Podcast: Orlagh McCloskey and Henrietta Rix, Founders of Rixo
September 15, 2021 •Sorcha O'Boyle
RIXO is the breakout brand of the last few years. It's been called everything from a cultural zeitgeist to an instant classic from the moment it exploded onto the fashion scene in 2015. In fact, RIXO is such a success story that you can't really leave the house anymore without seeing a RIXO dress or skirt, or at least a RIXO-inspired silhouette or print. Not ones to rest on their laurels, however, founders Orlagh McCloskey and Henrietta Rix have branched out to swimwear, bridal, footwear and beyond to cement their place as a timeless brand for the future.
Tune in here to hear the full interview with Henrietta and Orlagh or read on for the transcript.
Sorcha: Orlagh and Henrietta, I’m so glad to have you both here in the podcast, thank you for coming along. How are you both?
Orlagh: Thank you for having us both! We're good, we haven’t had much of a summer what with dealing with COVID but we're good.
Henrietta: Yeah, thank you so much for having us. We're excited to chat to you today.
Sorcha: I'm really delighted to have you here! I love the story of RIXO but for anyone doesn't know the story, could you tell us about how you started out what you wanted to achieve with RIXO?
Henrietta: Well, neither of us is from London so we met at the London College of Fashion where we were studying fashion management and I think we both loved the creative side and the business side that the course offered. So we met there and we did a few projects together.
We clicked straight away, we had a similar vision and a similar dress sense and everything – we’d want to go to vintage fairs together and would be so excited about them. And so we clicked and then a tutor of ours actually said that we worked really well together and we should think about doing something when we left and I think that planted the seed.
Orlagh: As a brand, we felt that we could recreate what we used to see in vintage fairs but do it in a way that meant that you didn't have to sift through an antique fair, you could get it in your size, it would fit correctly but it still had that vintage-contemporary aesthetic and would suit your lifestyle.
That was the ethos of the brand. Fit was a really important thing because at vintage markets you might struggle to find your size. It really was a passion and I think that's what made us really understand the vision of the brand... Because we essentially wanted to be the customer of that brand.
Henrietta: I think we knew the market inside out too, it was something we were just so obsessed with. We’d know about any new brand that popped up, I remember I found some Australian brand that came over from Australia...
Orlagh: And went to get kaftans in the middle of nowhere in London!
Henrietta: We were just naturally obsessed with finding different fashion brands so it wasn't as if we needed to go away and do all this market research that would be a burden on us. We just loved it and we noticed a bit of a gap in the market. There was no brand doing what we wanted to do at that point so the timing was great for us as well.
Sorcha: And did you have big ambitions from day one? Did you want to be in Vogue and want to be worn by celebrities? Was that in your mind from the very beginning?
Orlagh: It definitely was. If you aren’t thinking about those things then, in a sense, you aren’t feeling you’re going to be successful at it. I think we really believed in the product and the price point and the positioning so then it was up to us as two individuals to actually get the name of the brand out there.
That was a little bit more daunting!
Henrietta: I think the most daunting thing for me was actually saying to your close friends and family that you’re not going to get a job but you’re going to set this up. Once you'd put that out there, you’d created the brand Instagram, the Facebook group... It was almost like, well, this can't fail now. We put it out there so I'm not going to let this fail, I'd just be mortified if it did fail.
And we're both very driven and passionate about it so it wasn't something that we set it up to all see how it goes, it wasn’t just going to be on the back burner if it didn't work. We were going to find a way to make it work.
Sorcha: And can you tell me a little bit about the first weeks or first months? Can you take me a bit of a picture of what it was like?
Orlagh: When we first started off, I was still working to ASOS so Henrietta would pick me up after work and we’d spend evenings and weekends working on it and it got to the point where A) you're just exhausted and B) you can't go to all the meetings during the day that you need to be at.
And what we’ve both found – because we've lacked experience in certain areas of business – is that we were quite brazen and just reached out to anyone we could, whether they've been on LinkedIn or on the back of a magazine.
We just found ways to meet people and think outside the box because we didn’t really know anyone. We didn’t have many other options so we just met as many people as we could and got as much information as we could.
Henrietta: And we'd give ourselves targets. We’d Google the top 20 boutiques in the UK because it was hard to get into a massive retailer so we thought we’d wholesale the brand through smaller local independent boutiques and stockists within the UK.
So we'd make an Excel list of everyone wanted to target.
Orlagh: And then we’d work in the office on the product sample and the photoshoots because we needed imagery and assets. That was the first thing: as soon as we got images and samples, we could do brand meetings, meet press and learn about how to build website.
Henrietta: Which was a struggle! But we did alright in the end.
