Anna Mason’s eponymous brand is known for its beautiful dresses and impeccable tailoring – it’s available directly from her where garments can be made to measure, or there is a ready-to-wear range on Net A Porter. Starting a designer label is not easy, but running a high-end fashion brand during Covid is even more challenging. We spoke to Anna to find out how she got started, how she reacted to lockdown and what her future plans are.
Last year in the first lockdown I was designing the collection that’s out now. I couldn’t get my hands on fabric, I was designing in the kitchen like in the good old days. It started off being quite nice, like a break, and then as it went on is became a feeling of isolation – from the world and also from the idea of fashion, It didn’t seem at all relevant. That was quite challenging. I chose to be classic with this collection – I felt it had to have longevity and be quite serious so I stripped it back and toned it down. What I know as a designer is when you do what you think and feel, it works. When you don’t, it doesn’t.
We had already started thinking about the collection and our customer differently. I’d recently designed a tracksuit called Le Jogging – because of the travelling my team and I had been doing to see buyers, we couldn’t keep wearing party dresses all the time, we needed to have clothes that filled in all the gaps. I’ve always done a full collection but what’s been picked up by people has mainly been the dresses. This past year I’ve thought, who is my woman, what does she want to wear now? She wants to be comfortable, she wants her clothes to feel relevant to her life. I don’t want her clothes to sit in their wardrobe and only be used for special occasions.
We communicated with our customers much more through Covid – on mailers, Instagram and Facebook. Before lockdown we had resisted communicating directly with them because we didn’t want to annoy them too much! Historically we’d reached people through events. But what we found as we started emailing more frequently was that customers loved the emails and they told us! It was really heartening. We tried to promote garments that were relevant to that time but also with a scattering of blue sky thinking – when we’re free you can wear this lovely dress – and remind people we’re still there.
As a result of Covid, there seems to be more people buying less and buying better – which has always been our model so this is good. For a customer, the first made-to-measure purchase is often the hardest, when they have to wait for it to be made, but once they’ve done it once, they don’t mind waiting.
I decided I wanted to be in fashion when I was six – I am a total fashion cliche! I was obsessed with clothes when I was a child and I was passionate about art. I was a dreamer. I did an Art Foundation Course, followed by a Fashion Degree at Edinburgh College of Art. I did a two-year MA in women’s fashion at the Royal College of Art and in my first year there Karl Lagerfeld set a competition and I won. I went to work for him in Paris on and off for a couple of years while I was finishing my MA. I was completely terrified! I worked backstage at the shows when the ‘Supers’ were modelling – Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelist, Amber Valetta… After that I worked as a designer in Italy for Valentino and Max Mara, and then here for Amanda Wakeley.
Once I had my first child, I worked for UK-based designers as a freelancer two or three days a week. In 2010 I reached a point where I realised I hadn’t ticked my ambition. I was running my own business as a fashion stylist and personal shopper and that really galvanised me as I started to realise that there was lots you should be able to buy but it wasn’t available. So I started making items for myself and sometimes for my clients. Whenever I was wearing something I’d made, I would get stopped. There were three items – two dresses and one blouse, all of which are still in every collection, in some form.
I put aside enough money from my freelancing to make a collection and launched in AW 2012. First I did parties in my house and then asked customers to do parties at their houses for their friends – the word spread through that. During that time I kept Net A Porter and Moda Operandi informed about what I was doing. In 2018 we got picked up by Moda Operandi because someone from there had bought a dress at a party. By then I could send a lookbook which had been professionally photographed, but the business was still run from my house – my seamstresses were working in the playroom so my kids could never use it! Once we got bigger orders we found a factory in Poland. It went ballistic on Moda Operandi that first season.
Net A Porter then approached us. Alison Loehnis, president of Net, is a private client and she introduced us to the buyer there. They were the first stockist to pick us up in the UK in AW 2019 and our jumpsuit sold out. When they bought that collection, I needed bigger factories to fulfil the order. You have to pay for everything up front so I sought funding. We’ve done everything you can try to make it work and some of it’s worked and some of it hasn’t. Now I’ve got a group of angel investors who are extremely loyal, encouraging and enthusiastic. All of them are fans of the brand – before they invested they knew me or the clothes.
Get your pricing right. When it comes to talking with buyers, the business side of it is quite straight forward, you’ve just got to know how much it really costs you to make something. Don’t undersell yourself, it’s not sustainable as a business. You have to think about how many people you’ve got to employ to and put that cost in to each sale. At the start, I didn’t have huge investment behind me so I didn’t have money to burn through. It had to be completely viable but I couldn’t sell it short. I had quite a lot of advice along the way from kind people who were happy to chat to me about pricing – wholesale and direct are very different things so how do you have the same item on sale in two different places for the same price? I knew from the start I wanted to sell wholesale so I knew my prices had to allow for that.
It’s really good to be new. People are desperate for the new. It’s really difficult to be a little bit established, which is where we are now. One of the problems I had was when I was looking for investment at one stage was that I was already established but the amount of profit I was making was too small. Ironically had I looked for investment at the start when I had made no money, I’d have been more likely to get investment. But actually it was fine because what I didn’t want was somebody controlling me – and I still don’t want that. I’m entirely in control creatively. I decide and notice what’s working and what’s not working.
My ultimate goal is to make beautiful clothes and I want people to love them and if they love them, they will be successful. Do what you love – but do it so you’re making money, not losing money! My advice to anyone starting a fashion is they should do it like I’ve done it because you really get to know everything. If you start with loads of money and someone telling you what to do, you don’t feel it, and then you can’t make it work anyway.
I wouldn’t be here without the amazing women who work with and for me. My closest team, Caroline and Leila, are a big part of the brand identity and business. They asked to work for me. They love the product and looked amazing in it. I can ask for their advice and they’re honest with me. They’re smart and bright and genuinely interested in fashion. One is South African and one is Serbian-Dutch so they have a broader world view. Having people I trust to help push things forward has been invaluable. Now my team is nine people and I am still the only designer. I went to college with my pattern cutter – our background is the same so I trust her completely as well, that’s been useful. My customers are lovely – they love the product, they become so loyal and you build up great networks of people.
If you have a big meeting, make an impression. It’s much better to be overdressed than underdressed. I have been underdressed a couple of times in my life and have felt really bad. Life’s too short not to dress up – in general I would say that, but particularly after the last year. Wear the flamboyant top, be noticed and remembered.
It’s hard to plan ahead now, you have to wait until the moment is right. You have to think what do people want, when do they want it, is it the right timing, what do people feel like about buying things? Future plans include moving premises to be more central and it’ll include a glamorous showroom. We’re expanding quite a lot in the the US and all the collaborations we had planned pre-Covid (shoes, jewellery, knitwear) are still happening, we’re going to include some leather, and there general collection will continue to expand.
My all-time favourite designers are Coco Chanel and I have a personal soft spot for Karl Lagerfeld and my memories there. I love a lot of female designers – Madeleine Vionnet, Alix, Madame Gres, Elsa Schiaparelli, Claire McCardell – and the 70s. Business-wise I think Anya Hindmarch is incredible and Isabel Marant – I like the fact she’s only recently sold half her business. She’s remained in control of it the whole time, its a cult brand, so famous, but still feels like a small brand.