Grilling Donna Ida, London’s Jean Queen: How to sell, buy and wear denim from the official pro

Over the past few years I have had the great privilege of meeting many women in the industry who I today call good friends. There is one lady, however, that stands out amongst them all. Nearly three years ago now I had my first jeans fitting at Donna Ida in Chelsea and the rest, as they say is history. Donna found me my perfect pair of jeans. If you are on the hunt, you’ll know this is no easy task. After years of crying in fitting rooms, it took Donna a mere five minutes to sort me out with denim that would become a staple in my wardrobe. Since that fateful moment, I’ve called her my “jean-ius,” because truly that’s what she is. 

This past year has been a monumental one for Mrs. Donna Ida. She’s launched her own brand of denim, expanded her offering in store and online and has just completed a massive renovation of her flagship store. So, in celebrating all of these huge leaps forward, I thought it was time to formerly introduce you to my denim guru with a proper interview where I rack her brain for the best in denim and how she got to be so damn good at what she does…
Of all the items of clothing you could have chosen to open a specialised shop for, why jeans? Is there a history there for you with a denim obsession? And if it hadn’t been jeans, was there a second option, or even a second career option for you?

I have always loved jeans and hope and pray I still have the first pairs I started customising stashed somewhere back in Australia. The thing is that jeans polarise your body image – the wrong ones and you look like you’ve been out gardening – the right ones and you’ll have all your friends telling you how fabulous you look and trying to work out the brand and style.  It’s why the denim industry is what it is – there’s a lot of power in a great pair of jeans.  It took me a long time to work out what I wanted to do.  I liked writing to friends and keeping up with people and my whole family (sans mum) have always read voraciously, so I thought I wanted to be a writer.  And I liked shopping.  When I kept asking myself what I wanted to do it was firstly to be a writer.  Then my friend Jonathan asked me what I wanted to write about and I didn’t know.  So when discussing career options one day a friend said ‘you love jeans and know so much about them, why don’t you open a shop that just sells jeans?’.  It was one of those OMG moments.  As in I can’t believe I’m so thick I didn’t think of that myself. 

How did you come about picking the location for the first store and can you tell us a little bit about how much the store has changed from day one to relaunch day, today?

I will never forget the hours that went into researching the first location – but I knew it had to be Brompton Cross because that’s where I liked to shop myself.  That’s how I approach business – I opened where I like shopping, I sell what I want to buy myself, I serve customers how I like to be treated.  I spent hours and hours in January in the freezing cold researching the area, how many people walked past, their age range, how many bags they were carrying, did they have kids, were they along.  On and on.  Tedious but so necessary.  I knew it was the place to launch Donna Ida – the women of Chelsea are so decisive.  Win them over and you’re off!  The boutique hasn’t changed much in its heart – it’s the place to come for the very best denim edit with extreme customer service.  But the exterior has changed a lot.  

The boutique had been modernised with a new shop front, and the shop floor has been reconfigured to be more spacious. It also has sexier fitting rooms with little shelves for your keys and mobile phone, a fantastic denim gallery and subway style tiling and plush carpets.  I’ve spent 12 times on this refit than I did on the first one, so times have changed a lot.

What would you say has been the biggest factor in getting the word out about your “jean-ius” or “magic touch” when it comes to denim? You really are thought of as a queen of your industry. Do you put it down to hard work, luck, great PR or a combination of those factors and many others?

I really believe in that old saying that you make your own luck.  If you work hard enough at something for long enough, you’re bound to be a success.  Empathy is a big one for me, everyone who comes into the boutique is worried about something – their thighs, bum, lack of bum, calves – we all have something we’d like to be slightly different.  As soon as I start serving someone I immediately look for that common ground with them so I usually tell them something about myself that I don’t like or something I struggle with.  Immediately the customer’s wondering about my bits and pieces and slightly less worried about theirs, so we can get on with the business of finding them something they’ll feel fantastic in.  I can size them up pretty quickly, not just by their body shape but by their whole look.  Everything they come in wearing will help tell you what to put them into – hair, jewellery, shoes, bag, the whole lot.  And I listen, I really listen to them.  And I remember their names as much as I can, and I thank them for coming and when I see them again I say how nice it is to see them.  

A positive attitude also goes a long way, and yes thankfully we’ve always had great PR and great relationships with journalists who have liked and understood what I was about so have supported us.