Orlagh: And actually, we did do a business plan but it was very far off in terms of what we felt we needed to do. To be honest, I think as much as you can do a business plan, you've got to have the right proposition and the right core mix of price, product quality, and positioning. You could do all the business plans in the world but your core mix needs to be really solid and that's actually where we spent most of our time.
We didn't raise investment, we struck a deal with one of our suppliers whereby we would work for free for them and they would give us 60 days payment terms. So we said, right, we've got 60 days to launch this product, turn it around and get the money in to cover production.
And that’s what it was like for the first year, pretty much. We weren't really sure of cashflow, it was very much just getting the year done, getting the first collection done and moving on. And actually we found that we probably did better than we thought we had but we weren't focused on that too much at the start.
Henrietta: We just knew we had to make ends meet and sell the product so we were so dedicated to thinking about what stores we could get into, what magazines we could get into, having a website so we could actually sell the product and running to the post office every day to send out orders.
Orlagh: If anything, I think that by having less experience and probably being a little bit naïve, we probably weren't as daunted as someone with more experience would be. If you knew more, you might say we have to get a full team on something or you’ve got to have someone in that position. So being a bit naïve, those things didn’t faze us as much.
Sorcha: And why have you decided not to take on outside investment?
Orlagh: Just to remain in control. For example, we launched accessories a couple of years ago and it wasn't the greatest success... We had too many other priorities to deal with.
If we had investors and we were trying to grow the business at the rate they want, you almost get to a point where you've got to make something work and force it… Whereas we tend to get surprises along the way when things work really well and so we ramp it up a bit more. So we get to test and trial things without the need to put higher price point on things that we don't necessarily agree with.
And obviously the business has to make profit to keep it going and have staff et cetera but we don’t have investors putting pressure on us and we get to do what our gut feeling tells us as well.
Sorcha: It seems to me that a huge amount of the success of RIXO comes down to you two and your relationship, both as friends and as business partners. How do you manage the responsibilities of the brand between the two of you?
Henrietta: We kind of separated it. In the in the first couple of years we were doing everything together and then as the business grew it just wasn't sustainable to be going to the same meetings together. So now I could go full day without speaking to Orlagh but we might be in one crossover meeting or something, which is nice. But we're personal friends outside of RIXO as well, Orlagh’s twin sister is a really close friend and we lived together for the first four or five years of RIXO and we just have just a great relationship.
Orlagh: Yeah and we only stopped living together during COVID so we’d be with each other all the time until then and you’d find yourself talking about RIXO quite a lot in the evenings and in the mornings. And you've got that passion, it's not just your 9-5 office hours, there's a constant evolution… We could go in the morning with a new idea that didn’t exist the evening before and I think that constant thinking and passion for the brand does allow it to progress quicker than other brands where the owners or the founders don't get to meet up or talk that often.
Sorcha: And did the success of RIXO take you by surprise?
Henrietta: I don't think it's as successful as we'd like it to be… We’re very critical of ourselves! We'd never sit back and pat ourselves on the back because there’s so much internally that we want to achieve.
Orlagh: I think the biggest thing we've been successful at is being a brand that is not just for one age group or one shape. The brand hasn't been pigeonholed to one type of consumer which I think is a hard thing for a womenswear brand to avoid. We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves at all.
Henrietta: I think the brand does have such a strong DNA too, like you'd walk down the street and know that someone’s wearing a RIXO dress. So I think in that respect, we know that what we've built is successful but there's lots more to do!
Sorcha: Yes and actually, now that you mention how many different types of people wear your products and love them, one thing that I love that you do is Humans of RIXO. Can you tell me a bit about that and what it means to be a Human of RIXO?
Henrietta: Anyone can be a Human of RIXO! We constantly get people on our Instagram sending pictures in which is so lovely – our customer is very vocal with us. We'll get pictures of them at the weekend or of their mum wearing something of ours and looking gorgeous so we came up with Humans of RIXO ages ago – I think it was you, Orlagh, who came up with it.
Orlagh: Yeah, have you seen the book called Humans of New York? The idea came from that, I just love fact that it was so personable and it was really seeing the human side of people and I think that's what our brand is.
When we talk about the brand… I mean, everyone gets up in the morning and puts on clothes, that's just a given and we just wanted to bring it down to that human aspect of day-to-day life and what people want to wear and what that means for them.
And it's not too cliché like Babes of RIXO – that's just not us! We can’t really get much more inclusive than Humans of RIXO unless we decide to do doggywear! We wanted someone that is really for everyone.
Sorcha: It must be so rewarding to see your pieces on different people walking down the street, you must see people walking past wearing your clothes all the time.
