When my daughter was about 10 months old I started to think about going back to work.
Then I looked in the mirror.
I was wearing a uniform of black maternity leggings, a saggy nursing bra, whatever top didn’t have signs of baby-led weaning splatted on it and massive knickers that would make even Bridget Jones’ eyes water.
I had also just got a new passport photo taken. I had managed to trowel on a bit of make-up, done my hair and put on a new shirt that I had recently bought. I thought it was a good day.
When the photo came back I couldn’t believe it. Not only that this photo was set to haunt me on every holiday for the next 10 years but WHAT HAD BECOME OF ME? I had unwittingly entered my “Amish Teacher” phase.
I had always been pretty clear on my own style; never that trendy but a love of vintage, spots, stripes, bows, interesting prints and figure hugging dresses. Or a sailor crossed with a clown if you want to put a label on it. Suddenly I felt sartorially at sea. My body shape had changed and I had lost confidence in what I liked or what even suited me anymore.
Help came from my fashion-phobic husband. A man who hates shopping so much that he buys everything in navy blue as he knows it will go with everything else that he has in, erm, navy blue.
We know Caroline through friends and I had gotten to know her over the years at various birthdays, weddings and christenings. She is that girl at events who always looks fantastic; she carries off stylish and on-trend with ease and always gets it right. Plus she is always wearing something that makes you think “Ooooh I like that, I bet it’s really expensive.” And you’ll ask her and she’ll just say a regular high street shop.
She’s not intimidatingly trendy, though, it’s friendly trendy. Trendly?
No wonder, then, that she has carved herself a successful personal shopping and styling business that I got to experience first hand.
After filling in a detailed questionnaire and setting our budget, Caroline and I hit the shops at Westfield Stratford. Part of the service is that she researches and reserves clothes at the shops you visit, as well as picking up bits you like on the way. It is an absolutely wonderful way to shop as she is doing the hard work for you. You just have to try things on and decide if you want to buy them. Plus you get the advice of a professional who will tell you whether things are suiting you or not and how to style them for different occasions
Caroline is also so nice that it is actually like shopping with your best mate or sister. Minus the arguments.
Our trip was a huge success and she kitted me out with tops and bottoms and even managed to make me feel good about myself. I was expecting to feel like a turd polished by TopShop so this was no mean feat.
Three years on and I am still using her advice (namely wearing camis under tops for a smoother line), not hiding under shapeless tops and I still LIVE in my TopShop Joni jeans which are skinny with a bit of a higher waist than normal. Something I am thankful for after 2 kids.
Style Bureau is now 5 years old and thriving. I caught up with Caroline to find out how she’s made it such a success.
Where are you right now in your life?
I am currently in a very good place. We have just done the big move out of London to our forever house and I feel that I have managed to strike the right balance between work and family.
I am 5 years into Style Bureau and I’ve built up a good, regular, client base that comes back again and again. When I started I didn’t know how much repeat business I’d get. Some of my clients now don’t shop any other way and do a seasonal shop with me plus ad-hoc bits on top.
Plus up here in Nottinghamshire there are huge new opportunities for me working with spa hotels, corporate work and charity events.
All this as well as my personal shopping, styling parties and regular TV work, so it is a very exciting time.
How have you got to where you are now?
A lot of hard work, determination and self-belief.
When I started out I used to ask myself, “Can I actually do this? Am I doing a good enough job?”
This really drove me to go the extra mile to give the client everything. From the prep for each session, to the follow-up and the time I gave them on the day. I went over and above to really wow them with my service.
From that I would get great feedback; clients saying that the session had been brilliant, that it had made their week and they felt amazing. Making my clients happy gave me confidence and that drove me to keep going. I felt like I really had something of value to offer.
What’s your background?
I studied fashion at Leeds and then had a career in fashion buying for 10 years. So I knew I had a skillset and a good eye as well as a commercial experience.
I then did a personal styling course with Chantelle Zinderic to learn the ropes and specifically about marketing and how to charge myself out to clients.
So what was the catalyst?
I was made redundant from Jane Norman in 2011 when I was on maternity leave with my second baby, which wasn’t ideal. I was at home with a 2 year old and a 2 month old and I had always had it in my head that I would start a business when the boys were at school but my husband said to me, “This is the right time, just go for it.”
So I did the course with Chantelle, which was exactly what I needed, and then I just needed to get my name out there.
We were living in Kingston at the time, which had a wealth of potential clients. Lots of new mums going back to work with new body shapes to deal with saying “Can you help me?”
