This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
firstly, tell us a bit about you.
My name is Esther Knight. I started working in fashion around 10 years ago when I graduated from university, initially as a buyer for a high street brand. Throughout my career I’ve always been driven by ethics and sustainability – it all started for me in this first job as a buyer where I suddenly saw this huge problem with the industry, and I couldn’t ignore it. This eventually led me to work for Vivienne Westwood before launching my own sustainable womenswear brand, Fanfare.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
I moved to Vivienne Westwood after I started looking into sustainability to learn more about ethical fashion, and there I spent quite a few years researching to decide whether starting my own business was the right step for me. I really wanted to be around people with similar values so that I could really help make a difference, and Vivienne Westwood was a great place to start.
In my research I found that there wasn’t really a single business back then (we’re talking about 7 years ago now) that was doing the things that I wanted to do – being fair to people and the environment but at a more affordable price range than the likes of Stella McCartney or Westwood. I wanted to create that middle ground that offered affordable contemporary fashion without compromising my ethics. That’s when Fanfare was born.
what was the moment everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
There wasn’t really a single light bulb moment for me. It happened almost as soon as I got into the industry – in my first role I came up with the idea because I saw a problem and wanted to solve it.
As a buyer you are responsible for everything in a production line. You’re the one that’s selecting fabrics and the one picking the suppliers: if there’s an unethical part of the supply chain, you tend to know about it, and if you don’t know about it, you’re certainly contributing to it. I was picking cheaper fabrics to hit margin targets, skipping processes to cut costs and corners, and putting pressure on suppliers working at 3am to fulfil my orders. I was doing this in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to be me as the brand that suffers, and it wasn’t even going to be the manager on the phone that suffers, it’s the workers were going to suffer the most from the pressure.
I started digging deeper and it became clear how much of a widespread issue this is across the whole industry.
Sustainability isn’t about making everyone feel guilty for not shopping ethically but rather it’s about educating consumers to make more intelligent purchase decisions in order to have a more positive relationship with fashion. I wouldn’t have known this if I wasn’t a buyer, and I wanted to share this knowledge with consumers to help people realise how their purchase decisions have an impact on the world and other people. I wanted to create a culture that was different, one where fashion is a source of positive influence.
what were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
There are lots of highs and lows when you’re setting out to start a business. For me the biggest challenge was being on my own and having to work out how to do everything myself. Fashion brands are normally such a collaborative work environment, so stepping out and starting my own business was a real change of pace.
Creating sustainable collections also comes with its own unique issues. It takes us twice, if not three or four times as long to create collections than high street brands because there’s just not the infrastructure available yet to do things quickly. Sustainable fabrics often come with really high minimums and surcharges, and you can’t access the particular fabrics that you want or need in order to make a specific garment. We have to put a lot more time, effort and thought into producing our collections compared to fast fashion brands. We invest in each piece to make sure it matches our values and reflects the brand in a positive way.
what was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
During our first year of trading we wanted to get into shops to get some feedback on our collection directly from our customers. This turned out to be a really positive experience – at every pop-up shop and event that we’d been part of we were the best-performing brand, proving that there really is a demand for our product. During London Fashion Week last September, we launched our first upcycled collection which completely sold out in 3 days, and we had to make more to keep up with the demand. It was so exciting to see that there were people out there who loved our style and wanted to be a part of our brand, our culture and our causes.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
Fanfare is completely self-funded. Starting a fashion brand is an expensive endeavour, so at first we were only really able to invest in our production. We chose to sacrifice paying for marketing and advertisement in favour of investing in our production so that our integrity remains at our core from day one. We want to make sure that every stage of the process is as sustainable and ethical as can be, even if that means that we’ve had a slower growth. We’re a brand that puts our values first.
It’s a bit of a catch-22 because to get investment once the brand is up and running you have to prove your concept, but proving your concept is not an easy task when you don’t have any investment to fall back on. Fortunately, we’re at the point now where we’ve been trading for over a year and we’re able to invest more into our website and our online digital platform – it’s a step by step process. We’re definitely planning to raise a round of investment, but unfortunately given the current crisis this is looking like it will be delayed.
what has been your best investment?
Investing in myself and my future and knowing that I am in control of both of those things.
I didn’t want to be working for fast fashion brands at the start of my career, but every time I tried to quit, I got offered either got a promotion or a pay rise. At the time I didn’t view it as an investment, but in hindsight I was using that time to gather knowledge that really pushes my brand to be the best it can be today.
Being able to work my way up through companies taught me a lot about business structure in fashion. Although they were fast fashion brands, if I had just left that sector straight away to create a sustainable brand, my credibility and industry knowledge would have been a lot lower. By sticking with it I was able to create a positive impact in that environment, building my credibility in the industry of sustainable fashion – an investment that paid off later when I launched Fanfare.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? if so, can you share with us?
