Kathryn Sargent could have stayed with one of the oldest and most prestigious tailoring houses in the world for the rest of her career. She was of course infamously known as the first woman in history to be appointed head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes.
Their cutting rooms are witnesses to history with famous figures such as Winston Churchill, The Duke of Wellington, Charlie Chaplin, David Beckham and former US President Clinton fitted for bespoke suits and uniforms.
Instead, after 15 years Sargent decided to leave the secure environment at the renowned clothier, to set up her own shop.
Fast forward five years and 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.’
Sargent tailors for men and women. Her clients, she says, served as inspiration to 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, starting with a modern website.
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.
Speak to a wider audience
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.
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.
-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.
-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.