Setting up a new fashion brand is something so many of us would love to do. Emma Stewart is different as she actually went ahead and made her dreams come true, setting up Allta, which launched in July. I am delighted to share an interview with her which shows the calibre of an amazing woman.
Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years
I have always been tall for my peer group. When I was three years old my family moved to Sweden for a couple of years and there is a picture of me with some friends from kindergarten and I am head and shoulders above the others. I was always self-conscious because of my height. I am fairly shy and always felt awkward and clumsy. Both my brother and I are tall (he is now 6’5” and I am 6’) and were often thought to be older than our years because of our stature. I had a pretty average childhood, growing up in Basingstoke in Hampshire, doing well at school and attaining a place at university. I decided to take a year off before heading to Hull (where I had a place to read American Studies), and went to Germany for a year as an au pair. I subsequently switched degree courses to study German, which was a good choice and helped me get some of my first jobs.
What was your first career?
I worked in publishing selling foreign rights to German, Dutch and Scandinavian publishers. Basically, as the publisher, we would put the concept of the book together (this was illustrated non-fiction of the ‘coffee table book’ variety) and would then sell this concept to US and European publishers who would publish the books in their countries while we published the books in the UK. I used my German and travelled to Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia on a fairly regular basis as well as visiting book fairs in the UK and in Frankfurt. After a few years of this, I decided I wanted a change and went to West Herts College in Watford to study for a post-graduate diploma in copywriting, journalism and radio and from there got a job at Bloomberg in London as a journalist on their radio team.
What led to you setting up your business?
I had been working in an organisation providing facilitation to production companies wanting to make film and TV productions in the English regions (i.e.: we would help them find locations, crew and studios and liaise with the relevant local authorities to enable roads to be closed, etc.), but some people in my organisation were being made redundant – including my line manager, with whom I got on particularly well – and morale was at a very low ebb. I had been toying with the idea of a tall clothing brand for many years, but it was only when I met a bunch of my husband’s friends, who were all self-employed (as is my husband), that I really started to look into it in any detail. Running your own business sounded challenging but enjoyable and I liked the idea of being my own boss. I then sold a property that I co-owned and so had some cash behind me and it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Who gave you information and advice to help you set up your business?
My husband had been running his own business for around 10 years when I decided to set up Allta, so he was very experienced in all aspects of being an entrepreneur. He became my business partner and took on all the boring but important aspects such as insurance, the bank account, accounting and anything involving a spreadsheet, leaving me free to focus on the more creative elements of design and marketing. The London College of Fashion was also an invaluable source of help and information. I have now completed four of their short courses: Essential Guide to the Fashion Industry, Starting Your Own Fashion Label, Introduction to Fashion Design, Adobe Illustrator for Fashion. The information and contacts made through these courses have been extremely helpful and I have found out about all the various trade bodies and trade shows to attend.
What is your biggest life challenge to date?
Shortly after deciding to pursue this new business venture and just seven weeks after getting married, I suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury after a cycling accident, where I fell off my bike, fractured my skull and suffered some bleeding and blood clots on the brain. Emergency surgery, 10 days in intensive care and a further 8 weeks in hospital followed and it was a full six months after the accident that I was able to return to work part-time. All plans for starting my own business were put firmly on the back boiler.I have now managed a full recovery, although have been left with epilepsy, which I understand is a fairly common side effect when the brain reacts to the scar tissue caused by brain surgery.
Who supported you at this difficult time?
My husband and entire family and network of friends were amazing during this time. My husband of course, bore the brunt of both the emotional impact of the accident and the practical aspects of visiting me in hospital (every day for over 2 months; not easy when you have your own company to run) and helping to ease me back into the pattern of everyday life when I was back home. My friends and family were also superb. The accident happened when we were down in Studland for a weekend of camping and I was initially admitted to Southampton Hospital. My husband and I live in Oxfordshire but some close friends living in Winchester, who were on holiday at the time, allowed my husband, parents (who live in Somerset) and another good friend to stay in their house for a couple of weeks to allow them all easier access to me in hospital. My sister-in-law is a senior nurse and was superb and cutting through any red tape we encountered in the hospital and just keeping everyone positive and well informed.
