Liberty of London has always been more than just a store to me – albeit a glamorous one. As an impoverished student in London, I found comfort and aspiration in its warm wood-panelling and distinctive facade which remained reassuringly unchanged over the decades while everything around it came and went.
Inside was an Aladdin’s cave of treasure. I come from a family of women who have always sewed, embroidered, knitted and crocheted and the haberdashery section, with its heady jewel-like colours, was my favourite place. Later working in magazines in an office based around the corner from the famous Marlborough Street store, Liberty was the place to go for treats and gifts. The embroidery threads for the wedding stole I hand-embroidered came from Liberty as did my favourite necklace – based on a Japanese netsuke – bought for me by my new husband.
The thrill of receiving a royal purple Liberty gift bag never palls.
So when we got the email in the LILY BLANCHE and Tartan Twist offices just after Christmas asking us to pitch to the buying team at Liberty as part of its famous Open Call, we were delighted. The collection was honed and edited down. A pitch was written and a presentation pack put together. Flights were booked and frocks were selected. We wanted to make the best possible impression.
There wasn’t a huge amount of information on what to expect so this is my guide to how to get the most out of Liberty Open Call if you are an aspiring young designer.
First the day itself. I set the alarm for 4am as we were on a 6.20am flight out of Edinburgh on the Saturday morning. Ideally I would have travelled down the day before but work commitments precluded that. The doors for Open Call open at 9.30am and close at 4.00pm. The store guarantees to see everyone who is in the queue before 4pm.
We arrived at Liberty before 9am and joined the queue which was already snaking round three sides of the building. I last visited Liberty in July so it was important to know what had changed. My husband held my place in the queue while I checked out the store at 10am when the doors opened. Liberty tells you to anticipate queuing for 2 to 3 hours. In fact it was 6 hours before I was seen and that was fairly typical. A friend who had been queuing since 6.30am was seen after 1pm. Somebody turned up to queue at 2am.
After eleven hours travelling and queuing any carefully honed pitch goes right out of the window. In these circumstances you can barely remember your own name. Fortunately, I was able to grab a packet of posh popcorn (thank you Liberty) and a glass of water half an hour before the pitch which gave me the energy I needed. Based on the intelligence I had gathered in the queue, by speaking to other designers and the Liberty organisers, at the last minute I changed the jewellery I was wearing, what I was going to pitch and the way I was going to pitch.
The queue finally levels out on the fourth floor to a room with seats (hurrah!). The system here is chaotic. You register at the desk and decide which category of buyer you want to pitch to. In this room, most people waited about an hour. In theory you get a warning five to ten minutes before you are on but in reality it is all a bit random and chaotic.
I had gone with both LILY BLANCHE and Tartan Twist products (Tartan Twist is LILY BLANCHE’s sister brand. Check it out here.) In the end I majored on some of our stationery products based on what I could see was happening in the jewellery section and among the jewellers in the queue. I saw Julie Hassan, the head homeware buyer, and a really experienced person. My pitch, such as it was, was interrupted by the Channel 4 producer filming the event for the documentary series on the show. He came over to shake hands with Julie and told me she was the toughest of the judges. The interruption was actually quite helpful as it brought out the human dimension and made the pitch more relaxed and ad hoc.
There were certain products Julie seemed to like. Once she had established prices, Julie asked lots of questions about our current stockists, the trade shows we had attended and the history of the brand. I had a presentation pack with lookbooks, the story of the brands, price lists and images of our point of sale units. I stapled my business card to the inside of the folder. Julie asked to keep the pack to discuss with colleagues after the event.
This seemed like a good result. Most of the people around me in the queue were rejected on the day but with 3000 applications and 600 designers called, just getting to pitch is a success in itself. Ultimately only ten brands will make the cut. We are now waiting to hear if things will progress.
My lovely husband had ordered afternoon tea in the Liberty tearoom and I had booked us into the Westbury Hotel Mayfair as a treat which was a great end to a thrilling day.
My Top Ten Tips for Liberty Open Call
- Do your homework. Think really hard about your collection in relation to Liberty. How does your brand’s ethos and character fit with Liberty London? Watch clips of the Open Call on YouTube and read as many accounts as possible. Immerse yourself in the Liberty vibe.
- Less is more. You have four minutes to pitch and you may see only one buyer. Take no more than four samples which sum up your collection. Keep the presentation simple, clear and uncluttered. Practice getting the samples in and out of your bag smoothly so you don’t waste precious seconds rummaging. You will make an impression in the first few seconds and you may be interrupted, so present your strongest piece first.
- Dress for the queue. Prepare to queue for six hours, half of which will be outdoors. Wear clothes and shoes which are really comfortable. Bring water and snacks. In our queue, somebody had a flask of something hot. Everyone else was envious.
- Make friends in the queue. If Carlsberg made queues, it would be the Liberty queue. Just imagine the Ryanair queue after six hours. People would be eating each other! But these are nice people and it was all very civilised. Remember your fellow designers are not the competition. They are potential collaborators. Everyone is in the same boat. Offer to hold your neighbour’s place in the queue so that they can reccie the store or pop to the loo and they will do the same for you.
- Suss out the store in advance. Work out exactly where your product will sit in the store. If there is no obvious place for you product among the existing merchandise, that is a sign you should think about carefully. It is unlikely they will devise a new category just for you. The buyer you meet will be so imbued in the ethos of Liberty, they will know immediately if your product will fit in and where it will sit in the store. Thinking about your brand from the merchandiser’s point of view is crucial to the success of your pitch.
- Think hard about pricing. Speaking to a number of people who pitched and were rejected, it was pricing that was the issue. Many said the buyers cut straight to the price. You don’t want to fall on the first hurdle.
- Work out your goals in advance. There are around 3,000 applications to Liberty Open Call, 680 designers pitched with us. Of these only around 20 may be called back and 10 may be selected for the store. This is akin to winning the lottery and the chances are you will not make the cut. Don’t be disheartened. Just being asked to pitch is an enormous privilege and huge validation of your brand so think about how you can maximise the publicity and benefit of being one of the chosen few -ish.
- Use the day to garner new followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. Create a buzz around your brand. Tweet, Facebook post and blog the hell out of it. Get friends and family to repost your posts. Update regularly as to what is happening. Take a good power pack/ spare battery to juice up your phone when the battery goes. Use the opportunity to connect with as many people as possible. Share information with the other designers. This is a really exciting adventure for your brand and a fantastic opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Tune into the sense of occasion and absorb the atmosphere.
- Prepare a presentation pack with lookbooks, if you have them, strong images of your brand and contact details to leave with the buyer. If your brand incorporates several categories, it is likely that you will have to choose just one to pitch. Don’t think merely in terms of what you like best but in terms of what fits best with the existing Liberty merchandise and where, within the categories Liberty sells, there is a gap in the market.
- If you are able to, make an occasion of the day. Bring a friend. Go for afternoon tea in the store – you’ll have earned it – or book a lovely hotel and give yourself as many positive memories as possible. If you are rejected, don’t think if only… I saw a different buyer/ had arrived at a different time/ had presented to Ed Burstell in person. The Liberty buying team is uber-professional. They are all able to make decisions across different categories. When something fits with the Liberty brand, they all know it. And finally…Be lovely. Thank the Liberty team for the opportunity. Be generous to the people you meet in the queue. Message them afterwards to let them know how you got on. If they have beautiful products, compliment them. Introduce their products to your social media followers and they may do the same for you. You never know. One day they may be the next Ed Burstell and they may just remember you and your lovely brand.