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From market stalls to high-street stalwarts… And beyond! How designers Sophia and Matt discovered licensing
Hi, Matt! Thanks for joining us. I used to visit the Sophia and Matt store in Brighton… I was never sure whether there was a real Sophia and Matt or whether it was just a name, so welcome! For the uninitiated, what is it you create?
We create surface print. We love bold colours, oversized spots, stripes and wild florals. For the past 17 years, our core product range has focused on handbags and accessories made from oilcloth…
Yes, cloth infused with oil to make it waterproof. We use oil cloth because of it’s versatility, it’s the perfect medium for print, it lasts for years, and its robust enough to construct hard-wearing products from.
Got it. And what’s the dynamic here; what’s the relationship?
We’re a creative husband-and-wife team. We each have well-defined roles in the company. Sophia leads on product design for handbags, accessories and anything clothing or textile related, I tend to have more input on things like stationery and ceramics.
Any particular reason it’s worked out that way?
I think because Sophia’s background is in fashion, and mine is graphic design. We’ve gravitated towards the areas of the business that we each serve best… So when it comes to developing a product, we work together to come up with the initial design, then Sophia creates the samples by hand, often iterating the design dozens of times before we hand it off to our manufacturers. Outside of product and print design, Sophia handles marketing, social media, staffing and logistics. I manage legal, technical and copywriting.
Great stuff! And how did the two of you meet?
We met at art college in 1998. Less than a year later, we became a couple. Right from the beginning, it was completely normal for us to spend our day in a design studio together collaborating on all things creative. We were at college together for three years studying art, then Sophia went on to do a degree in fashion design at KIAD. I went on to do a degree in information design at Ravensbourne.
How did that then develop? How did it become a business?
We’d reached the end of formal education in 2005, so it was time to go and turn our qualifications into jobs – which is pretty much the last thing we wanted to do…
A tale as old as time!
Still, Sophia interviewed for a handful of fashion-industry roles. I started working as a retoucher for a fashion photographer. In the meantime, Sophia started a side-hustle hand-making makeup bags and wash bags at home. She took them to Greenwich Market to test them out because at that time they actively supported and prioritised designers and makers.
And just to clarify, when was this?
This would be in 2005. The market management loved the products and gave Sophia a stall on a quiet Friday to test out. The Friday went well and Sophia was offered an opportunity to trade on the weekend, which is where everything changed and we started gaining some serious traction.
Really? As fast as that?
Yes, it was pretty quick. The business grew organically fuelled by demand. In the first few weeks, Sophia would hand cut all the products, sew them, pack them in her car and do the market every weekend. When she could no longer keep up, I started helping out in the evenings. I’d be cutting products while Sophia sewed.
And at this point, it’s a cottage industry is it? You’re making things at home?
Right – although not for much longer… As Christmas 2005 drew closer, we’d started to develop a following at the market and we were literally cutting and sewing hundreds of wash bags and makeup bags every single week. We both quit our jobs and started working on the business full time. In 2006 we’d made enough to open a design studio at Container City down at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London.
Trinity Buoy Wharf… Where the lighthouse is; London’s only lighthouse?
That’s it! There are a number of creative businesses there; it’s an interesting area. In any case, by 2007 we’d developed a production-line method of working at our studio and refined our market stall to the point where it was like a little branded shop that we’d assemble each week. We decided to open more stalls in other markets and grow the brand. We opened two more stalls in Camden by 2008, which is where we met our Japanese distributer – and now close friend – Hiro Koshimizu.
How did that come about?
Back then, Hiro would fly over from Japan in search of little slices of British design to take back to Japan and sell. He always made a point of coming to our Camden shop unit and he’d fill suitcases! So we figured why not look into selling in Japan directly. Which is what we did!
I love how organic your journey is. So presumably you had to research the market in Japan?
Right. Hiro invited us to stay with his family, so Sophia and I flew to Japan. We rented a stand at a trade show, with Hiro translating for us. By the end of the week, we had a string of Japanese retailers waiting for products. Back in England, we found ourselves hand-cutting and making at least a thousand products a week to supply our market stalls and the Japanese retailers – and it was still just the two of us.
We were working insane hours, but burning out fast. Luckily, we found a London-based factory, and that enabled us to scale up production without killing ourselves. Around that time, a shop became available on Greenwich high street. By that point, we’d traded every weekend, in every imaginable weather condition, for five years. We’d never missed a single day, so fortunately we had an outstanding reputation in Greenwich. That meant we could shamelessly pull favours to get the shop – which we did!
And in terms of the timeline, where are we now; when is this?
We opened in October 2010, almost five years to the day of starting our first market stall. We then closed all the market stalls because running the stalls and the shop, while designing and managing production was almost impossible. We continued to grow the business, though, and reached the point where we could no longer continue manufacturing in London due to cost, quality, lack of experienced labour, volume and so on.
“With the ability to produce in larger volumes, we started wholesaling products to shops all over the UK.”
Inevitably, we flew to China to meet with factories in person and found an exceptional factory that would enable us to start delivering on our vision for quality products. With the ability to produce in larger volumes, we started wholesaling products to shops all over the UK…
Bentalls, Fenwicks, John Lewis, Heal’s – and hundreds of independents and boutiques. We also started to develop a bit of a following in Germany so we attended a trade show in Munich and started selling there too. Just after we got back from Germany, we discovered Sophia was four months pregnant. We moved to Brighton and – shortly after our son was born – we decided to open a second shop down there. Scaling production to meet wholesale demands and supply both shops was difficult, so we cut back on wholesale. We’ve always very much valued a one-to-one relationship with our customers and this move suited us well. And then the pandemic hit.
