We catch up with the co-founder and managing director of MAES London to find out what inspired him to switch from media to manufacturing and navigating the business through a pandemic
You had a peripatetic childhood. Can you tell us more about where you were raised?
I was born in Bethlehem... not the birthplace of Jesus, but a town in Pennsylvania. When people ask, I tell them I am from Atlanta because that’s where my family lives, but the truth is I lived all over the US growing up. I went to 11 different schools in 13 years.
What inspired your move to London?
My family moved to Germany when I was 16 and I chose not to go with them because I wanted to finish high school with my friends in the US. I decided to make up for the missed opportunity by going to university in the UK (I was also really into British music, films and comedy at the time). I lived with my uncle in Suffolk and ran the B&B at his pub whilst I applied to various universities, before being accepted into Bournemouth University. It was my top choice, as it had the best media school in the country.
You quit your job to work on MAES LONDON the day after co-founder Diana Kakkar proposed the concept. That was a huge leap of faith...
I already knew I wanted to work with Diana, but it was when she pitched the idea for MAES London that I felt confident about taking the leap. She identified an important industry that is going through rapid change and is ripe for disruption. Having come from an industry where print journalism is in decline and struggling to compete in the digital landscape, the challenge felt strangely familiar. I truly believed in Diana… I still do! After discussing the practicalities of actually setting up a business, I was confident in her connections and industry experience. She also knew exactly what was needed to set up an atelier and how to sell the concept to luxury fashion designers.
What was the most challenging aspect about setting up MAES London?
The setup costs were double what I had projected and despite putting all of our savings into the business, I had to take on additional freelance work for the first year.
Did the responsibilities of your former role in media translate to MAES London or did you have to quickly learn new skills on the job?
In my previous role, managing print and digital partnerships, I learned how to take a seed of an idea and find a way to make it grow. In many ways I’m doing the same at MAES London. I provide an unbiased, macro view that ignores how things have traditionally been done and this complements Diana and the team’s technical knowledge and experience. Of course I’ve had to learn a lot as well! It took a good year or so before it all clicked, and there is still lots to learn, but it hasn’t held me back.
What do you enjoy most about running your own business?
Being your own boss is pretty cool but I get the most joy out of all the behind-the-scenes work on the brand. Anyone can register a company, give it a name and pay someone to design a logo and website, but it’s another thing altogether to truly create a brand with meaning. Early on we decided that we wanted MAES London to be known for quality, transparency and trust. This is more than just lip service, it guides each decision we make. When a client tells us they are happy with our quality, or that they are giving us a particular style because they trust us, it is the ultimate validation.
What has it been like to watch the company evolve?
Watching the business grow has been amazing, but it’s only when I talk to others that I realise how far we’ve come in such a short time.
Has fashion always been an interest of yours?
I’ve always been interested in clothes but it was only through Diana and now MAES London that I have come to truly appreciate garment construction and the human element of making clothes.
What sets MAES London apart from other luxury garment manufacturers?
Trust and transparency. Our doors are always open and we actively encourage designers to visit the studio to see their garments being made. We also communicate throughout to work out any potential issues and also share our technical notes. This means we’re not just producing client's garments, we’re also providing advice on how they can produce their garments more efficiently, thus saving them time and money.
You have worked together with Diana for more than four years. What are your top tips for creating a dynamic, respectful partnership at work?
You have to define your job roles. Many of the big decisions can be made together but otherwise roles and day-to-day responsibilities should be clear. This is not only for your mutual benefit but for the benefit of your employees.
What challenges have you encountered in such a turbulent time globally?
Navigating through the pandemic was, and still is, incredibly challenging for us. I’m proud that we were able to keep our team safe and motivated. We were also able to use our skills to support the NHS by making scrubs when there was a shortage in the first lockdown. Although we had a few cancelled orders, then supply issues, we got through it and even managed to grow our business. This is down to our team's hard work, keeping the communication lines with our clients open and being proactive about new business. We also moved into a new studio which was hugely exciting. To put it into perspective, our very first studio was around 600 sq ft, whereas our new space in Tottenham is over 4000 sq ft.
Your dog Geoffrey comes to work with you each day. How does having a pet in the studio affect the mood?
Geoffrey is our Chief Happiness Officer! He is a Cockapoo, a breed which is hypoallergenic, doesn't shed and has a great temperament. Geoffrey’s presence definitely contributes to a positive atmosphere at work. He loves Mondays and is always excited to be here. Everyone adores him and we have some clients who bring him treats when they come in for meetings.
Being an entrepreneur can be all-consuming. How do you relax and recharge?
Finding downtime can be challenging when you're running a business but both Diana and I understand how important it is so we make sure to block out time for ourselves in our calendar. Allocating space, treating it as though it is an important meeting with a client, increases the chance I will actually take time out.
What’s next for MAES London?
This year is about getting past the pandemic and pushing the message of openness and transparency in UK manufacturing. We are also currently exploring digital solutions which will help run our operations more efficiently as well as obtaining more robust data that we can share with our clients.
The one piece of advice you would offer another would-be entrepreneur?
Surround yourself with inspirational people and don’t be afraid to ask for help.