We've already recapped this month's PowerWomen Chat on the Business of Fashion here, but in our female founders interview at Huckletree we got the chance to hear directly from Tina and Kristy about their industry breakthroughs and how they used fashion to create their own voice.
What did you want to become when you were a teenager?
Tina Lobondi: I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I used to draw quite a lot, almost every day. I had books of drawings, but it never occurred to me that this could be a job or career… I just wanted something that would keep me active and creative. One day I was watching fashion TV and I thought, ‘Well maybe I can try and be a designer and go to school and learn.’
Kristy Emery: I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I was a teenager. I can’t remember at all. I remember when I was at school I was trying to work out what I wanted to do… I didn’t want fame, but I wanted recognition from my peers in whatever I chose to do. So it wasn’t a specific thing, it was more of that I knew I wanted to do something that could make a difference.
What inspired you to come up with the concept of your brand?
Tina: Five years ago I wanted to be a dressmaker. It’s kind of a coincidence. Things happened really fast because I made a couple of dresses and then the PR of two actresses on EastEnders contacted me to dress them. She actually found me on Linked-in… It was for the British Awards, which I had no clue what it was, but I just heard actresses… So I did the dresses and they were on LOOK magazine and so many UK magazines. That kind of just pushed me to make more and try and find out what the business was about.
Kristy: So I lived with Hal, one of my co-founders. There are three of us. Hal and Ben are the other two co-founders. Hal and Ben were working on a project with UK sport and they were looking at Olympian clothing and how to make a custom garment for Olympians— which is a lot more expensive than you would imagine— so they started looking at knitwear. I am a knitwear designer by background. One day Hal came home and started asking me all these questions, and I was like none of these things exist, that’s going to be super expensive… He just couldn’t understand how none of these things were possible. So that’s where the first parts of the company came from.
What was your strategy on reaching out to the media and bloggers/influencers to get the best from PR opportunities? How did you go about outreach and building the brand?
Tina: I wish I did have a strategy. In the beginning, things happened too fast. Because I’m not from London, I didn’t really know where to look and where to start. I had to try a couple of things— reach out to people, try to keep the buzz— I did my own research. I didn’t have any reference in terms of contact or PR. At that time I don’t think I knew what a PR was.
Tina, did you send samples?
Tina: In the beginning no because I thought, ‘This is my money. I invested it and I am not giving anything for free to anybody.’ I was actually like this for possibly the first two years, but then that changed… I thought if you send the garment they’d send it back. They do not send it back. If you send it, it’s gone. I wish someone told me that. You need to think ahead of your investment. At the end of the day it’s your money and your investment.
What about you Kristy how did you go about outreach and building the brand?
Kristy: We are a bit of an unusual company because our technology is the half of our company and the fashion brand is a space for us to showcase our technology… A lot of our PR isn’t actually to the public it’s business-to-business… We like to make sure we have customers coming to our site and attraction because you need that to show to designers as well… Mainly we use micro-influencers. Instead of going out to one big, massive influencer because they’ve got so much noise going at them all the time, it’s really difficult to stand out whereas if you go to speak to lots of people who actually have decent followings, it’s about building a relationship.
Can you share a little bit more about that? The fashion is the platform, but what does the technology do?
Kristy: Our technology does two things. First, it’s all about the front-end of what you see on the website. If you ever go onto umd.com, you can play and move different things around on the clothes… What you see on the site is exactly what you get stitched out. This is the front-end and how we visualize everything. Then, there’s how it creates the files. Traditionally, you would have a person programming it all, whereas ours automatically creates the programme through the machine and goes directly to it.
So basically you would work with designers who would input their creativity using your technology?
Kristy: We’re increasingly working with large brands. We will create parts within their site or on additional sites. We’ve recently did a collaboration with Opening Ceremony, which we launched on Farfetch. It’s using their designs so we can play with them and switch colors.
What would say of the importance in creating a story behind a fashion brand? What do you think about when creating a story?
Tina: When journalists are looking for people to talk about, there’s so many designers out there. They need to have something that would catch readers’ attention. My story in the beginning was the fact that I was from Congo. There’s not many designers from Congo that dress or obtain an international level. I think that’s the story that worked for me.
