The Interview: Polly McMaster, CEO, The Fold
Women’s luxury workwear brand The Fold celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and last month launched ‘The Future Icons’ collection in celebration of the milestone, with 10 iconic looks from its back catalogue updated for AW22.
Fusing exceptional fabrics - made in mills used by many of the world’s most prestigious luxury fashion houses - with craftsmanship and made-to-last design at the fore - the collection aims to “take the modern woman from early morning to evening soirée with ease”.
CEO Polly McMaster talks us through her journey so far, the new collection, and how high profile fans of the brand such as the newly appointed Princess of Wales have helped to raise brand awareness and grow the business. There’s also plans for more stores, intriguing indeed for what was an online start-up in 2012.
What was your original vision for The Fold when you launched it in 2012?
I had been working in private equity and consulting. I never forget my first day of work having left university and started in consulting, and I was very excited about putting together a wardrobe as a professional woman and climbing the career ladder. I had visions of that all being very smart, glamorous and exciting. But going shopping for workwear was a truly disappointing experience.
There were very few brands that were catering towards the needs of workwear for women and, in most cases, it seemed to be an afterthought in collections. It was all quite boring and ‘manly’ – translated in to what a woman might need. It certainly wasn’t the feminine glamorous working look that I’d envisioned.
Having had the experience of working in that quite corporate environment, which was largely male dominated, I really thought it was odd that there wasn’t a brand that was relevant or communicating to me as a professional woman - with money burning a hole in my pocket.
In those days, I was working five days a week in a really smart office and I needed to be really put together well, as I was going on business trips, attending conferences and so on. So, eventually, I thought, maybe I could do it, maybe I could start a brand that spoke to people like me. The concept of The Fold is very much a luxury workwear brand for ambitious women.
How has it developed in the past 10 years?
The world of workwear has absolutely evolved and I would like to think we’ve been a part of that. We developed a strong signature in quite a feminine handwriting, but still very much with the needs of workwear in mind, so really smart dresses and directional tailoring have been key. Colour has become more important, whether you work in a corporate environment or not, and I think women have felt increasingly free to express themselves in the workplace.
Breaking down those barriers has been really exciting. The other thing that’s happened in that 10-year timeline is Covid, and the whole world of work has been reimagined, with hybrid working in a way that nobody ever pictured. With those boundaries changing, we’ve all had to think again about what it means to dress for work, and whether it’s important. During that time, we have done a lot of research with our customers about the importance of workwear and whether it should it matter what you wear to work. The resounding message from our customers was, “yes”, it really does.
There has been the trend towards casualisation, but at the same time - now that we’re properly back in the office - there is the opportunity again for demarcation between your home wardrobe and your work wardrobe, and we’re seeing customers really embrace that. After all, it’s a definition of ambition and who you are.
What have been the real defining moments in The Fold’s past?
When somebody high profile wears the brand there’s always a bit of a tipping point. Often that’s due to putting you on a different stage, and it’s a validation of someone choosing to wear your brand, particularly relevant when they have the choice of a lot of different options as high profile people do. We’ve had the Duchess of Cambridge (now the Princess of Wales) wearing the brand, and her sister Pippa Middleton wore The Fold at Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
There’s also been some amazing women such as Dame Helen Mirren and Kerry Washington wearing our clothes, and it’s been worn by characters in TV shows such as ‘’Succession’. All of those moments help you to reach a broader audience and put the brand on the map.
Another factor that’s been very defining for us is entering the US market. We launched in the US in a much stronger way between 2017 and 2018, and that was a game-changer. We didn’t launch with a physical store, we started sending catalogues – good old school marketing that can be extremely effective.
We put it together in a really premium way to tell the story of the brand and get people’s attention. We found that really helped us to scale the business. There are a lot of incredible professional women in the US, and it helped us confirm that we could become a go-to brand for working women around the world.
How did you go about getting such a famous list of customers?
In some cases it’s very organic, but we’ve also networked with great stylists who work with different high profile individuals. It’s been a real combination of working hard to build our network and the brand awareness growing. We’ve also always focused a lot on quality, working with really exceptional factories.
