The Interview: Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman, co-founders Cucumber Clothing
Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman, whose backgrounds are in fashion and advertising, were friends for 20 years before they decided to take the plunge and launch Cucumber Clothing together. The brand brings the benefits of performance wear – durable, breathable, hi-tech fabrics – to a range of multifunctional items that can take the wearer from bed to the boardroom and beyond.
One of the USPs of Cucumber's clothing is its ability to keep the wearer cool (hence the name) and sustainable credentials are key from the fabrics to the packaging. Cucumber will be taking part in the Six & Sons sustainable pop-up shop that opens in London's South Molton Street for three days from today.
Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and careers before you set up Cucumber?
Nancy’s background is in advertising with Saatchi & Saatchi, followed by several years working in the charitable sector as an advisor on mainly consumer issues; Eileen’s is in fashion helping set up Nicole Fahri’s menswear and more latterly, her own bespoke bag and accessories brand. We felt we had the perfect complementary skills set for our idea. We were also both busy mums, so we recognised the need for a brand like ours for time pressured women who still want to look and feel cool, calm and collected.
How did you meet and what led you to the idea of Cucumber?
We have known each other for a very long time! Like many women of our generation, we met at the school gate when our kids were at primary school. What is so nice, is that two of our sons have remained very good friends, (even flat sharing until last year) and so have we!
We both are keen keep fit fans and often found ourselves wearing our workout gear for more than just working out – what’s not to like? Work out clothes are made for comfort, cooling properties and ease of wear. We were laughing one day about our limited daytime wardrobe, when we had our eureka moment. We both also love clothes, but when you are busy, changing several times a day to serve different activities – working out, walking the dog, picking kids up from school, informal work gear, is just not an option.
We decided to combine the performance benefits of our favourite work out pieces with simple, seasonless designs that fit into every woman’s wardrobe. We designed Cucumber to be multifunctional, taking you from bed, to barre, to boardroom and back again with ease. Our stay fresh, anti-crease fabrics mean that with a bit of accessorising, one outfit can see you through whatever your busy day throws you, and then straight between the sheets in comfort and style. This feeds into our ethos of the beauty of buying less and buying better, which we are all taking more seriously now by streamlining your life with brands you truly love that are simple to care for.
How did you get the brand off the ground and what was the early response to it like?
A key element of our brand is that it helps empowers women at all ages and stages of life. The fact we are not just another brand but one that provides clothing solutions for modern women living fluid lifestyles with overlaps between traditionally distinct areas such as work/home/leisure as well as a blurring of generations, meant we had an interesting story to tell, one that journalists were eager to hear, which in turn meant that journalists were keener to give us column inches.
Two days after we launched, Lisa Armstrong, the fashion director of the Daily Telegraph, wrote a piece on us and honestly, we have never looked back. One thing leads to another and we have since been featured in all major national newspapers – even making it as the number one tip in the Daily Mail on keeping cool. The Telegraph piece also led to Lorraine TV featuring our clothing, a slot on BBC Radio London and several podcast recordings, blogs and vlogs. Thank you Lisa
We both still remember the morning we woke up to a host of sales after our first piece of coverage. For a brand like ours, which is all about the fabric, the hard part is convincing people that the ultra-modern technical fabrics that we use can feel baby soft next to the skin. And, to do all this on a website where there is no opportunity to “feel” the luxuriousness of them. We have found, that once people try, they often come back for more. We have a very high repeat customer rate and many of our early customers are still loyal fans, waiting for our newest collections. Not long now, our bijoux Christmas collection should hit the website within the next month.
As a small start-up with no budget for PR, we have had to shamelessly work every contact we have. We truly appreciate the extraordinary help we have had along the way and in turn, we have made it a point of principle to help other budding entrepreneurs. If launching a new brand in a crowded market place has taught us anything, it is that kindness is key. We can only rise with the help of others.
Can you explain the philosophy of the brand and how you build out the collection, how has it evolved since you started out?
The philosophy is simple – keep it simple! Well made, cut to flatter, multifunctional, long-lasting pieces that work hard for busy women.
When we started out, we launched with a small capsule collection of just six nightwear pieces. We wanted to test the market first and sleep seemed the perfect vehicle as it’s is such a big issue. From customer feedback, we realised how adaptable our pieces are; women were wearing our original V neck dress belted and booted for an evening out and then whipping off their accessories, taking off their makeup and going to bed in the same piece.
From our second collection, other customers were wearing the ruffle dress over their swimming costumes after a morning on the beach for a casual poolside lunch and then putting on a pair of heels in the evening with the same dress belted. We realised that we had created the perfect capsule wardrobe that really does work for all occasions. Now, when we plan collections, we always have this in mind – pieces that are truly multifunctional but always comfortable to wear.
We are about making life simpler – all our fabrics are super easy to care for. As they do not retain any sweat or odours, they need infrequent washing and then only a cold machine wash, no iron and no tumble drying – also better for the environment as less energy used and less microfibres released. No one wants to have a huge dry-cleaning bill any more or spend time at the sink with a pile of handwash only pieces.
What are the key pieces in the collection and why are they so popular?
We provide a core range of beautifully designed nightwear, everyday wear, travel essentials and breastfeeding and new mum staples, as well as pieces for women going through the menopause. Everything is crafted from one of our signature breathable fabrics.