Henrietta: We were in a meeting this morning and this girl was sat on the table right behind us and she had one of our dresses on, it was just gorgeous and she looked lovely in it. So that's really nice, even if you're just going to go and get a coffee or something and you see someone… It's really nice.
Sorcha: It must be lovely! And can you tell me a little bit about your new sustainable denim collection? You launched it recently in Copenhagen, is that right?
Orlagh: It's quite a new category for us. We tried a little bit of denim about 2 years ago but… We're such big believers in having the right supplier. It has to be the bread and butter of what they do and we don't ever force anything.
So this time we worked with a consultant who helped us manage the process and had the experience of finding the right factory and knowing how to be sustainable with denim. One thing we've done with all of our production not shipping fabric between countries when it’s being manufactured… Maybe with a little bit of an exception with those countries right beside each other but we've always been of that of that kind of thinking, and that's exactly what we've done with the denim.
We do it all from Turkey where sustainable denim is really big and we found that having our consultant really helped us to nail that collection.
So even though we spent more than we would have by doing it ourselves with our existing supply base, it actually worked and we’ve had a really good reception from it. And it ties back into the same RIXO aesthetic so we haven't just done a jean collection, we’ve made the RIXO denim jacket and the RIXO denim dress.
Henrietta: It's still got our DNA and the collection is just gorgeous.
Sorcha: Yes, I saw a video of the collection, a 1-minute clip of it, and you just know by looking at it that it’s RIXO denim, it couldn’t be anything else.
Orlagh: Yeah it does. I think that's the thing because our brand is so small, it’s not a big department where people are kind of off doing their own thing so even though it’s not printed, it still has that RIXO feel.
Sorcha: And is that the first time you’ve used a consultant in that way with a collection?
Orlagh: We have done it before… Obviously with COVID we needed someone who had been to the factory and we needed someone who's got the relationship with the factory and is working directly for us so we know that it's being managed correctly. If you just find a factory through recommendations or an online portal, those are very different during COVID.
We are very good at putting our hands up when we know we're not good at something or we need help.
Sorcha: And on that point, when I listen to you both speak, you can really see how passionate you are about the brand and the clothing and the customer. But how do you find it making the switch from being the founders of the brand building the brand and the product and then moving into a team management role? Those are two very different jobs.
Henrietta: I think it's probably ingrained into what we do. It's not as if one day someone gives you a title… Orlagh and I come together on things where we need to strategically think 6 or 12 months in advance when you do need to have that strategic had on but we're so passionate about what we actually with the brand and the product that we’d never lose that. So it is two different heads but I think we've just always had that naturally.
Orlagh: If anything, I think people in the team find it quite refreshing because they get an answer straight away. So there's no having a meeting with all the team or going away to think about whether the founder would want something in a certain way.
I'll try and find a direct answer and direction, which I think can be really beneficial as long as you're a nice person about it. I think being a founder and being involved in the business means that stuff just gets done at a rapid pace. It's probably part of RIXO’s success as well, no time is wasted with sign-offs and red tape. If we feel something, we’ll go with it and find a way.
Sorcha: And when you look back at what you've done with the brand, is there anything that you wish you'd known earlier or that done differently?
Orlagh: Yeah, of course there is. I mean even with distribution and wholesale, we had to refine it a little bit. Saying no is a really hard thing sometimes and wanting to just please everybody, whether that be doing too many exclusive collections and being too widely spread… Prioritization is a big one.
Henrietta: I think for us it's like learning that we’ve almost got 3 different businesses, you've got wholesale then you've got retail and then e-commerce and direct so getting your head around all those 3 and it's hard to do all 3 right until you've got a team. When we first started, it was literally Orlagh and I doing all of them and it's hard to get every single one right so it’s just about navigating those challenges.
Orlagh: Yes, taking off what you can chew and prioritizing are things that we’ve definitely learned… And listening to your gut as well. Obviously, we were quite young and not as experienced as some people we’d chat to and I think having that confidence in yourself is important. Because even if someone has more experience than you, you've still got to do something different to them in order to be more successful.
Sorcha: And when you look back, is there anything that you remember as being particularly challenging?
Orlagh: Changing from wholesale was really hard because you don't want to let people down.
Henrietta: It was an emotional rollercoaster!
Orlagh: And sometimes you feel like the bad guy but it was right for the brand. At the time, I felt like it was the end of the world but you’re not responsible for people or their business and their business can’t rely solely on you either.
And we definitely had a learning curve with what direction to go with in terms of the product and what to focus on and where to slow down, whether that be with accessories or swimwear or what-have-you.
