Designer Interview: Davina Combe

Dedicated to designing beautiful and accessible contemporary jewellery, emerging London-based designer Davina Combe launched Davina Combe Jewellery in December 2011, and has since seen her designs celebrated in InStyle, Grazia, The Telegraph, and Stylist, among others. I recently snatched a few minutes of her time to delve into how she has approached the thorny world of design startups…

DESIGN

Hello! First of all – what is your design background and how did you go about setting up Davina Combe Jewellery? Do you have a Masters in jewellery making?

Not at all,  there are so many different routes people take.  I ran a jewellery business through school and university where I made and sold a range of designs to friends, family and boutiques. After University I did several short courses at Central St Martins College of Art, but I learnt the most doing work experience with jewellery designers themselves since this is where you see first hand how a business works day to day. The courses I studied were in designing and making, but at the end of the day you learn very quickly that it is the other aspects of the business that are also incredibly important. Yes – an appealing and well-crafted product is key, but the way you market it and sell it is also important. Design is almost the easy part – especially if you are passionate about it! Passion is key.

Great – that is hugely inspiring for me! What inspires your collections?

Colour and the stones are often my starting point, and then I focus on commerciality and wearability; making pieces that can be worn on a huge variety of occasions, or all the time.

Davina’s beautiful signature stacking rings.

How did you go about finding your niche in the market?

My designs are about elegance, good quality, and affordability, and I got to this understanding of where my product would sit via the following ways:

  • Looking at competitors – looking at who I wanted to be sold next to, what their highest, lowest and average price points were.
  • Focus groups – getting together with friends and getting feedback on my design ideas – how much would they pay for it? It is vital to get honest opinions from a variety of people.
  • Pinpointing my ideal customer – asking questions such as where do they shop? What do they do at the weekend? Have they got children? What income do I think they have? The more specific you are the easier the design process is as it provides a vital focus.

You might even end up having two categories of customers; I’ve worked out that mine range from 18 -25 yr olds that love shopping at Zara and Whistles to young professionals and mothers.

BUSINESS AND SALES

How has the reality of running your own business differed from the dream?

Well in the early stages it is definitely not as glamorous! Friends envy me for my freedom, but the reality is that it is not a 9 to 5 and really becomes your life!  You have to be the type of person who can stay motivated and focused.

How much time do you dedicate to creativity versus business?

I spend 20% of my time designing new collections and making new pieces. Day to day a lot of time is spent on fulfilling orders, marketing and communicating with stockists and suppliers.

Do you have stockists?

Yes, my sales are through a mix of wholesale and retail. While the relationships I have grown with boutiques has been quite organic, they are on the whole positioned in the same demographic location as my target customer, so I know I am on track in terms of hitting the right people. At the moment my London stockists include Katie & Jo, Pipa, Felt, Indian Summer, Feather & Stitch, and Tzefira.

PRODUCTION

How did you go about sourcing your manufacturer, and can you give any tips on getting the most out of the designer/ manufacturer relationship?

The gold dust is getting a recommendation from someone you trust and who has worked with the manufacturer in the past. With jewellery, there are huge fairs where you can find all your network under the same roof, which is how I came across the company I am currently working with. Likewise, there are a number of agents working for manufacturers who provide another avenue of finding the right supplier.

In terms of tips, I’d say its essential to make sure that every decision is in writing so that nothing can be disputed, so follow up every phone call with an email. It’s also important to find out delivery lead times and minimum orders, as being forced to order too much can often cripple a business. Also, keep checking that your order is coming along as expected as invariably there will be delays.

Can you describe the process of getting your items made, from inception, to being on the neck, ear or hand of a happy customer:

I start off by thinking of a particular concept, developing it through different visual stimulants, colours, and looking at the cut of stones. My designs are inherently simple and wearable, so the key things I focused on in my current collection were my favourite gemstones and the textured metal surface. At the design stage I’ll fill a sketchbook with drawings from cover to cover, before cutting it right back to my two favourite rings, earrings, etc., all while looking to maintain a unity between each of the pieces and ensuring that aspects of each design will ensure that the piece will stay in a particular price bracket. Once I have refined the collection, I show my designs to my manufacturer and we discuss stone prices and details and then samples will be made, which can often be tweaked again before finalising the design. I am currently aiming to produce one collection a year and the whole process takes about 6 months, from the first idea to the final design having been made.

