Fashion Agents and the Business of Selling Marion Donaldson

  • Jade Halbert (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Despite the crucial importance of healthy sales to the viability and success of fashion businesses, the movement of clothes from the factory floor to the shop floor, and the essential financial transactions that go along with that, have been largely overlooked in scholarship. Why should this be? Perhaps, as others have noted, it is because the fashion industry seeks to present a glamorous image of itself, and that image is not served by any detailed discussion of profit and loss accounts or exposés of lacklustre sales records.

But designing and manufacturing beautiful clothes is only worth doing as long as those clothes can be sold. Since few fashion designers are lucky enough to possess the skills to be business and sales people as well as creative designers, how are their clothes sold, and who performs that crucial sales function?
Sales, selling, and sales people – known in the post-war fashion industry as agents – loomed large in the history of the important and successful independent Scottish fashion company, ‘Marion Donaldson’ which was in business from 1966 to 1999. In oral history interviews, Marion and David Donaldson, the owners of the company, described how agents had been instrumental in taking their business from the cottage industry to the fashion industry and how their agents’ network of industry contacts and sales bravado had won significant accounts with high street multiple stores to grow their company to £1million turnover within two years. The Donaldsons also described, however, the pressure from agents to produce particular types of clothes, and how it was at the behest of agents that the brand’s aesthetic was transformed to capture new affluent customers in the 1980s as the market for clothing became increasingly fragmented.

Through oral history interviews with Marion and David Donaldson and agent-related materials from the ‘Marion Donaldson’ company archive alongside contemporary editorial from trade journals such as Drapers’ Record, this paper recovers the forgotten history of the fashion sales sector and the important work of fashion agents. It examines the tension between the creative and commercial imperatives of fashion, and argues for a reappraisal of fashion agents – not just salespeople, but crucial commercial cogs in the wheel of the creative fashion industry.
Period30 Aug 2019
Event titleEuropean Business History Association Annual Congress 2019
Event typeConference
LocationRotterdam, NetherlandsShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational