Growing up as the youngest of 4 girls, mostly dressed in her older siblings hand-me-downs, Caroline Bruce grew up dreaming of one day having her own clothes. She fulfilled that dream when she left her “nine to five” and set up her own bespoke dressmaking business, followed up by the launch of her own womenswear brand, championing the slow fashion movement.
Unlike many of her peers, Caroline is growing her business slowly and organically, strategically orchestrating and ensuring professional longevity.
We caught up with her to find out more about her business and journey to date.
Take us to the beginning. What sparked your passion for fashion?
I think the initial interest was from an early age, making clothes for my Cindy doll from the fabric remnants of dresses my mother was making for me on her Singer. This is a family industry! I just loved playing with the fabrics and trying to work out how to shape the cloth around the body in different ways. My mother made most of our clothes, either sewing, knitting or even crocheting things! We didn’t have much money and as the youngest of four girls I was last to inherit any garments and I just thought one day I would love to have my own beautiful clothes to wear. As a teenager, I started to make my own clothes and never wanted to look or dress like anyone else. I was very inspired by the wildness and explosion of creativity of the eighties!
How did you start in the fashion industry?
At sixteen, I began a Clothing Technology Diploma at the Kent Institute for Art and Design in Rochester. This was so I could learn how to design and make a garment from start to finish, which was my initial goal. After completing the course, I left college and the same week got a job as a sample cutter. My ambition was to work my way up in the industry.
What made you set up in business and be a freelance designer as opposed to working within a company?
Starting my own business has been a life-long dream of mine. It has been there in my head for years! Sometime back, I came to crossroads in life and decided to take the plunge and set up on my own, knowing that if I did so, I would never look back!
It wasn’t a difficult decision in the end because I knew I had all the practical skills to be self- sufficient and to design and make any garment from scratch. I knew I could survive. I have created everything you see on my website myself and I have always managed to earn money freelancing as a pattern cutter, sewing etc.
However, my dream has always been to start and grow my own designer label. There is so much opportunity out there for new, creative industries, much more than when I started out. Due to the internet, it is global now. I think the more unique your product is the better chance you have of creating a stand-out brand.
One of the things I am passionate about is having the freedom to be creative and having fresh ideas and putting them out in the world. I look in the usual high street shops and just feel so deflated by the lack of interesting garments. I feel a bit disturbed by the effects of mass production and that is why I am creating a slow fashion alternative.
I feel I have been working towards this all my life and now I am creating my own designs. I feel privileged to be doing what I love! Working for various companies, gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to start off and go it alone. I make bespoke garments and this has enabled me the opportunity to create my own range as well as earn a living as I grow my online slow fashion business.
What challenges have you encountered along the way so far being your own boss?
Primarily, I think cash flow is my main challenge as I don’t have proper funding at the moment.
I am also trying to improve getting exposure and sales business through my website. Having my profile on utelier.com has been a good platform for me. As a result, I was invited to show some of my garments at the LSE Student Union fashion show in Mayfair this February. A highlight for me so far!
At times, I find the sourcing of some fabrics I wish to use difficult. My aim is to use fabrics made in the UK, luxury and preferably eco-friendly materials. This is proving harder than I expected. The bottom line with me is that the product is a beautiful garment and made in the UK. Design and quality come first!
How do you work with clients- what’s the process usually?
For the bespoke side of my business, a client will usually have an idea of a dress they want made and so I arrange a face to face consultation and explain to them the process. It is important to explain the time frame of making such a garment, as certain things can take longer than expected. For example, finding the client the right fabric for the dress for what they have in mind. I may need to sketch out some ideas for the client. A deposit is required before any work commences and I then make a first toile from a similar type of fabric to the finished garment. I then arrange a first fitting, having sourced swatches to show the client. At the fitting, any style and fit issues will be identified and either the toile will be amended or another toile may be required. The fabric is then chosen and ordered. The final garment is cut and made and then the client will come for a fitting. The remainder of the invoice is paid and if no further amendments are required, the garment is taken away.
