She might dress the stars but life for Kate Fearnley is as much about the tough decisions that come with running a small business as it is about fashion design. Alastair Gilmour reports
MENTION “taffeta” to mature journalists and visions of ball gowns and wedding dresses rustle down the mind’s aisle. Fortunately, the North East’s most creative fashion designer is happy to dismiss that particular image.
Kate Fearnley works in the material for top-class outlets, including her own Middlesbrough boutique, and for celebrities who are known for their dress sense rather than their behaviour. And, it’s paying dividends for the former Northumbria University student who regularly picks up awards for her entrepreneurial drive, her vision and her leadership.
“I specialise in taffeta,” says Kate, who is possibly best described as a “passion designer”. “It’s not the bridesmaid type of fabric, but with quirky twists and a young edge on traditional dresses and an emphasis on bright colours. I love colour, texture and fabrics.”
The mature journalist also had this impression of someone sitting all day at a drawing board with seamstresses all gathered around waiting for designer’s inspiration to transform into patterns for running up and dressing mannequins with something stunningly creative. Kate, however, gently bursts that preconceived bubble.
“There are seamstresses in the family – I have a very creative family – so I saw the reality side of the fashion business,” she says. “It didn’t put me off, fashion was all I wanted to do and I chose the subjects at school that I needed and had it all planned.
“As a designer, you’re going to run your own business at some time but my university year out was in London which was another reality check. A lot of people don’t understand how difficult it is, they think it’s about drawing dresses or just setting up a label or opening a shop. But having your own business is so hard; there are so many highs and so many lows, but for me, it’s worth it.
“Sitting in an attic for 20 hours a day isn’t glamorous at all. I sleep here (in the workshop) quite a lot, there are lots of deadlines and I don’t like to let shop customers down, which doubles the work. Customers are used to getting everything from the shop, and are used to everything being made here, like a bespoke boutique.”
If Kate experienced the downside of the fashion business in London, even tougher times lay in wait in the North East. After graduating she had a choice of jobs but rejected the capital for a Billingham company which designed and manufactured clothing for national outlets and had its own agency. She was part of the design team until a vicious trading spell sapped the will of the owners who threw in the towel.
“They didn’t want to continue,” says Kate. “In 2001 I set up my own business and got the opportunity to buy a lot of machinery from the company. I literally took over the equipment and the rent and had to have a collection ready within a couple of weeks. I even went on the road myself before I found an agency.
“I got a lot of help from Business Link and The Prince’s Trust. I had no qualifications in that direction but they made me do a business plan then gave me a grant to help me set up and mentored me – they still do. Business Link has been brilliant, I’m always hassling them, especially with employment issues.”
Kate now has a London agency which has taken on her collection for this season in its showrooms in Camden and in Piccadilly in Manchester.
“And I’ve had the shop for three years and things are starting to turn around with a lot of regular customers,” she says. “I have five staff – we do all the manufacturing here – and I’ve got a girl on placement from Northumbria University at the moment; I like to do that. I hardly have time for the design side just now – I’m part of the production team – but I’m always thinking and looking at fabrics.
“I’m trying to get the manufacturing done elsewhere, preferably in Britain if can find something suitable. It’s a big leap; they will have to be up to our standard. But I like to keep the shop stocked in-house so I can feel confident of the quality.
“It’s taken seven years to get to this point and I now have people doing my PR plus I’ve even got my own PA. It feels good although it’s not about me any more – but it’s got my business to another level.”
Kate’s designs have caught the attention of celebrities such as Coleen McLoughlin, Jennifer Ellison and Nicki Sanderson as well as the cast of Hollyoaks. She has styled and stocked the ITV2 show Wags Boutique and gathered numerous awards which include a nomination for the Grazia Magazine Entrepreneur Awards in 2007; she was Young Woman Entrepreneur in 2004 and North East Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2003. She still has her feet placed firmly on the cutting-room floor, however.
“I’m doing talks at a school,” she says. “It’s important to talk to 14-and 15-year-olds, though I never had the time before.”
It’s the difference between fashion designer and passion designer.