The brand, Allium B, is all about beautiful, wearable dresses, the kind which take you effortlessly from day to night. Sisters, Clare and Mary Burgess, previously worked in lead corporate roles as Buyer and Merchandiser at Topshop. Their frustration with the way High Street brands were catering for a younger and younger audience was magnified by High Street compromise on quality. So, they embarked on their own brand.
Offering beautiful dresses designed with women, not teenagers, in mind, Clare and Mary focus on attention to detail in every style, not a one-style suits all approach. Using only natural fabrics, incorporating cotton linings, silks, chiffon, Allium B adds a flourish with dreamy Liberty prints.
European Business Express spoke with the design duo, asking about their formative experiences and insight for like-minded entrepreneurs.
What’s different about your products, about your business?
Allium B is a range of exclusively designed versatile dresses that will take you effortlessly from day to evening. It’s designed for real women, not teenagers.
What motivates you most – in practical terms, and in emotional terms?
From a practical point of view, we both have young families, so having our own business allows us to work flexibly. But the best bit is the excitement of seeing a woman wearing one of our dresses and looking stunning in it.
Who have you learnt most from? What are the five key lessons you learnt from them?
Clare – “It has to be Mary Homer (Managing Director – TOPSHOP). She fine-tuned my skill base and always emphasized a focus on profit – margin is absolutely key to your bottom line. Pricing is vital. You have to establish a clear price for your brand and trade prime – once you start discounting the customer will expect it forever.
Team management and the importance of looking after the people who work for you. In tough trading times, they will be the support that gets the business through. Clear focused direction is essential. Your team need to know where they are going. If you believe in yourself and work hard you will succeed.
Why did you decide to found your own company?
We were frustrated that we couldn’t find what we wanted on the High Street and kept hearing the same from so many other women, including various quotes from Alexandra Shulman, Editor of Vogue.
“Again and again I hear how women want to have a more fun, fashionable and adventurous array of options that nonetheless don’t make them feel like they are raiding their daughter’s wardrobe with unsuccessful results.” (Alexander Shulman – Vogue Editor)
“Well fitting dresses in flattering colours are usually a big success. The mystery is why so few people do them.” Alexander Shulman – Sunday Times (11/6/11)
Having established our careers working for some of the High Street’s leading names, we were inspired to do it ourselves.
What five lessons do start-ups need to keep in mind?
The most important lesson is: be careful with, and aware of, your cash flow at the start. More money goes out of the door than you think – it is little things like brand protection, phone lines and postage that catch you out as so much has to be paid up front.
Keep control of your brand. You must always be true to it.
Believe in your brand because if you don’t no one else will. You are your brand’s best ambassador.
Do not assume your sales will happen instantly. It takes time for people to discover you. Build a cash buffer into your forecasts and cash flow planning.
“If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the word to your desires.” (Malcolm Gladwell – “Outliers”)
How will you grow your business?
As an internet based business, social media will play a huge part to help us spread the word, building customer loyalty and gain feedback. Once the business is established we will look for future rounds of financing so we can keep on growing.
Which nations do you admire most in terms of business acumen and / or determination? Why?
From a supply base it has to be India. The skill-base is great, with a real focus on detail and a pride in what they do. Nothing is impossible. There is a real energy and buzz.
Who are your leadership role models?
Jane Shepherdson, CEO, Whistles. She developed TOPSHOP into an international brand. Her focus was always on the product and the shopping experience.
Steve Jobs, Apple. He totally believed in the product and gave customers what they wanted. The quality of the product and customer service was key.
Angela Ahrendts, CEO, Burberry. She turned Burberry around from a brand who had lost its way (think football fans and baseball caps) to one of the most desirable brands, through brand purification and using social media to its full potential. Burberry now has over 12 million Facebook followers. In her own words “You have to be totally connected to anyone who touches your brand”. Burberry now has a bigger market cap than Marks & Spencer!
Caren Downie, Buying Director, ASOS. No-one loves product more than Caren. She nurtures and supports talent, be it buyers or new designers and through clear direction always gets results. She is proof that great people-managers can make strong leaders.
What is the single most important principle for creating a successful business?
Developing and establishing a brand that is known and trusted as that gives you pricing power. If you have a business that is a price giver and not a price taker you have every chance of success.
What is your single most important source of inspiration?
Vintage fairs because they a great source of beautifully made product that lasts the course of time. We love nothing more than taking a vintage detail, such as a beautiful beaded collar, and bringing it back to life on a modern silhouette.
Mary Burgess has 25 years’ buying experience including head of buying at TOPSHOP, Dorothy Perkins and Debenhams. Launched Designers at Debenhams. Co-founded Allium B August 2011
Clare Burgess has 20 years’ merchandising experience including 10 years as head of merchandising at TOPSHOP. A key player in new brand launches including Kate Moss, Dress Up and Whistles Express. Co-founded Allium B August 2011
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