Women Entrepreneurs… The How’s, What’s, Why’s and Who’s that made it happen

We talk to Kathryn McCormick, founder of Lily & Albert


The idea for a knitwear brand that provides hand-made pieces for men and women developed after Kathryn saw fishermen’s wives knitting cardigans for their husbands on a beach in Portugal. Captivated by the expertise involved in this age-old tradition and the quality produced, she bought her first fisherman’s cardigan from the artisans. With an interest in fashion from a young age, Kathryn could often be found trawling through her Mother’s wardrobe in the hope of finding that unique piece with a bit of history to it. When she discovered this ongoing traditional craft she felt she had found just that. At University this hand knitted fisherman’s cardigan became her most borrowed item, which solidified the belief that there was a market for this original craftsmanship in modern fashion. So she pooled the savings from her GAP year work and took out a small loan to buy some stock, and Lily & Albert was born.

Since then Lily & Albert has gone from strength to strength; it has been featured in magazines such as Tatler and national papers such as The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail; been on the BBC, exhibited at high profile shows including Britain’s Next Top Model Live, worked with Green lifestyle organization Global Cool and DJ Gemma Cairney, as well as opening the Fuze fashion show alongside Jack Wills and Reiss. It has also have acquired lots of high profile customers from stars of E4’s Made in Chelsea and Radio 1 DJs’ to International Supermodels.

Why did you want to start your own business?
My friends and I used to dream up all sorts of enterprising ideas when we were at school. We would find gaps in the market and devise a plan to fill them. The appeal to this was the freedom to create something new and exciting and to be in control of the whole process. With Lily & Albert, rather than it being a decision to start any business, it was a case of stumbling across a product that I loved and a craft that I felt needed to be kept alive and embraced. I don’t think there was a defiant moment where I said ‘I’m going to start a business’. The more I investigated and researched the market, the more the idea developed. When I met the small, family run manufacturers, I wanted to start the business to bring these incredible products to a wider audience and I knew I wouldn’t be the only one who loved the fact that each item has been individually hand knitted. Having studied Drama as my degree, finding an audience was something I had practice in. I suppose I approached the branding of Lily & Albert like the devising of a play.

What challenges did you come up against?
Learning how to make a website! That was the first challenge. It took time and patience but I am so glad I did it myself as I now have a real understanding of e-commerce. Self-discipline – When you work for yourself, you don’t have anyone patting you on the back or telling you how well (or not) you are doing. It is a labour of love. I am a sociable person but also enjoy my own space but working for yourself and working from home is a challenge. You miss the every day people, the day-to-day goings on of a work environment. I also found it extremely difficult to delegate at first.

How did you overcome these?
When I worked from home I created a separate workspace. I needed to at least feel that I was ‘going to work’ and it’s important to make a distinction between work areas and living spaces. I’m now working in a shared office in Soho with other young entrepreneurs. There is so much going on and a real buzz about the place. Although our businesses are different, our ultimate aim is the same. We can all relate to each other and it’s great to be able to share experiences and have that support. It’s really important to be surrounded by a working environment. I also quickly learnt that it is impossible to run the whole show entirely on your own and have recently realised the benefits of outsourcing certain projects and have enjoyed collaborations.

What is the most exciting thing about running your own business?
The best thing about running Lily & Albert is that it is constantly evolving, providing opportunities to meet such a wide range of people. Every day is different and I love seeing my ideas come into fruition. It is so satisfying when I get an email from a customer personally thanking me for their new cardigan and telling me how much they love it. I have always enjoyed trying new things and running Lily & Albert gives me that element of variety.

I visited my manufacturers and knitters last month – I always enjoy going back to where it all began. Over the past two years we have established a really close working relationship with them and it is amazing to meet the artisans and see how they make each piece from start to finish.  I love the fact that the entire process is eco-friendly, using recycled wool, natural dyes and no electric machinery. Each piece is made by hand and therefore truly unique.

Coming up with storyboards for our photo shoots is another part of the business that I really enjoy. It’s such a great feeling when the vision you have created in your mind is being played out in front of you.

Is it successful?
Yes. We’ve had great success online through our own website www.lilyandalbert.com and the well-known online marketplace notonthehightstreet.com. This season I have already had to put twice as much into production due to the demand! We have exhibited at lots of fashion shows, fairs and events and so we got to know our customer really well and have learnt so much along the way. The business is growing organically in collaboration with up and coming photographers, stylists and models and we are now in talks with potential stockists. A Spring/Summer Cotton collection was introduced into the range in 2011 and Winter 2012 will see the launch of the Childrenswear collection ‘Lily’s Lambs’.

Would you recommend other women out there start something of their own?
I think it’s a great time to be running your own business. With so many graduates coming out of university and with the job market being tougher than ever, running your own thing gives you the opportunity to put the skills you’ve learnt into action straight away. If you’re willing to take a risk and throw yourself in the deep end then I would say go for it and you won’t look back.

What would you say are the benefits?
It may sound clichéd but although it is a big responsibility, the rewards are tenfold. Once you get to grips with managing your time, it’s great to have the flexibility.

And the cons?
It can be very stressful running a business on your own. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day and I do tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. The 9-5 does not exist and I find myself working at the weekends and evenings on a regular basis, but again, it’s something I enjoy and I think you have to live and breathe it to reap the rewards.

What advice would you give to someone contemplating setting up there own thing?
I would suggest that they meet as many young or established business owners as possible. Advice before you start is gold dust as although you will of course make mistakes along the way and learn from them, it helps to at least have a heads up on what battles you will be facing before you start. It’s so important to look to the future and hope that all the hard work will pay off. I made use of a free ‘Women in Business’ workshop run by Business Link when I had just set up the website and it was so beneficial to speak to other people in the same boat and get advice from some experts. I would also say that you have to be prepared to adapt and remember that there is always a way around any obstacle, you just have to be creative!