Tuesday 24 April 2018

How Beyonce conquered sportswear

As his new celebritycollaboration drops in Topshop stores, Victoria Moss meets retail boss Philip Green to find out what it was like collaborating with Queen Bey

Queen Bey: Beyonce in Ivy Park.
Queen Bey: Beyonce in Ivy Park.
Head honcho: Philip Green, chairman of Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins.
Ivy Park: Black shorts, €22, Grey hoodie, €45, Blue crop top, €34, Blue leggings, €49, T-shirt, €22.

She's got 66.5 million followers on Instagram, has sold over 160 million records worldwide, headlined Glastonbury and her body is currently being projected over the length of the flagship Topshop in London's Oxford Circus.

He's a 64-year-old retail magnate from Croydon who never lets his hefty Nokia 6310 'brick' out of sight.

Today, Beyoncé and Philip Green are launching their first partnership brand Ivy Park, a sportswear label that will be on sale in over 50 countries.

It might seem at first to be an unlikely alliance, but going into styled-up sportswear is a shrewd move. According to consumer research group NPD, the activewear market is now worth $6.5bn and global projections are that it's expected to rise to $325bn by 2020.

Ivy Park, however, has a democratic proposition. For those who can't afford Lululemon's ¤100-plus cult leggings but want more than a cheap supermarket pair.

Their 200-piece collection, sized from XXS to XL, has leggings starting at €45, while the most expensive item is a full-length bodysuit at €225.

Before I meet Green, I visit the Ivy Park office situated across the street from his Arcadia HQ, just off Oxford Street in London.

The slightly threadbare, blue-carpeted space, is populated by sunny-looking young women (there is only one man on the 30-strong team), who've been working on Ivy Park since March last year.

A taped-up DIY-typed sign pertinently asks in treble 'What would Beyoncé do?'

The core of the collection is smart, and takes its cue from Topshop's exhaustive denim offer: there are three variants of leggings, in three different fits (low, mid and high rise). There are also bodysuits, crop tops, cool perforated long line shorts and T-shirts (very American basketballer), oversized vest tops and T-shirts designed to be worn layered over other pieces, sweatshirts, shell jackets and parkas (in mostly grey, blue, black and white).

They wanted to do the opposite of 'shrink and pink', the marketing strategy typically used to target women, which is what had irked Beyoncé (34) about the usual offer of sportswear for women.

The message is one of strength, fitness and power. They've also been working with the mental health charity Mind over the language used in their brand material.

Across the road, upstairs, on the sixth floor, at the apex of his empire, Green is waiting cheerfully in reception, and ushers me into his shiny black boardroom with Big Ben pleasingly in view from the terrace outside. He is at once both charming and aggressive; disinterested one minute, animated the next. Like a sort of loveable well-fed pitbull, with an enviable tan.

He avoids interviews as much as possible. "This is rare," he says, gesturing at me.

When I ask why he was interested in working with Beyoncé (her team had approached a few different retailers about getting into the athletic sector, including Green) he screws his face up and looks at me like I'm a moron.

"Well you wouldn't not be interested would you? If you like cakes and someone turned up with a big tray of cakes, it would be difficult to say, 'I don't want one'. You're not going to get anyone better."

How do they know each other? "I've known her for more than 10 years" (she sang at his son Brandon's Bar Mitzvah). "She's been a customer, when she comes to London she always comes to visit us."

It seems the famed Green-led VIP walkabouts in Topshop - and the lure of cool high street clothes for a mega star wanting to appear down to earth - never fails.

This is only the second time Green has entered into a celebrity partnership. The first was with Kate Moss for Topshop.

"Kate's unique," says Green, "It was at a time that was good for her and good for us. It worked."

He shakes his head when I ask if they would do anything again. "I don't think so. She's a mate. We moved on."

With Ivy Park he's keen to impress that this is brand building. "Beyoncé is our partner. I'm personally a bit negative on collaborations.

"I'm not interested in a hit and run. It's too much work for 10 minutes in the sun."

Green is nothing if not hands on, attending all but two of the meetings with her and the team ("they did one complete try-on session where I got banned").

"She's super cool. When you get rid of all the people she comes in with, she says 'hi' to everyone, and sits down, and off you go. You're told you only have 40 minutes, and then three hours later, I'm like, 'try that on, try that on...' We laugh and joke and it's easy. No stress."

Every meeting took place in either LA or New York, depending on where she was rehearsing at the time. The mountain moves to go to Beyoncé.

But she was fully engaged in the process, says Green, "She's debating, like 'I want to see that again, I think we should change the strap.'"

How complicated was it to fit into her schedule? "Originally it was okay - we had the odd, 'can you come to LA tomorrow afternoon'." What were her strengths when they were working on it? "She's shopping all the time so she understands that type of product," Green explains. "She's got enough people trying to get her to wear their clothes."

She also had views on the timeline. "At one point they said, 'got to have it next Wednesday Philip' and I just sent two people to the factories and they had to sleep there for a week so they could turn up in New York with 60 garments."

Beyoncé has by all accounts been wearing Ivy Park to work out in, and will wear it on her upcoming tour.

"She's a perfectionist. Last time we did LA we had to fly overnight and do the product review in the rehearsal space. She came out all hot and bothered.

The singer has by all accounts been wearing Ivy Park to work out in, and will wear it on her upcoming tour.

"I'm confident that next week we're going to start well. The key for me is that we continue to do well. I'm not arrogant at all. The product has got to be right. There's no given it will sell."

What with the potentially damning reverberations of his offloading of BHS last year, billions in the bank, and a nice weekend escape pad in Monaco (plus yacht), one wonders what keeps him still interested in working.

"Winning," he says with a grin. "It's not easy to deliver that. It's not easy to partner Beyoncé. Her brand is on the line. Our brand is on the line.

"It's very big stakes. We wouldn't let one another down. She's about to embark on a global tour. Imagine if we screw that up?"

Ivy Park is available in Topshop stores nationwide from today, and JD Sports on Mary Street

Irish Independent

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