Natalie Kingham tells Lucy Wildman how she landed her dream job, why Isabella Blow is her work style icon, and how she’s using her role to shape the future of sustainable fashion…
As dream jobs go, Natalie Kingham has one of the most coveted in the business. The 47-year-old fashion and buying director of Matches Fashion oversees all aspects of the womenswear buy for the online megabrand, and has seen it grow from an extension of one of London’s coolest boutiques to one of the world’s leading luxury fashion e-tailers.
A long-time champion of emerging designers and a supporter of sustainable fashion thanks to a hugely successful partnership with ecoAge, alongside Matches co-founders Tom and Ruth Chapman, Natalie has been instrumental in creating the future of the fashion industry – a future that is as environmentally and ethically-focused as it packed with fresh sartorial talent.
We meet as she introduces London-based, American-born designer Michael Halpern to the region, another of Natalie’s big discoveries. With a charm and warmth that mirrors her impeccable sense of style, as we settle into our chat with the South London native, it’s clear that Natalie is a woman who was quite literally born to do this job. “I’m very happy that I get to wear my exclusive-for-Matches feathered Prada today,” she says, showing off her dress as we sit poolside in a luxury suite at Five Palm Jumeira. “I don’t often get to wear this kind of thing for an interview.”
Indeed, a packed work schedule, multiple meetings and endless airport runs to international events does not often call for ostrich feathers and organza at the breakfast table. Still, with such incredible designer pieces at her fingertips, one would imagine that Natalie’s working wardrobe would be a living, breathing fashion editorial.
“If I didn’t do my job I would probably wear a lot stronger fashion than I actually do. I’d be all out there,” she explains, a comment to which I am visibly surprised. “But because of the nature of my work, and the fact that I need to wear so many different types of hats in one day, I tend to try and keep things clean and conservative. Well at least I think I do. I mean, I wear a lot of tailoring, but with a twist.” And if she wasn’t vying for the title of Heathrow Airport’s most regular visitor? “Then I’d definitely be more avant-garde. Probably a bit Isabella Blow.” Quite the most apt choice of style icon for a woman who admits to wearing numerous hats in her daily professional role.
The multiple hat-wearing ability stems from Natalie’s incredibly diverse fashion background. “When I was very young, I wondered how could I travel the world and work in fashion,” she begins. “So I started out trying to be a fashion photographer and work at magazines. Then I did some retail, working on the shop floor at Joseph at Brompton Cross. I worked on other people’s brands styling, on my own brand and I also wholesaled collections. I did a tiny bit of buying in the early days, but really moved into it once I’d done all those other things. That experience gave me a really good, 360-degree angle of how the industry worked – how retail works, how PR works, how brands work and how styling worked. But it was buying where I felt the most passionate.”
Joining the company in 2010, as founders Tom and Ruth were developing the digital arm of Matchesfashion.com, Natalie’s appointment saw her riding the crest of a new wave of online luxury shopping.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” says Natalie. “I feel like I was very fortunate because I’ve evolved at the same time as the business.” Central to growing the brand both online and in store, Natalie has been the driving force behind Matches Fashion’s covetable list of collaborations and exclusive launches, including collections by Altuzarra, Emilia Wickstead, Vivienne Westwood, Erdem and Preen, and responsible for launching the careers of some of the industry’s finest fashion designers.
But how does one go about consistently finding new talent? “By working extremely hard,” she explains. “It’s difficult because you’ve got so many different buys to do that it’s tough to find the time to go and look at new things. But it’s vital that you do. It means that every spare half an hour you’ve got, you’re ducking out somewhere to go and look at a new label.”
Requiring a fashion radar on a state of constant high-alert, unearthing a great new designer sometimes means following their work for a couple of seasons, or even a few years before they are finally picked up. “There’s a few brands we stock at Matches that maybe the first time I saw them was in the living room of their house. Then by season four, they’re up and running in their own studio, and then we’ll start working with them,” says Natalie of her fashion fledglings. “They’re always very complimentary about the fact Matches was the first to go and see or watch them, so you really do have to find that extra time – and sometimes that can be challenging. But I like that part of my job, and make sure that I do it as much as I can. You just have to keep rummaging around and looking until you find that designer jewel buried somewhere.”
Right now, those finds include a number of designers for whom sustainability – a rapidly-growing industry focus – is at the very core of their brand DNA.
“We do a project called The Innovators twice a year, which was borne out of that part of my job where I’m looking for exciting new designers. I kept coming across people who were doing collections made of dead stock, or in very limited runs because it was all handmade, or they just created one capsule a year, or were artists and sometimes made some clothes. I wanted to find a way of harnessing some of this product, and these brands and designers, because what they were doing was brilliant but it didn’t work with the normal fashion cycle. So we called them The Innovators.”
With a different focus every time, the third and most recent round of Innovators was dedicated to sustainability, and showcased the work of designers Kevin Germanier, Noki, Ingy Stockholm and Peterson Stoop. “This was such an incredible group” says Natalie. “All of them creating amazing stuff out of what is considered junk. Because it wasn’t even about sustainability – it was making collections out of pure waste, redesigned and upscaled in a way that was so luxurious, you wouldn’t even think it started o as something that would have otherwise been thrown away.”
Such was the success of this particular project, Natalie is determined to make this a larger part of the Matches Fashion development plan.
“I want to talk more about sustainability and waste. We’ve been working with ecoAge for the last two years, who look at everything in our business and the designers we work with. They’re making it easier for us to go in this direction, and we will be working with them more closely on the product and design side, which includes couture and demi-couture elements. In a time where streetwear and casual has become so dominant, I want to highlight these artisanal crafts and details that we shouldn’t forget about.”
