Having built her brand up from the ground over 10 years, Hayley thought COVID-19 was going to end it all. But thanks to an order of 500 Leopardess Duster cardigans that she couldn’t get out of and an increase in Instagram activity, her knitwear became a staple of lockdown.
The past year has been fight or flight for businesses everywhere, and boy did Hayley Menzies fight.
As brands across the world narrowed their focus onto online, Hayley went against the grain and decided that 2020 was the time to prioritise a physical space and real connection with customers, launching a pop-up on the King’s Road.
We’re talking alpaca wool jumpers, silk maxi dresses in every colour, the iconic duster cardigans, and maximalist headbands, all set against dreamy decor – reupholstered lampshades and Ottomans made of Hayley Menzies offcuts and leftover pompoms.
Now in our third lockdown, Hayley Menzies has launched her SS21 collection, Paradise Found – and you’re going to want to know about it.
We’re talking cotton pleated skirts, cropped cardis and voluminous shirt dresses – in rich pinks, yellows and greens.
How have the past few months been for Hayley Menzies?
I can only describe it as sheer panic and terror. Two days before the actual lockdown, we had our first managers’ meeting at White City House and it was absolutely empty. My CFO came in and said ‘We’re all doomed’ – and he’s the most positive and chilled person in the world. For him to come and say something like that, I mean I literally just burst out crying in front of everybody and I didn’t care. I have been doing this for 10 years, starting on Portobello Road Market come rain, shine or snow, so I’ve really built this company from the ground up. As soon as my CFO said that, I couldn’t see a way around anything, but some sort of fighting mode kicked in very quickly. I thought, ‘OK, I live 5/10 minutes walk from my studio, so as long as I can get there and wrap and pack orders, I’ve got a business’.
But Hayley Menzies really had a moment over lockdown…
We really grew. I took to Instagram Stories every day on my walk to work and started really engaging with my customer because there was nothing more I could do. I had a collection to finish – I was half way through designing SS21 – but all of that took a backseat. It was just about getting through it at that stage and people were really responding to the Instagram stories. Then, we were saved by our Leopardess Dusters. I placed an order for our Leopardess Dusters with my factory at the latter end of last year, then there was a sniff of coronavirus and I tried to cancel the order because it was for about 500 of these cardigans and we absolutely did not need them – I was terrified about spending more. They told me they had already started making them, so I obviously honoured the order. I paid, they arrived, and we sold out. We sold out so quickly and it was those Leopardess Dusters that really saved the day. I think those dusters were cheering people up internationally because they are fun and I guess people were wearing them as house coats. With Zoom calls, everyone was dressing from the waist up and putting fun things on top, so our knitwear really had a moment and we had one of our busiest ever months online. It’s really been amazing.
How did the pop-up idea come about?
It was something that we came up with over lockdown – it was not a plan. So, 70 per cent of our business had been wholesale and we had been really rapidly growing these past 12/18 months. We had opened a lot of great new wholesale accounts, but a fair few canceled (as with every other fashion brand I’m sure). We had just finished market with the AW20 collection (our biggest ever), we were about to start production and then all these cancellations came in from different stores internationally that were not able to take orders. I don’t get payment terms from my suppliers – we pay for everything 100% before it’s landed in the UK. So, it was horrible – it was really frightening, but the whole e-com direct consumer thing kept us going and that has made me rethink things these past few months. I had several discussions with different friends or people within the fashion industry and it just seemed like a really good time to open a store.
What will the pop-up enable you to do?
Connect with our customers in person. But also, our buyers obviously tend to play it safe because they will be looking at numbers and if they are introducing the brand for the first time, they are going to go for our signature pieces, the dusters and perhaps a shirt dress. Having my own store is going to allow me to display more of the collection. AW20 is our biggest ever collection – it’s huge – something like 94 pieces, so it was much bigger than what we were actually able to produce in the end. I had to cut a lot of it back – down to 28, which was heartbreaking – it was like choosing between children. Now that we have the pop-up, I can do my own buying for it and I have a space to show the more creative pieces. Also, knitwear is easy to sell online but with something as specific as a dress, it’s great to have this store for people to come and trial new sizes and styles. Getting direct feedback is going to be really valuable and it will probably help support our wholesale side of things. We’ll be able to say, ‘Well, actually, we launched this six months ago and we had a great response’. So, we’ll be able to instil more confidence in buyers to try new pieces from our collection. I’m really excited about it.
Has it been fun to turn a space into your maximalist world?
I have loved it. Yesterday, I had 10 lampshades arrive (some of them, half a metre high) – an old friend has a bric-a-brac shop and I bought loads of these old vintage lampshades. I’ve had them stripped back and then reupholstered with strike offs, fabrics left over from production, lace trims and some pompoms which are leftover from my first ever knitwear collection in 2016. These mixed print lampshades are another level – they’re bonkers. We’re talking leopard print on the outside and a Marrakech black and white palm on the inside, trimmed with an Art Deco lace, and then pompoms. They are awesome. I love them. I just bought lots of furniture from eBay, including an Ottoman, and had them reupholstered. I’ll probably sell the lampshades and Ottoman in the shop actually because they are seasonal. But yes, I have loved it. It all works well together – somehow it’s a bit of a recipe. It’s maximalist but it’s chic at the same time.
