A rough ride to fashion excellence: An interview with Amanda Wakeley, OBE

Entrepreneur Series

To describe fashion entrepreneur Amanda Wakeley’s journey to success as eventful would be a significant understatement.

A seasoned expert in snatching achievement from the jaws of failure, Amanda has fought and won in her quest to bring ‘lifestyle luxury’ clothing design to discerning women over a period of 25 years and counting.

There is a school of thought that portrays the best entrepreneurs as having avoided traditional education in favour of a slice of real life. It undoubtedly rings true for Amanda Wakeley, a self-taught, one-woman fashion brand that cut her cloth while standing up to some of the hardest knocks that being in business can throw.

At 19 years old, the free spirit in her took Amanda to New York, where she discovered the sheer potential that women’s fashion could bring: “I always had a passion for creating and as a young girl I would delve into the dressing-up box and run them through my mother’s sewing machine. I worked in New York for about 4 years and that was an incredibly informative experience for me. I always say that it was my university education.”

The professionalism and pace of the fashion sector in the USA coloured Amanda’s view of the UK industry, when she returned to Britain harbouring a frustration with what she saw was the lack of equivalent inspiration on the streets here. The obvious option, therefore, was to make them herself.

“So I set out in a tiny way in 1990, with a small collection of my favourite items to sell to friends and family,” she explains. “That really was the start of it all.”

A recipe of confidence and luck

“It’s very useful to have the confidence that says ‘I can do this’,” says Amanda, speaking of her younger self. “You don’t contemplate failure as it’s not a word that even comes into your vocabulary.”

But luck also played a significant part in that early success. Amanda was introduced to Diana, Princess of Wales by the deputy editor of Vogue magazine who felt they would get on well.

How not to lose control of your brand

The momentum gained with the growth of Amanda’s reputation – most notably when her own designs were being adopted by Princess Diana – led to an unsustainable work cycle of “ridiculous hours” to service her clients. Her then husband proposed a ready-to-wear route and a transfer to him of shares in the business in 1992 that marked a significant shift in direction, but one which ultimately was to prove a disaster for both her marriage and her business.

After the failure of a once-promising High Street collaboration, Amanda found herself “walking away from a marriage and a very angry ex, who sold [her] shares to an investor”.

That investor was Richard Caring – someone who threw Amanda a welcome lifeline for a few years before himself selling on to a Saudi investor who quickly involved a restructuring specialist. Amanda wanted to avoid the trauma of taking him to court and reluctantly took the decision to step down from Amanda Wakeley in 2008.

“I took a few weeks, reeling from shock,” she recounts. “It was violating to have to walk away from your name.” But by 2009, she took the chance to buy her name, IP and business back.

Learning to adapt to change

“As a creative who is driven, and very hard on my own creativity, you constantly strive for the better,” explains Amanda. “We have six different collections on the boil at any one time – so one needs the drive but also to surround yourself with a great team.

“It’s a fascinating time for fashion right now. The Internet is still very much the Wild West and you’re constantly trying to pre-empt what the next best thing is going to be.”

She also singles out the importance of working on your brand presence – something that was little used in 1990, but which now permeates the industry beyond recognition.

The mentor culture

Amanda feels at home with the collaborative approach to working. “I love working with a team around me,” she says. “Hopefully I’m giving them the space to become better versions of themselves. But as Brits we’re very bad at asking for help. I wish I’d reached out more, because I was very guilty of throwing my head down and thinking ‘if I just work hard enough I’ll get through this’.”

“To this day, every time I have a conversation with someone, something useful comes out of it.”

Being customer-centric

For Amanda, the relationship with her customers is very personal and focuses heavily on trust. “The loyalty of your customers is fundamental, and I feel privileged that I have the opportunity to embrace the confidence of the customer and help to push her forward without scaring her,” she explains. “I want my customer to feel that ‘Amanda is always going to dress me appropriately whatever the occasion’.”

The benchmarks for a successful business

“Whatever else, your product has to be fantastic,” says Amanda. “It has to be priced fairly, because the customer has never been as well informed as they are now.

“With product and price, comes marketing. With this frenzied world we live it, there’s never enough time in the day to get that message out, but it’s vital to keep pushing it. We have not always got it right, but that’s what we aspire to do.”

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