Wednesday 17 July 2019

Party time as River Island turns 30

Hitting 30 this year, River Island is all grown up. To mark the occasion, our fashion editor went to London to see its anniversary collection and meet the boss, Ben Lewis

Green printed blazer, €95, matching trousers, €55 and halter top, €37; pearl-embellished green bag, €87
Green printed blazer, €95, matching trousers, €55 and halter top, €37; pearl-embellished green bag, €87
Lucy Moller from Dublin who won the NCAD bursary in 2006 and designed the RI30 fringed leather and suede jacket, €336, which was inspired by a vintage 1991 River Island handbag
The RI30 fringed leather and suede jacket, €336, which was inspired by a vintage 1991 River Island handbag and designed by Lucy Moller
Denim shirt, €55, cropped jeans, €55, pearl-embellished ankle boots, €200.
The 'Rihanna for River Island' collaboration was a commercial hit internationally in 2013
Ben Lewis, CEO of River Island at his office in London. Photo: Mark Abe
Model Sarah Morrissey posing with Clarisse Walsh from Dublin, winner of the NCAD/River Island bursary in 2011
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

If the legendary fashion retailer Bernard Lewis hadn't been allergic to shellfish, the style world could so easily have gotten 'Oyster Island'. But the Thames in London provided an inspiring solution to his new brand name problem, and in 1988, River Island was born instead.

It all began 30 years ago, when the Chelsea Girl fashion chain was recalibrated by Mr Lewis, founder and owner, as River Island.

A canny retailer, Bernard started off in business in 1948 selling knitting wool on an East London bomb site. Lewis Separates then morphed into Chelsea Girl and then was re-branded as River Island, of which Bernard's nephew, Ben Lewis is now CEO.

I went to its west London HQ for an up-close look at how the brand is marking 30 years of fashion with a limited edition RI30 Anniversary Collection. There are 90 pieces across womenswear, menswear and children's, launching on August 30. It will be available to buy in River Island's Grafton Street store in Dublin, online from its website, and available to order in any store in the country.

Ben Lewis, CEO of River Island at his office in London. Photo: Mark Abe
Ben Lewis, CEO of River Island at his office in London. Photo: Mark Abe

Many of the collection pieces have been inspired by River Island's finest fashion moments from the past three decades. You can call it vintage-inspired but, in fairness, it's River Island vintage, humming with the brand's design DNA. The womenswear pieces are available in sizes 6-18, with prices running from €33 to €336.

River Island products are available digitally in 150 countries but the brand has big faith in bricks and mortar, operating 350 stores around the world. That's an eye watering 1,896,960 sqft of retail space worldwide.

When I first met Ben Lewis back in 2003, we donned hard hats as he escorted me into the shell of their soon-to-open store, 301 Oxford Street, one of two opening on London's busiest retail street, just a month apart.

An audacious move, but as Ben explains, his team aims to keep the brand and experiences fresh, the product new and interesting, and that continues to bring the customers back. The philosophy is to "keep evolving and moving forward".

River Island first came to Ireland in 1992, stocked on the mezzanine floor of Arnotts on Grafton Street. When Arnotts closed, River Island took over the building.

Ireland was River Island's first territory outside Britain and, was the start of the brand's international journey. "Quite early on we landed in Dublin and then moved out to other cities fairly quickly afterwards," Ben says.

Denim shirt, €55, cropped jeans, €55, pearl-embellished ankle boots, €200.
Denim shirt, €55, cropped jeans, €55, pearl-embellished ankle boots, €200.

If Ireland has benefited from River Island, River Island has benefited from Ireland too. The customers have been loyal and engaged, and the brand has enjoyed considerable success with its NCAD bursary scheme over the last 13 years. Indeed, two of the main 'hero' pieces in its RI30 limited edition capsule collection were designed by winners of the NCAD/River Island bursary.

Clarisse Walsh from Dublin won in 2011; Lucy Moller in 2006. Having worked their way up through the ranks, six former Irish bursary winners are still working with the company.

Clarisse designed the parka which has been given a 21st-century twist with a heavily embellished outer layer and leopard fur lining, while Lucy, now Designer Controller in Womenswear, drew inspiration from a 1991 handbag to create a luxurious leather and suede fringed cropped jacket with bespoke hardware detailing.

Praising their work, Ben says that another bursary winner, Ann Marie Rigney, worked with pop singer Rihanna on her 2013 collaboration with the brand. It was a major commercial hit.

Ben says the brand "still has the halo from working with Rihanna. When I meet people here, first day, quite often the first question is, 'Are you going to be working with Rihanna again?'."

That connection with the pop star was lucrative beyond sales at the tills. IRiver Island is now spreading its wings across the Atlantic. While Primark, which is headquartered in Dublin, has made the leap from European high street to American malls, River Island will only be available online in the US.

As well as Rihanna, River Island has valuable brand recognition off the back of pop singer Beyonce. She discovered the high street fashion brand when she was shopping on Dublin's Grafton Street back in 2009, and bought all round her.

Next month marks the launch of an impressive new interiors range for the company. It marks its first major expansion since 2010, when it launched into childrenswear with a 'mini-me' concept that has been a hit with parents.

Beyonce loved the River Island jeans and she was not alone. Their Molly jean has consistently been a best-seller. Ben says customers appreciate the fit and the quality so for the 30th anniversary year, they have been updated with a bespoke back patch and embroidered waistband.

"We've taken the Molly and evolved it into something that has a bit more of a design twist for the RI30 collection."

Discussing best-sellers over the years and why they have brand loyalty, Ben says, "We are not formulaic as a brand. We like to surprise and we like to do things differently."

They certainly started a popular trend with their animal-themed beanie hats about 10 years ago. "In a way it epitomises part of the brand in that we like having fun with fashion, something like that puts a smile on people's faces," Ben says.

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The RI30 collection was designed in-house and the limited edition womenswear collection features premium party wear, day-to-night clothing, accessories and footwear.

The Irish bursary, which started in 2004, is its longest running and offers a work placement and a cash prize.

Ben says, "We've had a number of winners who have come on and had successful careers with us. Lucy is one of the judges now, that is an amazing story. Not only has it been good for us from the view of having great talent, we've also offered some really exciting fulfilling careers for people as well and we will continue to support."

Ben says the firm believes that, "Part of our creative process is to fuse and mix ideas from everywhere, and we also believe in supporting young talent as well."

Thirty years on, Ben reflects on all that has gone before. "What River Island really has at its heart is great design. That really bowls over the customers and they continue shopping with us for that reason. We continue to evolve and update the brand and are continuously listening to what our customers want from us."

Irish Independent

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