Kathryn Sargent has achieved a few firsts. She was the first woman in history to become head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes, one of the oldest and most prestigious tailoring houses in the world. Their cutting rooms are witnesses to history, having seen famous figures such as Winston Churchill, The Duke of Wellington, Charlie Chaplin, David Beckham, former President Clinton, and many others fitted for bespoke suits and uniforms.
After working for 15 years at the renowned clothier, Sargent left her secure job five years ago, to set up her own shop in a world dominated by men, and one with more than two hundred years of history.
These days, Sargent sees clients at her atelier on Brook Street, the heart of Mayfair. Recently, she opened a pop-up shop on Savile Row, making her the first female tailor on 'the row.' The shop will be open for the length of 'the season.' For the uninitiated, that's code for the multiple social, sporting and cultural events associated with English spring and summertime, at least for the privileged that attend. It begins with the Chelsea Flower Show in May, and finishes with the Proms late August, with Royal Ascot, the Henley Regatta, Wimbledon and a host of other opportunities to wear a hat and sip champagne in between.
Sargent tailors for men and women. Her clients, she says, served as inspiration for her own small business.
"I worked with some incredible clients over the years who are entrepreneurs, CEO’s of global businesses... they're successful, but they're successful for a reason and I was fascinated by their clothes and how that complemented their professions."
Instead of trying to follow in some rather large footsteps, Sargent’s vision is a contemporary take on classic designs. She used the approach from the start, starting with a modern website. We spoke recently about the lessons Sargent learned turning her creative hand to business as an entrepreneur.
I didn't know anything about running a business, so I literally downloaded a template for a business plan from the Internet. I know how to make a suit, but things like bank accounts and registering a company, taxes, accounting, book keeping, I had no idea about. I started writing a business plan and spoke to friends and a few clients who know me very well. I used the worst-case scenario and the minimum amount of money I'd need to live on. The next thing I did was get a website.
Why Websites Matter
I knew people would go to my website to learn more about me, and see what my atelier looks like to get a feel for my work. I got business through my website early on and use it to post information like when I’ll be in different cities to see clients.
Location, Location, Location
When I started, I rented facilities from another tailor near Savile Row, before I was able to afford my own premises. The business is centered around me, my clients and how I work. It's not built with the notion of selling. I had the idea of an atelier, so I set it up on Brook Street, a 10-minute walk from Savile Row because a shop wasn't feasible at that point. I wanted to create an environment where my clients would feel comfortable. Gieves & Hawkes is a very masculine environment—it's a global destination for menswear. I wanted to present more of a refined home. I travel to America three times a year and clients see me in the suite of a nice hotel. So I thought, why don't I make it like a nice hotel room, like a living room, with my garments presented in beautiful wardrobes. The whole ethos behind my business is a modern approach to a very traditional business. So, I invested quite a lot in the aesthetics. All of the furniture has been made in London, presented in a Georgian townhouse in the heart of Mayfair.
How She Made It in the High Rent District
When you're making a bespoke suit, you take a deposit and the balance is paid when it's collected, so you don't have to invest in a lot of products. This allowed me to spend a year and a half investing in my business, which is how I was able to afford Brook Street. I wanted it to be a haven for clients. It's self-funded and I keep an eye on cash flow, taking steps at incremental stages. In year one, it was about six months in that I started to be profitable, but it started on a very low cost base and when you take an order, you're covering your costs. It’s only when the suits start going home that you start to see a profit.
Her Advice to Other Creatives Founding Businesses:
- Write a business plan, even from a template. It will force you to think about important aspects of the business. That, as well as an engaging, good accountant helped me learn so much about the realistic costs of starting a business. It forces you to think things through and you get it all on paper and can see it in front of you so you can see whether it's realistic or not.
- Don't be too ambitious. You may not know until you start what the problems are going to be.
- Trying to do everything myself at first was a good thing. It helps you understand every aspect of the business. But, be careful not to let unimportant details take over. I could probably have built the business more quickly if I had engaged people to help me. Ordering stationary is not the best use of my time. I should have spent my time cutting, and hired someone to do the simpler jobs. It would have probably been a good investment.
- We used to get profit margin sheets from each suit we made at Gieves & Hawkes, which was hugely helpful. Having an understanding of profit margins and taking experience into a business, as well as a small customer base reduced my risk.
- I wasn't worried about being able to make suits. I was worried about being a startup among bastions of experience and being taken seriously among my colleagues in 'the row.' But they were all very supportive. Being humble towards senior colleagues in this small industry and seeking their advice helped earn me their respect.