By now you’re probably familiar with Elizabeth Elsey’s designs, even if you don’t realise it, because her cushions and bedding are beloved by the style set. Barely a day goes by when I don’t see her pineapple embroidery cushions or palm tree quilts featured in an Instagram snap. Which is amazing, considering the Elizabeth Scarlett brand is just three years old. I sat down with Elizabeth to discuss her whirlwind journey and find out exactly what it’s like to run a homeware brand. Here’s what she had to say…
How did you get into homeware design? Did you always have an interest in textiles and interiors?
Textiles and homeware have always been a big part of my life. My Granddad started a textile business about 50 years ago, and I spent a lot of my childhood at their warehouse in Tottenham, playing with the fabrics on the mill. I always had an interest in what they were doing, and growing up I constantly wanted to redecorate my bedroom. I loved the fact that fabric and colour could really transform an atmosphere.
At school I developed an interest in product design and fine art, so I pursued that further and enrolled at Central Saint Martins to do a foundation diploma in art and design.
When did you decide to launch your own brand? And how long did that process take?
After leaving Central Saint Martins I felt completely lost. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I started working part-time in a gift shop, and I loved learning about the brands they stocked, such as Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgewater. So I decided to go to business school and learn how to build a homeware brand of my own. I studied business management and marketing, which was really difficult because I was coming from such a creative background.
Once I graduated I applied for the Tesco Graduate Programme, and I got a job in their fashion merchandising department. It was great role, because I learnt so much about the day-to-day aspects of running a business. But eventually I got to the point where I thought, “This isn’t going anywhere.” So I left that position and began thinking about the brand I wanted to create.
I worked at my Granddad’s company for a few years in the interim, designing product and liaising with the factories in China. And three years ago I finally started to work on the Elizabeth Scarlett brand. I contacted an embroidery factory in China and told them I really wanted to make embroidered home furnishings, as I thought it would stand out in the market. I had to fly to China with my brief and convince them to take a chance on me!
I launched Elizabeth Scarlett with a small collection of cushions, and the brand got picked up by Fenwick quite early on. Then I branched into bedding, and now I also design quilts, wash bags, bucket bags and candles. It’s growing slowly but steadily.
What does your typical workday look like?
It usually starts at 8.30am. That’s when I typically settle down at my desk and start replying to emails. I find it easier to focus on the business side of the brand in the morning, and in the afternoon I prefer to be creative. I’m managing director of Elizabeth Scarlett, so I’m responsible for everything: press, marketing, design and sales.
After lunch I’ll either take meetings with press and buyers, or work on new designs. Each collection takes about six months to produce. I spent the summer working on the designs for Spring/Summer 2017, and the factory I work with is now creating the samples for me. Then we’ll go into production, which takes around 90 days. So I’ll order the Spring collection at the beginning of December, and it will arrive start arriving towards the end of February. It’s a very long process.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your 9 to 5?
I didn’t have any experience working in PR and marketing before I launched Elizabeth Scarlett. All of my previous business experience was very operational – I knew how to design a collection and run a business, but not how to promote anything. So, when it comes to brand exposure, I’ve had to learn everything as I go.
And I still find it really difficult to organise my Instagram account. Everybody thinks that people are so natural on social media, but it’s a very curated world and it takes a lot of thought. You have to think very carefully about the images you want to put out there. So publicising Elizabeth Scarlett has definitely been the biggest hurdle so far. But I think I’m getting better at it.
And, on the flip side, what are the biggest perks of your job?
I love having the freedom to create what’s in my head. And I love the fact that I can create a product and six months later it ends up in someone’s home. That’s just the coolest thing! Luckily, what’s in my head sells – touch wood – because I like design that is quite commercial.
My first collection was actually quite whacky and colourful. But I got to the point where I wasn’t even sure if I liked it anymore. My taste has evolved a lot since I started designing my own collections. And now that I live in a flat with my boyfriend I understand why neutrals are so popular. You can’t have lots of colour everywhere because it gives you a headache.
What are your tricks for staying motivated and productive?
I think you have to make sure you take time out to reflect on what you’re achieving and remember what your mission is. And I’ve just had to force myself to become more organised. I now use the diary on my phone, and every single half-hour during the day is blocked out with a task. Anytime I think to myself, “Oh, I must do such and such,” I put it straight into my schedule so nothing gets overlooked. It makes me feel more in control, because otherwise you look at your to-do list and panic.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I love watching TV, and I always get really into the Netflix shows. I just watched The Get Down, which was so good. In the evenings I like to do something that takes me away from work, and if you’re watching something on TV or reading a book you get transported to another world. I can’t just come home and do nothing. I have to switch my mind elsewhere and take time out to feel like a human.
Which other women working in your industry inspire you and why?
A lot of my friends really inspire me, because many of them also own businesses. It’s so nice to be able to chat to them and compare notes – even if they’re working in a different industry – because our experiences are often very similar. And I love reading books by businesswomen tycoons. I recently read The Glitter Plan by the Juicy Couture girls, which sounds cheesy, but it was amazing. And Tamara Mellon’s book, In My Shoes, was great too. I really connect with hearing their stories and learning how they started. It always inspires me.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
The best piece of advice I’ve been given personally came from Oliver Tress, who started Oliver Bonas. He said, “Whatever you do, stick with what you know and use whatever is in your remit.” I wanted to expand into so many other product areas quite early on, but he told me to slow down and build upon what I was already doing before jumping into something new. And I think his advice can apply to anyone: stick with what you know, play to your strengths, and evolve from there. Don’t move into another territory until you’ve built something really good.
And I also love the Walt Disney quote, “Think, believe, dream and dare.” It’s like, really think and do your research, take it seriously and believe in yourself, dream beyond your wildest imagination and then dare to do it. I love that piece of advice!
Elizabeth is kindly offering Coco’s Tea Party readers 15% off when you shop at elizabethscarlett.com from now until October 13th 2016. Simply enter the code my9to5 at checkout. Follow Elizabeth Elsey on Instagram at @elizabethscarlett.
You can catch up on the previous My 9 to 5 interviews here >>