Until 18 months ago Lucy McCarthy, 33, was a London-based womenswear fashion buyer. She commuted 4 days a week, travelled the world, and expertly balanced family life. Today she works from home designing and making for her own tutu and accessories business. We met with Lucy to find out how this dramatic life change came about.
Taught by her mother how to use a sewing machine, Lucy has been creating garments since she was a child. She developed her artistic gifts while at school and went on to university to study textiles with fashion. After graduating, Lucy secured the ideal position of buyer for a small but growing company.
“I loved the job,” she tells us. “It was what I’d studied to do and I really enjoyed the fast pace of it, the new collections every 6 months.”
Despite her busy worklife, Lucy still found time to make her own creations. With the birth of her first daughter, Molly, now 6, a whole vista of dressmaking opportunities opened up:
“The tutus happened by chance. I made one for my daughter for a birthday party and while I was there somebody asked me if I could make them one. And then the following week their two friends asked and said they’d pay me for it. So I thought – Oh, that’s interesting.”
After this experience, Lucy created a small range of tutus, plus some accessories, and named her business The Button Tree.
She set up a website and started selling the tutus for around £30 each. “They’re not what you’d get from Tesco’s – I don’t compete with them,” she explains. Lucy seeks out the best materials in craft stores then sources them online to find the best price she can: “Those finishing touches are quite important because I want people to feel it’s a good quality thing.”
Lucy took the decision to offer free delivery from The Button Tree. She figures that it’s shrewder to raise the price of a garment to account for postage, than it is to surprise the customer with an added fee at the checkout. Customers, who pay in advance by credit card or Paypal, do however pay for their own returns (though luckily these are few and far between). Bespoke items, since they cannot be sold on, are non-refundable.
About 6 months after founding her business, Lucy was approached by Not On The High Street. In return for 30% commission, this company provides an online shop window for small businesses. They also promote their products in the media, process payment and delivery, and offer legal support. Lucy signed up with Not On The High Street for 5 years and around 75% of her business currently comes via them.
The other 25% of sales come via word of mouth, repeat business and The Button Tree website and Facebook page. To attract custom, Lucy periodically runs promotions. For example, she recently held a competition to name a new tutu design, with the winner winning the tutu. Although in theory Lucy would like to see a tutu “hanging in a shop window”, she concedes that she would have to slash her prices were she to enter the boutique market.
For her first couple of years in business Lucy kept The Button Tree ticking along steadily. Then when she went on maternity leave for her second daughter, Daisy, now aged 4, she had rather more time to devote to it and the business expanded.
When Lucy returned to her 4 day per week job, now with 2 children, she started to feel the strain. Co-ordinating childcare with her husband, her mother and the nursery was a complicated operation and she became tired of missing out on key events in her daughters’ lives. She began to formulate an exit strategy:
“The tutus were going on in the background and I thought – If I keep it going then maybe it will get to a point where it will be something. Enough to bring in some money and I could be at home doing that.”
A year and a half ago, with The Button Tree in excellent shape, Lucy took the step of leaving the company that she’d been with for the previous ten years.
“I was really scared about giving in my notice,” she tells us. “I was thinking – Who am I going to be without it? But I’d created this other thing that I liked doing.”
Today, Lucy’s typical working week looks rather different from before. She sews from 9 to 3 on Mondays and Wednesdays, as well as on Friday mornings, leaving her Tuesdays and Thursdays to spend with Daisy. Lucy is able to do all Molly’s school runs, attends events at school, and is there for her two girls every afternoon.
Although Lucy no longer has to contend with commuting or flying abroad, life at The Button Tree is not entirely stress-free. As with any mail order company, masterminding packages is vital. Lucy does a daily postal drop, briefs her postman on where to leave deliveries if she is out, and is a familiar face at the nearby Royal Mail depot.
Adding to parcel pressure is the fact that Lucy gives herself 7 days to process each order and get it to the customer. (All items are made to order as Lucy does not have a warehouse for storing stock.) At busy times of year like Christmas, meeting this deadline can be a white knuckle ride. Lucy generally allows an hour to manufacture each tutu, but sometimes this window has to be compressed. “It’s amazing how quickly you can sew when you need to,” she laughs. While she was still at work she employed a seamstress for a period, something she may look to do again in the future.