Henrietta: There are lots of things that you learn along the way and you can get lots of great advice from people but you have to just listen and take on board what you think is right for RIXO. Because sometimes you make a rash decision while actually if you had taken a step back and asked yourself whether that was right for RIXO, you might have decided differently. Sometimes you can rush because you think you need a certain number of team members to get things done but it’s never good to rush a hire, especially a senior one.
There's nothing worse than having to get rid of someone in a team so you have to be really sure and that's what we do.
Sorcha: And what's coming up in the next 6 or 12 months that you're looking forward to?
Orlagh: I think there are two areas. One is really growing our marketing and having more of a plan in place, getting out of COVID and meeting customers and doing that whole brand experience. And I think the other one is probably around more product. We've seen the brand develop from being silk printed dresses that everyone wears for a wedding or christening to having a wider appeal in terms of your lifestyle, whether that be something to wear to work, or for brunch and can work really hard for your wardrobe.
So if this time next year we have served customers in these different ways and we can see that people are transitioning how they wear the brand on Instagram… I think we’d think we’d done a good job.
Henrietta: And I think one of the biggest thing is going back to what we started out with and becoming a direct-to-consumer business. When we first started, we just wanted to sell directly to our own customer until we realized that wholesale’s amazing marketing. So it won’t be getting rid of one thing but striking a balance.
And with that comes growing the community, talking to the customer more and making more agile changes so we can speak more directly with the customer. I think that’s what I'm really excited about in the next 6 to 12 months.
Sorcha: And one thing that does jump out at me on your Instagram is that is how much you do engage directly with your customer. Was that something that you intended to do or did it happen organically?
Henrietta: I think it just came naturally. We were so sad when we first set up the brand, we weren’t doing anything else but RIXO! So my evening would probably be getting back to customers, talking to customers… They were like a little friendship group! We were just locked in the living room the whole time. That was like digital marketing on a 1-1 basis, basically.
Sorcha: Very personalized!
Henrietta: And very time consuming! We didn't really know how to use Instagram or how important it would become but it was something that came naturally to us, so we did it.
Sorcha: And if you were to talk to somebody who wants to start a brand either on their own or with a friend, what advice would you give them?
Henrietta: First of all you've got to be really sure that what you're offering to your customer hasn’t been done before or you've got a USP that really makes you stand out. You've got to have everything right: so the price, the product, the place, the way you market it… You've got to have a an idea on all those pillars.
Orlagh: You could have the best cashflow and contacts and all the rest but your product is what the customer sees and they have to want to buy it. So you've got to have a product that is really strong.
Henrietta: And you’ve got to put everything into it. The fewer priorities you have outside of the business, the better so you can focus your energy and your time on it. And being passionate about it is definitely key.
Sorcha: And of all the pieces you’ve created, is there a one that's kind of special to you? Is there a particular dress or skirt that was the catalyst moment that made RIXO?
Orlagh: Our first print, I think. That’s how we understood that print was a big thing for us. Because we had done a collection of about 20 pieces and the embroidery and print was the bit that worked. We had done some neutrals but in hindsight, printing and embroidery is going to stand out more. I think the Carmellia dress is quite iconic and there’s the print that’s on all our packaging too... It was a print we had in our first ever Fashion Week, it’s these multi-coloured splodges that was quite iconic and that people ask about.
Henriette: But every time we have a new collection you think, God, this is the strongest yet! But yeah, there are some iconic shapes… We’ve got a rose dress shape which just reminds me so much of Orlagh, it’s such a stunning dress and she looks amazing in it! And there are some key things that you just you remember, you know, memories of what you were doing when you were wearing that dress and how important it was at the time.
Sorcha: And pieces are you looking forward to that are coming next?
Orlagh: There are so many!
Sorcha: I know, I saw your outerwear on Instagram yesterday, it looks gorgeous.
Orlagh: Yeah, I think those coats are good because I struggle to get a coat that I really like. With these, even if I wasn’t in RIXO, I’d want to buy them! I’d be breaking the bank to get them!
Henrietta: I showed my fiancé who hadn’t seen them before and he just said ‘Well that’s just going to sell out!’… But then he says that about everything I show him!
So we’re really excited about the outerwear. And next March there are so many happy, vibrant, vintage-inspired gorgeous prints that are so unique have such strong RIXO handwriting all over them.
Orlagh: I think we've got such a big offering that people can wear things their own way which I think is a big-step change for us so people don’t think we’re just for occasions. And really having that RIXO feeling when you put on a dress, that's something that we've hopefully done quite well.
Sorcha: I can't wait to see them when they come out, I’ll be all over the website waiting for them! Thank you both, I really enjoyed talking to you and learning more about RIXO so thank you very much!
Henrietta: Likewise, thank you so much for having us.
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