I think failing can be a difficult process, but I see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow both professionally and personally.
My biggest mistake was thinking that I knew everything. When I started Fanfare I had 10 years of experience the industry, and I was good at my job. I knew the production process inside out and I thought to myself ‘yeah I know how to do this, it’s going to be fine.’
In reality, when you’re an entrepreneur so much of the learning is done on the job. There’s a lot that comes up that you don’t know, and so many things that you never thought you’d have to deal with.
At first it was a process of humbling myself quite a bit and realising that it would be a steep learning curve in which there would be a lot of stuff I didn’t know. I had known that starting a business would be difficult, but the reality was a lot harder than I had realised.
what’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
Being a female entrepreneur definitely has an impact, especially when you’re in fashion, because no one takes you seriously. Female-run businesses account for just 2% of all venture capital investment, despite the fact that there’s plenty of research suggesting that – even with this low rate of investment – female-founded businesses regularly outperform their male-founded counterparts. There’s definitely an inequality when it comes to women in entrepreneurship, we’re just not taken as seriously by investors, which hinders women’s progress and our ability to create successful companies.
I also think the investment sector is largely run by middle-aged white men who have a certain type of entrepreneur that they like to invest in, and it can be very biased against women. Unfortunately, I think people like to say that equality is here but from my experience I just don’t believe that. Women have to work ten times harder to be noticed or even to be respected in the same way as men.
The biggest change I would like to see is proven equal pay across every industry. This should be published – we should be able to check whether we are being paid the same as our male counterparts. I think we also need more investment schemes that focus on supporting female-led businesses. At the moment we’re not playing on a level field.
what’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learned since starting your own business?
Everyone wants to rush in and just get the business started. But researching and networking is really important – do one thing at a time and do it with excellence rather than trying to do everything all at once. Never compromise on your ethics.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
I’d say I’ve had a few role models that I really look up to.
The first is Christine Caine, founder of The A21 Campaign, one of our partner charities. She saw that a lot of young women in Europe were going missing and no one was looking into it, later realising that they were being kidnapped and sold into sex trafficking. She couldn’t stand still and just watch this happen – it’s such a taboo area that no one was talking about – so she stepped out to solve the issue and rescue these young women, which is incredibly inspiring.
The second is Livia Firth, founder of Eco Age. She’s a powerhouse in the world of sustainability, she’s so driven by social and environmental justice and women’s advocacy. Livia stands for everything that Fanfare represents, so she’s a clear source of inspiration for me and the brand.
I also admire Vivienne Westwood, and I see a lot of similarities between the two of us, we’re both very active and vocal about the things we want to see in fashion. Working for her helped me get to know the ins and outs of her thinking towards sustainability and inspired me to pursue Fanfare.
with the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
My business is everything to me. I want to grow and be recognised for making a big difference to the world of sustainability. As a brand we want to bring revolutionary change to fashion supply chains and raise awareness for sustainability as well as developing amazing contemporary clothing that people love to wear. Hopefully we’ll have our own store in the future, a space where we can give people a first-hand experience of what fashion can look like in a better world.
Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?
It’s been such a turbulent year already and everyone’s goals are constantly changing because we really can’t tell what’s next, but I hope we’ll be able to do more charitable collaborations to help fashion workers in vulnerable situations. It’s so important and more so now than ever given what the industry is going through in the wake of the pandemic.
I’d also like to branch out into wholesale – this hasn’t been our strategy for year one but we’re looking into it for year two. If there are any boutiques or retailers who want to work with us or who might like our products, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what can our readers do to support your business?
Follow us on our Instagram (@fanfarelabel), sign up to our newsletter, and tell your friends and family about us. If you like what we do as a brand you can also become an affiliate through our website.
Of course, you can also shop from our collection. Supporting small businesses like us during these difficult times is so important, and there’s no better time to start creating your very own sustainable wardrobe.
what books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
The True Cost documentary – it’s a must watch if you’re considering being more sustainable with your fashion choices.
Wardrobe Crisis Podcast – Clare Press has some really great interviews with people who are challenging the status quo in fashion, and always brings a sense of positivity and optimism that’s so crucial when you’re talking about such serious issues.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Keep your character and don’t compromise on your values. In fashion it is tough, but it is so important that you get through that stage when you first start out and it’ll pay off in the long run.
Don’t compromise on your values or character because of how someone else is acting. Being a kind person to both yourself and to others is so important but so often overlooked. That is how you bring change to any industry, that’s how you’ll stand out and that is how you’ll get noticed. Stand firm in who you are and never conform to the negative behaviour that may surround you. Be the change you want to see from the industry.
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About your author
Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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