A crisis occurred recently when Lucy’s sewing machine broke down while she was racing to get an order finished. She uses the same Pfaff machine that she’s had since she was 21. It cost £200 to get it fixed, for which she could have bought 2 new cheaper machines. But the Pfaff, which would be around £700 new, is “such good quality” and such a vital piece of equipment that Lucy stumped up the repair fee.
As is the way for anyone who works solo, Lucy only has herself to depend upon to shape her business. “I give things a good go myself before I employ anyone else,” she tells us. For example, Lucy maintains her website herself and takes all her own photographs. Her two daughters models the clothes and her living room wallpaper is their backdrop. We wonder whether she misses the camaraderie and team work of the office:
“I’m quite happy with my own company,” says Lucy, “though I do find myself chatting to random people in the street (I must stop myself doing that!). Sometimes I miss the office, but fashion’s quite a bitchy industry to work in, so I can do without that bit.”
Lucy is still in contact with her old workmates, particularly her ex-boss who was very sorry to see her go. “I’m going to try to go to their Christmas party,” she laughs. It sounds like Lucy has the best of both worlds, so was leaving work to run The Button Tree the right step?
“The income is not quite matching the salary, but I don’t have to take into consideration travel costs, which is a massive thing. Take that away and the childcare costs…we’re probably not getting as much as we were then, but I can be here for the children and that’s much more valuable.”
Lucy’s big decision to leave the fashion business was particularly timely because it coincided with the discovery that her eldest daughter, Molly, had lost her hearing in one ear. Lucy explains:
“We had the problems with Molly and her hearing at a very similar time to when I finished work. Being able to be at home when we found out she’d lost her hearing was just…I couldn’t have not been here. So it was almost like it was meant to be.”
Lucy has signed up to run a marathon next year, for the National Deaf Children’s Society. “I have a 3 mile run to do today,” she says. Although she has never done any serious running before, she is finding the exercise energising. She aims to train for an hour after the morning school run and before starting work on her sewing: “It clears your mind before you kick start what you’re actually doing.”
It was through Molly that Craft School, a new strand of Lucy’s business, evolved this summer:
“Molly and I have always done little bits of sewing on Saturday mornings because she loves it. Then we started inviting friends along to sew something and they really enjoyed it. So we put 3 dates up online to see if anybody wanted to come and do some craft and they were gone within 3 hours.”
Each workshop lasts an hour and is priced at £10. Lucy takes 6 children at a time, mainly girls aged 5-10, and at the end of the session they have a creation to take home – perhaps an owl door hanging, or some bunting, or a simple tutu. Lucy attributes the success of the venture partly to the fact that needlecraft isn’t taught so much at school or at home.
As well as building up Craft School, when Daisy starts school next year Lucy has plans to broaden the customer base of The Button Tree. At the moment about 20-30% of her business comes from weddings and this area looks set to grow:
“People are getting less worried about having their children in the exact perfect dress,” she tells us. “They don’t mind a flower girl having a little T-shirt, a tutu and wellies. I guess people are generally getting more relaxed with their clothing.”
Lucy has also been known to make Carrie Bradshaw-inspired tutus for adult women and is capitalising on the ever-expanding festival market: “My felt bird of paradise wings – they’ve been off to the festivals this summer.” Plans to create more products for boys are also underway. Lucy has ideas for dinosaur costumes, knights and pirates. She even has some obliging male models lined up: her nephews.
With all these new designs coming into being, we wonder how Lucy protects her ideas from competitors. She tells us that within 2 weeks of advertising a ladybird costume, someone else was doing it. “It happens across the board in fashion. You’re allowed 3 changes to something if you want to call it your own, but the legislation is very hazy. Unfortunately, it is very hard to prove anything, but sometimes you think – That was a little bit close to home.”
Imitation is, as we know, the sincerest form of flattery, and something Lucy takes in her stride. The answer of course is to move forward and to keep looking for inspiration. There’s an expression in the fashion business that has become Lucy’s motto: “You’re only as good as your last design.”