Work incredibly hard. Be prepared to compromise. Be ever-vigilant for tipping points. Never really switch off (when it’s your business, that’s a luxury). The seriously impressive – and very inspiring – Clare Hornby, founder of ME + EM (beautifully made, wearable, flattering clothes) shares her road to building this quietly brilliant brand.
What inspired you to set up Me + Em? Was there a moment when you thought, ‘Aha, so this is what women need’?
I think it was always in me. From the age of 12 I was constantly coming up with ideas. I’d been registering business names for years, but the question always was: how do I afford to do it? It wasn’t until after I had kids, and I was in stable position, that I decided to bite the bullet.
My career had trained me to look for a gap in the market – so, when we first launched, it was as The Pyjama Room (a glamorous take on everything you wore at home). It did really well when we [Claire and her business partner Emma, who left the company in 2012] first started, but then we realised there was a broader idea there, and so we changed the name to Me + Em…
How would you sum up the brand in three words?
Intelligent – we are all about problem-solving fashion. Contemporary – we care passionately about trends and fashion and so we ensure they are integrated into the collection. Flattering – our clothes make you look good. (For instance, there’s a reason the side-stripe trousers are a perennial bestseller: that stripe visually elongates the leg.)
And tell us about your customer…
I think it’s more a way of being: she has a certain mindset and style. We have a very broad audience. They tend buy into the brand at 28 and our ‘bullseye customer’ is 32-52, but we sell all the way up to age 70, 8o even.
I always think of her [our customer] as busy and that fuels how we design the collection. We do the hard work for her by producing an edited collection. It works like fashion Lego: there are always three ways to wear every piece because I approach design by thinking, ‘Can you do the school run, go to work, and then out in the evening in this one outfit?’ Take our AM to PM Forever Pant: they’re perfect for work – and the satin sash belt means you can wear them straight out in the evening.
Your brand vision is incredibly focused – do you go with your gut instinct or are you at a point where decisions are highly informed by experience?
It’s a combination of the two. The design side of the business starts from pure instinct. Early on, I learned to my peril that if I make something something that’s not ‘me’ – or that I don’t love – then it doesn’t tend to sell. But now the data we have is quite rich (and we have a lot of it), so instinct is backed up by data. By way of example, we’re very well-known for our swing shape: it’s iconic, it suits both young and old, you can re-spin it different ways. It’s a phenomenally fast-selling shape and therefore we know anything with swing will sell.
Our layering shirt is another bestseller. I came up with the idea when I was standing watching a hockey match at my daughters’ school, whilst wearing a jumper with a white shirt underneath. The wind was blowing up my jumper and under the shirt, then I got back into the car and the shirt had pulled up under the jumper. But I love the look of a shirt under a jumper, so I went to our designer and said, ‘We have to create a layering shirt.’ ‘A what?’ they replied. ‘A layering shirt. Let’s put a collar and cuffs on a long tee. It sits flush to your body and works under everything, even a thin merino jumper.’ It sold out immediately. Then we realised that trends are driven by collars and cuffs – so this shirt is a very simple way to instantly update your wardrobe every season.
Talk us through a typical working day.
I live in Sussex, so I do four days in the office in office and they start early (I am rather too well-acquainted with the A3) and end late. I love anyone in the business who likes a 7.30 breakfast meeting, and I always do interviews/appraisals at the beginning of the day.
My week is very structured: Mondays are dedicated to trade; Tuesdays, I have meetings with the marketing team; on Wednesdays I work from home in the morning and watch the girls’ matches in the afternoon; Thursday, I use for design; and Friday is a product day.
When it’s your own business you never switch off. One of the good things about living in both Sussex and London is being exposed to different ideas all the time. I’m constantly looking at how women put clothes together; I admit I photograph people from behind quite a lot!
Can you pinpoint the moment when you knew you’d made it?
