Rita Britton has worked six days a week throughout the pandemic. Personally processing every online order while her staff are furloughed or working from home, she can usually be found in the workshop from where her Nomad Atelier label ships worldwide.
More than 50 years after she opened her first shop, Rita is an icon of Yorkshire’s fashion industry. She was still in her early twenties when she opened Pollyanna in Barnsley town centre, building the store as an international hub for luxury fashion with her eye for unique designs.
Originally developed to provide quality essentials that sat alongside Issey Miyake, Comme Des Garcons, and the other luxury brands at Pollyanna, Nomad is Rita’s own brand. When the store eventually closed in 2014 – and after she received Drapers’ Lifetime Achievement Award – she decided to focus on her own creative designs.
Nomad has been established in its own premises in Barnsley ever since. Proudly displaying its Yorkshire roots, the brand uses premium materials from local suppliers, especially in autumn/winter collections.
“Our gabardines are from Bateman & Ogden in Bradford, most of our wool is from Abraham Moon & Sons in Guiseley, and our cashmere is from Joshua Ellis in Batley,” Rita says.
“We’re thinking about including the provenance of fabrics on each product label. It’s already on most of the swing tickets and we know clients appreciate knowing where their clothes were made.”
Like most business owners, Rita was deeply concerned that the pandemic would do serious damage to Nomad. The brand has relied heavily on its close relationships with regular customers, who would often make purchases in-store or by phone. Both relied on having staff in the store and the workshop, which became impossible as lockdown set in.
To keep customers engaged, Rita was persuaded to hold a sale on cashmere knitwear through the brand’s website. A notification went out to Nomad’s entire customer database, and by making better use of its data the brand quickly found itself in demand.
“I suppose we’d been a bit neglectful. We had thousands of email addresses but we weren’t really making the most of them,” Rita says.
“Once we’d sent out the sale email, we heard from people we hadn’t spoken to since the Pollyanna days and who didn’t even know we were still trading!”
The sale items sold well and came with other full-price purchases, which has kept Rita so busy. But the sudden shift toward e-commerce – and an influx of new customers as well as the regular clients – has prompted a rethink of the whole operation.
“Historically our website has acted like a magazine for our customers, who browse online and then either call in or phone us to make an order. Since lockdown, I think even people who have always preferred the high street are realising they don’t need to go into shops for everything, and it’s going to be vital for us to invest in our online store,” Rita explains.
Part of the challenge for Rita is to recreate the unique experience of shopping with Nomad in an online environment. Her mantra has always been to “turn a client into a friend”, building the kind of close relationship that makes her part designer, part stylist to many of her customers.
Clients can book a phone call to discuss their personal style. One woman sent Rita a photo of herself via Whatsapp so she could advise her on sizing; the team tailored the garment to better suit her figure. Fabric swatches are sent by post to clients unable to travel to the store. Each package is sent with a personal note – and, during the pandemic, a Nomad-branded silk face mask.
This personal approach is repaid with a return rate of less than 1%.
“Even when pieces are sent back, clients usually prefer an exchange to a refund. They’ll say ‘Keep the money, because there’ll be something else I want’,” Rita adds.
“Nomad customers are people who understand investment buying, and we make sure they are 100% happy with every piece. That builds trust and long-term relationships.”
So how do you offer an online-only customer the same level of confidence?
Rita hopes to answer that question in collaboration with the University of Huddersfield. The project, announced as part of Future Fashion Factory’s second innovation funding call, will explore, test and prototype innovative digital marketing tools, harnessing developments in 3D rendering and augmented reality among others.
In the end, Nomad intends to create a suite of online tools to help an independent fashion brand tell its story, and give customers a better idea of each garment before they head to checkout. The project was submitted before the pandemic, but has only become more timely.
“We have to keep moving forward if we’re going to compete,” says Rita.
“The shift was happening anyway, but it’s sped up in the last few months.”