If you’ve lately found yourself admiring a woman in a charcoal knit dress knotted at the waist and falling to a flattering mid-calf length, or a colleague wearing a fluid black asymmetric skirt with a slit at the knee, the chances are she’ll have been wearing Joseph. Once the destination store for essential basics — the place one went to find a perfect black trouser or smart new sweater — the British brand Joseph has undergone a quiet fashion revolution. Right now, it’s where you’ll find those lambskin leather trousers that cost a fraction of other designer offerings, and look as good if not better. For men, too, Joseph has become a destination for tailored separates and chic merino knits.
That Joseph has re-emerged as a destination for those who like to demonstrate a quiet but knowing fashionability is largely thanks to Louise Trotter, the Sunderland-born designer who was appointed creative director in 2009. Since her arrival, Trotter has transformed perceptions of the label first established by the French-Moroccan entrepreneur Joseph Ettedgui in 1972 (and sold to Onward Kashiyama in 2005). Originally conceived as a multibrand store, where one would buy the brand’s basics alongside high fashion labels, today only seven of the 100 stores still carry other lines. Last year, Joseph clothes accounted for 87 per cent of the group’s global sales. Trotter debuted a womenswear catwalk show in 2014, and its menswear, which she also oversees, now stages presentations during London menswear. Sales have grown 20 per cent in the past five years, to £139m in 2014/15. Last year, the ecommerce business grew by 29 per cent.
In person, Trotter, is a petite brunette forty-something with a focused manner that is rather intense until she laughs — a great bark — which she does often, and loudly. When we meet, she is dressed in voluminous black trousers and a wintry, chocolate-coloured roll neck despite the unexpectedly warm weather that has visited the company showroom near Brompton Cross.
Like many female designers, Trotter designs for the life she leads. “I don’t really think about the Joseph ‘woman’,” she says. “I think about my friends and myself, and my desires. I see women live their lives, and I can see that we juggle a million things. I think it’s a disservice to ask whether the Joseph woman is a career woman, because we’re all career women. And look at us, we are all intelligent, independent women who wear clothes in our own way. The beauty of Joseph is that we give women choices.”
Trotter, who spends her time between London and Paris, where the company keeps its design studio, has been sensitive to the challenges of updating a beloved brand while pushing it creatively to punch above its weight. “When I started, in 2009, Joseph was this beautiful brand that hadn’t really done anything wrong,” explains Trotter, who joined from Jigsaw, shortly before the death of Joseph Ettedgui in 2010. “It’s just that it lost its way a little bit. It felt less relevant, even though the brand itself felt very, very relevant.”
Trotter’s first instinct was to tidy up. “The first few years were spent looking at the essential lines and the foundation pieces, re-examining what they mean today and re-establishing the core lines.”
That done, she was able to push the fashion elements. “I wanted the Joseph collection to stand out in its own right, to be more than just basics,” she says. But she’s been careful not to frighten off her core customer. “I don’t want to create a piece of clothing that just sits in a wardrobe. For me, the beauty of clothes is to be worn.”
The catwalk show has given the label even greater fashion authority. “Today, women come to Joseph not only for items but for a full wardrobe,” says Trotter. And, as of next week, that full wardrobe will include shoes, a first collection of 13 styles inspired by the archetypes of English footwear; chunky lace-ups (£420), Chelsea boots (£415), and a covetable frilly take on the traditional winkle-picker (£455). Produced in-house with one of the Onward group’s factories in Italy, the shoes are like the clothes: classically stylish, with just enough edge to keep them interesting, and an essentially masculine twist. Tellingly, there is only one heel.
“I am a flats girl,” shrugs Trotter, who is wearing a pair of sturdy brown snakeskin loafers (£430) from the new collection. “I like a girl to be striding and confident, so it kind of ruled out 10-inch stilettos because that’s not the way I saw her walking. And also, for me, Joseph comes back to a lot of masculine elements. Joseph’s philosophies were very much based on the way a man dresses — the black pant and a white shirt, a good overcoat. So, with the shoes, I thought about how to feminise the masculine icons for women.”
If successful, Trotter will build other categories — she will relaunch a small collection of bags in coming seasons and plans to offer a full men’s shoe collection as well — but hers is a small-scale approach. “Luxury is in a very difficult position right now,” she says of the dangers of overexpansion — and overexposure. “The idea of something being small and personal has become lost on us. Things have become so saturated that we’ve lost that notion of exclusivity: everything’s available. I’m not a believer in ‘let’s show a collection and sell it tomorrow’. I think this is the wrong way forward. In fact, I think that consumers are thinking, more generally, ‘do we need this? Do I need this?’”
It’s an interesting point of view, especially in an industry where designers are delivering more collections than ever before, and the scale of production grows faster every season. Thankfully, however people will always need shoes? Trotter laughs. “We do need shoes. Because we can’t go barefoot. It’s a bit dirty out there. We need to protect our feet.”
Photograph: Greg Funnell