops and see all this stock, where do you start?’ The NRBY shopper (anywhere from 30 to 60 years old) wants ‘to buy less and better. Their attitude is, “Why do I need this in my life?” They’re more discerning than they used to be’.
Successful brands, she says, know what they stand for. ‘When you go too broad and try to be all things to all people, that’s when the consumer goes, “I don’t get it”, and moves on.’
Hooper has worked hard to create a ‘streamlined edit. If you want something glittery and sparkly, NRBY isn’t for you. If you want contemporary clothes that you’ll be happy to put on every morning, then it is’.
Hooper’s suppliers certainly have confidence that NRBY will succeed. Anthropologie will host a NRBY pop-up in its King’s Road store in London. And John Lewis & Partners will stock the range nationwide from August.
It all sounds very exciting — and exhausting. After a full-on career, most people have their eye on early retirement. Why do it to herself? ‘Because it’s fun,’ she enthuses. ‘I love fashion. I wasn’t ready to let that go.’
She’d been toying with the idea for NRBY since leaving John Lewis in 2014, until it got to the point of ‘do it or shut up’, she says. ‘I thought, I’m a 55-year-old woman, with the body of a 55-year-old woman. But I know my style and what suits me. And I really believe there’s room to do this in the way that I envision.’
She’s financed NRBY with help from friends and family. ‘When we’re ready to scale up, we’ll need investors,’ she admits, but after decades working for corporations she’s revelling in the immediacy of start-up culture. ‘I can work intuitively; in a large company you have to present every idea to the world and his wife.’
Hooper is now looking at the spring-summer 2020 collection. She’s constantly looking forward, always focused on what’s next — it’s her nature, she says. ‘To work in fashion, you always have to believe there’s an even better season around the corner. ’