Why it’s always difficult to start-up alone

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer speaks to Sarah Forsyth, the handbag designer who has bucked the trend by going from online to high street

THE KING’S Road, Chelsea – once used by Charles II to travel to Kew, now a local haunt for London’s most privileged and glamorous – is not an inexpensive location to rent a shop. And if your brand is relatively unknown, to do so would be risky. But for Sarah Forsyth – founder and creative director of her eponymous leather goods label – it was the “best” place for her first shop.

The decision sheds some light on Forsyth’s business model. Although she initially believed her target audience would be girls in their early 20s, she quickly discovered her clients were mostly young professionals “with the available income to spend.” With handbag prices starting at £220, it is hardly surprising some younger fans might have found them out of their reach. But for exclusive bags, made with real skins, they’re “actually quite reasonably priced”.

The shop’s opening coincided with a rebrand – from the original name Safor to “Sarah Forsyth”. It was a decision branding experts believed would give her business a more personalised, approachable touch.

Forsyth studied English at university before studying fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion, then to a job at Vogue, and later the Sunday Times Style magazine. But like many designers before her, she realised she wanted to be creating and manufacturing the products, not writing about them. So she “literally woke up one morning” and decided to do a handbag course in Florence, despite speaking no Italian and not knowing anyone there. She was 22, and the course director didn’t speak any English. But gesticulating proved to be an effective learning tool and, by 2007, Safor – the online leather goods store – was launched.

The way she initially describes her odyssey to the King’s Road makes starting up a company sound almost facile. “I found a manufacturer outside Florence, started producing online bags, created an online site, and started selling to boutiques like Austique on a sale or return basis,” she says simply. On the one hand, Forsyth has been lucky. Her “businessman” father put her forward to certain investors he knew, which enabled her to handpick experienced executives willing to inject capital into the business; a family friend was a digital designer, who created her website free of charge; and the late Margaret Thatcher was one of her first clients. “When I started years ago, we went for lunch. She was so supportive, so pro-entrepreneurship, and she bought three bags!”

But a closer look shows Forsyth encountered the same bumps along the road as any entrepreneur. The business almost didn’t get off the ground after it became clear manufacturing costs in Florence were too expensive for a brand as small as hers. So Forsyth went on a long and laborious trip around Asia to investigate alternatives. “It was a real challenge, finding the right people. It was a long process of elimination – visiting endless factories, going through a sampling process with dozens of manufacturers, and even then not knowing if they were trustworthy”. The goal is to have the bags produced in Britain, or even to own a factory. “But the cost to source and manufacture here is just too expensive for where I am at the moment.”

Building a client file – Forsyth won’t disclose how many people are currently on her database – was tough to begin with, and largely involved cold-calling and word of mouth. But Forsyth was clever: she created a bespoke service so her customers would know “they were the only person at that wedding with that handbag”; she held numerous events at home; and in autumn 2011, she got her product into House of Fraser.

But the boutique, exclusive line she was trying to brand was at risk of corruption by House of Fraser’s big orders and big marketing margins. “As a young entrepreneur, it’s difficult to make money from those orders, and having something different and unique didn’t go with their ethos.” But the benefits were twofold: it got Forsyth’s name and brand out there, and it made her realise that, to succeed, she would need a shop of her own. Even in the big freeze? “Certainly, I’ve seen its detrimental effect on shop sales. There are days where the weather is awful, not many people come in, and it gets very stressful – paying the rent on somewhere like this is tough.”

I meet Forsyth in the shop’s basement, which she has converted into an office and seating area for her bespoke clients. Upstairs, a doorbell lets Forsyth know when customers have entered the shop, so she can go up to greet them. Forsyth has one part-time sales assistant, but doesn’t plan to take on another full-time member of staff for at least another year. She runs the bricks and mortar shop, takes care of the accounts, holds regular events, and is constantly designing new styles. She would “love” for someone to take on some of the workload, but is “still at the point where I want to know exactly what’s happening, where the money is going. Sometimes it is a real struggle, but it keeps the overheads down. I don’t want to spend money on outgoings, I want to spend it on bringing in more sales.”

It ties in with the advice she would give to anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps. “You will work unpaid for a long time, and give up any hope of a social life.” So is it all worth it? Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow wearing one of her bags was a highlight. But the best, she informs me, is seeing people she doesn’t know walking down the street, sporting a Sarah Forsyth original.

Company name: Sarah Forsyth (the brand was previously known as Safor)

About: Sarah Forsyth London is a UK-based independent producer and retailer (both online and bricks-and-mortar) of designer handags and leather goods. Its first shop opened in London’s King’s Road, Chelsea, in September 2012.

Number of staff: 2 (Forsyth and a part-time shop assistant)

Founded: Online business was founded in 2007; retail business opened in September 2012

Job title: Creative director

Company turnover: Projected turnover for 2014: £137,000

Born: London

Age: 31

Lives: Chelsea, London

Studied: English literature at Newcastle; Post-graduate certificate in fashion journalism at London College of Fashion; Handbag design in Florence, Italy

Drinking: White wine

Eating: Roast beef and Yorkshire puddings

Reading: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Talents: Design

Heroes: Coco Chanel

Motto: “Keep fighting and you will succeed”

Ambition: “For now, I want to crack the handbag industry. But a couple of years down the line, I would love to do jewellery.”