“I was just a little girl from Philadelphia. I didn’t have any retail experience. The only experience I had was being six foot tall.”
Fast forward a few decades, and this little girl from Philadelphia would become known as the founder of the largest tall fashion retailer in the world.
But for Judy Rich, the road to establishing Long Tall Sally began with moving to London in the early 70s and finding that just about every pair of trousers in the entire city stopped above her ankles.
“I’d previously been living in the Virgin Islands so I was only wearing shorts, t-shirts and bikinis. But when I got here and got a proper job at a publishing company, and I could not buy clothes. So I resorted to buying men’s trousers and men’s jeans,” recalls Judy, who stands at just under six foot. “I would go in and I would look along the row of trousers, and any that had a hem or hung a little longer, I’d try them. I’m a trouser girl, and that was always my biggest issue – my height is in my legs, not necessarily in my body.”
Despite being in what was the fashion capital of the world at the time, Judy was surprised at the lack of options for tall women in London, and the market wasn’t much better back home either: “They did have tall girl shops in America, but they were extremely downmarket. The stores were generally in secondary locations, too; not nice ones like ours today, but small rooms hidden above stores. And when I got to London, it was all boutiques in the early 70s – I just couldn’t find anything to wear.”
It quickly became Judy’s dream to launch an outlet that not only sold tall clothing, but that which mirrored the quality and fashion her average-height friends were enjoying.
Fortunately, opportunity knocked as Judy shared her vision with a friend.
“I was sitting with an entrepreneur friend of mine who said ‘I’ve come into a little bit of money as I’ve sold a small business, I’d love to invest in you.” And I said, ‘Well, I have this idea that it’d be really wonderful to walk into a store that sold really nice clothes for tall women.’”
“I’d be happy to invest in that,” replied Mark, who is still a shareholder in the company. With that, three soon-to-be iconic words followed:
“You could call it Long Tall Sally!”
Owing to her lack of retail experience, Judy deliberated for some time before ultimately deciding that the hole in the market was too big to ignore. Determined to bring the tall dream to life, she got started making connections throughout the capital.
“Oxford Circus was the garment district. Big time, back then. That was really the only place you went – things were being made in the East End, but there weren’t show rooms there.
“And it was a tough time politically, and economically, for Britain; I don’t want to say manufacturers were desperate, but I don’t think I could do what I did now.
“And it’s terrific, because most of the time a lot of people I talked to were family-run businesses. I wasn’t talking to big corporations and ordering huge quantities of things from the Far East. So the prices were higher in the beginning, a lot higher; it was a good year or so before I could do enough quantity to make a tiny profit. But I just told them my idea, and I’d say ‘I need two inches longer on the sleeve, two inches longer on the hems,’ and literally in the beginning that’s all I did. I just added the length. And a good number of them wouldn’t do it – they thought I was crazy!”
Judy recalls that even after one door was closed, she wouldn't leave a meeting without first gaining a recommendation for someone whom may be interested: “We were lucky in that a lot of up-and-coming designers and manufacturers were hungry back then, and they took the risk.”
But having the clothing made was only half the battle. Judy needed a base of operations and, more importantly, needed to let the tall women of London know that Long Tall Sally was open for business.
A press release gained the attention of the city’s major papers (“remember, there was no email or Facebook back then,”) and the first ever LTS customers walked through the doors of Judy’s small Chiltern Street store in 1976. The buzz only grew from there with the introduction of tall fashion catalogues. Our catalogues were quite unique as they began with hand drawn illustrations and moved into fashion photography. As one of the very first small retailers to embrace catalogue culture at the time, every customer who Judy met was sent one (and many of them still shop with us today.)
It quickly became clear that her 350-square-foot shop floor wasn’t enough, but expansion was still a financial gamble. A store across the street became available, but it was a huge lease with four separate units (one of which, run by a retiring elderly couple, sold pewter to Danish kings and celebrities.)
As it often goes, fortune favoured the brave. More stores followed, and over the course of forty years, Judy’s dream expanded out from Chiltern Street and now serves tall women around the world in over 20 stores and delivering online to over 100 countries.
We speak with Judy about the stories LTS customers have shared this week as part of our 40th birthday retrospective, particularly the recollections of tall women weeping with joy the first time they found feminine trousers that fit properly, or the time they found shoes big enough for their daughter’s prom.
Judy squeals with excitement as she scans down the comments.
“But that’s what you’re doing. That’s what you want to communicate to these women: ‘we can help!’ You are responding to the needs of the people. You care. And that’s the ethos of Long Tall Sally; when I started the store, I think the reason it was successful was because I wasn’t a buyer or a designer. I wasn’t passionate about fashion, I was passionate about having clothes that fit me properly so I could join in like everyone else. So what I strived to do, in the early days and it continued, was listen to what the customer was asking for.”
Judy’s final thoughts on the evolution on Long Tall Sally?
“I’ve always had an interest in fashion. In fact, when I tell my story, I say that when I was a little girl I always used to make my own doll clothes. I’ve always thought of Long Tall Sally - the business - as a board game, and I’m still just dressing my dolls!”
Now working as a life coach, Judy battled – and overcame – breast cancer in her early forties and went on to help launch Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which later merged with another charity to become the biggest breast cancer research charity in the UK (Breast Cancer Now.)