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How I Made It

Kate Barton, Fashion Guru How I Made It

Kate Barton, Fashion Guru
“Follow your gut.”

At the age of 20, without any experience, Kate Barton managed to break into the fashion industry as an Assistant Travel Editor for Vogue. She didn’t stop there. Throughout her successful career in fashion, she became a designer for Laura Ashley, started her own childrenswear company and played an instrumental role in launching Mini Boden. We were lucky enough to chat to Kate about the highs and lows of her fascinating career in fashion…


What did you do before you started working at Vogue?

I did A-levels but I wasn’t clever enough to go to university. It didn’t even cross my mind. I went to secretarial college because my parents thought it would be a good thing for me to do. It was incredibly boring. I then got a job as a receptionist, which was even more boring.

I walked into Vogue House and decided that I wanted to work there. I spoke to the receptionist and somehow managed to get a job. I was very, very lucky.

They were looking for somebody in the copywriting department, which I knew nothing about. I became Assistant Travel Editor when I was 20 and worked for the travel editor for 18 months. I don’t know why he offered me the job; maybe he fancied me or something.

What responsibilities did you have?

I travelled a lot. I was responsible for writing the ‘Travel Diary’, which came out every month. I also did quite a lot of my own writing. If I came up with a decent idea for a feature, I’d approach my boss and he’d say, “Yeah, run with it. Go and see the editor.”

I remember suggesting one feature because I wanted to get as much travel out of it as possible. It was a comparative report on renting houses all over the world. I visited St Lucia, Norfolk, a Greek island, Palm Beach in Florida and went skiing, all for one edition. I was given lovely villas, cars, flights and all the rest of it. For a 20 year old, it was very exciting.

What did you gain from that experience?

Retrospectively, I learnt that you need balls in life. It also gave me a great desire to travel.

Why did you decide to quit Vogue?

Working at Vogue gave me a taste for travelling. I wanted to do a six-month trip and just get it out of my system before I settled down. I came back two and a half years later.

Perhaps, in my heart of hearts, I also knew that I was never going to make it as a journalist. I wasn’t nearly good enough at writing.

When you returned, you managed to get a job in the press office at Laura Ashley. How did you manage to secure that opportunity?

I just applied for the job. The press officer was very reluctant to take me on initially because I was overqualified and she wanted an assistant. I really pushed, though, because I really wanted it.

Eventually, she took on someone else to back her up, and I started organising promotional fashion shows all over the country for Laura Ashley. I would book the models, go into the shops, invite people and do promotional shows across the UK. It was a great job, but it involved travelling and I’d just got married. I was away at least two nights a week.

I decided that I didn’t really want to do it anymore, so I handed in my notice. At that stage, Nick Ashley, who was in the design department, offered me a job, which was based in Clapham.

What did you do in the design department? 

Sometimes it’s only when you fall into a job that you realise how much you enjoy it. I really loved putting ideas together, having things made and getting them accepted by the merchandisers.

Most of the Laura Ashley clothes were made in-house in Carno in Wales in the company’s own factory. They couldn’t make certain items, however, because they didn’t have the right machinery. All the t-shirting, jersey, leather and knitwear was made abroad.

I was responsible for leather and all the t-shirting products. I’d spend my time going out to Portugal, liaising with factories, coming up new designs and getting samples made. I spent more time on the t-shirting stuff because I really enjoyed creating new shapes with basic t-shirting.

Why did you decide to start your own childrenswear company?

When I was working in the press office, Mrs Ashley had an accident and fell down the stairs. She was clinically dead when she arrived at the bottom. The company had to be very careful about how they released this tragic news to the shareholders.

By the time I’d joined the design department, the deal had gone through. Laura Ashley had been bought out and floated on the Stock Exchange. They were bringing in all sorts of high-powered people and the company was getting more and more hierarchical to work for.

I really enjoyed my job, but I believe in following your gut, so I left and set up a childrenswear company called The General Clothing Company.  

