I’m hoping to make this a monthly feature in 2019 because I really want to start focusing on small British brands run by women like us. Why? Well of course it fits perfectly with the Midlifechic ethos that this stage of our lives is just the beginning – especially for women who have arrived at the magical age of 50. If you’re younger, keep going – your best time is still to come. However my other reason for doing this is an increasing disenchantment with some of the big brands. So let’s go into that briefly.
It’s understandable that prices are going up. We all know about the impact of the fall of sterling since the referendum but one of the things that concerns me is the fact that as prices are being hiked, quality is falling. To be fair some brands are doing this to minimise price rises however I know of others who are doing it strategically to increase their margins at a time when overall sales are down. You’ll particularly notice it in the finish of things – the weight of the jersey or cashmere you’re buying, the quality of the buttons or the detailing on things like cuffs and hems.
I’ve worked with lots of different retailers and so I have some insight into all of this. The ones that I find myself turning away from are those who buy according to quotas. They have store and warehouse space to fill and a particular margin to achieve. Buying becomes less of an art and more of a bean-counting job as they speed through a conveyor belt of overseas suppliers who are mass producing cheap clothing with minimal regard to the environment or working conditions.
I have sympathy for buyers who are targeted on sales and long ago lost the luxury of caring about things such as the cut and cloth of an item or whether it will actually flatter the woman who eventually buys it. The blame of course lies with the retail overlords. It’s an age old story and you don’t need me to tell it to you. But as we are now in what retailers call the ‘golden quarter’ when they expect to make most of their profit, it has led me to make a couple of decisions. Of course my opinions alone won’t change anything but they may nurture a small sapling of thought that is already growing within this community.
I’ve been sitting on the fence as far as House of Fraser is concerned. I haven’t covered them since the summer but I’ve been watching their progress carefully. I’m aware that their stores are the lifeblood of many high streets in small cities around the UK so I was hoping that all would turn out well after Mike Ashley’s ‘rescue’ package. However I’m horrified by the fact that customers who had (often large furniture) orders outstanding have still not had them fulfilled or refunded and have, on some occasions, been asked to pay for them again. It’s worth knowing that returns ordered from the new website are not always being refunded either – you can read more about it here. So, I’m taking a stand and will not be including House of Fraser products on here. I’m keeping a close eye on Debenhams and Mike Ashley’s involvement there too, although I rarely cover Debenhams anyway. As The Sunday Telegraph said of Ashley today,
“The tracksuit-and-trainers tycoon is fast emerging as the high street’s bottom-fisher extraordinaire, waiting in the shadows until a troubled company has run out of options, then stepping in at the very last minute to pluck it from the jaws of death.
To the untrained eye, this is the mark of an unrecognised hero. Mike Ashley: the saviour of retailers in distress. Hardly. This is cynical opportunism, the behaviour of a trained vulture, circling wounded prey until the very last moment. The bones are picked over and the tastiest cuts torn off. The rest is left to rot. It’s an approach borrowed straight from the Philip Green school of business…”
This brings me to the Arcadia group: Topshop; Topman; Dorothy Perkins; Evans; Wallis; Miss Selfridge and Burton. I’m referring, of course, not only to Phillip Green’s business model but his management style. I’ve never worked for Arcadia but I know plenty of people who have and their experiences of bullying were similar to the ones that we’re hearing about in the press. I have rarely included clothes from any of these brands because the quality is consistently poor and I won’t be covering them this season.
I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest although I’m not telling you what to do. However I do think that as intelligent women we should think carefully about where we spend our hard earned salaries. In addition to the management issues, there are environmental factors that we can no longer ignore. If you haven’t seen Stacey Dooley’s programme on Fashion’s Dirty Secrets then do watch it. The thing that shocked me most is the impact that cotton production is having on the planet. As midlifers we often feel that we’re doing good by opting for natural fibres but it seems we’re not.
