Secrets of the Successful Businesswoman: “The Fashion Queen”
The knack of turning problems into opportunities is a mark of the successful entrepreneur. That much is true of Katharine Hamnett, the fashion designer, whose eponymous clothing business was the product more of accident than deliberation.
Hamnett’s first stab at business was when she worked as a freelance designer producing international collections for fashion houses. She had little idea she might eventually create a fashion brand with £ 100,000,000 of sales. But a problem with a client spurred her to abandon freelancing for serious business. The change came in 1978. She had spent three months designing a collection for Gudle, a French company with 60 stores, when it went bust, leaving her with £ 17,000 of unpaid design fees. So she had to think of something fast to replace the income lost.
Katharine came up with the idea of marking some of the designs in leather instead of
cheaper fabrics and putting her own name on the label for the first time. Thus the Katharine Hamnett brand was born. She borrowed £ 500 from Mark Young, her friend, created some prototype garments and approached the top stores in Britain, Italy, and France. The stores had taken some of her designs previously and were willing to give her a break – and it paid off in style for both designer and retailer.
Hamnett soon switched to cotton and silk, quickly creating a recognizable look, and backed up her design with an unusual sales technique. “I did it in the French way,” she says. “I took a stand at various trade shows and instead of inviting key buyers and distributors I whipped up a lot of interest and hype by being really snotty and taking the approach of vetting people to see if they were good enough to come in.
“People got very wound up and were so grateful when I let them in because they had met the so-called criteria. It tainted their judgment in my favor.” But though she was snobbish, Hamnett also displayed a keen interest in the bottom line in decorating her stands. Instead of splashing out expensive display materials, she would wait until the other exhibitors had finished their stands and then raid their rubbish for cast-offs.
Sales took off, enabling her to move within two years into a small factory on an industrial estate in Islington, north London, employing 15 people. In 1981 she diversified into menswear and soon after that she began to export, selling her first license in Japan in 1984. Today she has 40 Japanese concessions and 17 licenses.
In 1986, Hamnett opened her first London store and four years later she was employing 25 people, mostly designers. She also has stores now in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, having recently moved into fashion sportswear and jeans.
Katharine Hamnett Designs made a £310,115 profit on £ 2,400,000 of sales while Katharine Hamnett Retail made a £ 18,282 profit on £ 774,443 of sales.
Hamnett grew up near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, but she travelled around the world with her family because her father was a RAF defense attaché. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, she developed her trading skills early, designing dolls and persuading her parents’ friends to buy them for £ 5 each. She hated boarding school but was moderately academic and went on to study at St Martin’s School of Art.
She describes her qualities as “stubbornness, speaking French, tenacity, working hard, and being able to put my foot down.” “I’m an autocrat,” she says. “People tend to do what I like and then curse themselves until the result comes good.