TTYA Founder Irene Agbontaen On Tall Girl Problems, Building A Global Brand & School Uniforms

Waiting in Ottolenghi in Spitalfields, I feel a little nervous about having breakfast with Taller Than Your Average founder Irene Agbontaen. The reason being that  there were a long list of black British women on my hit list – my interview hit list to be clear. While I won’t run through all of the women, as not all have been featured yet, there have been a few black women I’ve managed to check off; Yrsa Daley Ward, Denise Rawls and now I was about to check off another, Irene.

As a black woman who stands at 5’10 with 36 inch legs, there was a bundle of excitement and pride when I was introduced to TTYA. Finally, there was a brand that catered to my needs, that incorporated a sense of style and was founded by someone who looked like me. #winning.

When Irene walks in, she’s wearing the belted suede mini dress from the latest TTYA X LTS collection, complete with the Textured Maxi Cardigan, black knee high boots, silver accessories, circular-rimmed sunglasses and loose flowing waves in her hair. She looks like she’s just walked off the set of a festival fashion shoot – effortlessly boho chic. Not only is she stylish, she’s warm and personable and goes in for a hug, rather than the formal safe handshake most ‘strangers’ go in for when meeting for the first time over breakfast.

TTYAxLTS

As she gets settled, the Long Tall Sally PR manager Alice shows me the campaign pictures for new TTYA x LTS collection and I can safely say that once again the range further cements the idea that the partnership between the two brands is the best tall collection on the high street. Although, Irene feels no pressure to out do herself.

“I don’t feel like there is a pressure. Like most businesses do, you grow and with every collection it will always be better than the last.

“You grow, you learn and you do something better than before, so I don’t feel like there is any pressure. I feel like we’ve only just started.

“I’m already working on the SS16 collection, which already looks amazing,” she smiles.

“I feel like the TTYA x LTS collection is growing and progressing and I think Alice has done an incredible job in pushing it as there was a bit of a stigma and that was part of the challenge.”

As most tall girls will know, Long Tall Sally has had the difficult job of trying to please a wide range of women in a niche market. Trying to please the tall teenager, the tall working woman and the tall mature woman has unfortunately made the brand dated to certain customers. However, the brand, like everyone in fashion took notice in 2012 when Taller Than Your Average arrived on the scene and made itself the front runner in tall fashion.

While Irene was aware of the element of risk that accompanies teaming up with a brand that had a stigma, it seems that was why the partnership was so appealing.

“It would have been easy for me to do a Topshop or H&M collaboration.

“This was a challenge and more for my target audience and they literally have a database full of tall girls. I think between us we are giving tall girls unlimited fashion options.”

For the last 18 months, no one can deny that Irene has single handedly given tall girls all over the world unlimited options. Irene’s TTYA range ships worldwide and is stocked in Barneys in America. Plus, Jourdan Dunn, Karlie Kloss and Wendy Williams have   publicly declared their love for the brand.

For most fashion entrepreneurs, supermodels wearing their collection in their day to day lives would probably be the cherry and the cake, but for 30-year-old Irene, it’s not a priority.

“I think it’s great that big names wear my clothes from a PR perspective, but I see it as a representation, a way to shine light onto the everyday tall girl.

“I’m not doing it for celebrities and if I was it wouldn’t be tall specific as it’s limiting. For me, it’s more important for the everyday girl to relate to this product.

“I will say that Jourdan is amazing. Every season she’s like: ‘oh my God, I want this, I want this.’”

She adds: “It’s great that celebs like it, because it shows they are girls like us, but on the flip side, this isn’t solely what this is about.

No doubt the tall everyday girl and the tall celebrity is a huge fan of the new TTYA x LTS collection that launched in September.

The collection in Irene’s words is “fashion-led staples, that don’t venture too far away from the main TTYA line, but taps into the girl who is looking for something slightly more on trend.”

While our conversation is to primarily discuss her latest venture for Long Tall Sally, I had to talk about her Taller Than Your Average range, the brand that she founded and that made her a fashion pioneer by those in the business. Taller Than You Average was launched in Selfridges in June 2013, which holds special significance for the businesswoman.

“I launched in Selfridges and got quite a bit of buzz, as it was the first tall specific brand to be stocked in there,” she smiles.

“Which was crazy for Selfridges as they don’t usually stock brands that are limited to such a specific target audience. So it was nice to be able to platform in such a prestigious store.

