Our Founder Isobel Ridley Speaks at Swinton Park
Posted on October 15 2021
Yesterday, our founder Isobel Ridley spoke at Swinton Park Hotel for Cundall Manor School's ladies lunch. Scroll below to see some pictures of the beautiful estate and to read her speech.
Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak to you, it’s a great honour and if you have any queries or questions, please do not hesitate to ask.
When Hannah kindly asked me to come and speak, I sat down and mapped out what I was going to talk about and what you would be interested in hearing. I decided the best place to start is to take you back to the beginning and talk to you about why I set up the company and take it from there.
After leaving Durham university I was fortunate to be offered a job at Burberry where I spent a few years gaining experience and learning a few tricks of the trade, it was a fascinating time which I thoroughly enjoyed.
However, I was forever on the hunt for flattering t-shirts which I could pair with patterned skirts, trousers or even be smart enough to wear under a suit jacket.
I started to research the market and discovered there was a gap for quality t-shirts that were flattering to wear, smart, not see through, washed well and did not cost the earth both in a monetary sense and environmentally.
So back in 2013, I handed in my notice and told my boss I was going to France to learn French.
My attempt to learn French lasted a sum of three weeks, I got itchy feet and I thought I should crack on to make my idea into a reality. I remember very vividly going for a walk with my dad and he asking me: what I was going to do as I didn’t have a job and my learning French really was not going very well.. my response being that I am going to set up a clothing company, he turned to me and said ‘but Isobel you must have a business plan, you can’t be serious if you haven’t’. Low and behold I walked off, sat down wrote a business plan and filed the incorporation documents at companies house and Lavender Hill came to life.
That was nearly eight years ago today.
On reflection, I was a little crazy, I was 24, had few connections and there was no way I was going to be offered a loan or investment from a third party. However, I had a few savings from when I worked as a cook in my university holidays, a love for the product I was producing and the will to make the business work.
Lavender Hill began with seven styles of t-shirts in black and white in varying necklines, sleeve lengths and fits. Today the range covers nightwear, loungewear, socks, cashmere accessories and still quite a few t-shirts. We sell directly to consumers across the world, The Times newspaper considers us as one of the top 30 sustainable brands and we’re very lucky to have some high profile customers: men and women including politicians and British Royalty, old and young.
From day one, Lavender Hill has been about producing a product that is not only super soft to wear, flattering, easy to care for but produced in a thoughtful and mindful way.
When researching fabrics I was amazed to find that there were all these new fabrics on the market that I had never heard of, that had better properties functionally and environmentally than traditional fabrics like cotton and polyester. These properties include being antibacterial, breathable, having a natural stretch, being crease resistant but most importantly are all incredibly soft and use half the amount of water than traditional fabrics when there being made. I have bought a few along so please do have a look and feel later on.
But what is amazing is that these fabrics are made from trees, the fabric Tencel modal which we use in our core t-shirt range derives from beech trees and we have a licence with a German/Austrian company who responsibly grows and processes the trees in a carbon neutral environment. We have also started using a new fabric this year called Lyocell that derives from Eucalyptus trees which is prefect for our nightwear and base layers as it is moisture wicking, anti-bacterial and heat regulating. I’ve also bought some of the wood chips and fibres along so you can see the process and in the back of the brochure there is a page that explains more about the fabrics we use.
I have forever been passionate about how and where we produce our clothes and for seven years we manufactured over 90% of our products here in the UK and we have always shown where and how we manufacture our items on our website. However, last year we had to completely change our production as when covid hit nearly all our UK factories shut down and we were seeing an increase in demand for our products. I had to make a commercial decision to start producing more of our goods in Portugal and thank goodness we did as last year was quite a ride!
We were in about week three of the first lockdown when there was a lot of press circulating about the lack of hospital gowns and PPE in the country and there were people sitting at home making it themselves for their local hospitals, I thought that this was ridiculous as quite simply not enough would be made. I set about chatting to my suppliers about how we could source some fabric and see if our factories or contacts could help, I was quickly told that there was one roll of PPE fabric in the UK and it was not going to be coming to us. I didn’t give up and spoke to our German raw material supplier to see if they had an alternative fabric as the fibres they produce can also be turned into medical grade and fire retardant fabrics so I thought there might be a possibility that they could help. It was from these conversations I started to think about making comfortable masks for everyday use.
