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Life’s a Peachaus

Gillian Ridley Whittle spent years at dizzying heights in the world of high street fashion, her CV reading like an industry who’s who. But she gave up the corporate world three years ago, to pursue a lifelong dream of setting up her brand Peachaus, which aims to balance sustainable and ethical products with beautiful, feminine and quality designs. With the backing of Cedric Wilmotte, chief executive at luxury fashion brand Michael Kors, and alongside a team with more than 100 years' fashion world experience, Gillian launched the brand in March 2022. Initially planned as an online service, she earlier this year opened her first Peachaus boutique in Covent Garden before recently returning to her native North East, to introduce the range to Fenwick customers. Here, she charts her career journey with Colin Young, and reveals hopes of one day opening a store in Newcastle.

It’s nearly four o’clock on Peachaus’ first day in Fenwick.

Gillian Ridley Whittle has been on her feet for more than eight hours in a quiet corner on the first floor of the iconic Newcastle store.

It is three days before Peachaus’ official launch and, after a morning of putting the final touches to its range of luxury, ethical and sustainable underwear, loungewear and activewear, women of all ages are slowly starting to browse the rails.

Gillian is wearing a Salix blossom-embroidered cotton sweatshirt and Sitka joggers in shoreline peach.

It’s an outfit as cool, light and breezy as she is.

“It feels like a warm hug,” she says, as she bounds over to the seats in the middle of the Peachaus pop-up.

“The fabrics are so soft and comfy.”

She resists the temptation to chat with a customer and continue the handson meets and greets, which is one of the main attractions of her sustainable fashion brand’s arrival – and her own return – to the North East.

Gillian says: “I’ve been so excited to come back up here – I haven’t been back for about three years.

“My dad lives here, and I still feel a strong connection.

“I feel like I’ve come home after 30 years; it’s such a warm place.

“People in the North East are so friendly, and the Geordie accent is amazing.

“People keep asking me where my Geordie accent is. I just say, ‘I went to a posh girls school’; I’m sad I never had one.

“I first got into Fenwick 18 months ago, when Adam Kelly, the buying merchandising director, was so gracious about giving me an opportunity with the brand and a prime footage concession in the London Bond Street store at Christmas 2022 for three months.

“It went so well, we were invited back last Christmas, and being in Newcastle is like fulfilling the dream.

“It feels like this little northern girl, who always had her heart and sights on doing something amazing, has had her dreams come true.

“And I’m talking to them about my vision to open a 5000sq ft venue – that is really relevant, because people are going to be consuming less clothes, as we’re using and depleting all the natural resources.

“The circular economy and focus on recycling is getting bigger, so fashion – and being a fashion brand – has to be about the experience, as well as responsibly-sourced products and clothes.

“I imagine a townhouse combining products with experience, so it’s an opportunity to create an experiential venue that is inclusive and has a feminine, positive energy, where you can create your own experiences.

“There will be space to work but it’s more about reflective time; you can do Pilates, yoga, breathing, meditation, spinning, have your hair and nails done, eat and drink – all with a fully immersive shopping experience, such as bra fitting.

“Personalised shopping and pamper experiences will be central to it.

“Nobody is doing this anywhere. “I need investment, and that’s my plan for next year.

“And I’d love to do it in Newcastle,” adds Gillian, whose extensive fashion industry CV includes senior roles at M&S and Topshop.

She already has some impressive backing to make her plan a reality.

Not only is Michael Kors chief executive Cedric Wilmotte supporting her venture, but so too is recent investor Tracy Lewis, who is focused on female founders and sustainable business, and who has her own impressive background in the underwear sector.

And Gillian cannot wait to tell her story; the one that charts her journey from Corbridge to Newcastle High School for Girls and Northumbria University, to travelling the globe with some of the industry’s major players and, today, back for a photoshoot and interview in Northumberland Street.

She says: “It’s taken me a long time to come full circle.

“When I finished my fashion degree, and I got a first, I did underwear to be worn as underwear or outerwear, and my business plan was to set up a shop with speciality underwear.

“It took me a long time to do it.

“But that’s confidence, isn’t it?

“Confidence and experience.

“At school, you’re told to follow a path; earn a good salary and buy a nice house and a car that will give you happiness.

“I chased the big jobs and the ego-led decisions, but I’ve no regrets because I learned so much along the way.”

Gillian knew what she wanted from a very young age.

She loved dressing up and making her own outfits.

Guided perhaps by her father Geoffrey – a Hexham solicitor renowned for his ‘dandy, going-out’ clothing – she was given her first sewing machine at the age of seven.

When she moved to Chesterfield aged 16 with her mum and stepdad, Gillian would trawl through the town’s market at weekends for fabric to make outfits to wear later that evening.

She always had her eye on the fashion, marketing and design course at Northumbria University after completing a foundation course in Derbyshire, and is now part of the institution’s alumni.

During pop-up week, she delivered a talk on her career.

Gillian says: “It was such a thrill.

“I’m going to do some projects with students, and I want to forge deeper connections to support them.

“I want to help them with industry experience and encourage them to be themselves.