I donated loads of vouchers as prizes or to charities and then literally built it up from scratch. I relied on word of mouth and to this day have never done any advertising. It was tough as only had one day a week childcare for ages. Plus I worked loads of weekends.
Being made redundant is possibly one of the best things that happened to me and was definitely the kick I needed.
I now do personal shopping and styling for 100s of clients, corporate work, fashion shows and TV work.
I really have found my dream job, the mix of fashion and the 1:1 with people.
TV work? Tell us more …
A couple of my team at Jane Norman were also made redundant at the same time and they started working at QVC. One of them passed my details on to the talent manager who recruits guest presenters and I got called in for an audition.
I am now on air 2-4 times a month. It is live and the first time was terrifying but the weird thing is once you get going you’re fine. I have to tell myself that I am just chatting and that makes me feel OK.
After the first one had gone well it gave me massive confidence and I thought “I can do this.” I felt comfortable and I really love it.
Do you think you could have done all this pre-kids?
Would I? Probably not. I loved my buying job and all the travel. I saw so much of the world that I would never visit normally. When you have kids one of you needs to be around more so I knew I had to create something that would allow that. My priority was being around when they were younger.
What advice would you give someone setting up on their own.
If you love what you do, you will succeed. Your passion and love for it will get you there. People will be inspired and energised by that passion.
Don’t underestimate how good you are.
And crucially, never give up.
I didn’t get the QVC role straight away. After my first audition I was told that the brand itself didn’t think I was the right fit. So I called and called asking about new brands. Lulu Guinness came up. I did a really good audition but Lulu herself said I didn’t fit the brand as she wanted a mini her.
It was fairly soul destroying but I kept on calling as I knew I could do it.
Then Liz Claibourne NY came up. I was the 17th auditionee and the production manager said to me “Please be amazing.” I got the role.
I could have let that opportunity go but I kept on calling. Getting that role has been brilliant for me in many ways but especially being part of a team as I do work on my own a lot too.
Be really, really brave. And just talk to everyone about your business as leads come from the most random chats. The more exposure you can get for your business, the better.
What has been your greatest challenge so far?
The most challenging was the first Rose Theatre Fashion Show. I had done others but this was managing students in all the roles from hair, make-up, music, models, dressers – the works.
It is a public theatre, paying guests and a team who I didn’t meet until the day. It was a huge learning curve for me. But it was awesome, I have done three more since and now it’s a permanent fixture on the theatre calendar.
I love working with younger people and it has lead to some lecturing and mentoring too.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Other than getting the QVC role I think it has to be last April, it was an outstanding month for me. I had a variety of personal and corporate jobs as well as working for ITV doing a personal shop for the X factor Final ticket winners. Their head stylist called me up afterwards and said I’d done an amazing job which was just the best feeling.
I was also a finalist in the Kingston Business Excellence Awards for entrepreneur of the year. I was up against established, hugely successful businesses with huge teams which was the biggest confidence boost ever. I felt pretty proud that night.
How do you make it work with the kids?
The boys are now 7 & 5.
In the early days I had 1 day a week of childcare and I massively relied on friends, neighbours and my amazing Mum who lived 3 hours away and worked herself. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Then when the boys were at nursery I built up to 3 days a week and had my regular clients.
Now both boys are at school I do 3 days of pick-ups and drop-offs and my Mum does the other 2 days. It’s definitely very balanced and I really treasure my time with them when they are back from school and I can really focus on them. It also means I can be involved at the school. I use my commute back from London to do my admin, which means I can switch off my laptop and enjoy my evenings.
What do you want from being a working Mum?
It is important for me to realise my ambitions. It is also important that it runs along side being there for my boys. I am a better mum for them working than not. Sometimes I wish I was completely satisfied by being a stay at home Mum but I worked and studied hard at something I am good at and I make people happy and wouldn’t want to give that up either. I thrive from working and achieving and bringing money in and it gives me self-worth.
Do you miss your old life?
Now and again I long for a proper lie in but apart from that, not at all.
What would you tell your younger self?
That we are in control and we can make things happen. When we are younger we don’t know that and think someone will tell us what to do. Work flipping hard, be determined and you will make it work.
And finally what is your best tip for making it work?
Don’t give up on leads and don’t give yourself a hard time about having time off, it will do you good.
I am currently gearing up to re-entering the fashionable world of advertising and don’t think my new uniform of wonky-boobed-mime-artist-in-skanky-Nikes will cut it (well maybe in some agencies) so I think it’s time for another session with the Style Bureau.
If you think Caroline could help you or someone you know, get in touch here.