Q.Maggie, we’d love to know more about your role and how Semple came about?
I am delighted to talk to you about who I am and what I do. Semple - I own it, and my role entails several things; I keep the business active and lively by meeting new clients and by keeping existing clients. I keep the brand alive and at the front of people’s minds. Whenever I go anywhere I talk about the Collection. The collection came about when someone came up to me one year, saying ‘Maggie, I love your dress.’ So, I said ‘I love it too, I’ve had it for many years,’ and I thought, why don’t I make dresses that other women will love for themselves? That’s how it started.
Q.I really love that. You can often get people recommending fashion, saying, ‘I got this dress at this retailer,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s applicable for another person. It might not be the right fit for them, the right price bracket for them, the right fabric for them. Rathan recommending a particular dress at an outlet, would you say that you allow someone to take whatever inspired them, and make it their own?
Absolutely, and I think for our clients, that is one of the major reasons that when they find us, they stay with us. They enjoy the process of creating the new garment from whatever inspiration they had, whether a dress, a trouser suit, a skirt, or jacket.
Q.I imagine that it must be exciting as well? Although your clients are designing dresses for an event or business occasion, there’s still an element of dress-up, of wonder, that excitement when you’re creating a product of your imagination. It’s not an experience that you’d find anywhere else.
And that’s the bit that helps keep me energised in what we’re doing. Most of our new clients haven’t had a garment made for them before, and when you see the joy that comes from them looking at themselves in the mirror in the design, it’s inspiring. The bits that they didn’t like about themselves, whatever that might be, actually, looks pretty flattering. So, there’s lots of joy.
Q.Here at Maiden Voyage, we love to hear stories about women championing women. Could you tell us more about your working relationship with your designer, Hilla Brunhilde Schönborn?
I’ve worked with Hilla for over 25 years - I used to visit her three or four times a year in a beautiful town in Italy. She was exquisite in knowing my tastes, she had fabrics ready for me whenever I visited. She still is working, at a beautiful laboratorio di sarta (dressmaker’s atelier) in Italy. Before I started my business, I said to her, ‘Hilla, why don’t you come to London, we can set up our own business? She replied, ‘no, I’m happy here, I have lots of women from Rome who come and see me.’ When I responded saying that I I’d like to do this, Hilla offered to give me my first two patterns. It’s unheard of – she gave me two designs to help set up my own business. When I think about her clients, who are people like me, and live all over the world, and then I think of my clients, there’s something about us all, through our making and wearing of clothes, we help other women feel more confident, empower themselves, that gives us a commonality. Even though our clients are senior people in business, everyone has a degree of self-doubt about themselves. You know that we’re all normal, so it’s very beautiful to watch them as they get on stage, or appear on TV and say how the garment has made them feel. It’s called ‘enclothed cognition,’ a psychological state that you experience when you wear something that’s exquisite.
Q.It’s great to hear that because I think the fashion industry gets a lot of stick for promoting insecurities, and for perpetuating unattainable standards. Would you say that empowerment is part of your process?
The fashion industry doesn’t deserve all that it gets, you’re quite right. There’re some negatives of course, but it’s so true – this week we’ve been doing a photoshoot here, in our building, featuring our clients. We just put a call out to them. These are very senior women who wouldn’t normally want to be ‘models.’ If I called them a model, they wouldn’t come. So, what I said was ‘we want some photos of you in your wonderful garment to share on our website.’ That got us to start thinking that we could probably have a little modelling agency, not that we’d call it that, but just for women who feel strong, and who look remarkable in their clothes, and that would add to what the fashion industry is really all about.
Q.I think the whole narrative that consumers don’t want to buy products that aren’t represented by a certain notion of what is ‘ideal’ is very clearly being seen as a fallacy. I think that investors are seeing that this is not the reality, and that consumers will buy into anything that simply helps make them feel good. We don’t have to have this abstracted, idealised person as the face of a company or film. We only need to look at the success of Black Panther, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, which champions a black cast, to see that it’s time to diversify. Is this something that you factor into your work?
Yes, absolutely. And also, I must say that I’m really pleased that for more and more of us, it’s unacceptable. Whenever I am invited to speak on stage, I will look at the line-up, and I expect to see a range of diversity. If there’s isn’t, then I will quietly question why this is the case, or simply, won’t even go to the event!
Q.It’s lovely to hear that you’re using the tools in your arsenal to make sure that people respect the need for diversity. Again, you’re ensuring that you bolster people, much like you’re doing for business women. In fact, given that businessmen are often encouraged to dress in bespoke tailoring, it is only fair that there is an option for women to have custom garments made. Would you say that your work makes a feminist statement?