As you know I’ve always been concerned about the ethics of the supply chain in terms of the human cost. Next year I’m going to try to become more informed about the environmental issues relating to clothing production and without being too overbearing, I’ll drop nuggets of information in here and there as I go along.
So for this post I’m going to leave the big brands behind and look at some of the people who are doing retail differently. These are small businesses and so I have to say from the start that they can’t buy in volume and as a consequence their prices are higher. However if you spend with them you are spending wisely because having trialled all of their products, I can say that the quality is higher too. And of course their products stand apart from anything you’ll find on the high street because they’ve been designed by individuals who care about every aspect of their craft. I’ve asked them all to encourage you to shop with them by providing an exclusive offer but remember they’re tiny brands so the offers expire quickly.
Small British brands run by women
Harriet Cleverly of Cleverly Wrapped
Harriet is one of the women who is bringing the skills she gained working with big retailers to her own business. In her old life, she was both Operations Director for Gap and Head of Retail at The White Company. Like so many of us, she changed her life to work around her children and once they were all at school, she launched Cleverly Wrapped. She began with scarves and still has a stunning collection along with a number of scarf styling videos which are a great resource. This summer she moved into beachwear and now she’s launched her own cashmere jumpers along with a range of silk shirts with a grandad collar which are always so hard to find. Harriet also stocks other small brands and designers so you can be confident that if you shop with her, you are supporting the industry from the bottom up.
This year Harriet branched out into bricks and mortar retail so you can visit her in her Cleverly Wrapped shop in Stockbridge, Hampshire. It’s a real family business and Harriet’s children, husband and mum pop up on her Instagram. You can also follow her ongoing retail adventure in her online journal. She kindly sent me one of her own designs to review – a cashmere jumper in my favourite red.
I put it through its paces on a walk through the woods last weekend when I was trying to blow away the cobwebs of my virus.
It comes in one size which I would say should fit a size 8 – 16. It’s loose on me but not overly so and I really like the way that the pockets sit at the waist which adds a little structure. It was cold so I’ve layered it over a thermal here but worn on its own, it would scoop gently below the clavicles so it’s a very flattering neckline. The cashmere is of a lovely, soft quality. Cleverly Wrapped is a great place to find gifts for friends so do pop over and have a look.
Exclusive Midlifechic reader offer: Harriet is offering you all an exclusive 10% off everything on Cleverly Wrapped until Friday 9th November with code CHIC10%
Natalie Lake – Really Wild Clothing
Natalie’s background was in architectural design and her previous career was spent working for a large firm of architects in London. She loved shooting in her spare time and was a member of the Really Wild Girls’ Club at the Royal Berkshire Shooting School. Before long she discovered that most of the clothing that was suitable for outdoor pursuits was based on designs for men. She couldn’t find anything that flattered the female form so she began to design her own range and before long she had a new business on her hands: Really Wild Clothing.
I have to say that I particularly love the tweed which is sourced and spun in Scotland. Some of the garments are even made from Linton Tweeds – the Carlisle-based company that produces tweed for Chanel. You may remember that I had breakfast with Natalie in London recently and here I am in the Really Wild London Pop-Up trying on a tweed coat that I fell in love with – of course it’s red. It’s a size 10 so slightly small on me but look at the cut.
Really Wild specialises in all kinds of country clothing including boots in the Spanish riding style that you often see Kate Middleton wearing. At the bloggers’ breakfast we were extremely lucky and were each invited to choose a pair. Mine are proving invaluable for winter dog walking.
Natalie works with Spanish craftsmen to design them and they are taller, more tapered and more refined than the average Spanish boot. I couldn’t decide whether to go for the narrow fit or the slightly wider fit. In the end I opted for the wider ones so that I can wear thick socks in winter. They even come with an extra insole so that if you upsize to accommodate fleece socks, you can still add the insole and wear them with skinny jeans when you want to. Here’s a close up so that you can see the beautiful detailing on them:
Beautiful boots and well tailored clothes – do have a browse at Really Wild.
