How lockdown unleashed a thriving online market for colourful clothes

Marielle Wyse Founder of Wyse London, at home in her kitchen with some of her clothing collections
‘If I wear a grey jumper I just feel flat. I find myself so attracted to colour’: Marielle Wyse of Wyse London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
‘If I wear a grey jumper I just feel flat. I find myself so attracted to colour’: Marielle Wyse of Wyse London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

From pink dungarees, to velvet boiler suits and African fabrics, it’s the bold and bright that’s catching our eye. Meet the women whose Instagram sales are hitting a high

Kate Finnigan
Sun 13 Dec 2020 07.00 EST

‘Our designs are very uplifting’

Marielle Wyse of Wyse London

Multicoloured striped tank tops, pink scalloped dungarees, rainbow wrist warmers… If bright and bold colour is what you’re looking for, Marielle Wyse is your woman and Wyse London your brand.

A former TV producer and a mother of two, she founded Wyse in 2014 with just five knitted jumpers to sell. Now she has a comprehensive collection of ready-to-wear outfits and a ream of famous and stylish followers – you might have seen Zoë Ball wearing one of her dazzling knits on the BBC show It Takes Two. “I grew slowly and very leanly,” Marielle says. “I didn’t spend more than what was necessary. And I drove my poor family mad because I did everything at home. I had people coming to work in our house every day.”

Her love of colour has only increased as she’s got older. “My father used to wear a lot of colour and I used to think, why aren’t you in navy or grey? But now I understand. If I wear a grey jumper I just feel flat. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but I find myself so attracted to colour. Our stripy cardigans are very lifting pieces because life is pretty tough right now.”

During the course of this year, which has seen so many fashion brands struggle and fail, Marielle has entirely changed her business strategy. As wholesalers cancelled orders, she took to Instagram Live to talk to followers and customers directly about her design process. “I would literally hold something up and see if people liked it,” she says. “If people said, ‘We love it,’ we’d get them to pre-order and we’d make it. It’s almost like a community design project. They say they want the sleeves to look a certain way and that’s what we do. It’s made me much better at my job because they’ve told me the bits they’re unhappy with.”

Although she readily admits to some “clangers”, such as Wyse’s party season sequins, which people haven’t really gone in for this year, she’s also enjoyed some big hits, including her velvet dresses and scalloped dungarees. “I had famous people asking me for them, to wear on TV,” she says. “But they were all sold out!”

wyselondon.co.uk; @wyselondon

“I want colours to suit everyone’

Rene Macdonald of Lisou London

Renee Macdonald, founder of Lisou London, photographed outside her house in Notting Hill, in a gold patterned jumpsuit
‘People react to you differently when you wear colour’: Rene Macdonald of Lisou London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“There’s this theory that if you wear colour on a Monday, you are more productive in your work than if you wear black,” says Rene Macdonald, the founder and designer behind Lisou London. “People apparently react to you differently when you wear colour.”

That is good news for the customers of Lisou, whose skirts, shirting, tailoring and dresses come bright, printed and shiny, and certain to provoke a positive reaction.

Rene, a former academic and stylist (“The serious and the ta-daa”, as she puts it), founded the brand in 2018 with a silk shirt – the Betty, still a best seller – that brought to London some of the boldness of her Tanzanian heritage. “I know my love of colour comes from Africa,” she says. “There is literally no street there where anyone is wearing beige! So I spend a lot of time running around putting Pantone colours against different skin tones – I want the colours to suit everyone. Not everyone looks like me and I’m not making clothes only for black skin tones. They’re for everyone.” Including Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Mirren, who are both customers.

At the start of the pandemic, Rene thought her dream “had disappeared”. But two weeks into lockdown, something changed. “It was quite surreal. I think people were bored. We realised everyone was on their phones and the Instagram followers started racking up.” In response, she started to do Instagram TV, talking directly to her followers, showing how to style the clothes, interviewing other women and talking about the ethos of the brand. To date, she’s done 35 broadcasts. “In the fourth one I fell flat on my face. I hadn’t put on my 5in heels properly and I fell down the stairs. I had to style it out. It’s probably the only thing I have in common with Naomi Campbell,” she laughs. “But I think people like that I’m a regular person.”

Lisou has recently supported the charity One Tree Planted and donated to the Royal College of Nursing Foundation. “My parents both worked for the UN and we lived in places where there were wars and coups,” says Renee. “They gave me a sense of social responsibility. Fashion can be a force for change and for good. My platform is small, but I really think about how I use it.”

lisou.co.uk; @lisoulondon

‘In lockdown our sales tripled’

Louise Markey of LF Markey

Louise Markey, Founder of LF Markey, photographed on a velvet green sofa in her home in a pink junpsuit.
‘When people began shopping for casualwear we sold all the extra stock on our website’: Louise Markey of LF Markey. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Lilac joggers and primary-coloured appliquéed boiler suits by LF Markey have brightened up the days of many of the brand’s customers this year, but designer and founder Louise Markey has been deep into colour for a long time. While doing an MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins, the mother-of-three created colourful pieces based on historical costume, while she was wearing the vintage workwear she had started collecting. “It took me a while to fuse what I was wearing every day with what I was designing for uni,” she says. “It met in the middle with LF Markey, this very geometric take on bright colours.”

Founded in 2013, the brand gives a colourful dose of utility chic to those bored of blue denim and khaki. “I think it might be just because I’m Australian. Colour is very acceptable to wear there,” says Louise, of her penchant for brights. “But this year colour has been shifting even better than usual.”

