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Meet Ruth Chapman: the woman behind online designer clothing empire Matches Fashion

Ruth Chapman is busy in her Wimbledon home, packing her bags for a holiday. One week in the Bahamas, and then New York. She visited Tanzania and Kenya at Christmas and has been spending time in Los Angeles.
We have also been taking little breaks, she adds, modestly. The buoyant 56-year-old mother-of-three opened her first Matches Fashion boutique in 1987 with her now-husband Tom, and after switching the focus from bricks and mortar to e-commerce, banked ?400m when they sold the company last September.
This is why, for the first time in 30years, the Chapmans can take a proper break. (Although they are still company advisers and retain a substantial stake in the operation.) Dealing in high-end designer fashion, Matches Fashion caters for a discerning clientele of men and women. Without mentioning names, Chapman describes last minute deliveries to red carpet events every day, and flying entire wardrobes out to hotels in Hong Kong because luggage has been lost all the time.
While the average spend per transaction is over ?400, an astonishing 35pc of sales come from just 3pc of the customer base. Matches Fashion prides itself on the in-store experience, with three boutiques in London, as well as a six-floor Marylebone town house for bespoke private shopping, but the website is where over 90pc of sales are made.
On the home page of Matchesfashion.com, I am presented with an instant outfit: an orange and beige Prada Point-collar checked cotton shirt at ?478, Gucci metal aviator sunglasses at ?335, Jil Sander Pier S 15 belt-detail cropped black wool trousers for ?760 and a caramel-beige Saint Laurent Rive Gauche-print canvas beach tote bag for ?765. Total price: ?2,338 without shoes and socks.
Ruth Chapman | CV
While the clothes are luxurious, the beginnings of Matches Fashion were not. Tom was 20 when he had a terrible car accident, says Chapman. He was really unwell for a while, unable to work and just at home twiddling his thumbs recuperating. Matches was born of evenings spent thinking about what happens next and what we should do moving forward. Within a year, Matches Fashion opened its first boutique in Wimbledon, but Chapman says the funding landscape has changed dramatically since then.
It was an easier time in lots of ways to borrow money. Compared to what it takes now, the amounts we were looking at were tiny. The Telegraphs Women Mean Business campaign, of which Chapman is a supporter, is looking to highlight the funding gap between male and female entrepreneurs. Already, the Treasury has launched a review and Theresa May has set up a Downing Street committee to look at how government decisions are affecting women in business. Now a global brand, Chapman smiles as she recalls days spent painting the walls of her first store.
Initially, the space that we rented was for peanuts and we painted it ourselves. We had a really nice chest of drawers in there, and a sofa. Thinking back, Toms parents actually donated the sofa, she says, laughing. We did the whole thing ourselves. It was very much cobbled together, and definitelywouldnt stand up to todays standards. Wimbledon back then wasnt so busy, so we learnt to look after our customersvery well.
You could have only five people come in the store all day, but we tried to make them feel great and make it a fabulous experience for them. In 20 years of trading, at Toms insistence, the names, emails and addresses of all the customers at 14 Matches Fashion stores had been collected. When the internet revolution came around, Matches was in pole position to capitalise.
We had a very international customer base that was coming to us from Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, and they were saying we should be able to shop with you all the time. Going online in 2007 didnt feel like a big strategic move, it was just something we felt we should do. We literally uploaded our entire inventory on the internet, and it was as simple as that. Next came what Chapman calls the seismic moment that changed the business forever. Within days, we had sold out of everything. I said to Tom: uh oh. Were going to need more stock.
Meet Ruth Chapman: the woman behind online designer clothing empire Matches Fashion

Ruth Chapman opened her Matches Fasion boutique in 1987

Credit:
Rick Pushinsky
The first online sale that sticks in Chapmans mind is a Stella McCartney kitten heel. Now, its harder for her to keep track, with over 450 brands shipping to 176 countries around the world, and over 50 million visitors to the site each year. Technology is an important area. Matches Fashion published a gender pay gap of 27pc this month, and although the top quartile is split evenly between men and women, the company says that a large part of the reason for the gap is because of technology roles.
In a statement, they said: A large proportion of our employees in specialised roles (i.e. technology), are male. This has the effect of pushing up the pay of the average male employee. Most of our junior and operational roles are occupied by women. This has the effect of pushing down the pay of the average female employee.
Getting women into tech starts young, says Chapman. But even people who are career changers can do it too there are so many courses and they have to get out there and do it. With technology driving the business, after 2007, Matches Fashion was growing at 100pc a year. Strangely, this is when finance became problematic.
In terms of cash flow, it became really difficult, because funding an inventory like that when youre growing so fast is something banks didnt want to happen. They said: Youre over-trading, you need to rein it in. Tom and I couldnt believe it, but we saw the opportunity and thats where the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. When people see opportunity and dont want to be reined in, thats when you should go for it.
In 2012, the Chapmans raised the money another way. Venture capitalists, SEC and Highland Capital Europe pumped in ?32m. Thats the point at which we became much more strategic about how we were going to grow the business. We started as little shopkeepers, turned that into a chainand then grew it into an onlinebusiness, so the landscape was always changing. One thing that never changed was Ruths husband Tom. Evident in over an hour of conversation is how strong they are, first as a couple and then as business partners.
She calls him great inspirational and supersonic. A huge part of my success is Tom. He has been my mentor and inspiration. Whenever I have lacked confidence or inspiration he has been there saying I know you can do it. The work that #MeToo and #TimesUp do is fantastic and there are so many men that need to be called out on their behaviour, and so much of the system needs to be changed.
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But there are also so many good men out there who want it to change and Tom is a huge champion of women in the workplace. I simply couldnt have done this without him, adds Chapman with genuine warmth. Does being married to your business partner bring its difficulties? Its an interesting dynamic, Chapman says delicately. I would be lying if I told you it hadnt been tense at times, and if I disagree with him Im going to tell him. But when thats in a room with eight other people, you have to be really careful how you do that.
But any tensions we had were good ones, and we have always tried to make the right decisions for the business. Chapman tried to separate home and work lives, but admits it didnt always work. We very much tried to not bring it to the dinner table as the kids grew up. Inevitably it slips in a little bit and thats not always healthy, but its interesting now that our children have sort of learnt about retail and fashion sort of by osmosis and they understand so much.
Of her three children, her son, aged 25 and her eldest daughter, 23, have both worked on the shop floor. It teaches you so much about how customer facing businesses work. It is the best way to learn, she says. Her youngest daughter, 19, has her heart set on becoming an artist, following in her mothers creative streak. Being her own boss gave Chapman the freedom to get stuck intomotherhood. I was so anxious never to miss a netball match or a rugby match, and found that the majority of mothers watching were working mums. We made huge sacrifices to be there, but I have always tried to put family first.
Next month, Chapman will be taking the stage by herself at the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the year awards, where she is nominated for the top prize. Its a very exciting award particularly because of Madame Clicquot. She was a creative and thats what I like. What we are seeing now is that there are lots of creative women out there who realise they dont necessarily have to be employed they can take their creative skills and turn that into a business.
I would describe myself as, firstly, a creative person and, secondly, a business woman, and thats the message I really want to get across to younger women starting out. You may think you are a creative or artistic person but that is largely what is going to be meaningful in business in the next few decades.
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