Exclusive Midlifechic reader offer: Natalie is offering 15% off full priced items until 22nd November with code MIDLIFECHIC15.
Agnieszka Wlodarska of Staples Stable
Now this one’s an inspiring story with a bit of a bump in the road. Agnieszka first got in touch with me back in April to tell me about Staples Stable and the small collection that she had just completed. In her words
“entirely self- funded, it had been a dream that I one day decided to just go for! So now I have this tiny collection of, I believe, beautiful, versatile pieces and I am trying to figure out how to show them to wider audience.”
I was instantly intrigued by her dresses and was keen to help her but then she went quiet until she got back in touch in September to tell me why. Her husband had been in a serious accident which left him permanently injured. That would be bad enough for most people but he was a semi-professional cyclist and triathlete. They spent the summer adapting their cottage in County Down for him and she believes that the resilience that he built up as an athlete is helping them to overcome their difficulties. They’re now looking ahead to a new and different future.
Most people would have reined their dreams in after a blow like that but I’m pleased to say that Agnieszka hasn’t. In fact she’s taken the really brave step of leaving her day job so I’m hoping that we can get behind her and support her. She trained as an historian and you can really see this coming through in the designs of her dresses. They make me think of Robin Hood and that means a lot to me. You see when other little girls were doing the Disney princess thing, my fantasies were always based on the Robin Hood story and it’s one of the main reasons that I chose to go to Nottingham University! I’ve always felt most at home in woods and forests and I loved the idea of taking from the rich to give to the poor – I must have been a closet socialist at the age of eight!
Now like all of the pieces in this post, we’re not talking high street prices but they’re not designer prices either. I can assure you of the quality and I love the fact that they are so different to any other dresses out there. I know where they’re being produced and it is by a dressmaker who also supplies a niche city brand that specialises in beautifully cut dresses.
So, here I am in the Midnight dress which I wore last week for a day at work followed by an evening at the theatre in Manchester. We went to see Death of a Salesman at The Royal Exchange:
It’s beautifully cut, I’m wearing the size 12 and it felt as though it was made for me. The velvet has a beautiful sheen and a very subtle checked pattern. The ruching at the chest feels like a breastplate – I can imagine going into a boardroom wearing this dress, ready for a weighty meeting. However it was just as lovely to wear for the theatre as well.
So, please help me to support Agnieszka. Even if you’re not in the market for one of her dresses, please can you let her know we’re behind her by following her on Instagram or Facebook. She’s just getting going so let’s hold out a hand to her.
Exclusive reader offer: Agnieszka is offering Midlifechic readers 20% off all of her dresses until Sunday 11th November with code MCHIC20.
Now Claudia isn’t new to Midlifechic, I’ve been a huge fan of her jewellery for a long time but I don’t think I’ve ever told her story before. Claudia’s jewellery journey began when she was given a diamond brooch by her husband when they lived in Hong Kong. He explained that he wanted her to have something that she would wear every day but Claudia just felt it wasn’t her style. She loved his idea but felt that the piece itself had no ‘heart’. So she explained gently that it was far too expensive to be so uninspiring and they returned it but she couldn’t find anything to replace it.
A friend came to stay and together, they explored the pearl markets in Hong Kong. Claudia bought some pearl charms and put them together on leather thongs. She started making them as simple pearl gifts for friends and then when she saw Sarah Jessica Parker wearing pearls with a grey t-shirt and jeans, she realised there was a place for contemporary pearl jewellery. All of her pieces have stories attached which is why I love them so much.
You can now buy Claudia’s jewellery from John Lewis as well as from her own website. I have a small collection of her pieces and I would say that I wear them at least six days a week. In fact most of my friends do too because Claudia’s site is the one I recommend when their husbands ask me for present inspiration.
However there is a new contender for my daily affections and that is the Mother and Child necklace.