First of all, I worked from home, driving my husband mad in the process. I then moved to the Camberwell Business Centre and ran the company from there for ten years.

My first step in the business involved going to Portugal, getting a lot of things made, having them sent back to me and then selling them.

My first ever sale was terrifying. One of the styles arrived by special delivery from Portugal at 9am on the same morning. When I opened the box, the collars for the dresses had been put on back-to-front. I thought I was going to be sick, I was so frightened. The sale was starting in half an hour, so I just had to pin up a sample of the dress and say: “This is a style I’m selling. I’ve got no stock but I’m taking orders.” I sent the delivery back to Portugal and got the collars put on the right way at the manufacturer’s expense.

I then started taking a stand to trade fairs, where I would show samples of my collection and get clothes made to order. I would close my order book for the forthcoming season in enough time to collate all the orders and get my production sorted. 

Did you have any investment?

No, I put in £2,500 of my own money. It didn’t cross my mind to borrow.

After a decade of success, you merged with Boden. How did that come about?

I’d already had one unsuccessful merger attempt, where a company tried to buy me out and it went very wrong. They tried to steal my production. They went over and bribed the factory that I was working with to make clothes for them and not for me, so they could win the market. It was horrible.

I started to find that all my orders were dropping and I couldn’t understand why. I rang up the factory and they told me what was happening. Understandably, I pulled out of the merger.

I really felt in my gut that there was a lot of potential in the products. When I was on holiday in France, I woke up in the middle of the night and said to my husband: “What about Boden? There must be a market for children with Boden.”

I was lucky enough to have met Johnnie Boden before he started his company. I’d had lunch with him to advise him on where to go and what to do, but I hadn’t seen him since. I rang Johnnie the morning I got back from holiday and we got together the next week.

He couldn’t afford to buy the company out, so he rolled my company into his. We were both quite headstrong, so we had our moments, but ultimately it was pretty successful.

What was it like merging with another company? Were you worried about relinquishing full control?

I was financially very cautious when I first went in with Boden because I was rolling my company into theirs. I’d always paid myself a very meagre salary, but I was desperate to hold onto the money. At the start, I was still bankrolling Mini Boden because Johnnie couldn’t afford to at that stage. There was some financial anxiety and I’m a bit of a control freak, so I found that quite difficult.

When I first started I designed the collection, so that was great. However, when I became pregnant with my fifth child, I stopped working as a designer and worked on a style committee, where it was my job to vet what other people had designed. Sometimes I found that very difficult, because I was desperate to keep the look of the company and the products right. Nowadays, the designers are absolutely fantastic and they do a very good job; I couldn’t begin to do it as well myself.

We agreed a projected value of the company when I first joined Boden to create Mini Boden. When we reached that target over a number of years, I peeled off. I now have nothing to do with the company at all.

What was the highlight of your career in the fashion industry?

Seeing children wearing my clothes on the street. Even though I made all the clothes and hundreds of pieces went out of the office every season, I could never quite believe that someone was wearing one of my outfits.

It was incredibly hard work, but it was tremendously good fun. I really, really enjoyed it. Fortunately, I also married a very tolerant man who let me surround myself in bits of fabric and do what I wanted to do.

What advice would you give to young people that want to work in the fashion industry?

If you really believe in something, follow your gut. People will over-analyse things and say to you: “You’ve got to do it this way. This is what sells. This is what doesn’t sell.” I believe there’s always a chance that you can create something which is very close to something else that didn’t sell, but will sell.

When Laura Ashley was at its peak, they were doing printed cottons. When they sold the company and were able to bring in knowledgeable, high-powered people from other companies like Next, who said that polyester sells better cotton, they were less brave and more nervous about just doing what the company already did well. Perhaps Laura Ashley should have just stuck to what they really knew and were brilliant at, because nobody else ever did it

Don’t worry about starting at the bottom. It doesn’t matter if you start off answering the telephones for a year. So what? If somebody notices you’re very good at it, you’ll become the manager of the department. They’ll know you’re a very good worker and you’ll move vertically through the company. 

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