GENERAL TIPS

What do you find most difficult?

Multitasking! Working alone means juggling lots of things, and its vital to keep an eye on every aspect of the business!

What advice would you give the you of two years ago now? 

Go for it  – as for anyone, to have your own business is a dream, but I would advise that it can be much harder than you could ever expect – you have got to love what you do, as it is all encompassing. I would also tell myself to keep at it, as it has been immensely rewarding!

I can’t wait to see your next collection – what can we expect?

Ooh – well it is coming in November and you can expect a combination of delicacy and knots….

 

 

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Business plan 101

Putting pen to paper and churning out a 15 page document mapping out the backbone of your business can be an excruciating task, despite the wealth of resources and guides at our finger tips via the web. To help me along the way, I decided a bit of interactive focus wouldn’t go amiss, so last Thursday I found myself biking over to Tottenham Court Road to attend a workshop run by Alison Lewy of Fashion Angel, entitled “how to write a business plan”, aimed at fashion design businesses.

While these kinds of workshops inevitably put forward the same guidelines and tips contained in business guide books which you can get for a fraction of the price, the money spent was well worth it  – as the interactive style workshop ensures that you come away with better presentation skills, a clearer idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your idea, and maybe a fruitful contact or two found through networking.

Here are some key points I took away with me from the workshop:

  • A business plan is essential to provide a clear structure for your business, as well as to create momentum and keep you along the right path.
  • Research is key, and will form the most labour intensive part of the process, from looking at your market segment, ideal customer, competitive field, price points, to targeted boutiques.
  • Financial forecasts can be brutal tasks, but are vital in order to draw all the aspects of the plan together in numerical form, and of course ensure that you make money!
  • Business plans evolve – they are not static, so keep on adding to it as your business grows and changes

The workshop put a useful amount of emphasis and time on how to put together financial forecasts, and to monitor cash flows – no doubt both the dreaded nemesis of any designer! So all in all a productive morning, and very useful to meet Alison, who has just written a book called “Design, Create, Sell”, offering advice on cracking the hard nut of the fashion industry, which I’m sure is vital reading…

What’s in a product? Finding your Fashion Niche

Differentiating items: Hussein Chalayan’s Table skirt, and Roland Mouret’s Galaxy Dress

This week I am looking at The Product; firstly, finding your niche in the market place and what makes you sellable, followed by the process of design itself. I am also excited to be interviewing London jewellery designer Davina Combe later in the week, who will share some of her industry tips with us. 

Finding your fashion niche

During my research, one point continues to be reiterated above all else: the importance of filling a market need. Failure to do so can only result in an unsellable first collection and the debt induced ruination of your fashion dream. (Sorry to be morbid). To rub salt in the wound, our very own grand dame of fashion Vivienne Westwood spoke out recently to strongly discourage anyone from joining the fashion ranks as there are simply “enough of us now…. Why on earth would you want to do that?”

However, if the nation’s anarchist darling can’t put you off – here are the key points to consider in order to define your product, and find your fashion niche…

Know your customer:

That means – what is their age, income, job, where do they shop, what do they like, what defines them?

ALICE by Temperley’s ideal customer exudes Brit-girl cool – think Daisy Lowe and Amber le Bon. DKNY designs for women looking for New York street smart style, combining comfort and luxury. The McQ by Alexander McQueen customer looks for a combination of rock‘n’roll with classic craftsmanship, with a rebellious nostalgic flair. Dian Von Furstenberg said of her customer: “The DVG customer still dress dresses very much the way she did when she was 20, and somehow manages not to look absurd doing so.”  Notably, your ideal costumer will often be different from your actual customer, for instance: Alexander Wang’s ideal costumer is said to be a “Model Off Duty”, whereas his actual customer is a young professional in the city who aspires to that image.

