[10 MINUTE READ]
Pinch punch first of the month… and welcome back to another interview! Even though we’ve made it to May, we’re embracing the cosy vibes this month because let’s face it, we’re planning on staying indoors for the foreseeable. And hey, who says that has to be a bad thing? Netflix, knitwear, and home-cooking... It could be a lot worse.
This week, we had the pleasure of chatting to the cofounder of Aethel Knitwear, Tim Ewington. He discusses many things including his beginnings and biggest challenges in setting up a business. So, if you’re interested in getting a little end-of-the-week inspo then stay exactly where you are. That’s right- you have our official permission to stay in your pyjamas for this one. We hope you enjoy it!
Hi Tim! Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with your childhood; do you think your upbringing influenced where you are at today?
I grew up in a mill town outside Bradford; the heart of the Yorkshire textile industry. The parents of many of my friends worked in the industry and I became interested in how cloth and knitwear is made. For my O Level History project I wrote about Joseph Dawson; a Bradford textile entrepreneur who ‘discovered’ cashmere in India 140 years ago, and invented the first machine to spin cashmere yarn in large quantities.
Then, during the 1980s I saw the Yorkshire wool industry almost disappear, which resulted in great hardship for people including parents of friends who lost their jobs. I’ve remained deeply interested in manufacturing here in the UK and greatly admire the small number of quality knitwear manufacturers who have survived. I’ve always wondered how I could get involved in a revival.
Wow, it sounds like you’ve always had a fascination for knitwear then. How did you get started in the fashion industry?
My introduction to the fashion industry was through setting up Aethel. My background is in media. I set up Stylist magazine and its digital incarnation with Mike Soutar and Lisa Smosarski back in 2009 and worked on its development until the business was sold a few years ago. I also worked on the launch of the brand in France in a joint-venture with Group Marie Claire. As a result, I got to know the fashion industry and French luxury brands. The friends I made in these big luxury brands proved incredibly helpful when setting up Aethel.
"Intelligent consumers know that they need to make decisions based on their own understanding, rather than marketing stories from brands. This takes time and effort."
I bet! So when did you decide to start up Aethel Knitwear and why?
I love high-quality knitwear in fine yarns from the luxury brands, but I am from Yorkshire and could never bring myself to pay the price. Then, I met a Parisian knitwear designer, introduced to me by a contact in one of the luxury brands, and we talked about bringing some of the knitwear styling that you find in Paris and the States to the UK.
I thought there was a gap in the market, so a couple of years ago I started doing some research; learning more about yarn, design and manufacturing. Finally, I met a friend from school, whose mother had moved into a flat just down the road from my Dad’s flat in Yorkshire, and discovered that he had set up a knitwear manufacturing company in North London that works with several luxury brands. Through this combination of events, Aethel came to life.
It sounds like the timing was incredibly important. Here at CarolinaGMX, we are particularly curious about how brands deal with sensitive-skin and consider it in their manufacturing processes. Would you say that this is something Aethel Knitwear prioritises?
It is! We use beautifully soft Loro Piana cashmere yarn to make our knitwear. Many of our customers have congratulated us on the softness and high quality of the cashmere. But we need to do better for those with super-sensitive skin. Our designs tend to be rollnecks or contain high necklines and we’re learning from our customers that there are many women out there who can’t cope with cashmere touching the sensitive skin around their neck. We are aware that we need to make more styles that work for those with ultra-sensitive skin. Hopefully, coronavirus permitting, we will have a few, new designs in the Summer and Autumn that work well for these customers.
It’s really great to hear that you’re considering all of your customers’ needs in this way. Do you think people are more conscious of the materials used in their clothing nowadays?
Unfortunately, I think it is still only a minority of people who think about the quality and longevity of materials in the clothes they buy. Fast fashion brands rely on a churn of low cost, disposable items. Therefore, the fashion industry still tends to sell based on image, rather than quality or sustainability. The production processes used can be horribly polluting and wasteful. Intelligent consumers know that they need to make decisions based on their own understanding, rather than marketing stories from brands. This takes time and effort. Quality materials cost more, so it means buying fewer, better things; ideally made here in the UK. Those who think hard about the quality of the materials are a growing tribe but remain a minority.
I think you’re spot-on. We all have a responsibility to do better, and the longer we leave it in the hands of ‘others’, the more fast fashion brands will flourish. How does sustainability influence your business?