Why the King’s Road?
I’ve done little pop-ups in Notting Hill and Blenheim Crescent before now and they’ve been really great, and Portobello is where I started. I was living in a studio flat on Portobello Road next to The Electric – it was also my office at the time, this was 9/10 years ago. Every Saturday, I would wheel my rails down the road for the market, from one end of Portobello to the other, so Portobello is very much in my blood and the blood of the brand. That being said, I just felt like it was time for a more international stage. Even though there isn’t much travel at the moment, there’s just more of an international customer still around Sloane Square way. There was Granny Takes a Trip where the Rolling Stones would go back in the 60s, and obviously you had Mary Quant and Biba. I know that Cadogan are really trying to breathe some fresh life into the area, so it seemed like a really good time to move over there.
What do you hope people take from the pop up?
Joy, and I also want people to come away feeling inspired. Hayley Menzies is very much for the freethinking woman – it’s more of a lifestyle than fashion for us. Of course there are references to some trends, but my brand is definitely a lifestyle, and a woman that gets that feeling and that thrill to discover something new. So much care goes into everything we do and I am part of every step of the way, from sitting down with print designers, to applying the colour myself – I paint the components still – in fact my dad painted one of the prints for Paradise Found, my next collection. Right now, I’m managing the builders for my pop-up – I’m part of everything. It’s my life. I love what I do.
Do you have a favourite stage of the whole process?
Having everything in my head and having people kind of get it, and then when everything comes together and the finished product arrives, it’s like Christmas every single time. To see something that has been in my head and that I’ve created come to life, I’m still not getting tired of that feeling yet. If the joy wasn’t as magnificent as I still feel from seeing one of the finished lampshades or a dress, that for me would be a really sad moment.
What was the biggest challenge in organising the pop-up?
The timeframe in which we’ve done everything. We only signed the lease a week ago and we didn’t know when that lease was going to come through, so I have been planning it for probably about 6 weeks now. It’s the logistics of everything that have been challenging. Everything has been custom-made from all over the place to keep costs down. I’m frugal – I’m not throwing loads of money at everything, I’m doing things on a really tight budget – so it has taken a lot of my time and energy, but I enjoy that. It’s a challenge.
Can we talk about the musical inspiration?
I am very much inspired by music. I was of the rave generation. I grew up in Somerset and then Cheltenham, so there were all these Fantazia raves. I mean, I was slightly too young but I was definitely sat in the car park in my white golf listening to music in the stereo while everyone else was in the rave. But we all customised our costumes – it was very much a celebration of fashion meets music, so it all goes back to then. I used to sew feather boas around my crop tops and little skirts and I always wanted to wear white so I would show up in the UV lights. I was always a bit of an exhibitionist in terms of flamboyant fashion from when I was in my late teens and it’s a real inspiration to me now. I’m trying to give people that feeling when your favourite track comes on, you’re wearing your favourite clothes and you have your best night.
How does it feel to know that your designs are worn by people to give them strength and confidence?
I love that because that’s how it makes me feel. I’ll have a much better day and feel empowered if I’m comfortable and enjoy what I’m wearing. I want women to feel empowered, and I think a woman is going to wear one of my pieces because she wants to be noticed. We have got customers wearing our clothes from their teens, right through to our lovely Dorothy Willis who must be in her late 70s – and I love that. Dorothy has been a customer of ours for many years. She has got literally all of our signature knits – she wants to stand out. She tells me: ‘Oh Hayley, nothing makes me feel as good as your designs’. And I love that – I love that it’s ageless.
Do you have a favourite piece from any of your collections?
I love the Free as a Bird dress now, it’s the one with the lace panel around the middle and lace cuffs and pearl buttons. It’s got the birds with the compasses in their beaks. It’s magical – I love it.
What does the future have in store for Hayley Menzies?
Oh my gosh – so many ideas. I would love to do active wear and I think it would be called ‘Live by Hayley Menzies’ – very simple. I’m a qualified yoga teacher – I don’t actually teach but I really thank yoga for being where I am now. It was while I was away doing a yoga teacher training course in Thailand that I started initially bringing scarves back to the UK in a suitcase – that was the beginning of my fashion journey. I had closed my business Foxy Shots in the 2008 recession and I was between things. I went to Thailand for this yoga teacher training course because I didn’t know where I was going and I thought teaching yoga could supplement my income. It was during that trip that I found some amazing scarves, put them in my suitcase, started a stall on Portobello and then started my own production a few months later. And then I was thinking homeware as well. I just really need to establish myself as a fashion brand first.
Visit the Hayley Menzies website for more information and on the gorgeous SS21 Paradise Found collection and for news on her pop-up.