“We’re brought up with so much focus on grades, but it needs to be about self-discovery and finding out what ignites you to live your most fulfilling life.

“When I started my fashion degree, I probably got the lowest mark in the first year, which was down to a lack of confidence and thinking I’m not going to be as good as everyone else.

“By my fourth year, though, I was one of two first-class honours degrees.

“When I started on a graduate training scheme at M&S, I lacked confidence. “I didn’t know who I was, how I was supposed to act; I was comparing myself to others.

“Corporate businesses can be challenging places.

“I’ve worked hard, and from the outside looking in, I have achieved a lot, but I always felt there was something more.

“Now I have broken free, creating my own brand and world, and I feel like I’ve got all the confidence in the world – and that every day is a joy.”

After university, Gillian moved to London and hopped on the catwalk’s corporate conveyor belt.

Headhunted more times than a white rhino since, she collected roles among the fashion labels and stores – working for Bay Trading, Freemans, Debenhams and then back to M&S, in 2004, for ten years, to lead its lingerie division and launch beauty.

She’s delivered in knitwear, smartwear, underwear – anywhere she could use her talents.

After the births of sons Sebastian and Felix, who are now teenagers, Gillian was offered an opportunity to work for Target, in Melbourne, Australia, by Stuart Machin, who is now M&S’ chief executive.

Her mission was to turn around the fortunes of the operator Down Under, which was struggling to keep up with discount store Kmart that had swooped on its market share.

Gillian says: “I got to Australia and I had a massive job, a big team and a good salary package – everything I thought I’d always wanted.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be the happiest I’ve been in my life’.

“But I found it very challenging, very demanding and very stressful.

“It was a 24/7 job, which impacted on family life and the ideal of outdoor culture we were seeking.

“I was really proud of what I delivered, but it was tough and the stress wasn’t good for me.

“I started to suffer from anxiety, I wasn’t seeing my family and I was running on empty, doing nothing for myself to stay in balance.

“I realised I was part of a fashion system that was broken, that was chasing profit at any cost to people and the planet.

“I was bottling up the stress, felt ashamed and didn’t understand why I felt that way – after all, this was everything I always thought I wanted.

“It was like a pressure cooker.

“In the end I left, had three months off and created the concept of Peachaus.”

From playing with the company’s name by the beach near Melbourne, to sitting among the serene pastel shades in her Fenwick concession and welcoming her fellow North Easterners to the colourful and comfortable Peachaus range, it has taken five years – and then some.

Gillian says: “It was bizarre.

“Some friends came to stay, I said when the time was right I wanted to launch my own brand – they’re quite creative people as well, so we did.

“We worked on the name.

“We lived by the beach, but ‘Beach House’ wouldn’t travel as an international brand, so we picked peach because it’s tactile, feminine and soft.

“But ‘Peach House’ wasn’t how we wanted the brand to be.

“Then we thought ‘haus’ – German for house – because it’s got ‘AUS’ for Australia and ‘US’ for community.

“It’s about community, peace, each of us, connected communities in collaboration.

“It’s quite a deep name, I’m quite a deep person.”

Gillian adds: “Peachaus is about everyday beautiful clothing and underwear, but it’s actually more than that.

“When people experience our bra fitting in our London store, for example, it blows my mind seeing their faces.

“Some may have body image issues, most lack confidence in who they are, but they say they’ve never felt so comfortable, so accepted, and the bras feel like they’re still naked – it’s like wearing air!”

After another bruising role on her return to the UK – “putting the fizz back into Topshop” – Gillian found herself with a redundancy package, investment from business partner Cedric and a head full of designs and ambitions.

She sourced materials, such as recycled Italian lace, organic cottons, bamboo and recycled polyester, using manufacturers in Portugal and India with gold standard factories.

And she has teamed up with Sophie Morgenthaler, formerly of Victoria’s Secret and Myla, who is design and product director, and instrumental in the creation and innovation behind the range, and operations director Sarah Edwards, who also worked for M&S and Debenhams at board level.

She says: “They’ve worked with artists, true creatives on iconic prints and embroideries, to make their products collectable and unique.

“They’re fluid in the fit, to go from bed to beach to bar, and the underwear has unique simple sizing based on a woman’s body today, rather than outdated sizing rules.

“We’re going to create things that are really lovely, pretty, beautiful and comfortable, and we’re sourcing it really well and making sure everyone’s happy along the way.

“We want to set a new precedent for the fashion industry because it can be a kind and good place; we just need to revolutionise it.

“One of the reasons I left M&S was because they set up a direct model, which was all about growing their margin by four percentage points.

“They went to cheaper factories and cheaper sources, and impacted their quality.

“And I think the customer sees that.”

Gillian adds: “There’s a big shift that needs to happen, to put the quality back into products, pay the right price at the factories and source it ethically, so people get fair value through the whole chain.

“That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

“I want to be part of the change that has to happen in the industry, not part of the problem.

“And I love my independence.

“I love the fact no two days are the same, and I love the buzz we’re creating.”

May 9, 2024

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Created by Colin Young