Supporting Small Businesses and Young British Designers (and should we be shopping, right now?)

— by Alyson Walsh

Debra Hepburn photo by Claire Pepper

While stores are closed and countries shutdown, should we really be shopping online for clothes during the COVID-19 crisis? Obviously, fashion is not a priority right now and most of us have enough clothes anyway. But from an economic standpoint, approximately 3.4 billion people around the world are employed by the fashion industry, 75% of which are women and livelihoods are at risk. And I’m not just saying this because I earn money from affiliate links on this site. Hopefully, with this time to pause and reflect on our actions and shopping habits, sustainability and careful spending will become the new normal. We will instinctively ask the question ‘Who made my clothes?’  – support smaller brands and designers with good ethical practises and think about where we spend our money. Frankly, I’m not going to forget the retailers who put profits before people during the pandemic. Brands like ASOS who didn’t follow government guidelines for social distancing, and others who abruptly cancelled orders with little thought for the garment workers at the other end of the supply chain – that’s you, M&S and Next. As this is Fashion Revolution Week, it seems like the perfect time to chat to Debra Hepburn, 58, co-founder of Young British Designers (YBD), a company that supports emerging design talent in the UK.

Based in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside, YBD was founded in 2010 by Debra Hepburn and her husband Julian Whitehead. The couple set out to to create a platform to showcase the best young designers and enable small fashion labels to gain a presence in a hugely competitive industry. With the company’s support, designers such as Sophie Hulme, JW Anderson, Eudon Choi and Rejina Pyo have achieved global success over the last decade.  ‘I love finding brilliant new brands and introducing them to the right audience,’ says Debra, ‘Helping people find clothes they love is intoxicating. And I think being out of London really helps us step outside of the fashion bubble and look at every designer with unbiased, fresh eyes.’

Here’s what Debra Hepburn had to say about whether we should be shopping during the pandemic and how to support small businesses:


What is the best thing we can do to support designers / makers, right now?

To do exactly that, SUPPORT them. If you can afford to buy, then consider buying from someone who has poured their heart and soul into growing a modestly sustainable business. Support emerging designers and small businesses, they have had to take risks and are working their butts off, right now. Fashion is tough and very few emerging designers have enough cash to take them beyond a month or two without wholesale or direct-to-consumer orders. If you can’t buy at the moment, then share how much you love what they’re doing, what they stand for, how you’ll be back buying when “all this is over”. It’s vital to keep their names known and talked about.

What feedback are you getting from the designers about the crisis?

It’s mixed. The best thing about with working with creative people is that they are hugely creative and always astound you. In the face of adversity some of our designers have turned to creating face masks, scrubs, comfy headbands and laundry bags for NHS uniforms. Harriet Eccleston, Kelly Love and Phoebe English are getting stuck in – and Kelly has started fundraising online. Many are still working on designs for their next collections and those we’ve seen glimpses of are full of freedom and glorious colour as opposed to the dark, foreboding and repressed pieces you might have expected lockdown to inspire.

On the practical side, designers are reaching out to retail buyers and buyers are reaching out to designers to find ways forward. Rather than sitting back and worrying about a doomsday scenario both parties are working together to agree payment plans, later delivery of orders and ways to “unseasonalise” their collections which YBD has been advocating for some time now. There’s a kindness, a sensible approach and a quiet determination to help each other through this.

Massive pressure is put on designers (young and old) to produce four seasons a year. This is counterintuitive to creativity as emerging designers often have to handle all aspects of their business  – sales/marketing/production/designing/finance etc – leaving room little time to be really creative, which is their raison d’être. It’s also incredibly expensive to create four distinct collections and to market them. And finally it’s unethical leading to more mass consumption and, indeed, more waste. I always tell designers that they may feel they need to reinvent the wheel but there truly is no need to do so – stick to that one teeny thing that you’re brilliant at.