We believe that quality is the best way to enhance sustainability. Reducing the impact of the fashion industry is best done by buying fewer things and wearing them for longer. If we make clothing that lasts longer and simplify the supply chain to quality, local suppliers wherever possible we believe we can make real change. Our designs are meant to be worn for several years, not a single season. We use top-quality cashmere from Loro Piana, part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey group, and knit in a factory that works with luxury brands. We source as much as possible from within cycling distance. Our knitters are in north London; boxes are in recycled boards and come from McCarthy’s in Woolwich; labels and buttons from Enfield. All our partners operate to high environmental standards.
You’re really doing your part! What strategies do you think are key to the success of a new business?
To be honest, these are still very early days. We have only existed for 14 weeks and the last three weeks have been spent in coronavirus lockdown. Our only strategy has been to make a small number of beautiful things, of the highest quality. Luckily, fashion journalists in The Times, the FT and customers who have come across our brand seem to agree with us.
They certainly do! It was some of this great press that actually brought us to yourself and Aethel. So, what is your favourite thing about having started Aethel Knitwear?
I would have to say getting to know our customers, talking to them and learning from them. We’ve learnt a lot from them in just 15 weeks. They have helped us to evolve our website, our product plans and our colour palette. If customers feel that what we are doing is great quality, I am sure that Aethel will do well.
Absolutely! What were your biggest challenges in starting up a fashion business?
Finding the time and energy to learn many new things, while also having a family life and doing our other jobs competently.
It’s a lot to handle, for sure. What makes your Aethel Knitwear stand out?
Our openness, honesty, quality and, we hope, customer service. We explain everything to our customers – how and where our products are made; who are our suppliers; the cost of manufacture compared to the price that they pay.
We believe that our knitwear is of the same standard as the most exclusive luxury brands. Our designer has worked for the biggest luxury brands; we use the same yarns; we knit alongside those same brands. On top of all this, we’re a tiny business so we are able to get to know our customers personally and try to give excellent personal service.
I think that can truly make all the difference. So what is the most rewarding part of your job?
Receiving lovely responses from our customers. One lady liked her first Smart Slouchy sweater so much that she sent us a ‘Thank you’ card and then bought the sweater in another four colours.
That’s so sweet! What is your favourite piece from Aethel Knitwear?
The Outsized Knit in Elodie’s Pink. It is a lovely, soft, swirly garment that is a rich, warm layer in Winter but also great through Spring. We’ve had lots of lovely comments from customers about it. It is also Anna Murphy’s (Fashion Director of The Times) favourite style and colour. Elodie is our four-year-old daughter and she chose this statement colour as her favourite from the hundreds of options.
"We had lost all sense of perspective and some of our confidence during the long haul to launch, so it was wonderful that experienced fashion journalists, who we had never met before, gave us their support."
It must be a winner then. Kids have an eye for these things! What has been your biggest ‘pinch me’ moment?
When the Fashion Directors of the Times and the FT wrote that they really liked our first sweaters. We had lost all sense of perspective and some of our confidence during the long haul to launch, so it was wonderful that experienced fashion journalists, who we had never met before, gave us their support.
That’s what a business needs in the difficult beginning stages. So what inspires you?
People who are brave and committed enough to have an idea and bring it to life, whatever the area. Particularly so if they are a bit older, have a family and kids and all the additional pressures this brings.
And what’s your average day like? Would you say that you have a work/life balance?
We are in coronavirus lockdown now, so it is an odd time with balancing homeschooling, work, and our daily excursion into the outside world. It is impossible to be ‘balanced’.
Normally, I take our daughter Elodie to nursery, then the morning is spent checking that customers are happy and that their orders are all going out on time; this is followed by a mix of talking to our Parisian designer in faltering French, reviewing designs, visiting the factory, upgrading the website, and communicating to the world about the existence of Aethel. We are a virtual team that meets up only occasionally, so we spend a lot of time on WhatsApp. I try to make sure my wife, daughter, and I find time to go to the park, go cycling or climbing when we aren’t in the mad peak.
I think that exercise is so important in order to maintain that work/life balance. What words do you live by?
‘Nil satis nisi optimum’, which means ‘Only the best is good enough.’ It is the Everton football club motto. My Dad supported the club for over 80 years. We try our best to live up to it.
Ooh. I hadn’t heard that before, but I love it! So, what’s next for Aethel Knitwear?
We currently have some very practical goals; we need to get our next batches of yarn from Loro Piana (as soon as Northern Italy is open for business again following the terrible coronavirus outbreak there). Then, we can manufacture the beautiful knitwear that we’re currently designing and planning for.
Want more from CAROLINAGMX? Check this out: Trying...Bjork & Berries With Sensitive Skin