My friends rallied round, visiting me in hospital and back at home afterwards, but the big plus was that after months of negotiations, which had always ended in a firm ‘no’, my husband finally agreed to us getting a dog, so my fur-baby, Wilf the cockerpoo, came into our lives.
Tell us about your products and why you think they are special?
As a tall woman, I struggle to find ‘regular’ fit clothes on the high street to fit my proportions. It is not impossible, but it is pot luck. When you do find something that fits, you almost feel compelled to buy it just because it is such a rare find. Long Tall Sally is the only tall fit brand that most people have heard of (there are others, but I had never heard of them until I started to research this niche. The Tall Fashion Adventures blog has a good, international list (http://tallfashionadventures.com/shopping-lists/), which means that tall women have a fairly limited selection of clothing to choose from if they want something that is guaranteed to fit properly.I am also keen to use natural fibres as so much clothing is made from polyester, which isn’t breathable for your skin and is bad for the environment. So, we are about producing good quality garments that will last and are made out of natural fibres that are less damaging to the environment. This is an area I want to research further and do what I can to support.
For me, shirts and jackets have always been the hardest to find. I have tended to buy jeans from Gap tall section and Levis and can cope with a 34” inside leg as, with a straight or skinny leg jeans style, I don’t think it matters if they are a teeny bit cropped looking. But shirts and jackets are very hard to find. That’s why I wanted to start with these staples. I love a good quality jacket and am often frustrated that the tall sections often just carry the safest colours of black and navy. That’s why I decided that as well as the trusty navy and grey options, we would also do a hot pink and turquoise jacket for our launch so that tall women can have a choice of some fun colours for a change.
In the meantime, if anyone wants to come and see the clothes for themselves, we are taking a stand at the Rare Brand Market Christmas Market at Goodwood Racecourse from 22-24th November
Why is it important for women to invest in themselves when it comes to fashion and style?
I mentioned earlier that I was very self-conscious when I was young because of my height and I think this is a trait that is shared by lots of tall women. As children and teens we all seek to blend in and be part of the gang and often anything that makes you stand out is something you want to hide and change. This can be anything but speaking from my experience, height is one thing you can’t change or even hide. The answer is to wear it with confidence and dressing well and feeling good about yourself in your clothes is one way of doing this.
I don’t think this means making sure you are up to date with the latest fashions and trends, but by wearing clothes that fit you and suit your height, shape and colouring, you can feel good about yourself and have the confidence to perform at your best, be that in your personal or professional lives. This is not just a tip for tall women, but all women should feel they deserve to look their best to give them confidence in themselves.
If you could recommend ONE book to women, what would it be and why?
Testament of Youth is a book that affected me very deeply. It has become a classic so is probably already well known to many but it is the story of one woman’s experience of growing up in early twentieth century England and the restrictive Edwardian environment she longed to rebel against. She then endured the loss of her brother, fiancé and friends in the First World War and did what she could to support the British war effort, becoming a firm pacifist in the process. It is a moving and inspirational story of courage, learning, love and loss. It puts our present day comfortable lives into perspective.
If you could recommend ONE website to women what would it be and why?
I would recommend noiclub.org. This is a fantastic resource for female entrepreneurs, sharing tips and events. It also has a really useful Facebook page where women can interact and ask for help and advice. The founders are very supportive as is the community they have established.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
It is never too late to start working on a passion project like starting up your own business. I sometimes think I should have started Allta when I was younger, living in London and had more energy, but now as I approach my 50th birthday, I have more money than when I was younger, I have a supportive husband, who didn’t come into my life until I hit my 40s, I have learned a fair bit about myself and my strengths and weaknesses, and I am not afraid to ask for help, which I may have shied away from doing when I was younger. If there is something you want to do but are waiting for the right time, it may never come along. Just do it, is my advice!.