Launched in celebration of the birth of Prince Louis, it has a lovely story behind it. You see before she was a princess, the then Kate Middleton was an accessories buyer for Jigsaw. Working with Claudia she designed the silver nugget that is the larger piece in this necklace. This forms the ‘mother’ part of the necklace and the pearl is the child. Extra pearls can be added if you have more children and so the one Claudia has sent me has three. As you know I love jewellery that has meaning and so I’ve been wearing this every day since it arrived.
Did you spot it with Agnieska’s dress in the picture earlier? The V neck framed it perfectly and I was also sporting my trusty geo hoops.
Exclusive Midlifechic reader offer: Claudia is offering 20% off everything until 23rd November with code MIDLIFECHIC20.
Nayna Macintosh of Hope Fashion
And that brings me to Hope Fashion run by Nayna McIntosh
Now Nayna doesn’t need any introduction because we’ve known each other for a while now and I’ve featured her on Midlifechic a few times. Why? Because I really respect what she’s doing for midlifers not only with her own brand but by being a high profile, vocal spokesperson with a lot of influence in retail. Plus I really like her and will take any opportunity to sit down with her for a glass of wine and a good chat!
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Hope have a new designer on board this season and as the new collection filters through, I’m beginning to see pieces with more shape which is what I’ve been hoping for. Here’s an example:
So if you haven’t looked for a while, do pop over to the Hope website because their style is really developing. The business model remains the same though, a very small team of mostly over 40 women; doyennes of retail who are committed to producing beautifully designed, high quality pieces in an ethical way. I have something new to show you with relaxed parties in mind. As you know, bias cut slip skirts are a big trend for this season and this one is in a beautiful oyster satin that skims the tummy and hangs beautifully.
This is how it looks on me:
It’s such a fabulous soft shade that works with all of my cashmere jumpers. There’s something about the contrast of texture between satin and cashmere that just looks so luxurious.
Exclusive Midlifechic reader offer: Hope are offering 15% off full priced items until Thursday 8th November with code MLC15
Midlifechic Boutique run by… me
And so that brings me to my very last brand – Midlifechic Boutique, soon to be Fou de Coudre when I have time to stop and catch my breath. The final restock of bags for this year has just arrived and when they’ve all been sold, I’m going to close the shop for a while. It may seem counterintuitive at Christmas but after a nasty bout of conjunctivitis this week I’ve finally accepted that something has to give before I completely crumble.
The portrait tote has had such good feedback that I’ve restocked in black, navy and scarlet. If you’re looking for a larger shoulder bag that converts into a crossbody at the flick of a wrist this is for you. I was contacted by someone who had bought one for her daughter who has twin toddlers and I was thrilled to hear that this feature alone has helped to restore her sanity when she’s out and about with them!
The crossbody XL had a waiting list for the black so unfortunately that’s sold out already but there are a few available in navy or scarlet. And here I am with the scarlet which I converted to a clutch when we went to the theatre. I must just say how much I love this coat but I’m slightly annoyed to see that this year it’s been priced at £130 less than I paid for it two years ago. If you’re looking for a timeless coat in 100% wool in either navy or camel it’s worth looking at because I wonder if they’ve made a mistake!
And if you prefer something smaller, the original crossbody is still available in scarlet. I find it particularly useful when I’m commuting with a bigger bag because I can keep all of my essentials to hand.
Right, I’m off because Christmas starts this week on Midlifechic and I have lots to do. Last year you told me that you found the short, regular posts that I did really helpful in the run up to December. So, throughout November I will be posting most days. My aim is to do a lot of the groundwork for you so that by the time we reach December, we can all just enjoy ourselves. Let’s see if we can make it happen!
Disclosure: ‘Small British brands run by women’ is not a sponsored post however I was sent samples of the products to review. Please help me to support these fledgling brands that are led by our peers.
Other Autumn/Winter 18 posts you may have missed
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