Women are always on the hunt for the perfect pair of jeans. What’s your perfect pair? By all means, feel free to tell us it’s IDA…

IDA Ivy the high-waist skinny is my perfect pair! It took nearly a year to bring IDA to market, and get everything absolutely perfect. I’ve been wearing the skinnies the most, with one of the IDA blouses; Mrs Thatcher or Out of Africa tucked in. Where we really got it right is with the Ivy in Bright Vintage – we can’t order enough of it, it’s a winner!  It’s THE denim blue I’ve been searching for since I opened in 2006 – I literally can’t believe I had to make it myself to get it.  They are chic and elegant worn with my signature high heels. I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of Martha the flare, it is fabulously retro!  I’m a big fan of a lot of denim brands though – J Brand is amazing, as is Mother, Current/Elliott, Goldsign, and so many others.  I’m a believer! 

What is your theory on why women are so obsessed with finding that perfect pair of jeans? Why has it become like a quest for the holy grail?

Shopping for jeans is exactly the same as shopping for a bra. You need a specialist to help you. I believe in what I call the ‘modern wardrobe’ and denim is at the core, it’s what we all wear, we have a pair for every occasion and they are so versatile. Finding that perfect fit is also why the Donna Ida Denim Clinic was invented, to give customers the opportunity to book in for a one-to-one appointment with an advisor. We’ll have options ready for you to try as soon as you arrive so it takes the anxiety away. It is a great feeling when you finally find that perfect pair.

What’s your casual cool look at the moment? Conversely, what are you wearing out and about for more formal affairs?

The best thing about jeans is that they can take you from day to evening. The biggest trend for SS13 is the return to traditional blue denim from light, distressed shades, all the way through to inky indigo. My favourite casual look for Summer is the slouchy boyfriend styles from J Brand and Current/Elliott or an relaxed straight leg jean like IDA Frenchie is good for the weekend, turned up with flats. For a smarter look, I recommend zip-covered skinnies for a tougher look – the J Brand Carey are fantastic for Summer in black or khaki teamed with a simple tee and blazer. I still love my leathers all year round – J Brand Claudette in white or grey are best worn with a sheer blouse or delicate lace top. 

And then for formal – well I like to really go for it.  Bobby Dazzler drags me to loads of black tie affairs and I love to go all out – the longer the better, and I never say no to a train!  Clothes are so much fun, I’m never knowingly underdressed 🙂 

As we are hoping to have a summer (doesn’t look likely with the weather as it is)… could you give us some tips on what we should be rocking for trends when the sun does finally decide to shine here in the UK?

When summer arrives fashionably late, I’ll be wearing prints and colours. I’m still waiting to try out my IDA Mabel ankle crop in pastel colours. They are in an art deco print and I have them in both Strawberry and Lemoncello Dreamtime. Paige has made an exclusive pair for Donna Ida for Summer; a coated candy coloured pixel print jeans which will be perfect when the weather gets warmer. Abstract prints are huge for the season; Mother Denim has tie dye skinnies and J Brand has jeans with bright paint splatters and ink blots.  I’ll also be wearing the IDA St Tropez Tee daily I’m sure.  Who doesn’t love a great t-shirt?

We often laugh about our difference in heights. Keeping that in mind, would you say there’s one brand of denim that really does suit all body shapes and sizes? Who’s doing this well at the moment?

I feel that together, you and I are the perfect height Emily :)….the one style that seems to work for everyone in terms of height is the J Brand 811.  It’s magical – it’s just hits everyone in the right place.  But there is definitely a pair of jeans to suit everyone and it really just depends on your shape. You look great in J Brand or Goldsign, and I also love those brands! The only difference is, I might get the leg lengths altered to fit, I could wear them with a bit of a ruffle on the ankle…or if they are the right length on me, they would be a chic crop on you!

Oh and of course I have to ask… any tips for getting great jean cut-offs this summer?

The great thing for summer with be worn, distressed jeans in faded denim, plenty of rips. Embrace the surfer-style and if your jeans look like you’ve had them forever, you’ve nailed the trend. Use your old denim for the best cut offs, there’s no rules, just relax, have fun and use a very sharp pair of scissors.

Shop Donna Ida online or find your nearest Donna Ida Boutique (worth the trip in as Donna is the best in the business at finding your perfect pair)!.


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