When you visit one of the designer sales with thousands of high street designer clothes, another thousands of customers, real people catwalk, organized Elaine Foster-Gandey you can't believe that this woman started from a small sale in her friend's photograph studio. She has changed the way designer sales are organized and she really brings high fashion to the masses. The enthusiasm and passion you see in her eyes and everything she's doing wouldn't make you believe she is doing her job, which she calls a mission by the way, for over two decades. And I believe she is going to continue for next two at least. Read an interview with Elaine and get inspired not only for fashion business.
You’re organizing Designer Sales for over 20 years already. How it all started?
When I was very little I used to visit my neighbors to collect different pieces from them and later do some “sales” in the backyard and charge the penny for entrance. So this is what I’m doing – playing a shop. Seriously, my business, which is to sale great designers clothes for reasonable prices, is already 24 years old and it all started when I decided to study fashion design. After I left college I was looking for a job and got it in Jasper Conran.
That was well established brand that time. How did you get there right after college?
I went to meet my friend who worked there and started helping during collections time – I was sewing buttons, driving the van, making tea and doing everything else. Mainly I wanted to work for PR department but at that time no vacancy was available. I went for the summer holidays and when I came back there was a voice message on my phone saying that there is an offer for me. It was fun but stressful job.
After that I decided that I didn’t want to work for PR but as a stylist. I started building contacts’ base, while working for magazines in Paris, NYC. I was that time a freelancer what means you need to hustle for everything because you are not assigned to any magazine. Even though I was a bit with InStyle magazine it didn’t help me much.
Many people who run their own business first start as freelancers. It’s not easy in any industry.
I think being totally realistic about what you can honestly achieve is a key here. I did not give up my day job as a freelance stylist or my Saturday job as a shop floor assistant at warehouse boutique. I worked throughout my education and had a least two jobs on the go).
I had set up Elaine Foster Associates which was an umbrella business that encapsulated Designer Sales UK and the designer sale road shows plus freelance styling and organising catwalk shows. Being involved with lots of different projects gave me a huge amount of contacts. This is invaluable when you are first starting out.
Why did you decide you don’t want to be a freelancer anymore?
I decided I will not really make money out of it and I thought it’s time to start something new. I had some knowledge about industry already and knew about designers’ stocks. That time they organized only at their homes and it was open only to their friends and journalists. Interesting and original designs weren’t really available for public. I thought that if I make my own stock I could invite not only journalists but general public, so people will have a real chance to get it. So I did it.
In reality it wasn’t so easy and didn’t go so smoothly. What did you need to do in order to build a successful business in one of the most difficult industry, which fashion is, in the city like London?
When I started my business I applied for the enterprise allowance scheme which gave me a sum of money up front to help me get started. This was invaluable and really helped get my first sales ventures off the ground. I advise to join the federation of small businesses. This costs approximately ₤100 a year and gives details of free seminars discounts on lots of services for small businesses, plus advertising this fact looks good and shows you are grown up about your business and take things seriously.
How did you manage to organize the very first sale?
My friend had a photographic studio in Soho and let me use the space. I invited people I knew and they were queuing around the blocks. It lasted for two days - first day was for the journalists and second for general public. That time I had clothes from 15 designers displayed on 30 rails. It all sold out and this edition was very successful. I organized it in the atmosphere of late 80s recession and this is one of the reasons people loved it. Customers don’t want to pay full price even if there is not recession, so they enjoyed such sales.
The situation was a bit like now. Is the way of making business also similar?
My business has grown - now I have 70-80 designers being presented on each sale and more than a thousand of customers per sale. We organize 10 sales a year in different location - Chelsea or in Mayfair and we’re going around the country too.
The idea though hasn’t changed much because people have still the same needs. People have less money, are losing jobs but still looking to wear something nice. They always have at heart getting good value for small money and they get that here. I personally think everyone should be able to look nice. That’s why I like bringing really good clothes in great prices to the masses. I had a client yesterday who found a Martin Margiela’s t-shirt for ₤5 and went crazy. She was just so excited. And on the sales I organize, you can find things for ₤5, ₤10.
After so many years in the industry you have a lot of contacts. Do you still need to look for designers or they come to you?
Designers rather come to me, so we don’t need to look much. But when I spot something I also look into it. We try to make space for graduate designers. It is like a promotional platform for them.
Do you recognize your work as a mission?
Yes, I do. I studied fashion and I love interesting designs. It’s lovely to bring that sort of clothing to everyone. I love to see people putting things together, not just taking things straight from the catwalk. Most of the customers pick up something here and then from the charity shop, from vintage and designers shops.
Every two years we also organize real people catwalk where women and men who are our customers can fulfil their dream and present themselves on the catwalk. One of the models was a girl with foot disease who couldn’t wear high heels anymore, so for her it was lifetime experience. The other was 40-year old grandmother, who wanted to prove that she still can do something great.
What advice you can give to a person who would like to start job similar or close to yours?
Getting started as a freelance can be quite tough but there is a lot of free advice out there. My advice is to make sure you have a bank account and the bank you choose offers good deals for freelancers/small businesses. You can also get free accounts advice from your bank, discounts on various services, free legal advice etc. Contact your local council and find out what incentives are on offer for small businesses and freelancers.
written by: joanna sopylo-firrisa