I pondered the idea for a while as we still needed to find a fabric that could prevent the spread, be breathable and not take away from the NHS while being environmentally friendly.
The turning point was when I had a customer call, who said that she had not left the house in six weeks for fear of catching covid and I started to think about what we could do to help and get people out and about.
It was at this point I contacted my garment manufacturers in Portugal and asked them to start developing some different styles of cotton reusable facemasks with an antibacterial finish.
I was living with my sister and her family at this point and when I received the first batch and tried them on, my two year nephew burst into tears and I quickly realised that if we were going to produce masks we needed to make them as fun and as friendly as possible, which is why produced them in lots of different patterns.
By mid-April I had put a first run of 300 masks through to see if there was any demand. (Bare in mind this was when we were being instructed to stay at home by the government and there was no guidance on wearing masks out and about).
While considering the offering, I also wanted to help our community and decided to make it an initiative that for every pack purchased we would donate another three masks to charities within Wandsworth. To our amazement we had sold the first batch before they had been delivered and we didn’t hold any stock of face masks until September. The demand was so high that I would ask my production manager to take a photo of the new designs on his desk and we would upload the picture onto our site and within minutes they would be sold out even with a waiting time of over two weeks. We sold the masks to customers across the world (including Wuhan) and we went on to donate over 20 000 masks by the end of the summer.
On a personal front, last year was quite simply one of the strangest/surliest times of my life, I was called up by Sky news, ITV and BBC radio to speak about this face mask campaign I had set up. I had never spoken publicly before and when I was counted down into the live Jo Good show that was certainly a ripping the plaster off moment as even though I was standing in the safety of my parents living room in East Sussex and having a friendly telephone call with Jo, there were 100 000 listeners and I had no idea what questions I was going to be asked. I promptly put the phone down after speaking with Jo and started picking up the phone to customers. The website and company quite simply exploded.
It was from this that we were featured in most publications and it was when we were on ITV This Morning the sales really came in and I quite simply shut my laptop called my production manager and told him that the 5000 face mask order I had placed at 9am to cover us over the weekend was not big enough, we’d already sold them and it was only 10.30am.
While I had been hurriedly making sure the orders were being dispatched, Lavender Hill had also started to be endorsed by the likes of Amanda Holden, Trinny Woodall, Ginnie Chadwick-Healey and the serial entrepreneur Liz Earle. This increase in awareness for all the collection allowed me to expand the business and team while staying true to our routes of always keeping our customers front of mind when developing new styles and growing the company sustainably, both in a financial and environmentally friendly way.
Earlier this year we had the privilege of joining as a supporter of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales sustainable markets initiative, the Terra Carta.
The Terra Carta provides a road map for businesses to move towards an ambitious and sustainable future. I am thrilled to be a supporter and it’s a privilege to work with pioneering brands to reduce our impact and find new ways of working.
But one of the key learnings over the last few years has been the lack of knowledge about new processes and practises that we can all use to reduce our impact, which is why we now partner with fellow brands to help spread their message.
Which now leads me on to what our current initiatives (bar from selling really quite lovely clothes). This autumn we have joined forces with Thrift+ and with every order we include one of their bags within our parcels.
If you’re new to Thrift+, like I was, it’s a platform trying to move charities shops online but most importantly to promote repurposing our old clothes. As I am sure, like me you have a cupboard full of clothes that you probably don’t really wear, if you do and would like to take advantage of Thrift+ please do take a bag away with you.
But the campaign I am excited to tell you today about is a campaign close to my heart, the launch of our new charity heart socks. 15% of sales will be donated to Breast Cancer UK. The aim of the campaign is to drive awareness on cancer prevention and what we all need to look out for, as nearly a quarter of cases are preventable if caught early. Our heart socks come in a pack of three with little hearst embroidered on the ankles, they are £25 per pack and come with information about what to look out for and how we can reduce our risk. They make a super gift for now or even for christmas.
But back to tees and where we began, we really are your one stop shop to finding your perfect t-shirt, whether you’re going to work, having a dinner party or taking the dog for a walk.
Thank you very much for listening.