CECILE REINAUD developed a passion for fashion as a child. “I started sewing clothes for my dolls and then knitted things for myself,” she said. Little did she know that needlework would come in handy when she struck on a money-making idea years later.
“I heard pregnant colleagues say how difficult it was to find maternity wear,” said Reinaud, who was an account manager at the advertising agency J Walter Thompson in 2000. “There were few maternity brands and what was out there was dated.”
Armed with research and sorry tales from pregnant friends, Reinaud turned her back on corporate life and went on the hunt for money to get her idea off the ground. “I had good credentials in my career even though I wasn’t a fashion designer or retailer,” she said. “It helped me to raise small amounts of money.”
She rustled up a total of £250,000 from six business angels and her savings. It allowed her to open Séraphine, a maternity wear boutique, in Kensington, west London, in 2002.
Today there are three Séraphine stores in London, one in Leeds and five shops and units abroad, in New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Dubai.
The brand, worn by the Duchess of Cambridge and celebrities including the singer Gwen Stefani and the actress Mila Kunis, reported sales of £11.1m for 2014-15. Reinaud, who employs 70 staff, is hoping for revenues of £14.5m for the year ending in March.
“When I wrote the business plan I always wanted the brand to be international,” said Reinaud, 41, whose website brings in 60% of sales. Séraphine sells to more than 30 countries, and exports account for more than £5m of total sales. “In the early days we could see there was demand from all over the world and that led me to think we could build something big despite the niche,” she said.
Reinaud and her two older brothers were raised in Paris by their mother, a housewife, and father, an ICI executive. She inherited her love of fashion from her grandparents, whose woollen mills produced fabric for couture houses such as Chanel and Lanvin. “My grandmother was very gifted at sewing and knitting and that’s where I get it from,” she said.
Reinaud became a pupil at Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington after work brought her father to Britain. She then studied business administration at Reims Champagne-Ardenne University.
After graduating in 1995 Reinaud returned to London to work in advertising. She handled accounts for Shell, Unilever and Kimberly-Clark before launching her own venture. “I found it challenging because I went from a big business environment, where there is lots of support, to having to choose people I was going to work with,” said Reinaud, who is managing director and chief designer. “We could have grown a little faster if I had had more confidence in my ability to recruit the right kind of people.”
Delegation is also crucial, she added. “When you are an entrepreneur you do everything at the start, but if you don’t hand over some tasks it’s going to be an enormous amount of work and that will slow you down.”
Sales soared after the Duchess of Cambridge wore a Séraphine dress for the first official photograph of Prince George in 2013. “Kate has crashed the website of many retailers,” said Reinaud. “The fact that she loved our brand gave me the confidence to take more risk.”
She started focusing on America, where she hopes to open 10 stores in the next three years. She is not expecting an easy ride — calling it “a notoriously difficult market to break into” — but expects America to become her biggest market next year.
One of Reinaud’s gripes is that growing companies are not encouraged to base their production operations in Britain. Séraphine’s designs are manufactured in Turkey, Portugal and China. “Britain is missing out by not supporting the manufacturing industry with incentives,” she said. “There should be more support from the government.”
Reinaud is the majority shareholder and has no plans to sell up. The next region she wants to crack is Asia, where she has spotted a market for her designs. Séraphine offers everything from evening dresses to maternity jeans and breastfeeding shawls.
The founder, who is divorced, lives in Hampstead, northwest London, with her sons, Florian, 7, and Lorenz, 11. Her advice to budding bosses is to hire like-minded people. “You can’t be the only entrepreneurial person in the company. You need to have people around who have a go-getter attitude so that even if you are confronted with an obstacle, they won’t give up.”