“Hope is the antithesis of the corporate structure,” says Nayna McIntosh of the fashion for the 40-plus woman brand she founded just over 18 months ago after a long career in retail that took in pivotal roles at some of the high street’s biggest names, including George at Asda, Per Una and Marks & Spencer.
While on the face of it Hope Fashion is not cutting edge or directional (one of the cornerstones of it is “comfort” after all) in many ways it’s a highly disruptive brand and business and McIntosh is an exemplar of a whole new breed of entrepreneur – that of the 40-plus woman creating a new way of working to afford themselves and the people who work with them a more flexible way of life (it’s not just millennials rejecting the 9-5).
For a start the business is (for now anyway) run from McIntosh’s picturesque, and fortunately rather large, Oxfordshire home where all of the team take lunch together in the kitchen (“we just open the fridge and see what’s in there and we all eat together and chat about life”) and monthly strategy meetings are staged in the dining room cum boardroom.
On top of that, not all of the staff come to “office” every day; some of them work remotely and McIntosh is very happy for them to do so. As a mother of two teenagers, she gets the stresses of the “juggle”. “90% of the staff are women and all of them have children, bar two. I wanted to create a true work/life balance,” McIntosh explains.
The culture and ethos of the brand are as important to McIntosh as the product. In fact when she left M&S in 2013, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, other than she wanted her own business. “I knew I wanted to work but I wanted to do it differently, to create a better connection for me, my family and my home, and whatever I did I wanted it to be instinctive, I wanted it to be like breathing to me,” she says.
After M&S she took a year off to think and find the niche. As often is the case with entrepreneurs, she ended up creating something that she felt was missing from her own life, which is to say, stylish, quality clothing for the 40-plus woman that doesn’t cost the earth. And, where possible, she wanted to manufacture that clothing in the UK and Europe.
The 40-plus woman is of course Marks & Spencer’s heartland customer and a market that McIntosh knew very well indeed, as does Lord Stuart Rose the former CEO of the high street retailer and Hope’s biggest backer outside of McIntosh herself. When she decided to set up the brand, she approached Rose for advice and he immediately saw the potential and ended up offering his financial backing as well as the benefit of his experience.
“He knows [that customer], he’s been shouted at by her at enough M&S AGMs,” she half-jokes of Rose. M&S AGMs differ from many others in that private shareholders, often 40-plus women, make a point of turning up partly for the nice food and partly because it gives them the chance to feedback to the CEO and board on the fashion, which usually involves loud demands for more dresses and more sleeves.
But, while it’s easy to laugh at the image of middle-age women getting aerated over sleeve-lengths, there is a serious side to their demands because the truth is, 40-plus women can have a hard time finding clothes that make them feel comfortable and confident (and it’s a market with the a very high spending potential). The truth some designers don’t want to face up to is that women’s bodies change and the kinds of clothes that work for them, particularly after the menopause, are not the kind of clothes that work on models barely out of their teens. McIntosh responds personally to customer enquiries, such as the woman concerned that a clingy dress might not flatter her stomach because she’d had “a couple of operations” (which turned out to be c-sections). McIntosh offered her personal and heartfelt advice and the customer bought the dress, because she “believed” her.
It’s for this reason McIntosh won’t use professional models, not for fittings, nor for photoshoots. Her staff range in age from 19-62 in age and come in all shapes and sizes; they act as the fit models and the brand’s customers model the clothes on the website and in promotional collateral. “Fashion PR hates it,” she says of her decision to use “real” women, but she doesn’t care because customers love it. And that’s just one more way she is ripping up the rule book.
Another is her approach to creating a collection; she has in effect deconstructed the approach to dressing. The Hope line is (literally) underpinned by a core set of products called “Foundation”. These garments are almost an intra-layer that sit over your underwear and under your outwear. When she first launched the collection she started with four shapes and from next season there will be 17.
The Foundation garments are made from a performance jersey that controls the wearer’s body temperature and moisture and key pieces include leggings, a tube skirt and a “flippy” skirt (that can be both be worn in various lengths), stretch dresses, a body, a tunic, t-shirts with various sleeve lengths, and, coming next season, palazzo pants. They come in grey, black and navy and a new charcoal colour is about to be introduced.
In addition to the Foundation the brand offers a series of clever separates such as knitwear, oversize shirts, chiffon shrugs and silk “pop-overs” all made from quality fabrics sourced in the UK and Europe and manufactured in either the UK or Italy.
Given the attention to detail, the quality and the sourcing strategy the price points are very reasonable. McIntosh tries to keep everything under £100 where possible. “If we can’t get it under £95, it just means it can’t be done,” she says. Nonetheless some customers coming to the Hope website do baulk at the price, she admits. “£55 for leggings can look like a lot, which is why we have to do a better job of explaining what’s on the label,” she says, pulling on a tag which shows that basically this is a performance item that can be washed at 30-degrees, shoved in a suitcase and come out looking pristine and which will last for years.
Telling the story in person can get over this hurdle and while McIntosh initially set out to create an online brand she is finding that offline is a key area of growth. She stages personal shopping events at her home/Hope HQ and wholesale is an area she wants to expand; she already has a couple of accounts with independent retailers, as well as with an American department store. And later this month she will be staging a pop-up at Fenwick in Newcastle where she will get the chance to talk customers through the brand in person. “It does take some explaining,” she says, “but it’s not that complicated.”
In fact she has been doing a lot of talking about the brand lately since she is coming to the end of a major crowdfunding exercise and has been meeting with potential investors non-stop. At the time of writing the Hope campaign on Crowdcube was at 92% of its £500,000 target. It’s looking very positive that it will hit the target and McIntosh is refusing to contemplate that it won’t. “It just has to,” he says.
Assuming it does, the money will be spent on developing ecommerce further, expanding the wholesale business and growing internationally (there is further interest from American stores that she wants to capitalize on). “We could end up with a bigger business overseas than in the UK,” she muses. Not that she cares greatly where her customers are, she just wants to help them to dress better and, more importantly, feel better.