Womenswear Wonder: The Lifetime Achievement of Bernard Boutique’s Helene Rapaport
Helene Rapaport and husband, Barrie Rapaport, established Bernard Boutique in 1969; using a name passed down through her family, 'Bernard'. It has been Rapaport’s ambition from the start to bring unique and high-end fashion to her customers. She left school in her hometown of Leeds and worked at a clothes shop at age 15, before moving to London at 19 for a temp job and then opening her first store in Cranleigh, Surrey, when she was 20. The move in 1972 to Esher brought her closer to the action: it is just six stops on the train from central London, handy for buying trips.
“Esher was full of clothes shops back then – it was everything you could want from a high street,” Rapaport tells Drapers. “I wanted to bring products you couldn’t buy anywhere else. I wanted to surprise my clients.”
Today, it is still an oasis of sleek sophistication; carrying cool-girl Scandi brands such as Ganni, Stine Goya and ROTATE, as well as British labels like Rixo, Bella Freud, and Self-Portrait. At 80, Helene is a bundle of energy with bright eyes and a beaming smile. She still works in store a few days a week, researching new brands, and visiting Paris for a week at a time twice a year for more buying. She is every inch the independent boutique owner: busy rearranging and examining products, chatting and laughing with familiar customers, joking and debating with her beloved staff, and playfully teasing her husband Barrie.
This openness to experiment with new brands and her willingness to give them time is something that has stood Rapaport in good stead over the decades. Angie Lymbourides, head of sales at Goldfinch Agency, which represents Australian footwear brand Alias Mae, tells Drapers: “She’ll always come and see a new brand, she always has time to look at newness. A lot of buyers won’t do that." Furthermore, Rapaport is often ahead of the curve, stocking brands before many other independents. Rixo, for example, is now a well-known name, but Bernard Boutique was among the first of its accounts.
“When we first bought them, (co-founders Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey) we were still doing designs and orders from their kitchen table,” she remembers. Rixo then tells Drapers: “We have really enjoyed working with Helene from Bernard Boutique for seven years now. They were one of our first independent customers and we are so grateful that they (the team) have been loyal from the start."
A Photograph Showing The Drapers Awards.
Rapaport explains that the team uses social media platforms to drive sales. They model new products themselves on Instagram posts and reels, after which customers text and call to enquire about pieces. When new collections land in store, staff contact customers who are fans of those brands directly via WhatsApp to let them know pieces have arrived that they might want to see. Rapaport says customers seeing stock modelled by her team of all different ages, shapes and sizes resonates better than official brand pictures, and that informally each member of staff has “their own customers” with whom they have built relationships with. They text, call and email each other about products, as well as seeing one another in store.
The business’s harnessing of Instagram and WhatsApp derived from necessity. The Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 forced the team to pivot to new and creative ways of staying connected with customers and maintaining sales. Rapaport had to isolate across the road where she and Barrie lived, while store manager (Karen) spent weeks sending photos of products to customers via WhatsApp, taking payment over the phone and then driving deliveries to their doors. The team also stayed connected to customers through social channels. The business then launched click and collect on its website just a month before the first lockdown of March 2020. The team would take turns doing shifts passing packages through the shutters of the shop door to customers who had made purchases online; as well as cookies, cups of coffee and much-needed socially-distanced chinwags. “It gave people something; they were lonely,” says Rapaport. “Our relationships changed with our customers, they got more personal. I feel really emotional that people supported us through that time.”
“We didn’t give up. We carried on as normal, just through Zoom,” she laughs, remembering buying sessions with Cristina and how strange it was to be viewing products in that way. Those “more personal” relationships with customers post-pandemic have built on an already strong base. Deryane Tadd, founder and owner of The Dressing Room womenswear boutique in St Albans, tells Drapers: “Helene and Barrie are true indie entrepreneurs who have stayed close to their business and customer base throughout the decades, evolving and innovating along the way.”
Happy Helene Seated At The Dining Table.
“I don’t see challenges. I’m a very positive person,” she smiles. “I’m always researching and looking for something new. I still love buying and looking for new things, beautiful things; and being with the public. I’m very, very lucky to be in this industry. We laugh a lot.” She then says: “Just after Covid I remember standing there and thinking, ‘I’m in my happy place’. I’m proud of everything that I’ve done.”
Despite being a 1960s-founded business, Bernard Boutique has remained in the forefront of fashion through its eclectic brands and the excellent effect of social media, while continuing to deliver traditional service and embedding itself in the heart of the local community. If it can maintain this approach in the midst of the rising challenges in fashion retail, it is sure to survive for decades to come. Drapers Independents Awards Lifetime Achievement winner Helene Rapaport is right to be proud!
*Written by Giovanna Scozzari*