THE GIVER: HAROLD TILLMAN, FASHION ENTREPRENEUR
I grew up around clothes: my father was a tailor and my mother was a milliner. If you grow up listening to something that’s around you the whole time, you gravitate towards that way of life — it’s a culture of clothing. What I learnt from my parents was to like quality: in their own wardrobes they’d always want things made or would buy the very best that they could afford, and they’d rather do without than have something that was inferior.
London College of Fashion had just opened on John Prince’s Street when I went; I was fortunate to be able to go and refine my insight into something that I turned into skills: being able to pattern-cut, design and make products — tailoring, in short. You don’t have to have a degree in fashion, but you will always need someone who has studied it: you’ll need someone to pattern-cut because you can’t do it for yourself.
There were no business studies at that time in LCF’s fashion degree like there are now, but before I went to LCF I had studied accountancy for just over a year so I had my own grounding, which proved useful.
At my first firm after LCF, Lincroft Clothing Company, they allowed me to design and produce my own collection. It was great timing because in the Sixties, along with the revolution in music, there was a revolution in fashion: Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. I grew my division so quickly that it became larger than the original business.
I managed to raise the money to buy out the owners, then acquired Kilgour, French & Stanbury, a Savile Row tailor, to create Lincroft Kilgour. We soon took it public on the London Stock Exchange. I just so happened to be quite young — 24!
I recognised Paul Smith’s talent as soon as he applied for a job. He was first a sales person and as I realised his intelligence in design, I asked him to take over as designer from me.
Icons, rivals, friends
Since I started, the fashion business has grown globally dramatically. When I started, I don’t think America could spell ‘fashion’, but now that is a huge market, and of course China too. The whole world has become fashionable. But there are still British icons: Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, Christopher Bailey. It’s endless. I think we’re a little more cutting-edge, we’re fearless, and we will do things for the beauty or creativity of it rather than being just commercial.
Fashion has always been competitive but now there’s a tendency for people to become friends, whereas years ago you were competing for the best manufacturers in Britain, so people were very guarded. Today you manufacture in different countries and it’s more a question of your creative skills. Of course everyone wants to be the number one, but I feel there’s a warming.
I felt that I had benefited so much from my education at LCF that when I learnt that some students were having difficulties in affording their course, I thought that it was right for me to give something back and start investing in the talent that deserves it.
Zahra has proved to be immensely entrepreneurial and hugely hard-working, as well as outgoing and gracious, and that’s a winning combination. Her approach to business has always been tenacious, combining her own sense of style with her belief in producing more considered ‘slow’ fashion garments made to last. Her Little Navy Dress was nominated for the Observer Ethical Awards in June, rewarding this sense of commitment.
Cut your cloth to fit
If I could give lessons from my career to Zahra and my other scholarship students, they would be to stay focused, be consistent, don’t deviate, don’t want to be everything at one time. If you feel that you are a great dress designer, focus on that and be recognised for that before you start becoming a handbag designer or a shoe designer.
The Harold Tillman scholarships at LCF are part of the college’s annual fundraising campaign. Find out how you can get involved here.
THE GIFT: ZAHRA ASH-HARPER, CO-FOUNDER, ANTITHESIS
I studied philosophy and politics as my first degree and I was quite an idealistic young person; I was really interested in how people live and people’s motivations. In a funny way, that did in fact bring me round to fashion eventually.
When I left university I didn’t have a plan but I did need to earn some money, so I worked in the City doing communications until the recession hit and I got this sense that it wasn’t the place for me.
I didn’t really have any outlet for my creativity, so I thought now was a good time for me to consider what I wanted to do, and I remembered that when I was studying philosophy I’d had an idea for a womenswear collection. I didn’t have any connections in the fashion world, I wasn’t a designer, but I had a business idea and I looked at masters degrees that would help me to become an entrepreneur within fashion. London College of Fashion was the only one at the time running that.
The second time I applied, in 2010, I had got some more experience — I had worked for a fashion magazine and a fashion PR agency — but I was pretty broke because internships are very underpaid.
The Harold Tillman Scholarship was on the University of the Arts London’s website; it was the most generous one at £15,000 and helped me to focus completely on my academics. The nice thing about this scholarship is that it’s been going on for so long that there’s a group of people who have benefited from it. It’s really useful to find people who’ve taken a similar pathway to you.
UAL has been expanding its MA offering to more business-oriented students. Entrepreneurship is very important to the fashion landscape and Harold is someone who obviously understands that. If you need to be pointed in the right direction he has the scope of experience and the network to be able to connect you to people who can help you.
My business is called Antithesis: we’re a multifunctional womenswear company, which means that we make clothing for professional women between the ages of about 25 and 55 that is sympathetic to their lifestyle. It’s things that go from day to night, from professional to casual; every piece that we make can be modified either by silhouette or with reversible fabric. We have modular dresses so that you can put different attachments on that change the look completely.
My business partner Renée and I met at an event set up by UAL about starting a fashion business. I stood up and said I’d like to meet designers — they tend to be a bit squirrely, often in the studio which we don’t have any reason to visit — and afterwards three designers came up to me and said they were looking for business support for their ideas. I established quickly that I had the most in common with Renée.
It’s a bit like dating: we started seeing each other once a week, going for a drink, talking about our ideas. Over a period of time we got to a point where we felt as though we should start dovetailing our masters projects, so I designed a business plan for my final dissertation and Renée designed a collection through hers. When we graduated in February 2012, we’d got some investment and we were in a position where we were able to start incubating the business. We launched in September 2012.
Sewing the seeds
Ideas I had while studying have been really useful for our business. We invested in the studio space and in our own pattern-cutting tables and sewing machines at quite an industrial level, which means that we can rent out our studio space to other fashion designers so that we’ve got some income regardless of how sales are doing.
At the moment we are speaking to investors about launching Antithesis into other markets, and again this is how Harold’s really helped us out:
he’s put us in touch with an adviser who’s so inspirational. You meet somebody who’s been in the industry for 25 years and they tell you so much more about the landscape than you’ve ever understood before. The scholarship Harold offers is the gift that keeps on giving.