Almost all of our fabrics are Italian and from some of the top mills who serve the big name designer brands. I think it’s because we don’t compromise on that side that it’s really made people fall in love with the products. The quality has that ‘wow’ factor that customers really appreciate. Who doesn’t want to wear something of real quality?
How do your price points compare to designer pieces that may come from the same factories?
We’re a lot more affordable because we don’t wholesale. We always set out to be a direct-to-consumer product, so we are able to work really closely with the mills and factories but without having to put the prices up so high. We consider ourselves an affordable luxury brand. The prices are still appropriate to the quality, but also relative to our business model.
One of our figure-flattering ‘power’ dresses in a sculpting crepe of extremely high quality would be between £300-£350, so it’s still very much a premium price point, but it’s not an ‘ultra’ luxury price point. You may see an equivalent dress, made in a similar fabric, for maybe over £1,000 from a designer brand.
What is ‘The Future Icons’ collection all about?
The collection launched in the second week of September, though we did a pre-launch with VIP customers. The concept is looking back at our real signature pieces – the iconic best-selling pieces that our customers have bought year-after-year, often in different incarnations and fabrications. But we looked at how we can make them really exceptional for our 10-year celebration, so we‘ve used even more luxury fabrics and a lot of them have been made in London.
We’ve also made the silhouettes and styling slightly more exaggerated in order for them to have an extra level of flair. The 10 pieces include the ‘Finchley’ coat – in an incredible ivory wool, the ‘Camelot’, ‘Fleurs’, ‘Palmerston’ and ‘Laviano’ dresses, the ‘Knightsbridge’ blouse, the ‘Regent’ jacket and the ‘Almeida’ jacket and trousers. The latter plays on the heritage of men’s tailoring, but in a much more playful and feminine way.
Our customers are not wall-flowers, they like to be noticed and complimented, and this is an opportunity for them to invest in the ultimate pieces that really reflect the brand. We have a lot of extremely loyal customers who have very much been buying in to the collection so far.
Did you originally launch online before opening the store at 28 Cadogan Place in Chelsea in 2018?
Yes, we’ve always been online first. We did open a showroom in Clerkenwell in 2013, and we were able to service customers there if they wanted an appointment, but it wasn’t a customer-facing area with strong footfall. So, opening the store in Chelsea was a real milestone in the development of the brand. The response to that was phenomenal, and it’s continued to be a huge success.
It’s a very central location and there’s a lot of other reasons that women would want to go there. There’s plenty of restaurants and it’s a good neighbourhood for shopping. We have a really beautiful store front as it’s a listed period building, and we love the fact that it’s got that architecture that really reflects the beauty of London and British heritage. Hopefully we’ll be able to find that elsewhere as we continue to open stores in the future.
So, there are more stores planned?
We would absolutely love to open more stores. The store on Cadogan Place has been successful from the very beginning. Obviously, we had the forced closures during Covid, but since the beginning of 2022 we’ve really seen our customers re-engage in a physical retail experience. What we’ve also noticed is you’ve really got to give the customer a reason to go there.
People have got so used to online shopping, and they have got very comfortable with it. For example, we have a fantastic and very seamless returns process, so it’s easy for customers to get used to that hassle-free shopping experience. So, in-store, we need to offer them a really great service with informed stylists who know the whole collection and can make well-judged recommendations, especially if a customer has come in wanting something for a particular event.
A lot of our customers also come in for a specific work-related purpose, perhaps returning to work after maternity leave, starting a new job or going for a new job - or a promotion. They can get really great advice, and get the garments fitted as we also offer an alterations service. It’s about wrapping around a really exciting experience for the customer that does more than just let her flick through the rails.
We see great traction by offering such a high level of service, and hopefully we can replicate that in some other locations. We definitely have that in our sights for the next 10-year chapter, and we are hoping to open another store in London in early 2023.
Listen to our August 2021 In Conversation podcast with The Fold's Polly McMaster.