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Licensing International UK Rising Star 2023 Nominees: Ellie Yarnell finds out more about this year’s UK Rising Star nominees. Today, Vanilla Underground’s head of buying, Ellie Yarnell.

Ellie Yarnell, head of buying, Vanilla Underground


My route into licensing went something like this…

After returning from travelling a bright eyed 21 year old I finally caved and began working for the family business – Vanilla Underground, a licensed specialist retailer. This also meant a move from Newcastle down to the midlands. I started as assistant buyer but in reality I was the only buyer in the business as I was covering our buyer’s maternity so it was just me. Which meant learning a lot through trial and error. I love where I’m from so I only anticipated staying for a short period but needless to say, after being thrown in at the deep end, I found a passion for buying and growing the business and somehow I’m still here!

How long in the industry?

Just over five years.

When I was growing up, I had no idea that ‘licensing’ was an industry, so I wanted to be…

A farmer with lots of horses – still the dream now I think!

Biggest inspiration in the licensing industry?

This is quite a difficult one as there are many ways to interpret and lots of inspirations daily within this industry. But I’ll answer in terms of brands and retailers. I love what Mattel have done with Barbie this year. The energy and marketing has been unmatched and as one of our DTR licences I have been so inspired and excited to be a part of it. To me, it’s shown how a clever strategy with the right execution can really create a movement and change a whole perception of a brand which is powerful. In the same ilk, Primark are hugely inspiring for taking on often overlooked or non-traditional licences (think Greggs) and giving them a revival or fresh interpretation. In this climate and as licensed product is bigger than ever, you have to be innovative and push the boundaries to stand out and succeed.

Best thing about your current role?

I love the creativity and freedom that being a relatively small, but fast growing business allows. I can have a thought for a new product, category or licence to get into and work with the amazing team around me to bring it to life. My role is head of buying but I’m involved in all areas of the business, most significantly managing concession accounts, marketing and DTR so there is so much variation in what I do – never a boring or slow day. Ultimately though, seeing the product move through from concept to best selling line is really the best buzz and gives me the drive to keep pushing forward.

What are you most proud of within your licensing career to date?

There are lots of wins we have had as a team, but for me personally my biggest achievement is coming into this business with no experience in buying or licensing when we were turning over just short of £4m on what largely consisted of t-shirts printed in the UK and stock lines, to evolving the buying and being integral to pushing the business to the strong position we are in today – a business with a projection of £30m turnover this year, expanding into multiple categories with product development at the forefront, large scale made to order production, our own in-house design team and printing facilities, alongside having multiple successful DTR partnerships.

Licensed character you can most identify with (and why)?

I was asked this question recently so I’m committed to my answer now! I’d identify with (and aspire to be) Mulan. She breaks tradition, going against the norm for the greater good. Loyalty and staying true to herself at her core.

What were your first thoughts when you were revealed as a nominee for the UK Rising Star Award?

Honestly, it was a huge shock for me as I’ve naturally ruled out any special recognition within the work place. In a family business dynamic, the misconception is having an easy ride, but in reality it’s the opposite and you’re always going to have to prove yourself. It’s amazing to be nominated and it means a lot to be recognised outside of that – especially alongside such a strong group of nominees.

The Licensing Awards 2023 takes place on Tuesday 12 September at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London.

Tickets and tables can be reserved quickly and securely online by visiting or by contacting Clare Hollick at Create Events: or +44 (0)1183 340085.

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