Gawd. Tell me about that…
During that time – as you can imagine – the landlords were crushing us, even though high-street retail was completely dead. We moved to online only, but it wasn’t enough for us… We’d spent the last 15 years on the ground with our customers – even at our height, we both used to work in our shops anonymously serving customers, quietly listening to feedback. We’d also be the ones at trade shows meeting buyers, or at the factory overseeing production, or unloading shipping containers.
You’d been very hands-on?
Exactly. We also handled the operational side of the business – and virtually all that was gone… We were forced to scale back. Between 2019 and 2021, we sold online only – we closed both shops and let our incredible staff go… That was very painful. But we hadn’t stopped for 15 years, and just stepping back to focus on being a family was honestly the break we needed. We felt re-energised, and ready for new challenges.
Why’s now the right time to look at licensing?
We felt ready to take the business to the next level… There’s a lot of issues in the retail market at the moment. Shoppers aren’t spending on the high street like they used to, which means retailers are finding it difficult to pay rent and purchase stock. This puts pressure on the wholesale market – and if the wholesale market isn’t buying like they used to then that makes production very difficult… You have to produce large volumes of stock but aren’t easily able to sell it at volume. Even getting the stock into the country is difficult if you need to get it done in anything less than six months.
“We’re seeing new opportunities in home wear, ceramics – even sportswear.”
Right. Retail is facing an onslaught of difficult conditions…
But licensing offers us the opportunity to reach entirely new customers and meet new business partners enabling us to break into categories that had otherwise been closed off to us. We’re seeing new opportunities in home wear, ceramics – even sportswear. We recently attended Brand Licensing Europe at ExCel and met some great people. Licensing is very new to us at the moment, it’s uncharted territory for us and we find that very exciting.
Who’s representing you?
We’re represented by Premier Artists, working in partnership with Licensing Link Europe and the lead agency appointed to develop the licensing programme… And actually, Premier came about via a chance encounter with the director, Sharmaine Aderemi. Sophia was shooting a collection for her cousin, Sophia Hadjipanteli, who did a clothing collection for Asos. People should check out her work on Instagram, by the way – @sophiahadjipanteli.
We can probably just make that a live link…
That would be great, thanks! In any case, Sophia’s cousin brought Sharmaine with her to our flat in Brighton to go over the shoot. We got talking and discovered she had an impressive background in licensing. She then introduced us to Chris Taday, co-founder of Licensing Link Europe, and it grew from there. When the opportunity to sign with them came up we jumped on it. We honestly couldn’t be happier with the new direction the business is taking.
And to that end, what are you looking for in product partners?
We’re looking for people that get excited about the products they’re producing, people that care about the details. We don’t want to simply stick our prints on things and move on. What excites us is an opportunity to work with products we’ve not worked with before. We also want to meet great people that are looking to do creative and interesting things. We’d love to meet people, specifically in home wear and ceramics, and we’d feel completely at home with anyone in the handbags and accessories niche.
Let me ask you this, Matt… How important is creativity in what you do?
It’s pretty much everything. Our entire company is founded on creating something out of nothing. Taking an idea and finding a way to execute it in a way where it becomes real; real to the point where we can trade it for food and a roof over our head. There’s been periods in our business over the years where our creativity has hit rock bottom, though, and those times were very hard because we can’t have ‘off days’ – we have to keep the work coming.
What’s an example of an off day?
Well… We’ve lost people close to us and its destroyed our creativity, but we just had to suffer through it and hope that it will return. It always does. But in those days, weeks or months when it feels like it’s gone, that’s when you recognise the value of it. I don’t actually think it goes anywhere, it’s more like something changes in you and you can’t feel it any more. But it’s still there.
Great answer. I appreciate your honesty on that. So what do you do to help you stay creative?
I think recognising creativity is a start. Once you realise it’s something that’s part of you, and it’s something you have to listen to, then you realise that you have to take care of yourself.
In what way?
You have to purposefully keep an open mind, force yourself to try new things. You have to challenge yourself and receive new ideas and perspectives without judgment. Sophia and I give each other room to explore disciplines unrelated to business, and – for as long as I can remember – we’ve always taken at least one day a week to work on independent projects that may or may not go somewhere. That freedom to explore is critical, because as soon as you feel like you’re just churning out work, that’s pretty much the end of it. Creativity won’t stick around for that.
Fantastic answer! Matt, we really need to start wrapping this up but what’s the one question I should’ve asked you and didn’t?
What would you have done differently?
And what would be the answer?
Maybe we should of entered into licensing a touch earlier? But aside from that, absolutely nothing. We’ve grown up in this business. We started it in our early twenties and are now turning forty. We’ve made tons of very painful mistakes, but it’s given us a level of experience and insight we couldn’t possibly have gained any other way. We really have both loved the last 17 years in retail, and are looking forward to a new chapter in licensing.
Great. Listen, let me wish you and Sophia all the best with it, Matt. A great pleasure to speak with you.
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