“I used to work there many years ago, so it was a nice kind of come around. I knew exactly how I wanted things to be positioned, how I wanted it to look. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sit, how staff should approach customers and I think that’s why they enjoyed working with me so much because I was coming from a staff and brand perspective.”

Many may ask with Irene having her own brand and then collaborating with a high street store to build a series of collections, what is the difference between the TTYA range and TTYA X LTS range. However, Irene makes it clear that they entirely different entities.

“My main range is very functional, very monochrome and I try to embody elements of that in this collaboration.”

She continues: “However, we are trying to elevate it and give tall girls something new. We went for the 70s feel; it was very on trend, it was an influence on all the catwalk shows. We’ve taken inspiration but kept it wearable. We have the ultimate maxi and mini.

“Each season I try to put in something that is a dual effect, so this season we have trousers with detachable braces. So it goes from day to night. We’ve included crop tops, but played with fabrics, so it isn’t just your standard jersey. I added a lot of texture into this collection and I’m really proud of it.”

TTYA Long Tall Sally AW2015

So Irene should be. As Alice points out, this isn’t just a project where a person of influence puts their name on a brand. From start to finish, Irene attends all meetings and was the creative director for the first two campaigns.

With the food now arriving we take a momentary break and the conversation slightly deviates from her newest project, as Irene starts to discuss the growing pains of being a tall teenager – something I can personally relate to.

“I remember growing up in school I could never wear trousers, because there was no where at that time that sold trousers that were long enough; myself and three other girls would always wear skirts to school.

“Thinking it about it, I probably could have gotten men’s trousers and tapered them. I think fashion has come a long way.

“The first breakthrough was plus size clothes, Beth Ditto’s collaboration with Evans did that. Brands like Long Tall Sally are pioneering in that they gave tall girls a hub to find clothes they would find in other high street stores.

“When you think about it, Long Tall Sally was one of the only and tall shops, and now ASOS, there’s a whole category devoted to tall girls. Topshop have a tall range and shops like Next sell longer lengths.

“Even the media pays attention, Grazia recently had a whole section on tall girl problems, which wouldn’t have existed a few years ago, as we were a small tight knit community.

“When I was younger I used to slouch my back and my mum would always say stand up straight, be happy your tall,” she laughs.

“Most short people want to be tall and vice versa. So I learnt to embrace myself, but that is something that comes with age.”

She’s also honest about the fact that fashion was a conscious career choice.

“I fell into fashion by accident.

“I never woke up and aspired to be a fashion designer. Coming from a Nigerian household it was all about academics.

“I had to get good results, I had to go to college, I had to go to university, there wasn’t any other option, unless I wanted to move out and do my own jist.”

“So creatively, I fell into it by accident, even though I studied forensic science, which will always be my plan Z, if the whole fashion things doesn’t work out.”

While it’s clear that Irene and I could talk forever about tall girl problems, fashion and making it through the world as Nigerian woman, I do have one question for her: How big a part has social media played in producing a budding fashion empire?

fashion empire?

 

“I love Instagram, as a stylist it’s the holy grail because I am a visual person.

“You can get a lot of inspiration from social media and I think over the last two years in particular it has sky rocketed businesses.

“I talk to girls in Australia, China and all over the world because of social media. It allows people to become familiar with your brand even if they are half way across the world and just like that you have a new customer.

“Although I try and not to use social media as a selling tool, I want it to be more of a visual tool. For me and my brand it’s more geared towards more inspiration and an updated mood board on your phone.

“Of course you put your latest press on your Instagram feed, as it can open up the brand.”

The designer is also honest about the downside of selling items online.

“I think a pro of selling online is being able to sell to a mass audience. The downside of selling online is that when your brand has a specific target audience, especially a tall target audience, where it is all about the fit and getting the measurements right, you kind of want a hub for people to try things on.

“However, there is a way to get round that, by offering a free returns policy. The collaboration is available in the majority of Long Tall Sally stores.”

It’s clear to see after our hour long chat that Irene is successful not because she made a brand for tall girls, but because she’s honest, refreshingly honest, and most importantly she genuinely cares. She genuinely wants tall women in their 20s to have options and not go through awkward #tallgirlproblems that 80s and 90s babies experience. TTYA and TTYA x LTS are a labour of love for this Brit, rather than a business opportunity to cash off a gap in the market.

Source : Blackballad

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