I would say that what we’re doing is all about empowering women. It’s almost a womanist statement, and is saying ‘why is it so acceptable for men to expect a tailor to come into their office space, and have something made for them, that looks good and costs a bit of money? And then, why is it that women, on a comparable level are not expected to do that?’ Bespoke tailoring, or custom garments actually can save women money in the long run, saves them the time it takes to shop, have adjustments made, gives them staple pieces for their wardrobe, and the idea that we have to be constantly buying clothes is a false economy. It’s about women taking charge, and saying we want things made for us.
Q.In addition to being empowering, it must be ethical too, as I’m sure having fewer, better quality garments over a longer period of time, reduces the issue of textile waste in landfills?
Indeed it is! Also, we make everything here in Covent Garden, in my building. Our clients come and see their seamstress, see them at work. There’s no outsourcing anywhere, and no matter how much the company grows, it will still give me great heart and spirit to say that I know it’s more expensive to make clothing in London, but these are my values, and I won’t be outsourcing to a country where I can’t oversee what’s happening.
Q.That’s really great to hear, and I can only give you my gratitude as a UK consumer. So, what should women who are considering having a bespoke dress made bring to their Semple Experience consultation?
It’s a really good question, and the first thing that we always say to people is that, ‘when you come, we will measure you with your clothes on.’ It’s really important as most women come in during their lunchtime, or after work, are grabbing an hour, and are always relieved when they’re being measured with clothes on. But we encourage them to have an idea of what they may like, to bring a picture of it if they can, or bring a garment that they already have that they may like, perhaps we can talk about why they like it, and we will comment on what we think. So, if someone says ‘I only wear black,’ then we will definitely say, ‘you don’t want us to make you another black dress? ‘And then she’ll reflect, asking for a different colour. Even if she doesn’t then we’ll do something with that black to ensure that it’s slightly different and so she feels that she’s contributed to the end product. We also talk about how she imagines herself in this garment. Where will she go with it? What’s the occasion? Why? Maybe she’s going to a board meeting, maybe she’s going to an interview, maybe she’s on the stage? And we start to talk about the content of a speech or presentation they may be giving, what that entails. We also ask about their hobbies, their interests. We try to get as much information as we can to get a fully personal profile of our clients. And that’s what we put back into garment-making, that love. It will also be hand-sewn, and that’s when we start to tailor a garment to the shape of a woman’s body.
Q.Women are told that their body must fit a particular dress size, which is such an unusual way to qualify the human body, so to have that level of detail can really help reshape the way women think about their bodies. I think that it is difficult to balance individuality and classic elegance when dressing in business wear. How does the Semple Collection achieve this combination?
Our creative director, Dulcie, really is a very, very visual person. Whenever someone comes into our atelier, I know that she’s already thinking of colours, what would work with their skin tone. What we already have is someone who is talking to us about their lifestyle, what they want their garment to do, and where to wear it. We then talk about their individual styling, what they would otherwise wear. Someone might say that they prefer a waisted skirt, for example. That’s when we guide them into other ways of thinking about their waistline, or if there may be particularly flattering ways to hang a particular garment, and we strive for that individualised approach, but note that on the whole, our women are fairly conservative in what they wear. Occasionally, some may opt for particularly bright colours. What we do to give it that bit of elegance is to really give a great cut to the dress. It’s to do with the length of the sleeve, or how wide the sleeve is around the arm. We’ll be mindful of the waistline, the join of the skirt so it’s more flattering, whether she wants the skirt to be flared or tapered, and I can do that, without destroying the overall construction of the garment. If someone really wants something that’s completely individual, then we can do it, but then we help her understand the balancing of the line and how the sleeves should like against the hemline.
Q.In addition to a well-cut dress, a look hinges on its styling. Do you recommend any key accessories when putting together a business outfit?
Yeah, in fact, our last magazine had an article on accessorising your Semple dresses, we look at the jewellery that you could wear, the bags and shoes that could either completely contrast what you’re wearing or can pull out a particular colour. We tend to ask our client, ‘you have this dress, what else would you accessorise it?’ in the consultation process and then we may even help that process by putting a trim around a pocket, or add some quirky embellishes, such as adding a little bit of detail on a sleeve to accentuate their jewellery.
Q.I think that is a skill that people undervalue, knowing how to colour match, how to create harmony or an interesting juxtaposition. In my opinion, it’s something that is so easy to get wrong, which my teen years are testament to, if you can relate?
(laughter) I think most of us are guilty of that, and looking back at photos and thinking, ‘wow.’
Q.Fashion is one of the most empowering sectors for women, and as an industry, employs more women in senior roles than their male counterparts. What advice would you give to young women looking to break into the industry?
I would say, first of all, you have to have a skill in something. You may be an excellent marketeer, you may be excellent at making garments, you may be excellent at designing, you need to have a key skill of which you can base the rest of your career upon. I recruit regularly, our team is ever expanding, and will get smaller again, then expand again. I often see young women wanting to work in an atelier as that sounds pretty quirky, but actually what they want to do, is sit at their computer and draw all day. When in reality, this is an atelier. I need someone who can be excellent at drawing, yes, but also understand how an atelier works. So, you need to not only be good at what you’re doing, but have the social skills required to respond to clients, to you need to undertake a fitting. I’d suggest getting experience of those wide range of skills, so when you’re ready to be applying for a particular role, you’re ahead of your peers. Simply put, both specialism and breadth are hugely important.
