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Furnishing the finishing touch; POST STYLE Lee Longlands has just appointed its first woman buyer. Jacq ui Stevens talks to Ros Dodd.

Sex equality notwithstanding, women remain the home-makers. Not only do they do the bulk of the housework, they also have the final say when it comes to furnishing and decorating the home.

It's a surprise, then, to learn that until recently the furniture buyers at Birmingham store Lee Longlands were all men.

The appointment last December of Jacqui Stevens has changed that.

"I took over last December after Michael Lee, grandson of one of the original founders of the business, retired," explains Jacqui, a bubbly mother-owo.

"So I now work alongside Michael's son, Robert."

It's not only at Lee Longlands that furniture buyers have been exclusively male; the pattern is similar throughout the industry.

"There's been this idea that women get involved in fashion rather than in furniture," says Jacqui. "But there are more women coming into it now, partly I think because there are more women working than there used to be."

So what can women bring to furniture buying that men can't?

"I think women look at things slightly differently. Men can be so black and white. We can soften the edges if you like."

Women tend to be more practical, too, paying close attention to the height of a table or whether or not a fabric is hard-wearing.

"Although a piece of furniture might look great, it could well have to stand the wear and tear of a couple of kids and three dogs, which men don't always think about," observes Jacqui.

"It's funny when you think how long a man will spend choosing a car, yet might not take a great deal of time over a dining-room table and chairs. But you've got to think about sitting on a chair for three hours during a dinner party so it needs to be comfortable."

Although furniture is new to Jacqui, the 37-year-old is no stranger to the Broad Street store or to buying, having worked for the past three years as sales manager and buyer for the soft linens and lighting departments.

"When Michael retired, an opportunity for a buyer came up and I was very honoured to be asked."

Jacqui certainly has her work cut out: she's still doing her old job, as well as her new one, and is involved in the store Lee Longlands has just acquired in Leamington Spa.

She joined the company after her first child, Simon, was born and continued to work fulime even after daughter Hannah, now 18 months, came along.

"It's been a bit of a juggling act," admits Jacqui.

"Luckily, though, I have a very understanding husband.

"Over dinner we discuss plans for the coming days. I'll say: 'Darling, can you get your diary out'?

"I have to be organised because my husband's job takes him out and about and so does mine."

Jacqui started her career as an A-level trainee at Lewis's department store.

"Basically, I worked through the system and ended up as floor manager. I've worked in departments from household to fashion."

Working in the retail industry is exciting and challenging, says Jacqui. "It's very diverse and you don't always know what's going to happen; you're at the forefront of fashion and change."

She admits her success is largely down to the fact she "has an eye" for what will go down well with the buying public.

"I think I have a feel for the merchandise. I've always been involved with what is sold around furniture.

"Really, my strength - and my background here - is in soft furnishings, textures and colours, which, hopefully, I'm bringing into furniture buying."

Lee Longlands' strength is its eclectic mix of furniture: an elaborate gold-coloured table-and-chair set jostles for space alongside a glass-topped table perched on a stone stand in the style of a Grecian urn.

Across the sales floor are painted wood cabinets, wrought-iron bedsteads and comfy, casuaooking sofas.

"We stock a mixture of brand names and unusual individual pieces," explains Jacqui. "It's very important for people to come in and see things they're not going to see anywhere else."

It tends to be the unusual pieces that bring potential customers into the Broad Street store. One of the recent best-sellers was a black-and-white "zebra" suite.

"It was displayed in the window and we had people saying: 'We just had to come in and look at that suite'. It's wonderful to be able to virtually stop the traffic with something like that.

"I think everybody nowadays is looking for something a little bit different at a price they can afford. And that's hopefully where we have found a bit of a niche."

The biggest challenge of Jacqui's job is to identify up-and-coming trends in colour, texture and style.

"You definitely have to have an eye. When you're presented with fabric ranges, it's very easy to get totally bowled over and it can be difficult to see the wood from the trees. You have to be able to home in on the winners. Sometimes it's easy; sometimesyou have to take a flier on something. For instance, who would have thought that burnt orange and lilac would be coming through quite strongly in fabrics and furnishings?

"People are certainly becoming more adventurous with colour."

Lee Longlands' careful blend of traditional and modern attracts a broad cross-section of customer.

"We always used to be very modern, but during the last recession people went for more traditional furniture - they decided to play a lot safer with their money. I think we learned an awful lot from that.

"Having said that, we are getting younger, professional people living in the city centre who want to do something completely different with their living spaces. So at the moment we are sourcing more modern furniture because there's definitely a move towards a more modern look."

So what future trends has Jacqui identified since taking up her new post?

"Certainly the bright colours will continue, although they are becoming slightly more subtle - not quite so citrusy. We're seeing some pastel colours coming through too, as well as driftwood shades.

"People still like the casual, shabby chic look, and then there's the modern approach - the retro 50s and 60s look. And iron is very popular too."

Though Jacqui's new job is a "steep learning curve", she is enjoying every minute of it.

"There's so much going on at the moment," she says. "It's definitely a challenge."
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Author:Dodd, Ros
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 4, 1998
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