With so many wholesalers cancelling fashion orders this spring, Louise felt lucky that she already had her online business in shape. “We had all this stock just sitting in the warehouse because the retailers didn’t want it,” she says. “It was scary. But actually when lockdown started people began shopping for casualwear and we sold all the extra stock on our website.”

When photoshoots were unable to happen, the team found themselves with another problem – no images of their summer collection to put on the website or on Instagram. Louise credits her marketing manager with a stroke of genius there. “She said we should shoot the clothes on ourselves. So we did it in our houses and our back yards and on the street. I was in them, too, and I’d just given birth to my third child, so I got to do a plus-size shoot on myself.”

The images were so well received that the brand enjoyed an instant uplift. “I think the numbers tripled,” says Louise. “It was dramatic. People seemed to like being introduced to the team and seeing the people behind the brand.”

Louise, who also owns another, more romantic brand called Meadows, full of pretty dresses, is now concentrating on the website, where sales are three times the size they were at the start of the year. She has boosted her team by 25%, doubling the size of the customer service team. “What I’ve learned this year is that you really need to be talking to your customers all the time.”

lfmarkey.com; @lfmarkey

‘I asked myself: “Is this real?”’

Yvonne Telford of Kemi Telford

Yvonne Telford wearing a full-length blue-patterned dress, pictured in her warehouse with shelves of her clothing behind her
‘In Nigeria, if you wear black, they think someone has died. I’ve always loved colour and print, but I couldn’t wear them here because it wasn’t seen as chic’: Yvonne Telford of Kemi Telford. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

When Yvonne Telford first moved to the UK from Nigeria in 1996, she put away her brightly coloured clothes. “In Nigeria, if you wear black, they think someone has died,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve always loved colour and print, but I couldn’t wear them here because it wasn’t seen as chic.”

Yvonne, who had been working as a credit risk analyst, began embracing colour again when she turned 40. “I thought, ‘It’s time for me to start living my life.’ Colour is like freedom for me. It makes me happy and it’s who I am.”

Yet it was to take some time before that love of bold colour became the basis of her own successful clothing brand, Kemi Telford. After quitting her corporate job and while raising her two daughters, Yvonne started a blog about motherhood. Two years later she invested £50 in tote bags that she had printed with empowering slogans. Pouches, T-shirts and sweatshirts followed. But something started to irritate her. “When I wore my T-shirts women would ask me about my skirts. Why weren’t they asking about the T-shirts? In the shower one day, it suddenly clicked: they like my skirts, they like my dresses, do something about it!”

What she did was to create a thriving clothing business with a following of supportive women. Her bright printed skirts and dresses in African wax fabric, are modelled on her website and Instagram account by Yvonne herself, with pictures taken by her family. “I’m not a fashion designer,” she says. “I’m someone who loves beautiful print and comfortable clothes, and has a story to tell. People are buying the clothes because of the stories we share.”

This was underlined during the pandemic when her customers began talking more about Kemi Telford. Her Instagram followers rose and sales soared. “We used to have a turnover of about £70,000, but it increased 100%. It got to a point where I was waking up in a panic and asking my husband, ‘Is this real?” A post about how she couldn’t bring herself to cancel orders from her suppliers in places like Nigeria and India also caused a stir. “I said I didn’t want to take a meal off anybody’s table. I think that connected with customers because sales took off,” she says. “People care about where the clothes come from, but they care more about how you are treating the people making the clothes. I always say, when I get how I treat people right, I get the clothes right.”

kemitelford.com; @kemitelford

‘It’s gone off like a rocket’

Jo Hooper of NRBY

Observer MagazineFeature on clothing Brands Instagram - Jo Hooper, Founder of NRBY clothing. in her house in SW London. @nrbyclothing.com
‘The lovely jewel colours make you feel better when you put them on’: Jo Hooper of NRBY. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“Our motto is: We’re here to cheer,” says Jo Hooper, founder of NRBY. “We say it in the office all the time. What are we here for? We’re here to cheer.”

Less than two years ago, Hooper, a former womenswear director at John Lewis and Debenhams, took her experience in the retail industry and her knowledge of how she and other women were working from home, to start NRBY, her own brand of colourful and comfortable clothing to wear in the house – and nearby. Inspired by the idea of Japanese one-mile wear, the kind of products she came up with were easy joggers, roomy boiler suits, linen and silk shirts and colourful, slouchy cashmere and alpaca knits. She didn’t realise it at the time, but her concept put her in the ideal position to weather a global pandemic in which people were confined to the home.

“When the first lockdown happened we didn’t have any ambitions other than to still be around when it was all over,” she says. “But our turnover quadrupled. It was the combination of being able to tell our story via things like Instagram and having the right kind of product.” Five hundred pairs of their Cameron jersey dungarees with adjustable straps sold in two days. “One customer wrote and said I bought a pair but my daughter’s stolen them so I’m ordering another pair,” she says. “That’s the kind of story we love.”

As winter has taken hold, it has been the velvet shirts, blazers and boiler suits in saturated shades of blues, pinks and red that, as Jo puts it, “have gone off like a rocket”.

“We were concerned that if no one was going anywhere they wouldn’t be sure about velvet, but that idea of sitting on your sofa wearing something nice and being comfortable has been popular,” she says. “The lovely jewel colours just make you feel better when you put them on.”

She’s well aware of the power of colour in fashion. “When I was at John Lewis I used to say you’ve got seven seconds to grab someone’s attention as they walk past your range,” she says. “But on Instagram you’ve got less than 0.3 seconds or something! How do you stop someone in their tracks? I think that’s why colour has become so important over the last five years. People keep talking about cream and camel and neutrals, but it’s colour that stops you in your tracks.”

nrbyclothing.com; @nrbyclothing