After a successful 14-year long career in finance, Heidy Rehman quit her high-powered job at a City of London investment bank to set up Rose & Willard – an authentically ethical British women’s clothing brand.
Since it launched in 2014, Rose & Willard has made ethically-sourced, high-quality clothing for a wide array of celebrity clients, including the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Pippa Middleton, Gemma Arterton, Michelle Dockery, Naomie Harris and Elisabeth Moss. Business Advice chatted to Rehman to find out more about her sustainable fashion business model.
(1) Who are you and what’s your business?
My name is Heidy Rehman, I am the founder and CEO of Rose & Willard, an ethical workwear brand for professional women. Rose & Willard literally means “feminine and bold”.
I set up my brand after a 14-year long stockbroking career in the City of London. I struggled to find office-appropriate career wear that could stand up to the demands of my role and position. So, I decided to create it myself and offer a solution for working women!
(2) How long have you been around for?
We launched in September 2014, so just over three years.
(3) How do you make money?
We sell British-made womenswear online.
(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?
Rose & Willard is the only ethical and sustainable workwear brand with a commitment to empowering women and promoting model diversity and positive body image.
As part of our ethical stance, I can categorically state that there is no worker exploitation anywhere along our supply chain, and we are one of a very small number of fashion houses that pays its interns. We offer flexible working for all our staff, and particularly those with family commitments, because we believe in promoting general meritocracy within the fashion industry.
From an environmental perspective, we believe we have the lowest carbon footprint in the industry. In the clothing industry, 15 to 20 per cent of fabric is discarded during production on average. We keep any leftover fabric and re-design it, and we also donate leftover fabric to fashion students.
Our pieces are made to last years not months and this means that, in order to provide quality, we must seek the commensurate materials. Our fabric is sourced from the same Italian mills as high-end, luxury designers. Our team compromises highly-skilled seamstresses and creatives.
Another differentiating factor about our business is that I am one of only a small number of South Asian fashion business leaders and one with a working-class background. As in any industry, it is diversity at the decision-making level that facilitates progress.
(5) What are the main aims of your online marketing strategy?
What Rose & Willard always looks to communicate is the quality and beauty of our product. That is the key challenge with online marketing where the customer doesn’t have the opportunity to either see or feel the product. To this end, we have to find a way to communicate that through visual marketing and skilful photography and videos.
We also like to share the story of our brand. Many people now don’t just buy products, they also want to relate to the companies that make them. This is important to us because we know that our brand identity and ethos resonates with people who are looking to participate in positive social and environmental change. Overall, we find that we are part of a community of like-minded people.
(6) To what extent do you rely on social media to attract customers?
Social media has become critical to any business. These platforms have allowed people to connect in a way that was never possible before. Not only is it a great way to develop brand awareness but it’s ideal for feedback, which helps us improve and create new products that people want.
As an example, we noticed on Twitter that women were calling for dresses with pockets and had trouble finding them. We took that on board and created them.
We’ve had the opportunity to directly engage with customers (and potential customers) in ways that simply aren’t possible with the more traditional advertising methods.
(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?
I went from working for one of the world’s largest investment banks to setting up a micro business. In my previous role, I could easily ask for a meeting with the CEO of a publicly-listed company.
However, in my current role in a very small company I can easily be pushed to the back of the queue. Indeed, this is what happened before we launched. We had an order at a factory which was pushed back months because a luxury, and more influential brand had turned up.
Not only was our order late but we were also faced with a number of quality control issues (the best seamstresses were allocated to the bigger brand). This left us having to re-organise our entire launch strategy.
The silver lining was that this motivated me to find skilled seamstresses who I could rely on for in-house, quality production. I now have no quality control issues and a team of expert creatives. Setbacks will happen, but it’s important to learn from them.
(8) In five years’ time, I will be…
Selling Rose & Willard pieces that are made from innovative, recycled materials. There are companies that are making fabrics from waste, such as plastic bottles. This industry is in its nascent stages but should be able to develop a broad range of fabrics before too long and we’re looking forward to using them.
(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?
There is no substitute for experience. When I set up Rose & Willard I had to learn the technicalities of making clothing – it was a very steep learning curve.
I would recommend that people get involved in an industry before they embark on a new venture. Not only will the experience help, it is a way to make contacts and to determine whether that choice of industry is actually right for you.
(10) Who would you most like to partner with in business, and why?
In the fashion industry, it would be Paul Smith simply because he has been a true pioneer in British fashion. It was Paul Smith who changed the identity of fashion to incorporate not just heritage but also modern design, and without any compromise to quality. His designs remain innovative but also wearable. He’s also a great businessman.
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