The Telegraph - 26th November 2020 - Text: Caroline Leaper.
The the Duchess of Cornwall's £48 face mask boosted designer Fiona Clare's business
Fiona Clare has pivoted her business during lockdown
On paper, it should have been a bad year for business for Fiona Clare. The London-based designer specialises in creating bespoke formalwear outfits, particularly wedding guest attire for mothers of brides and grooms. Special occasions, on the whole, have been in pitifully low supply in 2020.
Yet, like many British businesses in these circumstances, Clare has adapted and made the best of the situation.
Clare, whose best-known client is the Duchess of Cornwall, has instead launched a new lower priced ready-to-wear collection, and has managed to do so without compromising on her principles as an independent couturier.
Rather than suddenly switching to produce tracksuit bottoms or pyjamas, she is instead offering luxurious staples such as pure silk shirts and kimono robes, hand cut by her and made in Britain.
“I had always wanted to sell ready-to-wear in an online shop, but it’s taken the events of this year to make me do it,” she admits. “I know from all of the bespoke pieces that I make, what it is that people can’t find in other shops. I wanted it to be without season, and ageless, just luxurious pieces that feel special when you put them on, with Liberty prints. I live in my silk kimono, even if I’m just making coffee in the morning - who wouldn’t want that?”
Just as when she is developing a bespoke outfit for a client, Clare cut all of the patterns for the new collection herself, testing the fits through the spring lockdown. Clare works alone in her London studio, and commissions her network of freelance UK machinists to make tiny quantities of each piece, allowing her to sell pre-made stock for the first time.
Traditionally, it might take over eight weeks to commission a bespoke outfit from Clare, with prices for her made-to-measure dresses starting at £2,000. The ready-to-wear prices begin at £210 for a silk nightdress, and can be dispatched in a couple of days.
Face mask, £48, fionaclare.co.uk
Another unexpected new strand to Clare’s business is face masks. For one of her first public engagements after lockdown rules had relaxed in July, the Duchess of Cornwall wore a Liberty printed facemask, handmade by Clare. The designer received a flurry of enquiries from prospective customers, and has since sold more than 100 - a huge quantity of sales for her small business.
“I didn’t intend to keep making the masks, I was just lucky enough that the Duchess of Cornwall wore one and it suddenly went bananas,” she explains. The Duchess has worn Clare's dresses and coats on dozens of high profile occasions over the years, including at the Christening of Prince George and in her 70th birthday portraits. They were first introduced by Camilla’s dresser, Jacqui Meakin, in around 2005.
“I gave a mask to her dresser [Meakin] who I always deal with, but I didn’t know if the Duchess would wear it,” she says. “It’s extraordinary - suddenly out of the blue you see pictures in the papers and you don’t expect it at all.”
Priced from £48, there are now seven prints to choose from on her website. A donation from each sale goes to the National Literacy Trust, a charity which the Duchess is a patron of.
“I wanted them to be made of silk, with all the elastic covered around the ears,” she says. “A friend asked who on earth is going to spend £48 on a mask, but people don’t have to buy them, it’s just another option. They’re all handmade, and I don’t really make a lot of money from the sales, but it’s been a lovely thing to do. I’ve had two appointments from where people have bought the masks, and they’re now coming to have something else made.”
Face mask, £48, fionaclare.co.uk
The wedding business, Clare says, thankfully hasn’t dried up completely. “It’s been interesting, some people went ahead just with 30 people, or 15,” she says. “People are finding ways to make it even more special and because there is nowhere else to dress up for, when it comes to weddings, people want to really look amazing.”
This second lockdown, Clare says, has been much tougher than the first. “When it happened the first time I was going to have a really brilliant year,” she reflects. “All of my orders were coming in and thankfully most people in the spring said to carry on as they’d just moved it to next year. But it’s this time that I’m thinking, when I get to the end of the year, what is going to happen next?
Clare is hopeful that her online shop, now up and running, will keep ticking over, and that the bespoke customers will pick up again once there is a clearer picture of what wedding season will be like next spring.
“I’m thankful that I don’t have colossal overheads,” she admits. “I think as long as I can pay the bills it’s fine. I haven’t had a holiday this year, but I want my business to keep going more than anything in the world.”
“Buy British and buy small and local this year,” she urges. “We’ve all got to support each other.”