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30 Digital Champions: The luxury millinery designer supporting brides, celebrities and startups

In partnership with Microsoft, our journey to discover the UK SMEs adopting digital for business growth continues as we hear from the founder of Katherine Elizabeth Millinery about her love of tech and how it’s helped her build her luxury fashion business.
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Though advised at school to pursue a career as a secretary, Katherine Elizabeth ignored the suggestion of her teacher and set out to chase her dream of opening a fashion company.

Her perseverance paid off and her London-based millinery operation, Katherine Elizabeth Millinery, which she considers an art, now boasts brides, celebrities and other designers as customers.

Determined to pay her good fortune forward, Elizabeth also plans to pay her good fortune forward with a spinoff venture designed to inspire fellow women of a creative mind.

A keen user of technology to scale the fashion business, Elizabeth finds her luxury enterprise named in the 30 Digital Champions.

(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?

I am an award-winning couture millinery designer who is based in London and I absolutely love creating hat sculptures and running my own business! It all started about 18 years ago when I discovered a passion for millinery through great millinery such as Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones and Frederic Fox.

I have a passion for art and a 3D mind so it all fits together – millinery is art, sculpture and fashion all in one.

I now design for ladies who are going to the races, brides, celebrities, fashion designers and I also hold private events for people who would like to learn the art of millinery.

(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?

The biggest growth milestones have been taking on a PR to promote and build the brand but also finding the finances to pay for this without bringing in an investor. You need to have a large amount of capital in order to pay for a luxury brand and it can be hard to juggle this in the early years.

However, bringing on a PR to promote was the best thing I could have done because as a designer it’s hard to promote yourself, especially in the beginning – publicity builds publicity.

The second would be developing and building the events side of the business, as that has helped my couture design side a great deal. I think it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open to change and be able to adapt your business.

Trends, technology and fashion are changing more rapidly these days and we need to keep up without losing site of our original goal.

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(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?

I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was young, I remember talking to my teacher on a careers day and telling him that I wanted to set up a fashion company, he told me to stop being silly and concentrate on being a secretary!

I think that situations like that should motivate you into creating a successful business and you should never believe negative talk, but use it to fuel your ambition instead.

People who inspire me to be an entrepreneur are Richard Branson, who also cares about the environment, and designers such as Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood – she influenced me a lot when I was young – and Dior! Also other designers such as Zaha Hadid and Thomas Heatherwick.

I absolutely love being and entrepreneur and I think it influences my business a great deal, most of your life is taken up with work so you have to love what you do. I have also just started a new blog to help other designers branch out into the entrepreneurial space and set up their own businesses called Inspiring Creative Women.

(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?

Obstacles I encounter are having enough time to create the collections, see clients, run the business and build the brand. I also have to create enough revenue to cover all the running costs, staff, marketing and PR.

I am learning to be more organised and creating plans instead of running from job to job and dealing with things as they come up. Some of the business marketing is about being seen and networking, giving talks and putting on shows. All of this takes time, doesn’t make you any immediate revenue but does build the brand and is important.

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(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?

Over the last couple of years, we have put a lot more emphasis on social media, the website and blog – in the past you would write letters to clients, put out ads and rely on word of mouth.

I think the technology age is fascinating. Everything is so much faster now and you can reach people that you would never have been able to reach in the past, but we also have information overload.

I suffer from entrepreneur HDHD as they call it, I want to meet everyone, read everything and I don’t want to miss out of knowledge – but as there is now so much information out there, we can’t possibly read it all. You have to be selective and use things that will enhance your business, this might be via social media, website development or apps.

(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?

Technology has helped me network with more clients and bring in business that I wouldn’t have been able to bring in before, however, it’s very time consuming to keep on top of all of this.

I try to write a blog once a month but sometimes this doesn’t happen, we also use Facebook and tweet everyday. Instagram is a great way to gain followers but you can also get lost on it with all the beautiful images – you have to be conscious about time.

Content is also important, don’t post any old thing for the sake of putting something up, make it count and be valuable to your customers.

(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?

We usually start work at 10.30am to avoid rush hour in London and work until 6pm. Lunchtime is actually quite busy because this is when all the social media happens, as well as before we go home.

I usually work into the night most evenings, as this is my quiet time to get things done, such as planning for the future, looking over new technology and developing my business, so I suppose things are flexible.

I don’t do it because I have to, I do it because I love it! Technology saves times and helps new businesses get into the limelight without big budgets.

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(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?

There are all the social media apps, newsletter templates, website development plug-ins and my tablet. Also, apps such as Canva, MailChimp and photo filter apps.

(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?

On the design side I really want to get into 3D laser printers. In social media I need to start looking at social engagement tools to make things faster.

(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?

I would like to work with more designers and produce a bolder collection for London Fashion Week and Paris – I will also be developing the event side of the business and working with more corporate companies.

Another exciting development is building up a new arm to the business called ‘Inspiring Creative Women’, which will be helping other creative startup businesses develop and grow.

I have had a lot of help from others over the years and without them my millinery business would not be where it is today, so I want to give something back to others who are starting out. I will teach people about the luxury market and also specialise in selling online.

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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