I've had precisely two gelatos, two ice lollies (addicted to Solero Fruit Ice Pineapple at the moment) and two ultra rich dizzying scoops of honey and whisky ice cream at St John's in the last fortnight. Those who know me will know that my non-existent sweet tooth doesn't normally tolerate sugar-laden treats so that's a fair amount of ice cream action within a short period of time. To add to that heavy dose of ice cream, House of Holland has rolled into town with his take on the British ice cream van – the Mr Quiffy van, a venture that has been previewed by Business of Fashion as a creative and cost-effective solution to trialling direct-to-customer retail.
Last Thursday, the Mr Quiffy van, which Henry Holland had sourced from Newcastle via Gumtree, made its debut, stopping at all the major publications and newspapers in London before officially opening for its first weekend of trade at the bustling Piazza in Covent Garden. I went along to find that already, ten minutes after opening time, a horde of people was crowding around the van, perusing the "menu" of items for sale. They weren't buying 99 Flakes or raspberry screwballs though. They were choosing from a cute n' clever Mr Quiffy collection, consisting everything from ¬£15 iPhone cases to a ¬£120 stripe/polka combo dress. Holland himself, was already becoming part and parcel of the Mr Quiffy experience as passers-by queued to have their pic taken with Holland, who is perhaps one of London's most recognisable-by-face designers with his presence in British media. Pairing a pop n' graphic-heavy brand like House of Holland with an eye-catching vehicle stationed at locations with heavy people traffic, was already proving to work like a treat.
Even if people walking pass didn't necessarily know what House of Holland was, they were intrigued enough to stop to look to find out what it was all about. That's potentially a customer waiting to be converted. What was impressive was the way the ice cream van melted away (couldn't help myself) barriers that sometimes prevents people from walking into an icy fashion boutique environment. People were coming and asking questions and there was a refreshing dialogue that might not have taken place, if House of Holland was tucked away in a physical shop. Obviously House of Holland's friendly price points is a factor in the sale conversion ratio, but it makes you wonder whether high fashion product housed in this mobile vehicle context actually might make things more approachable – think about if the likes of Chanel or Dior set up a mobile van for instance. The nostalgia-laden experience of chasing an ice cream van down the road, following its twinkly tunes and spending your pockets of pennies on a sweet treat or two, is something that can so easily be upgraded and transferred to fashion with the right brand and context, and House of Holland are the first fashion brand (in the UK, I think…) to see the benefits.
I hopped aboard the Mr Quiffy van to have a look at operations from within. By offering a limited range of product that doesn't necessarily have tricky sizing issues (although when the van rolls up to Seven Dials on the 15th August, there will be a physical storefront to accompany the van), there are no difficulties in offering stock to public, and with a nifty portable PayPal payment device that links up to an iPhone, the van can roll about town taking card payments with ease. On the customer front, I particularly loved encountering one flame-haired lady in her forties/fifties, who was looking for a colourful peppy t-shirt to go with her Vivienne Westwood Anglomania skirt. She was wondering whether to go for a Mrs Quiffy shirt or the spots and stripes tee. I wouldn't have thought she was a HoH customer at first glance but that's the sort of insight the van can generate. Holland said that on the flipside of this fun summer-appropriate venture, he is seriously thinking of opening a physical store in London and is using the van to research various areas to find out more about his customers. The ice cream van is a great way of starting direct banter with the people buying your products, which in effect is the best possible field research that you can do.
Of course, none of this is relevant if the product isn't pitched at the right level. iPhone cases, scarves, New Era caps, different colour ways of the successful "On a Promise" sunglasses and enamel jewellery are easy trinkets and accessories to sell. Clothing wise, the graphic characters of Mr and Mrs Quiffy (drawn out by the ever prolific Craig & Karl) on cheeky t-shirts and easy-to-wear board shorts and visually grabby prints are signature House of Holland fodder and also easy to buy into. To coincide with the launch of the Mr Quiffy van, House of Holland have also upgraded their website to make online shopping even easier. In fact, people buying product physically at the van can do returns and exchanges through the website should they want to do so.
The Mr Quiffy tour will also be making its way outside of London to Manchester, Brighton, Birmingham and Leeds over the next few months, where Holland will learn even more about a customer that so often gets ignored when London designers project images of their clientale. There's a lot of information and knowledge to gather from this experience. And a lot of fun too judging by the one hour I spent hanging around Mr Quiffy.