In April, Marks and Spencer, one of the oldest brands in the UK and a brand that every single person has an opinion on, introduced us to ten new “Insiders”. We were lucky enough to grab one of them, Charlotte Verdeyen, while she was staying at The Old Granary to find out how she balances being a visual stylist, a busy parent and being available to her almost 5,000 followers 24 hours a day.
Charlotte’s passion for style has led her to both the buying and sales side of high street fashion, not to mention having a first-class honours degree in Fashion Design, but her latest adventure provides a new and exciting challenge of styling affordable wardrobe staples to create stylish outfits for every day using the vastly improved M&S range.
KW: M&S doesn’t come across as a big Instagram brand, are they looking to increase their presence? We’ve all heard of an Influencer, but what is an “Insider” and how do they differ?
CV: M&S’s strategy for growth is absolutely digital-first to enhance rather than just support the traditional high street stores. Working with Instagrammer Chris Baber and the likes of Amanda Holden, Paddy McGuiness, Emma Willis & Rochelle Humes for online Foods Marketing and social media are huge at M&S these days.
Unfortunately, perception and reality, as is common on Instagram, are very different. On M&S’s UK Instagram account there are 1.2million followers, while they also won the Drapers Digital Multichannel Delivery offer for 2019.
M&S has a great team at Head Office dedicated to engaging and giving great content to these current followers whilst increasing their audience. It was this team, headed up by Rachel Sullivan (the first ‘Insider’), who wanted to have a group of men & women from across the country to showcase the fantastic products that M&S have.
The varied group of Insiders depicts a wide range of looks to show how M&S clothes can be worn in a more fashion-forward and accessible way. We differ from an ‘Influencer” as we are given the free reign of the whole of M&S and not steered in any way to “push” certain styles or products. I personally only post styles which I would want and have in my wardrobe, mixed in with current styles I have, some of which can be years old.
KW: You’re a Visual Stylist for M&S, does that mean you automatically got the gig?
CV: If only! My husband encouraged me to apply as I was on maternity leave and didn’t know anything about it. It was something I’d always wanted to do, having a passion for imagery and styling. I was one of over 450 applicants and, after a series of selection “shoots” and interview questions, I was lucky enough to be chosen. I think my husband is regretting pushing me to do it, though, as he’s become a true “Insta husband”, but he works for M&S too, so he is extremely supportive of this new part to my career.
Once I’d accepted the role, we got to go to Facebook & Instagram HQ, learn all about the platform and eat all their snacks! Whilst being instructed on the best way to build and engage with an Instagram following, of course.
KW: And why are you doing it?
CV: Because I am crazy about clothes and fashion, styling outfits, and looking for alternative ways to utilise my wardrobe. I spend most of my money on clothes and always loved playing “dress-up”. I am always getting complimented on my style and how I put outfits together.
I love creating looks and styling mannequins in-store at work, so now I get to do it on myself for everyone following me to see, and hopefully, click “like”!
I want to inspire others to try new looks, to take things into the changing rooms they might have normally walked past and to take a different view of how they use their own wardrobes.
I also love the idea of building connections with people who I probably wouldn’t meet but are either like-minded or chat to me because they are loving what I do. I even recently met up with the only Style Blogger in Jersey; we did a shoot and had a coffee and chat about what we do and are now in regular contact. I’m very enthusiastic and passionate about clothes and style, and hopefully, that comes across in my posts.
I was ecstatic when I was featured on the M&S main Instagram account after just a couple of days, it is such an exciting opportunity and I love taking the photos. When M&S chose to showcase one of mine it’s a huge compliment and I was thrilled.
KW: Take us back to where it all began, how did you find your way to being a Fashion Stylist at M&S?
CV: I insisted on choosing my own clothes from the age of two! It drove my parents mad but I knew what I wanted to wear. I guess not much has changed over the past 30 (!) years.
I went on to get a 1st Class Hons degree in Fashion Design and Retail Management, deciding that I wanted to go down the “Buying” route. I worked in several Buying depts (Tesco, M&S, JOY) before being approached to look at a career in the supplier side, learning all about how clothes are made, designing and developing ranges, managing a £10million account as a successful Account Manager and always trying to maintain my sense of style and love of fashion.
After my daughter was born, I decided I wanted to stay at home as much as possible so gave up my career life in London and started working as a part-time visual stylist, which led me to this incredible opportunity to become one of the first M&S Insiders.
KW: What have you found out about the role and yourself since your account launched? Is it what you expected?
CV: Posting regularly is HARD work! Not only fitting in taking photos around our working lives and looking after the children, but it can be frustrating knowing how I want a photo to look and then seeing how it looks when it is actually taken!
It surprised the people closest to me when I started this; I have been bullied for the way I look in the past and have struggled massively with self-confidence, and still do, but since I started posting it has been a genuine outlet for both my anxiety and to challenge some of my demons.
I’m finding it really empowering and as long as I stay true to myself, I think I’ll continue to challenge myself. Six months ago, after 20 years not showing my knees, I never would have thought that I’d be on a UK retailer’s social media streams wearing shorts…twice! Or that the image would be sent out in an email to over 1 million customers.