Q.That’s great advice, and definitely applicable in a range of industries. As someone who helps woman find their own style, I was wondering whether you had any particular style icons yourself, both past and present?
I grew up in the Biba years, and one of my original clients, has a Biba skirt that is absolutely gorgeous. I wore a lot of Biba clothes. There’s something about just the cut of things that made the fabric come alive. It was good fabric too. It wasn’t so much full of what I call ‘Polly’ and ‘Esther,’ polyester, so for me, I particularly like that style, the 60s, that time. I’m drawing upon my own wardrobe and what we have in the atelier, and the other part of me likes not only a clean, but unfussy line. Where does that come from? I’d say my mother’s era, the 40s, when women, on TV had fantastically well-cut jackets, skirts – that guides me.
Q.I find young fashion students often underestimate the great importance of cut. In fact, the mould-breakers in the industry, have all done something novel with cut, whether Ann Demuelemeester, Alexander McQueen, or Yohji Yamamoto. Would you agree?
Absolutely, and I think that they respect the fabric, and through fabric, that’s where the truth of a designer comes out. When I set up the business, the original dress that a friend loved, and that prompted me to design for women, was in fact a Marks and Spencer dress. I looked at the dress, a very old shift dress, and I said to M&S, ‘I have this dress of yours, I’d love to come and meet you and see what you have in your collection.’ I was put in touch with an archivist, and in 2009/2010, I went to their archive in Wood Green, and they pulled out for me dresses from the 30s and 40s, right through to the present day, iconic dresses from their rails. I was in heaven. Some of those fabrics from those decades were sensational. M&S has had some fantastic designs for women, classic, simple, not over expensive.
Q.I love M&S, I personally shop there, and have no qualms telling anyone that’s where I’ve bought some clothing. You mentioned the M&S dress as something you wear in hot climates, and so, something you would also wear on a plane. How would you advise a female business traveller to dress for a flight – where comfort is as important as presentation?
(laughter) Absolutely. So, the first question I ask myself, whenever I have to travel anywhere is, when I arrive, what will I need to do? Will I need to get off the plane and straight into a meeting? Or will I have an hour or two at the hotel to change beforehand? When I pack and travel for business, I first of all pack my own Semple clothes, so when I get to my destination, I can hang my dresses, and I know that within an hour, they’d be ready to wear without a need to be ironed. I wear clothes that are natural, as I work only in pure fabric. In this case, pure Italian wool, very fine, that you can pack neatly, and hang up. When I’m actually on a plane, I always, and it depends how long I’m travelling for, but let’s say I’m taking a long-haul flight, always, will change it what I call a ‘sleep suit.’ I have to do that. I hang up my clothes, wear a sleep suit, I can sleep, lounge around, and just before I land, I go into my bathroom, and change into my destination clothes. If it’s a two-hour journey, I’ll wear trousers, soft trousers, they could be a mixture of silk and linen, just to give them some structure, and they may crease little but not too much.
Q.What is your most memorable trip and why?
This might be a strange answer, I became very ill during this trip. My husband and I went to Sierra Leone one year, and we got to the airport, taking a helicopter from the airport to the hotel. It was a beautiful, French-owned hotel, on the beach – absolutely gorgeous. But, what I do remember about Sierra Leone, is that it is a country has been in turmoil for a long time. That is when I first saw how easy it is for citizens to set up a road block, and so we had a driver to take us around to keep us safe. I guess it’s memorable because it’s the first time I met, what I would describe, a luxurious holiday that contradicted the environment I was in, one of extreme political unrest. It was to become very unstable. The other thing is, I also became very ill. It was a beautiful country, lovely environment, and the sea was gorgeous, but it was most memorable because of this political unrest.
Q.It’s true that troubling experiences perhaps resonate more than wholly positive ones. And I’m glad that you’re bright and healthy with us today. Despite the level of political unrest that Sierra Leone suffered, you mentioned the grandeur of the hotel. But which is your favourite hotel in the world?
This is a difficult question, there are so many countries to choose from. I guess, I don’t know. I don’t tend to go to hotels often. I tend to hire villas, but I love Venice, Bombay - any of the great hotels I’ve stayed in there!
It’s been a pleasure, you’re so inspiring, and radiate so much joy. I’m a fan and I really love how you empower women, and how you reflect our core values here at Maiden Voyage. I really thank you for taking the time to speak to us today.
Not at all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me. It’s been a pleasure.
Try The Semple Experience yourself by booking a consultation at www.maggiesemple.com. In fact, moments before our interview with Maggie, a man was gifting a consultation for his lucky wife!