You’re never where you want it to be, because you get there and then you’re striving for the next stage. I don’t think there is one specific moment, it’s more a case of breakthrough moments when you know you’re about to trend upwards. Like when we hit our first £5k day about seven years ago – that was huge. Then the first £30k day; and the first £80k day…
I feel at the moment [the brand] is being talked about. We used to know where the sales were coming from: we could spent money and see a return on our investment, but now we’re getting more customers coming to us of their own volition. I feel the brand is at that tipping point.
We’re planning to open about 10 stores in next 10 years. We’re all about touch and quality; yes, you can see that in our photography, but it’s only when you [the customer] actually feel the pieces that you’re amazed by the quality. So opening more stores makes complete sense.
What are your picks from the S/S17 collection?
I love the new side stripe trousers.
I am living in the True Chic stripe jumper.
I’ve always loved the cashmere box hoody.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the business world?
In the main, it’s the guilt you permanently feel around juggling work and family. That’s the biggest challenge – and the one I hear about the most from the women I know who are in similar situations. For some reason, even though the modern man is there for the kids, we’re the ones who beat ourselves up. I do have to say, though, that when I look at my children’s friends, they all seem equally happy regardless of what their mum does [i.e. if she works/stays at home].
I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong about work – it really is about you. My friends who don’t work all think I’m really busy, but I have help in the form of the most brilliant support infrastructure.
I struggle to juggle being in two places: this week I have to get up at 5am every morning so I can be back at home to watch their concerts and go to parents’ evening. The girls definitely appreciate all the juggling – and the amount of time I spend on the A3 in order to be there for them! I do know that they get really excited about the business and love getting involved. They really do pore over our Google analytics and offer their opinions.
We hear a lot about the absence of women from positions of power, influence and financial prestige. What do you think we can we do to change the status quo? Are you a fan of “leaning in”?
Well, some of my closest friends are in ridiculously high-powered positions, so I feel we’re doing quite well to inhabit positions of power and prestige. But I will say that to get to the very top, you have to make compromises and work incredibly hard – and you have to have the support infrastructure behind you. This is easier said than done. I am very lucky and the girls have a very hands-on granny; both she and my husband have been the most incredible support and I could not have done what I have without them.
Did you anticipate the success you’ve had?
I always hoped it would be the case. I didn’t start it for something to do, I started it to be successful. Once you’re in it, you’re in it.
What do you wish you’d known? What would you tell yourself if you could go back to that starting point?
I probably wouldn’t have done it! I just didn’t see the barriers that I would see now, like: why would a supplier make for you if you were just starting out? How do you even find a supplier. I wouldn’t have moved – we would have stayed in London. The thing that kills me the most is trying to run a business from two places. Nor would I have pigeonholed myself in the first instance. The Pyjama Room was based on the principle of comfortable luxury, and that was a bigger idea than the name suggested. To anyone else in the same position, I would say, have the idea but don’t narrow yourself down too much with the name. It will evolve and you need the headroom for it to do that.
What advice would you give other women wanting to build their own business?
Really know that there’s a gap and know how you’re going to fill it. Know how you will delivery quality and style at the right price. Know that your route to market (online, shop, wholesale) is as important as your idea.
You have two children so you experience the perennial work/family/life juggle – how do you manage it? Do you ever feel you’ve achieved the right balance?
I would never be arrogant and say I feel I have it right; it’s a constant process and however hard you try, as women, we are programmed to question ourselves. It’s almost impossible to do everything brilliantly – and you can only do your best. Your children will tell you if it’s not working! One week I think I am hitting that balance, and next they’ll send me another curveball so I have to adjust.
It was harder when they were little and they were much more emotionally demanding. They’re more independent now, and need more practical time than they do emotional time. I try to involve them in the business as much as possible so they feel a part of it. They come on shoots; look at figures (which is a great way to see maths in context); come up with really good ideas. I even get product ideas from what they’re wearing.
And do you get any time for yourself?!
Not really, but it doesn’t worry me – that’s down the line. My kids are 11 and 12, and when they’re 18, I’ll have loads of time to myself. So the answer would be: yes, I do – when my husband’s away and I’m asleep!