What is the one thing you wish clients to know or be aware of before they contact you and commission work?
When the client has a really good idea of what they want to have commissioned, it helps me so much. It is also useful if they know what colours and shapes suit them. Providing me with a picture before the consultation is a great help. They also need to be aware of the timescale involved and the necessity of providing a deposit.
You say that you are building a “sustainable slow fashion business that respects people and the planet.” Can you explain and elaborate on this?
I am building a slow fashion business, not fast, mass-produced garments. I want to create local employment and keep the business in the UK, building good relationships with the people I work with. I want to create something to be proud of and have as little impact on the environment as possible. I don’t think we have to be hard faced business people to survive in this world. I think it is more about cooperation and meeting mutual needs.
What importance do you place on working relationships with clients and suppliers?
A good working relationship is crucial. Without trustworthy and reliable contacts I couldn’t get on with my job. It is essential to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself and expect the same in return.
To create such relationship, you need to communicate clearly and honestly with people. Be realistic in time frames. With suppliers, making sure you know how long things take to deliver and being clear on any added costs before you order is essential.
What would you say your weakness is as an entrepreneur?
My weakness is not knowing when to stop and have a break.
What would you say is your strength as an entrepreneur?
I am a highly creative and imaginative person. I use my ideas to produce unique designs. I am passionate about what I do and have the practical skills to make my dreams become a reality.
If you could start over again, knowing what you know and with all your experience and knowledge – what will you change and do differently in your career?
I wish I had become my own boss at a younger age and had the confidence to just go for it! I don’t regret it as everything in life happens for a reason but sometimes you just need to take bigger risks and have more faith in yourself!
Have you had a mentor or anyone who has been instrumental in your success and growth as an entrepreneur?
I have been so lucky to have access to various forms of community support through my local council, the Women’s Enterprise Kent and other sources. This has helped not only build up my support network and my knowledge but my own self-confidence as a businesswoman.
In the near future, I plan to continue my training with a business mentor to develop my knowledge and skills further. I feel a fashion business mentor would help advance my business and help me achieve my dreams.
On a personal level, I have had so much support from family and friends. This has kept me going when I have felt I was struggling with things or taking too much on, which we all have to be conscientious of. I guess I have had many mentors who have supported and encouraged me in a variety of ways.
Who or what inspires you, in business or personally?
I have so many things that inspire me, one being other designers. I love to watch their shows. Personally, I am inspired by art, cultures, architecture, ceramics, and fabrics. Music is also a big influence as I have such varied taste.
The ability to create something original is a great feeling and that stimulates and challenges me at the same time. I always like to cause a reaction, make something amazing and unique and create that wow factor. Also, I have met so many amazing people on my journey so far. I think what inspires me is other people’s dreams and wanting to achieve big things as I like to aim high.
What are you currently working on that really fires you up and inspires you?
I am working towards another fashion show in the autumn. I hope to gain some real interest in my designs. I get a tremendous buzz watching the shows at London Fashion Week and all the other shows. It really inspires me. I would love to show at LFW one day. Now that would be amazing!
How do you cope with professional disappointments?
It can be a challenge working alone, but I am building a professional support network. I seek out advice from others and accept that not everything runs smoothly. I learn from my mistakes.
What is the one thing you wish you knew before you set on your fashion entrepreneurial journey as a designer?
I wish I had more contacts within the industry and was more aware of the support available.
What advice would you give to people just starting out and wishing to be like you or enter the industry?
I think if you really love fashion go for it! It may be hard but you will enjoy the journey.
It also depends on the type of career within the industry you want, as it can be very diverse. I always knew that I wanted to run my own business and make unique clothes so having clear goals is important. Acquiring the appropriate skills is essential. I think people would need a good careers adviser, someone who has a realistic but positive view of the industry. The one thing I have learnt is that you can do anything if you really want it bad enough.
What is the best advice you have been given?
Follow your dreams and never give up and it is all the small achievements that count each day that go towards the bigger goals.
Do you have any insights on the slow fashion movement? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at email@example.com.