One of our stand out pieces has to be the Shell PJ top in black. Whilst many of us have been guilty of living in pyjamas over the past few months, this elegant blouse is designed to be worn both indoors and out. A feminine take on the classic men’s pyjama shirt, ideal for throwing on last-minute or for lounging around the house in. It can easily be dressed up for a night out or simply tucked into fitted jeans or a long pleated skirt, teamed with boots and a bit of bling. And, of course, it is the perfect piece between the sheets when worn with our matching drawstring trousers or shorts. Even better, the drawstring trousers are perfect for that morning pilates or yoga class, perhaps with one of our oversized tees or ballet tops, putting the whole capsule collection to good use.
Generally, Cucumber provides the supporting act to a woman’s wardrobe – the pieces worn next to the skin that keep her at an even temperature and help her feel cool and confident. Of our more statement pieces, we love our ribbon tie jumpsuit made from our latest 37.5 fabric – super soft and super flattering. Again, perfect for working out and perfect for bed. Easy to slip in and out of and now that the weather is turning chillier, wearing a cosy woollen over the top you are still cool with the fabric next to your skin working hard to keep you that way.
Tell us more about the fabrics you use and their sustainable and “cool” credentials.
At the moment we use four different fabric qualities created using different technical processes (whether in the cutting and weaving of fibres, or the addition of elements such as organic volcanic minerals and anti-microbials). They all provide Cucumber’s signature benefits of moving with your body, keeping you feeling fresh and uncrushed, regulating your body temperature and wicking away sweat as well as providing performance enhancing capabilities and microbial protection. Our fabrics last up to six times longer than cotton. They require the simplest care, just the occasional cold wash, hang dry with no ironing, creating a saving on water, energy with fewer microfibres released (microfibres of any sort cotton/linen/human-made microfibres all act in the same way once in the environment.)
It would seem like a product such as yours would perform well at the moment, given the boom in comfort dressing and conscious consumption, how has trade been since COVID struck?
The short answer is yes! Perfect pieces to start the day, whether that’s a yoga or Pilates class, or a dog walk followed by the first of many zoom meetings. That’s certainly how I get dressed at the moment and however hurried I am, I know that I will be at my computer crumpled free and cool. Result!
As the barriers between work and home life blur, more and more women are turning to multifunctional dressing to get them through the day. Every day is now a mixture of childcare, exercise, zoom, and depending on you location, a glass of something next to a fire pit. We just don’t have the time now for labour intensive dressing that requires either frequent dry cleaning or complicated hand washing and a formal rigidity of style that now seems quite old-fashioned.
You are about to take part in a physical retail pop-up with a focus on sustainability with Six & Sons. Can you tell us more about that project and how you came to be involved?
We are fortunate to have been chosen as a brand supported by the DIT who help British brands gain visibility across the globe. We already make online sales worldwide, but this is about promoting British. They put us in touch with Six & Sons, the very cool sustainable concept store based in Amsterdam. They loved our ethos and decided to straight away stock a small collection of our pieces both in store and on their website.
We were delighted that even in the height of the pandemic, they were willing to take a punt on us and it’s proving very successful. It’s satisfying for us to know that we are being loved not just for our fabulous technical fabrics and all the attributes they provide as clothing, but also for our sustainable credentials, not only in terms of the way we source our fabrics but also our working practices.
Six & Sons are now coming to London showcasing the best of UK sustainable retail. This is a cool, modern take on the traditional pop-up with ‘meet the maker’ segments and products all highlighted on digital screens. All the brands showcasing have been selected for their contribution to doing things in a more sustainable way.
It is being held at 42 South Molton Street on Thursday 29th October (4-9); Friday 30th October (10-9) and Saturday 31st October (10-9). Due to Covid, there are restrictions on the number of people in the store at any one time. Each brand has a two hour time slot each day to be present, but there is a concierge who will oversee everything. Each brand will have a section showcasing their products and any purchases can be made on mobiles with, in the case of Cucumber Clothing, an extra 15% off during the pop-up event.
Your brand is available through your own channel at the moment, have you any plans to expand beyond that (e.g. wholesale)?
We do sell mainly through our website www.cucumberclothing.com but we are also stocked in a few UK luxury spas and this has been a very good fit for us. Pre-Covid (remember then?), we were in talks with several other worldwide spas about carrying our label. We hope that when eventually the world starts to return to normal, we can pick up these conversations again.
It seems that the fashion and beauty markets are waking up to the potential and the needs of a more mature woman; how do you go about marketing to her in terms of messaging and the channels you use?
It is a positively thrilling for us to see how fashion as a whole has embraced the idea of diversity in recent years, not the least in terms of generations. From our point of view, women 40+ are as keen as anyone else to look their own personal best. We believe that our collections are perfect for this – every single one of our pieces could be worn by twenty to ninety year olds in their own inimitable style – building around our simple, multifunctional designs. In fact a little while ago we held a “real model” shoot, with five models from their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. It was a blast, and inspiring to see how each model made their Cucumber look their own.
We think that this message, that true style has no age, that every woman can look her best, clothing should empower not hinder, is the key to appealing to not just mature women, but all women.
Having set up your own brand from scratch, what advice would you give to others looking to do the same?
We are often asked this question and we always give the same answer – just go for it! If we had thought too much about what we were doing and all the obstacles that we would come across, we’re not sure we would ever have taken the plunge. We have evolved and learnt so much along our journey. We are still far from perfect, but you have to start somewhere. Make sure you do your research – we spent hours at the British Library and holding many focus groups; and then launch with that damn good idea! At some point, you have to take a leap of faith…