Part of being a buyer, or, in Natalie’s case, a 24/7 fashion explorer, means there’s a lot of travel involved in her role. An awful lot. “I’m probably flying weekly, sometimes twice a week. We’re always going somewhere and doing something. So you have to like travel, which I do. I love it. But the worst part is the packing and unpacking. I haven’t quite mastered that yet.”
While Natalie’s notion of mastery probably beats most people’s ability to pack a suitcase hands down, what she has nailed the concept of is being constantly on-call. “Its a round-the-clock job because of the different time zones and the travel, which means you’re always working digitally and remotely. I’ve got used to that,” she reveals. But does she ever actually switch her phone off? “Not really, no. We switch off mentally sometimes to make sure we look after ourselves – and I’m very good at looking after myself. Even if it’s just an hour here and there to have a massage, or get my nails done – those small things that make you feel better when you’re working hard and away from home. But I know I couldn’t turn the emails off. They are quite important.”
Indeed, there are down sides to every job. But as far as Natalie is concerned, the enjoyable parts of her role vastly outweigh the slightly inconvenient ones.
“I love my job. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t, because it’s all-consuming. But I feel that all jobs with a creative aspect are like that anyway. You’ve got to completely love what you do when you have to get up every day and be really passionate about everything you’re doing. That’s when you do a good job.”
So what does it take to be a great fashion buyer? Like many plum roles in the industry, just loving fashion won’t cut it – you have to live and breathe it, as well as be able to keep up with its ever-accelerating rate of development. “You’ve got to obsessively enjoy it,” says Natalie. “You’ve got to be flexible and take risks. Listen to your gut. Listen to the customer. Understand how women’s lifestyles are changing, what they want from their wardrobes and react accordingly. It’s not enough to be aware of trends anymore, you have to predict them, and pre-empt what it is your customer is going to want before she even knows she wants it.”
Of the latest brands to be embraced by Matches Fashion, Natalie has a number that she’s particularly looking forward to introducing to her customers. “I really don’t have favourites – you can’t when you’re a buyer. It’s a bit like trying to choose your favourite child. But if I had to pick three for S/S19, I’d say Ferian – she’s an ex-stylist who makes these beautifully sleek satchels and belts, and fantastic jewellery. Then we have an Australian label called SIR, which stands for Separates, Intimates and Ready-to-Wear – they do some really good, easy summer dressing, which is super-pretty. And then there’s Emma Willis, who makes these incredible shirts that I’m really excited about. She’s been making traditional men’s shirts for more than 30 years from her Jermyn Street tailors, and now we have her line of women’s shirts available at Matches. It’s so hard to find a great man’s shirt for a woman, so I hope I’ve cracked it with Emma.”
Aside from her incredible designer pedigree, Emma’s shirts are crafted using cotton made in a Swiss mill with renewable water sources, and hand-made in England. She also oversees the charity she launched in 2008, Style For Soldiers, which creates bespoke shirts for injured veterans of the British Armed Forces. “We’re so happy to be able to support Emma’s cause by working with her,” says Natalie. “There’s actually a lot of great stories with a lot of our new brands, and those stories have become more and more relevant to the consumer. Understanding the story behind the brand is so important, because realistically, it’s not just a shirt that you’re buying – although that’s great as it is – there’s so much more besides that matters in their brand ethos.”
And while fashion buying may be her main role, telling the story behind those buys is becoming even more important for the increasingly-aware fashion consumer. “That’s why we started doing podcasts” explains Natalie. “They’re really interesting, because the customer hears first-hand exactly what the story is behind the bag, or the shoe or the shirt they’re buying. They get to find out why the designer is doing what they’re doing, and why they create what they create, and I think that people can really believe in the integrity and authenticity of the brand and buy into it more once they know about all about it. Because it makes it personal.”
As the woman who knows each element of those back stories behind every brand available on the site, who is surrounded by exceptional designer garments at every turn, one would assume that inadvertent shopping must be a giant occupational hazard for her, or indeed any fashion buyer. So how does Natalie shop her own buy?
“It’s very hard when there are so many great designers to choose from. And like I said before, in this job, you can’t really have a favourite.” A luxury problem, perhaps? “Yes, it’s a luxury problem, agreed” she laughs. “But it is genuinely really difficult, because I have quite an eclectic personal taste anyway. Polar opposites in fact. I like masculine tailoring, for example, but I really, really love glamour. But I suppose that probably makes me quite a good buyer, because I enjoy all those different elements of fashion.”
As a woman who frequently finds herself wearing tailoring or a multi-functional dress for days at the office, indulging her glamorous fashion alter-ego is a rarity. “When I can bust out my sequins and glitter I get very excited – there’s an inner peacock inside of me just desperate to get out,” she reveals. “I love a bit of sparkle, which is why I love Halpern, and wearing amazing things that make you feel happy and empowered. And you can’t always wear that for lunch. Although you probably can in Dubai.”
Admittedly, if ever there was a city where you could wear top- to-toe couture or rainbow-coloured sequins as you pick up a sandwich, Dubai is the place to do it. “The women here are SO glamorous,” she adds, nodding to two fabulously extra-looking clients on a private new season shopping appointment back in the suite. “I love that about this place. I love androgyny, and I love subcultures and I love minimalism, but it’s so nice to come to Dubai and rock eveningwear in the daytime. It’s such a treat. The glamour aspect of Dubai is fabulous, and it’s done in such a chic and stylish way. I have to admit, I’ve been feeling very under-dressed since I arrived here!”
- Words by Lucy Wildman