Embroidered shirt by Harriet Eccleston


Should we be buying online during a pandemic? What about the safety of people working in distribution centres and delivering goods?

Safety absolutely comes first. I know I’m buying from small makers and independent creatives who are working from home or a home studio. I couldn’t in all conscience order from a big retailer with a vast warehouse behind it where I’d be suspicious of social distancing rules being upheld. But I still want to spend money on items that mean something, that bring me and those I care about joy but also help keep a small business in business. We live in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside and even our local butcher/grocer is now ‘online’ so you can order by phone and collect at a safe distance. Online at micro level is a safer and more rewarding place to shop.

We’d never have imagined we’d be here when Net-A-Porter has had to pause…CRAZY! But with the British Fashion Council projecting that some 35% of designers might not make it through the next three months we are taking our support even more seriously than ever. We look much bigger than we are. Our warehouse is an old barn based in the middle of rural England. Orders are wrapped and packed by my brother and his wife. Packages are then collected and delivered ‘contactless’ by DHL in the UK and worldwide. So, it’s as safe as can be. We’re really lucky in that way. The only thing that’s slowed down is returns and exchanges via DHL as in making those as safe as possible we have to wait a few days longer.

And can you tell me a bit about yourself please? How Young British Designers started? 

Young British Designers is a second career. I studied fashion design at art school in Moseley but found myself hopelessly inept at actually making the clothes. My career post-Birmingham University in the 1980s, was in advertising and in 1995 I founded a creative communications agency Rees Hadley Hepburn (RBH) with two dear colleagues of mine. I run the agency alongside YBD, we work with great clients in retail, fashion and the automotive industry. We’re based in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside in some old barns shared by both companies (though, obviously right now we’re all working from home).

I’d always worked with fashion and retail brands, and always been besotted with online and how it brought the most amazing and unique finds from all over the world within reach. However, there was no single destination that supported and showcased emerging British-based designers, who to my mind are the very best in the world. So, in 2010 we started YBD. It was one of those moments in time. My husband Julian was Sustainability Director at Jaguar Land Rover and had the opportunity to take early retirement and we invested our money in launching Young British Designers. We wanted to take the risk on brilliant young talent, despite pretty well everyone advising us against it (the world in 2010 was very BIG BRAND-orientated). We wanted to support them by actually buying those collections we loved and believed in as opposed to Sale-or-Return which is so hard on emerging designers.

Kitty Clogs photo via YBD

How many people work for YBD?

Both my companies work hand-in-hand. Some of the team in the creative agency look after some aspects of YBD (digital/website/film etc) and it’s great because we can have fun and be as creative as we want to be in testing out new ways of doing things. We’re both still really hands-on, every single day, discovering, speaking with and launching new names. In particular at the moment as we try and navigate our designers and ourselves through Covid-19. So, more than five, less than twelve people as it varies throughout the month!

How do you choose your designers?

We buy what we love. Every week we receive lots of approaches from designers aged 11 (and wanting to be a fashion designer) to 60 (wanting to go back to fashion later in life). The majority are new or relatively unknown and many aren’t for us, at all. But every so often you open a look-book or see an image and it just grabs you. It takes your breath away and you know you’ve found something really special. This is how I felt with Eudon Choi, JW Anderson, Rejina Pyo and so many more. It’s absolutely intoxicating to be able to work with and support original talent – and to be able to introduce our customers to emerging designers.

And which Young British Designers should we be looking out for?

I’m wearing a corduroy jacket from Cawley (last season), the printed stripe dress is from COR and the hi tops are LF Markey. In the second photo, the beautiful, embroidered boyfriend shirt is from a Harriet Eccleston. Other designers to look out for are Kitty Clogs and Bella Singleton’s gorgeous printed shirtdresses (available online in two weeks).


Visit the Young British Designers shop HERE. And these are all YBD’s below:

*Please note affiliate links in this post may generate a commission. 


Pre-lockdown photography: Claire Pepper

Hair and make-up: Louise Heywood.



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