Find a unique selling point (the tricky bit):

Why is the customer going to shop with you rather than with your competitors – what differentiating factors does your product have that makes it stand out?

Whilst all providing luxury womenswear, Alice Temperley is treasured as being quintessentially British, Missoni for wild prints, and Stella McCartney for a refusal to use any animal products. Toms Shoes are unique for their business model of donating a pair of shoes to a child in need with every purchase made, and in the furniture retail sector, Made.com are unique in their model of crowdsourcing, in which the customer plays an interactive and decisive role in the end product.

The important thing is to stand out and remain sellable, whether it’s through your brand’s ethical message, use of colour, cut, or product price.

Other Key learnings I’ll consider when planning my product development:

–       Is my collection consistent so that the costumer can identify my brand?

–       Have I factored in current trends?

–       Does my product have commercial appeal AS WELL as standing out?

–       Have I selected the right price point, and ensured quality control over the items?

That’s all for now! If you want to read further about Unique Selling Points in fashion, here are a couple of great resources: 10 Examples of Killer Unique Selling Propositions on the Web Finding a Niche: Make your Business Plans Stand Out

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“Fabric Frenzy at Première Vision”

A brief brainstorm on sourcing Fabrics

Première Vision Paris, which took place last week, is heralded as the top tier designer fabric show in the world, attracting the major fashion houses among its 50,000 visitors. Beyond the world’s most luxurious fabrics and trimmings, the show also offers trend seminars and specialist advice including copyrighting your product.

However, those unable to make it shouldn’t be discouraged, as the following are also touted as excellent resources for their respective specialties:

–       Pitti Filati in Florence, specializing in yarns and clour (2325 January 2013)

–       Linea Pelle in Bologna, for leather (twice yearly in April and October)

–       Tissu Premier in Lille, woven fabric specialists (28-29 Nov’12)

–       Texworld, generally considered to be cheaper than PV and better suited to middle range producers (17-20 September 2012)

And for UK based fairs:

–       Textile Forum, fabrics from UK and continental mills (17-18 October 2012)

–       The London Textile Fair, mills and suppliers mainly from Europe (23-24 January 2013)

Fibre2fashion and Textile World are both useful sources to browse global fabric events, and even if you are unable to take the trip, it is definitely worth following fabric conferences and fairs online, via blogs, twitter and Facebook, to keep up-to-date with the ever-increasing innovations and ethical issues at the forefront of the marketplace.  For instance, a conference I’ll be following online will be the 2012 Sustainable Textiles Conference in Hong Kong (4-5 October), billed as a focus on “Innovation, Investment, Impacts and Integrity”, which has a host of key speakers lined up including Cotton Connect’s CEO Rosanne Gray, to discuss the future of the textile industry.

With greater importance being placed on ethical practices, and consumers gradually changing the way they purchase products, there are numerous ethical resources popping up to meet the need of the ethical fashion designer. I’ll touch more on those in a later post, but in terms of sourcing sustainable fabrics, Offset Warehouse, Source4Style, and Social Alterations are useful go-to sites.

Key things to bear in mind when sourcing fabric:

–       Navigating around trade fairs: go to fairs on the last day when it’s quieter, armed with business cards, to provide your business with credibility.  If you can’t go, use the exhibitor directory as a database of fabric mills (for instance on the Premiere Vision site you can see who all the silk suppliers are, and their respective agents)

–       Sourcing from Abroad: Orders from mills abroad can invariably be late, which can have a knock on effect on the whole production process. Designers often experience misprinted colours, fabric which is of different quality to the sample, and a failure to figure in potential shrinkage after pressing and steaming.

–       Minimum Orders: if the minimum order is too large and you can’t afford the surcharge, business consultant Toby White suggests either tacking it onto the end of another major order, or buying a large amount of fabric and dying it yourself and stick to a simple range in one fabric.