KW: You’ve built up nearly 5,000 followers in under 6 months, what do you think attracts and, more importantly, retains your followers?
CV: Obviously the backing of M&S helps massively as a platform, and Rachel had led the way for us to follow, but I hope that my followers genuinely love my posts and the style I portray.
I try to speak to my followers the same way as my friends and family. I love it when they ask me about what I’m wearing, and it still fills me with pride when someone likes the way I’ve put an outfit together. I’m lucky enough to have been featured on the main M&S Instagram quite a few times which hopefully grabs a few extra followers.
I was delighted to make it on the Australian Instagram a few weeks ago too! I’m not arrogant enough to think I know how to keep my followers interested, I just hope that I can keep my posts interesting enough and full of my personality so that it continues to work. I’ve also featured on “Style & Living” a number of times which is the online M&S magazine showing how to style their products and aspiring people to watch for their style – two massive compliments.
KW: So how does it work? I assume you’re supplied with the clothes they want you to promote?
CV: We actually get free-reign to choose from anything on the website or in-store; clothing, food, homeware, kidwear or literally a smoothie from the cafe.
Even working for M&S, I didn’t realise how much newness we release every week, sometimes it feels like it’s daily. It results in scrolling through the website as soon as I wake up and getting into the store as much as I can (which is obviously easier since I started back at work).
The local M&S Foodhall staff know me really well as I collect 5+ parcels a week from them. The M&S team are really supportive, and of course, there’s an Insiders Whatsapp group, but they’ve been absolutely adamant throughout that these are our accounts for us to be entirely genuine and only wear items that we want to and would buy or wear ourselves. All we are asked to do is to keep the posts regular and use the creativity they chose us for.
KW: Retail is a challenging environment at the best of times, and the last 15 years of the Internet coming into our homes and driving people out of shops has made it even more so. How do you think Instagram will ensure people keep visiting bricks and mortar stores?
CV: ASOS has announced it’ll start restricting “serial returners” which means for many people like me, it’ll be harder to try on outfits without going to a store. But I don’t think going to stores is that important, and retailers and brands are adapting to shoppers’ habits.
Hopefully, having the Insiders showing how people of different ages, shapes and sizes can wear and style outfits will mean people are comfortable buying online and will find what they need more easily. It also means I get to wear loads of different clothes and it’s classed as my job!
I engage with my followers a lot and offer advice on styling, suitability etc. And in my posts, I will often say if I think something’s on the snug size, if I have sized up for a looser feel, or if shoes come up big and I’ve needed to size down.
KW: How do you ensure you’re always up with the latest trends?
CV: I am slightly obsessed with Instagram: I follow so many other stylists, celebrities and influencers to see what they’re wearing, it gives me plenty of inspiration for when I’m talking to people, whilst also influencing how I dress and what I look for when I’m shopping for myself.
Trends are evolving and although we still all look to the fashion houses and trend forecasters to the key trends of the season, it’s amazing how sub and micro trends evolve through the powers of social media, particularly Instagram.
Fashion is so much more experimental than when I started and it seems more influential to show how you style an outfit than following a trend, in my perception. Everything is so accessible now and we want everything immediately, so trends have to adapt and move faster than they used to.
Seasons are still defined by the big brands but people are more comfortable being led by influencers/fashion bloggers than ever before. I personally look to Pinterest or Instagram now for almost all of my style advice, but still read “Hello Fashion” monthly and the occasional Grazia magazine (if my children give me 5 minutes to read it).
KW: You’ve got a career and a family and you’ve recently returned to work from maternity leave. What’s your advice for anyone wanting to get into fashion whilst having children?
CV: I love dressing my mini mannequins – sorry, children! – and luckily my 4-year-old already loves clothes. Her new thing is stealing my headbands and shoes to play “dress up” in, but its such a joy to watch as I can see my enthusiasm rubbing off on her.
In order to succeed in the fashion industry, having a creative flair is essential, as is having an eye for detail, a good understanding of clothes and what works and doesn’t through understanding your customer – whether that’s in store, your followers or yourself when you look in the mirror.
On the Instagram side, I’d say you need to be living and breathing what you’re doing and absolutely love it to succeed. Having children means you have so little time you have to focus all your efforts on what you love and need to do but it is possible, even in a few short hours, to break into the Instagram world.
Plus, you learn on the job. I still have no idea how to do lots of thing on Instagram but play around with what I do and learn from others who inspire me.
It seems that nuns are fashionable, after all, or at least going to a convent school doesn’t reduce your creativity! The world of fashion and retail is changing all the time, more than ever, arguably, since the turn of the century.
People like Charlotte are attempting to use social media as a positive force, to inspire their followers whilst making a living for themselves. As our high streets struggle, the online world booms and it’s stylist bloggers who are providing the means for people to decide what may or may not be right for them.
To work in the world of fashion, it seems you need a healthy dose of creativity, a thick skin, optimism, great relationship-building skills and a tremendous work ethic. Not too different from many other sectors, but people like Charlotte put themselves in the public eye more than most, and that takes bravery and, as with so much in the creative industries, a sprinkle of a special ingredient that no one can bottle: the ability to inspire others.
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