Many would consider her one of Australia’s most stylish women, while many others would simply thank her for bringing designer fashion to the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Yet despite her trailblazing career – which has spanned 20 years and, at its peak, ten boutiques – Belinda Seper is hesitant to call herself a trend forecaster. In fact, she loathes the term.
Instead, she sees her role as an editor, filtering through the creative propositions from the world’s best designers and splicing together looks for the modern Australian woman she so clearly identifies with. It’s a intuitive approach and one that delivers Seper a different result for each of her boutiques.
“A store experience, in my view, is a curated experience,” she says. “My approach is very edited, so I see my role as a real filter, between what designers do and ultimately what customers want, or what they are looking for.”
Since opening her first store in 1992 (she currently has eight; seven in Sydney and one in Melbourne), Seper has spent much of her time travelling the world, visiting designer showrooms and attending runway shows. She has also had a deft hand in nurturing young Australian talent, launching many fresh careers in fashion, perhaps most famously Michelle Jank, who remains a close friend.
While her “completely instinctual” buying approach hasn't changed over the years, the retail landscape most certainly has. The emergence of Australian fashion on the global stage, the increasing value of our dollar, the internet, online shopping and of course, the GFC, have all had a huge impact on the way we showcase, sell and buy fashion.
As Seper tells it, the internet has not only launched online shopping, it’s also completely changed the parameters via which fashion retailers can run their business. “That seasonal lag that used to exist, where Australia bought collections behind the northern hemisphere, simply doesn’t exist anymore.”
Instead, Australians are buying international collections along with the rest of the world, often through e-tail boutiques that cover add-on costs like shipping.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t compete. We can. The playing field is quite level. The exception is that we have to pay the import duty and the freight.”
It’s the price conscious customer, who is now all too aware of these add-on costs, that can sometimes frustrate Seper. As she points out, the price difference between boutiques or e-retailers is determined by several factors. In her words, it’s the schlepping around the backstreets of Paris, waiting in the rain for the taxi, battling through the queues, waiting for appointments, editing down of literally thousands of garments before finally shipping it out and presenting it beautifully in store.
“There will be people who don’t buy at my shops because they can get it cheaper online, [but] I’m very fortunate that I work with a customer demographic who love that boutique shopping experience. They love the editing that we have done and they come in knowing they are going to find solutions.”
Part of Seper’s success has been her ability to gently nurture her customer, so her clientele has been able to grow with her and her business. “There are people who have been coming into the store for 15 years,” she says, and no doubt many of them wouldn’t want buy online. Shopping in store is about having that personal shopping experience and the immediacy of it. You still get this in most small boutiques and, interestingly, it’s a notion larger international department stores like Topshop are trying to introduce. Put simply, people like that second option, that experienced opinion, but without the overbearing pressure to purchase.
The Belinda brand was hit hard during the GFC, forcing closures and a relook at the business. Seper admits she didn’t see it coming – “I’m in frock shops, not finance” – but remains optimistic about the survival of high end fashion retail and indeed, her own business’s future.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to get your business to the point where a customer, who’s reliant on identifying themselves by the brands that they wear, has confidence in the brand of the store more than the individual labels.”
She continues to support Australian talent although she no longer feels obliged to, instead encouraging emerging designers to go overseas and have a stint working for other fashion houses. While she has made a significant contribution to the nurturing of local talent she admits there have been “many duds”.
“But if you are in business and you’re not constantly pushing your boundaries then you won’t survive. You’re going to have hits and misses – that’s normal.”