I am ambivalent about women’s business events and I sure have been to a lot of (and declined significantly more invitations to) networking events but I was genuinely delighted to be invited by the Fashion Unit at haysmacintyre accountants to an evening with Amanda Wakeley OBE recently.
On arrival we were given a glass of champagne and shown to seats in the conference suite which had been transformed into a cat walk with a corporate colour purple runway down the centre. I chatted to a senior corporate lawyer from a top law firm and the MD of a leading legal PR company. Judging by the immaculate outfits of some of the other senior women, there were also a good number of fashionistas in attendance too. haysmacintyre is known to have a number of top fashion labels amongst its clients – I felt uncomfortable not being able to recognise them in the room.
Natasha Frangos, the partner leading the haysmacintyre fashion team, introduced the evening. Even though five months pregnant she looked stunning in what turned out to be an Amanda Wakeley original. I can’t believe she walked so elegantly on such ferociously high heels.
On the runway was a tall stool and it was on this that Amanda (dressed in a simple black jacket and beautifully tailored tapered black trousers with some awesome red high heels) spent the first part of the evening talking about her business experiences. Unlike her incredible creative achievements, the business story was pretty much a tale of woe. But she started by sharing the good news that Vogue had last week acclaimed her new season to be the triumphant return of power dressing or something similar.
Amanda explained that her focus was on real women. She herself had not taken the conventional route into a fashion career but declined a college education in exchange for several months working in New York where she identified a gap in the UK market for clean and elegant lines. She started out in a tiny studio (a flat) in Chelsea and went on to – as we all know – dress fashion icons around the globe, including the late Princess Diana.
Her business had started in partnership with her husband at the time and some unfortunate professional advice (the haysmacintyre folk in the audience were quick to point out that it wasn’t theirs!) had led to her transferring most of the business into his name in overseas jurisdictions. This turned out to be a major issue when they divorced and she had to seek funding at short notice from other sources. She partnered with a club owner and her success continued – with more concessions and rapid expansion – and then found her business sold to a new partner, a Sheik this time who wanted to help his children learn about the business world.
She bravely admitted that she hadn’t possessed a formal business plan until 2008 when the Sheik decided to sell the business and she had to throw herself on the mercy of an investment bank. Unfortunately, her case fell on deaf ears and the business was transferred to a debt restructurer who promptly dismissed 80% of her staff and sold off many of the assets.
A stroke of luck meant that she was able to buy back her name/brand intellectual property and the bridal business in 2009 even though the financial challenges meant that many of the concessions had been lost. So she returned to her roots in Chelsea and rehired her trusted assistant Bridget and got back into the swing of things.
It was at this stage in the evening when she introduced six “real women” models to show off some of her latest collection. Members of haysmacintyre professional and support staff had been for fittings and showed us a range of outfits. Anyway would have thought the women had been to modelling school. The outfits were stunning – crisp tweed office wear, short day wear tunics, informal kaftans and flowing, tribally decorated evening dresses. Muted mocha, caramel and cappuccino colours as well as warm corals and piercing cobalt blues and hot pinks.
Amanda took time to explain the fabrics (scuba jersey featured strongly), cuts and embellishments of each piece which made it much easier for the fashion newbies like myself to appreciate the designs. Amazingly, one of the most incredible outfits – a cobalt blue jumpsuit with a draped chain like wrap – was sported by Natasha and her tidy bump.
After the catwalk music quietened and thanks exchanged we enjoyed pear bellinis and chatted amongst ourselves. I met an impressive women from RBS who had created a women’s network and had arranged a number of great events to celebrate International Women’s Day this week – I do hope the events go well tomorrow!
In true fashion party style, we were each given a goody bag as we left. There was, of course, some promotional material from haysmacintyre and Amanda Wakeley (including a discount voucher to use this week – and I am sorely tempted!) as well as branded mineral water, chocolate lipsticks and a tiny branded sewing case. It was a great evening and I hope to attend more like this.