Kristy: I agree that it’s about what you want people to see the brand as. It’s what people will pick up on and what they’ll remember… We wanted everyone to see our technology as changing. We’ve tried to originally start off with keeping in tech press and being very technology-related. We have increased some of our fashion side, but it’s much quieter. That’s the way we control our story.
What have you learned as a female founder over the last 12 months that changed the way you do business?
Kristy: One of the biggest things I’ve learned, and what I’m still definitely learning now, is about management and how to run a team. As the team gets bigger our projects get bigger. It’s internally, it’s externally, it’s how to speak to suppliers, and it’s how to speak with people you’re doing partnerships with. We never dreamed of being able to work with Opening Ceremony. Suddenly we’re flying out to an H&M photo shoot. It’s learning how to talk to different people and how to communicate which makes a huge difference.
Tina: Something I’ve learned is the impact that fashion actually has. You can influence people’s lives in ways that you don’t even notice. When we went back to Congo last year for my charity, we had this talk for over 500 fashion students. It was just amazing to see because that’s the next generation of potential fashion designers, merchandisers, anything.
Being female founders, how do you manage to get everything done that you should be doing on a daily basis?
Tina: I like to write everything down. I have lists of everything I think about or something that I don’t want to forget. At the end of the day, I’ll reassess everything of all the notes I’ve written, which one’s I can do in five minutes.
Tina, did you feel like you actually had space in your work schedule to start this second project, your charity?
Tina: I did. The charity project was something that had to be done. It was necessary. Art and fashion is such an important thing in the world. It just didn’t make sense for me to go back home and see that we’re known for being well dressed, but we don’t have this and that.
What about you Kristy? How do you manage to get things done?
Kristy: I have a book and if you don’t see me write it down in the book, it’s gone. If it’s not in the book, it’s not going to happen. I just have too many things going on. Also, as a team we have a big board that we have in the middle of the studio. We go through it as a team— there’s about 20 of us— on a Monday morning and also on Friday evening just to compare what we plan to do versus what actually happened.
As female founders what are the things that you wish you knew when you started?
Kristy: I wish I knew how hard it was going to be. It’s so incredibly difficult. I don’t want to paint a horror story, but I just said goodbye to my friends and family for a few years. I had no money and I worked every single hour that was available. Basically you speak to your friends and family and they’re like, ‘We’re really worried about you, you’ve been insane. You’re not sleeping enough.’ and you’re like ‘No it’s fine, I can totally do 4 hours of sleep at night. It’s no problem.’
Four hours of sleep isn’t realistic, how do you manage?
Kristy: There’s no point in doing it if you don’t have goals. It’s about planning strategic things that you’re working with… For example, at the very beginning, we didn’t have any money. We did a project where we built robotic musical instruments for Will.i.am. It gave us enough cash so that we could set up our business and do lots of trials with production.
Can you tell us more about this project with Will.i.am?
Kristy: So we made robotic musical instruments. We made robotic drums, a guitar, and a Fender Rhodes, which is essentially a piano. It was for an exhibition at the Barbican, which was all about different technologies and moving forward with things… It didn’t make any sense on paper for us to do that project because it had nothing to do with fashion or the technology we were building, but it was a really important strategic decision for us to do that. We got the cash so we can take the next steps.
How are you finding the current funding landscape for female founders? What do you think the next trends in fashion will be?
Tina: When you establish your brand you need to think about where do you want it to go. Do you want to have a store? Do you want to sell to other stores? Do you just want to have a studio where you work from? Selling to boutiques and retail stores are completely different. There’s a lot of rules that you have to learn as you go. In terms of funding. There’s a new company I’m working with. It’s called Eureka. They try and focus on what we’re doing with the British Fashion Council to work with upcoming brands and established ones to help them get early payments on their deals. As a designer, it’s very important to not be scared of having your own set of rules in terms of where you’re going to be selling. You need to think strongly about what you’re doing. If it doesn’t relate to your goals at the end of the day, it’s pointless.
Interested in connecting with more female founders? Check out our upcoming events here!