For a brand to launch three months before a global pandemic and not only come out the other side relatively unscathed, but with a loyal following of over 100,ooo customers and be profitable, is nothing short of remarkable.
Enter, Saint and Sofia, the London-based brand that did just that. They’re rewriting the rulebook on shopping and are an antidote to the fast fashion we should all be stepping away from. With a dedication to slow, steady fashion, good business ethics, a sustainable focused business plan and great customer care, they’re a refreshing addition to the current style landscape. The collection places wearability at its core, with capsule led pieces that fix seamlessly into the modern woman’s wardrobe, elevated with a tougher, rock ‘n’ roll edge.
We caught up with founders, who also happen to be husband and wife (not to mention utter couple goals), to find out how they built and continue to grow the fashion brand with a conscience.
You both worked in finance before entering the world of fashion. Tell us about how you made the transition.
Malcolm: We’ve been together 15 years now, married for 12, and both met at the London School of Economics back in 2005. After university, Dessi worked at JP Morgan and I worked in the weird and wonderful world of family office management – basically looking after really rich people’s money. In 2008 the financial crisis hit and we both became unhappy. I was 29-years-old and after 18 months, I’d had enough and wanted to do something different.
In early 2011 we started working on our first entrepreneurial venture, an activewear brand called Zaggora. It was hugely successful, gaining lots of press and Harvard Business School even did a case study on us, but we decided in 2017 that we wanted to start something new and that was Saint and Sofia.
Other than both being fashion brands, Zaggora and Saint and Sofia are hugely different. Why did you decide to change direction?
M: By this point, we’d had two children – a boy who’s now is six and a girl, four. When you have children you notice the cost of almost everything. We became very cost conscious and thought there was an opportunity to build a brand that offered high-quality fashion but with fair prices.
We thought about most luxury purchases from the last 10 years and how they haven’t really changed – Louis Vuitton handbags are the same now as they were 10 years ago, Hermès bags are the same as 10 years ago, but the prices are double, at least, and yet you’re paying for the same thing. Why is that? The simple reason is that many brands are not particularly efficient. They have layers and layers of costs involved so we thought, “might it be possible to build a brand where we can offer high-quality products at fairer prices?” And we have.
So how did you do it?
Dessi: I spent two years scoping out a smart supply chain that could enable us to buy everything directly – we buy fabric straight from the fabric mills, buttons, zips and trims from the button, zip and trim makers and we send them to factories that we control. We don’t own them, but we are 50% or more of their total production. That way we not only know where the product is coming from, but what it costs. Plus, we can minimise the transportation cost and don’t rack up this huge carbon footprint.
So we spent two years building this supply chain – just in Europe, we don’t make anything in Asia – and we are able to offer the same high-quality styles as other brands do, but for half the price.
Saint and Sofia feels much more of a passion project than Zaggora and one that has real heart and soul behind it. Is that fair to say?
M: Yes, being parents and becoming more cost sensitive, seeing how things have changed in the world and being more environmentally conscious has naturally made us think more about our impact in the world. As parents, we’ve become more future-thinking because ultimately this is the world the next generation are going to have to live in. We’ve become more conscious of sustainability and value, and we want the future of fashion to be better, fairer and more sustainable.
We’ve become more conscious of sustainability and value, and we want the future of fashion to be better, fairer and more sustainable.
Let’s talk about that. How important is sustainability to the brand?
M: We’ve had feedback from customers who clearly care very deeply about sustainability and value. The future of fashion has to be more sustainable and it will have to offer more value and ultimately have to offer people more meaning.
Everything that we do, we want to do in the most sustainable way possible. We use biodegradable packaging, we use natural fibres, recycled or renewable fibres. We plant trees with Trees for Cities – last year, with all profits we made from our Black Friday sale, we were able to plant thousands of trees.
We’ve minimised transportation distance and our carbon footprint and the goal is to become carbon negative, working to evaluate what exactly is our carbon footprint so we can monitor it and do what we need to stay on track.
D: Ultimately in the future we will all have to be sustainable and fashion is such a large contributor to that. Not only that, but it employs so many people around the world, from retail to factory workers, and from very early on we wanted to create a brand that was a source of good, both for the customer and in the way that we do business.
What’s it like working with your other half?
M: We decided quite early on that we would always put the marriage first so there’s never really been a big strategic or deadlock decision that has caused friction.
Aside from that, we have very different skill sets – a left brain/right brain situation. I’m the more creative one and Dessi excels at the more data-driven, numerical, operation part. So she overseas supply chain, finance, development and production.
Given that these are the two key features of the business we are able to separate it out without being on top of one another.
D: We’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s sort of like second nature, but we are very good at splitting responsibility and taking the best from both of us.
How did you employ the right team to build your brand?
M: We have a team of about 50 people – 25 who are head office management and 25 work in the different warehouses here and in Europe. We sought out amazing designers who studied at Central Saint Martins and previously worked at the likes of Ted Baker, Roland Mouret, MATCHESFASHION and Reiss, as well as people who worked on the supply chain at Louis Vuitton.
How do you continue to grow the business?
D: Mainly through customer feedback. The formula seems to resonate with our customer and we reinvest profits back into the brand. We’ve never raised money, we funded it all ourselves, we don’t have debt and believe that cash is king so we have pretty much been profitable since day one.
We only started the business in January this year and we already have 100,000 global customers.
Let’s talk fashion, who is the Saint + Sofia woman?
M: We have some customers who are 18, some who are 65 – my mum just turned 70 and loves our stuff. But the core customer is probably 30, is a value-conscious, smart shopper who appreciates quality.
The collection is current and cool but not trend led. Was this a conscious decision?
D: When we started building the collection we focused on wardrobe classics and moved on to some seasonal pieces. For example, this season we have checks, spots, stripes and colours that are certainly current, but we didn’t want to have anything that had a too narrow point of view. Our brand is very much about inclusivity of customer. For example, we offer sizes six through to 22 –having a broad appeal was very important to us.
What inspires the collections?
M: Well, first of all, we create a brief for the design team on what fabrics we can get access to and that we know are good value without compromising our core values. From there the design team come up with their own inspiration for the collections.
D: That could be the catwalk, art, London itself, but at the same time we want to create things that aren’t going to be out of season three months from now.
M: We also look at which pieces have sold well and whether there are colours, for example, that people have requested. We always want it to be current, but the pieces have to be comfortable, versatile and wearable too. Ultimately the foundation of the collection has to be timeless and offer styles that customers can wear for years. It’s slow fashion we’re creating.
How has the COVID-19 Crisis affected the design process?
M: We’ve had to do some gymnastics! We almost need a crystal ball of what the world will look like a year from now, which is almost impossible, but we hope for the best and plan for the worst.
We have to ask ourselves, in Spring/Summer ‘21 are people going to be going to the office? Are people going to be going on holiday? Do they need swimwear? Will tailored work pieces be important or should we focus on at-home, comfortable jersey? It’s tricky but interesting.
We have been in existence as a company during lockdown more than we have before COVID hit, but thankfully we have got through it without putting anyone on furlough or using government schemes. We’ve been blessed.
What are the hero pieces from the current collection?
D: The trenches with the check accents are really great and impactful and I love the cable knit sweaters as they are great for transitioning into autumn.
The blazers are perfect if you need one for work or like to throw one on over jeans, and my personal favourite is the Primrose Dress – a really cool, play on the tea dress with a ruffle detail on the front and a cut-out on the back. Great for the day but also fun and sexy.
Finally, what’s next for Saint and Sofia?
M: Our goal now is to take the model and apply it to more and more products. We’re working on accessories, homeware, beauty and should have a menswear offering in the next six months.