“Some Years We’d Be Going to 12/13 Festivals a Year so You’re Spending Half a Year Living in This Fancy Dress Wardrobe.” An Interview with the Founder of Sparklebutt

“Some Years We’d Be Going to 12/13 Festivals a Year so You’re Spending Half a Year Living in This Fancy Dress Wardrobe.” An Interview with the Founder of Sparklebutt

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From Circus School, to Festival Fashion to navigating The Canton Fair, if there is a conventional Founder Journey, Ashlee's isn't it. What her journey is, is fun! Here she shares it with Alexandra.
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I know that you grew up in New Zealand, but now live in London. What brought you over here?

I came to London when I was 21. I’d lived in Rome when I was 18 and traveled through London on my way and had a bit of a holiday. I was just like wow. I’d never experienced anywhere like that. Just the people, what everyone was wearing, the adventure. I was coming from Auckland, which then seemed so quiet. So as soon as I could, I came back. I’d decided that I was going to go to London, and go to circus school and that is what I did for a short period of time, having signed up for a 6month training. I ended up specialising in aerial hoop as my main apparatus, but after that I didn’t commit – I didn’t love it enough. It’s very, very competitive.

You are the first person I’ve ever met who’s trained for circus school, that’s amazing! I didn’t know it was competitive.

Yeah, well there’s not many spaces and a lot of people. There are schools like Hoxton which is a full circus degree program. So they’ve got loads of students being pumped out into the industry each year, and I was just like… I can’t compete with these people. I don’t care about it enough to spend all day in the gym. So I ended up moving to events.

That’s such an interesting path – not something on everyone’s CV. So how did you get your first foot in the door in events. Did you go for an agency or a company or did you just help someone out?

Well I’d worked in events since I was about 16. I used to organize like illegal raves (lol) – quite big ones actually. I think the first event I ever organized had about a 30k budget. Looking back on it now it’s terrifying. It was for my sister’s after prom party – I don’t know if they really do them anymore but it used to be a big thing.

Then when I got to London, I just put a thing out on Facebook and asked “does anyone know anyone that works in events in London.” In the New Zealand community, everyone knows everyone. I knew one guy that had one friend who was an actor who performed at a party – he’s a really amazing clown actually, he performs the Edinburgh Fringe quite a lot. He introduced me to someone and so it went on, and then I worked for free for a lot, and I eventually worked on this festival. It was like a private 24-hour festival for Richard Branson’s daughter – Kate Winslet was there and Prince Harry. I was still new to London, I thought it was a crazy place.

Then I met another guy and started work on Steam Punk events and I just kept trying – I was like, I’m prepared do it for free. I’ll do whatever you want. And then I ended up getting an internship, maybe two years later. I started working for a company who ran festivals and I still do freelance work for them now.

And was it through your work in events which bore the original idea for Sparklebutt?

While I was working in festivals, I got quite into that festival culture of dressing up – all of my friends, we would have a normal wardrobe and then a festival wardrobe. Some years we’d be going to 12/13 a year so you’re spending half a year living in this fancy dress wardrobe. My boyfriend at the time would always be stealing my clothes. I wanted to get something cool for him, and so was looking around and felt there was just nothing. Around the same time, I got commissioned to make a pair of sequinned flares. I started making them for my friend and my friends at work. I started with the flares and then Topshop brought out sequins that Christmas, and Topshop was selling them for £30. So I decided, I’ve got to get on to this guy’s thing. My dad lent me bit of money and I made a couple of guys leggings, put them up on Etsy and they just sold straight away. The girls had been a bit of a hustle, but the guys flew out. So I saw the gap in the market. This was in 2016.

So you were selling them at that time and making them?

I started in about October and I was making them. Then about six months later I ended up finding a seamstress. However it then got to a stage where it was too much for just one person to be doing and I needed the quality control to be way tighter, so we ended up finding a factory in Tottenham and I worked with them for a few years but it was just so expensive! I was importing the fabric from China, getting them made in Tottenham and then shipping them internationally. Really when you’re manufacturing clothing the cheapest way is to get the manufacturers in the country that the fabric’s manufactured and we sourced our fabric from China. I had a friend that was going to The Canton fair, which is a wholesaler trade show with the all the things that are made in China. It is HUGE. I can’t even describe… It’s overwhelming but I ended up finding a supplier and manufacturer after a few days there.

“Really when you’re manufacturing clothing the cheapest way is to get the manufacturers in the country that the fabrics manufactured and we sourced our fabric from China.”

OK, this is a very practical question, but I know that clothes manufacturing is particularly hard in terms of getting economy of scale. Because you can only get good deals if you can order huge quantities. How did you manage that?

Honestly, I was walking around that Canton fair and being like, I just want 100 at a time, and they’re expecting 30,000 pieces. So it took me a long, long, time… And then, luckily the friend I was with was Chinese and she found this person for me. She appeared saying, “I found someone!”

It’s been a big negotiation. They don’t really like working with me because they’re always saying “more this time?!” but I want to keep it low because, I try to be as sustainable as I can be.

Do you feel like your love for the business has kind of gone in waves? How has your relationship with it moved?

Yeah, it’s definitely gone in waves. For me, when I have something to work towards, I’m so much more motivated. The first year it was sorting out that relationship with the factory and then I needed a bit of capital, so I applied for a startup loan. Then after about two years I was back in New Zealand and had a small break. About four or five months.

“For me, when I have something to work towards, I’m so much more motivated.”

I didn’t have a studio or a team, I’ve now got a fulfilment company as well that deals with all the shipping so while I have some products, I don’t post out so I don’t have that same connection to the products that I used to – it’s quite easy to just forget about it. I had a reset recently because I was looking at my loan repayments and found I could just stop it here or I could do another order to pay off the loan and keep the cash flow going.

Since I made the decision to keep going, and I also think being back in London, I just feel way more motivated – I’ve got more products, we’re doing new photo shoots. I’m just feeling a lot more connected to it. It feels like there’s a bit of momentum back.

And did you have people, when you are going through certain questions and challenges around the business. Did you have mentors or people that gave you good bits of advice along the way, or did you really have to figure it out?

The very start, I was just like figuring it out, which was hard because I have no fashion background. When I was working with a seamstress for example, I’d know something isn’t quite right but couldn’t articulate what. One of my best friends is also a business owner, she runs, I Can Make Shoes, which is a shoe making school in Bethnal Green. We always just call each other up when we have business questions or problems or things happen to complain or things we’re excited about!

I did get a mentor through joining the Prince’s Trust. I didn’t get my loan from there, but I did join to get info and I’ve been working with her ever since. It’s really nice to have someone just to check in on you and make sure that you’ve set your goals. 

Yes, someone to hold you to account.

Yeah, definitely. She’s a very helpful person!

OK, final question from me; who are some founders or entrepreneurs that inspire you?

Oooh, I have many. I am really obsessed with Sara Blakely She’s so hard working I listened to her on a Podcast called “How I Built This”.  She’s such a hustler and I love that.

Yeah, the scale that that she achieved with Spanx, I mean she created a market so quickly. Does that kind of scale interest you?

No, no, I’m quite happy with the size of it at the moment. Maybe a very small team of people to help with the marketing and the photo shoots, because I do find that creative stuff quite boring to do by yourself. I think if there was a team of us it’s just a bit more exciting.

I’ve relaunched my coaching business this year. It’s nice for me to have fingers in lots of different pies. Like, I’ll do SparkleButt one day and then, I do business coaching so I have clients that I work with, helping their businesses. I like to have it all.

If you’re looking to get your sequin fix, head here, and you can connect with Ashlee here.

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