I’d be keen to hear of other fabric resources, experiences or pitfalls to look out for, so do get in touch! xx

Tuesday Focus: All eyes on London for #LFW

Fashion editors are sighing into their cappuccinos nationwide as London Fashion Week draws to a close today, ending a pivotal week in the UK annual fashion calendar, which has held a spotlight over this £21 billion industry highlighting the formidable position occupied by the UK within the global fashion arena.

The breakdown of London Fashion Week goes as follows: International buyers from 28 countries, press from 42 countries, 62 catwalk shows, over 5000 visitors, and a whopping £100million of orders.

The UK fashion industry is a serious business, and sector spokespeople are remarking on the transformation from the 70s and 80s heyday of carefree creativity, where commerciality played an ultimately unforgiving second fiddle, to the current culture of nurturing emerging designers who are able to assert a recognised foothold on this notoriously ruthless sector.

British Fashion Council Ambassador Sarah Mower attributes this development towards a cultural shift, a movement towards “collective action, cooperation, generosity and camaraderie”; during the last decade there has been a greater emphasis placed upon mentor schemes, and a general “share and share alike” attitude between the new designers on the block (Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic, Erdem) has compounded London into a thriving design centre.

On this morning’s Today programme, designer Patrick Grant differentiated young London designers as having “an emerging creative flair” that isn’t matched by other European cities such as Paris and Milan, noting the culture of nurture that has played such a heavy hand in London’s success.

From my perspective as an aspiring designer, I couldn’t think of a better entry point into the industry than London, and it is precisely the pioneering attitude of the small British fashion businesses celebrated by London Fashion Week that provides the motivation and incentive to stand among them as peers.

London Fashion Week highlights:

Playful 50s skirts at Temperley London, Alice’s “favourite ever collection”

90s grunge at House of Holland

Mary Katrantzou’s postage stamp-inspired collection

Welcome! Here’s a bit about me…

I’m a London based, 26 year old aspiring designer currently committed to launching a startup fashion label in 2013. Significantly, I have had no formal design training bar a couple of short courses at the London School of Fashion, but fuelled by a lifelong passion of clothes-making and the sense of “I can do anything” furore propelled by the Olympics, I quit my Arts PR job in July to launch myself, hook line and sinker, into the treacherous waves of fashion’s vast expanse. Here I invite you to observe whether I sink or swim!

I’d like to use this blog for two reasons:

There seems to be an unsatisfying lack of transparency in the rag trade for people like me: fashion hopefuls taking the plunge without the network and support enabled by a 3 year honours degree at Central St Martins. For those of you who are in the know – please bear with me – but what I have been unsuccessfully trying to determine is WHERE are these purported factories in eastern Europe or on the Chinese border, and HOW do you hear about them? A good network, useful contacts and a pinch of luck seems to be the general consensus – but as a result of this seeming lack of a general fashion directory or go-to forum  which is FREE – I thought it would be useful to raise these questions here for other fashion entrepreneurs to read about, and hopefully add to!

The second use of this blog is simply to Get.On.Line. Marketing is arguably the most important factor of running a successful clothing label, for if no one is privy to the crystal-embellished, hand-embroidered, leather-quilted, bespoke treasures you are artfully creating, you may as well be churning out a range of recycled diapers. Now  – I realise this might be a foolhardy and naive move – for if you are trying to promote a luxury clothing label, the customers buying said luxury pieces probably don’t want to know, or buy into the fact that you have been working in MacDonalds every Friday to fund your internet connection, and that the personal assistant, sales manager, and garment technician they spoke to on the phone when ordering their new item, was in fact just little old you.

Nevertheless, this is a reality for many new designers, and if I can inspire even a fraction of camaraderie and mentorship to assist others during those fractious founding moments, and visa versa, I’ll be pretty content.

So, from here on, I aim to share weekly insights into my startup journey, as well as interviewing two designers a month to reveal their highs and lows of launching and running their own fashion business.

Please enjoy reading, and get in touch if you have any insights or questions! xx