25 Jun 2020

Leading the Change: An Interview With Nicola Sexton

We are all inter-dependent on one another and so it’s key to work as a team and get through this together.

As part of our new interview series in which we speak to women leaders about steering their teams and organisations through the coronavirus crisis, Debrett's caught up with shoe designer Nicola Sexton, founder of Nicola Sexton Shoes

Founded in 2010, the mother-daughter-run brand is supported by an ever expanding list of retailers internationally and is available at selected boutiques across the UK, Ireland and the USA. Nicola was presented with the BFA/FN Platform at Magic Award during her first exhibition in Las Vegas, and has since been selected as a finalist in the Footwear Industry Awards for Designer of The Year 2019 and 2020, and Drapers Footwear Awards 2019.

1. How has your work routine changed since you’ve been working from home?

My work routine usually involves a fair amount of travel, both within the UK and internationally, for trade shows, visiting the stores where my collections are stocked and overseeing production at our factories in Italy. Since lockdown, this has all but ground to a halt, which has faced us with some obvious challenges on the retail and sales fronts, however it has also given me the opportunity to reflect and dedicate my time and thoughts wholly to the design aspect of my next Spring Summer 2021 collection without distractions which I’ve enjoyed very much.

2. What, for you, have been the biggest challenges of working from home?

I have always preferred face-to-face interaction in business. Having been a boutique owner for 10 years, I learned so much from meeting and speaking directly with my customers. So much so that it was through their feedback that I decided to launch a collection under my own name. I miss this human interaction with my customers, who are now the owners and buyers of the boutiques where my collections are stocked. However, I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for video calls, which are certainly a great way of staying connected with them. On the design front, the travel restrictions have also created a little challenge as I’ve always drawn the key inspiration for my collections each season from my travels as it’s the time that I feel most relaxed and inspired. Fortunately, I have some great memories of trips within the last year to which I’ve turned for the forthcoming season. Also, I had very luckily chosen the fabrics for my next Spring Summer 2021 collection in Italy back in February just before lockdown.

 I miss human interaction with my customers, but I've discovered a newfound appreciation for video calls

3. And what are some of the benefits?

Once I settled into the new routine, I’ve definitely felt that it’s been easier to manage my work / life balance during this time. As so much of my time is usually spent travelling around the country or internationally, this period has given me more flexibility to re-address my priorities on all fronts, whilst taking the time to reflect and prepare the next steps of my business so we’re ready to charge ahead full steam once the restrictions ease.

4. How has your team had to adapt to the current situation?

We are a family-run business and so I’m fortunate to work very closely with my daughter Charlie who handles the digital aspects of the business. Therefore in terms of the core team, the current situation has had less of an effect on us compared with the changes in how a multinational company now operates.

5. What changes has your business undergone?

We had to adapt our strategy to focus solely on our online business whilst our retail partners were closed. We’ve also made a concerted effort to support our retailers as best as we can by carrying some of the stock that was initially ordered by them on our online store. It’s been a rewarding time as I’ve personally learned so much about how to pivot plans according to market conditions.

It’s been a rewarding time as I’ve personally learned so much about how to pivot plans according to market conditions.

6. What advice can you share for managing and leading a team during a crisis?

Communication and teamwork are key. As a small business myself, I empathise fully with the issues faced by some of our retailers hence why I’ve tried to support them as best as we can during this time. We are all inter-dependent on one another and so it’s key to work as a team and get through this together.

7. How do you think your industry will change as a result of this situation?

It’s an interesting time for the fashion industry in light of the global impact of this pandemic. The immediate impact through loss of sales has been felt by most brands and has accelerated some much needed conversations within the industry to reset the way in which we operate, namely to align the buying, delivery and discounting schedules with the actual seasons and also to reduce ‘waste’. With the way the industry currently operates, Autumn Winter collections are delivered to stores in July whilst the weather is still warm, and Spring Summer collections in December / January at the height of winter. This in turn exacerbates the need for brands to design big collections to appeal to customers over the seasonal changes, which increases the risk of potential ‘waste’, but to also discount at the peak of each season which again affects margins and subsequently profitability. As widely reported, profitability in retail across the board has been an issue for many years between the rise in costs of maintaining bricks and mortar stores and the change in customers’ shopping habits, so I hope it’s a shift that will be put into effect to ensure the survival of smaller businesses in particular.

8. What is coming up for your business over the next few months?

We are now in the midst of designing the next SS21 collection and wait to see how the industry continues to evolve. Depending on the situation and on the status with international travel, it is more likely that we will be showcasing and selling this next season to our wholesale buyers virtually, instead of at trade shows. We’re also working on some exciting marketing ideas for the current SS20 and forthcoming AW20 collections whilst we all ease back into some sort of normality.

Debrett's readers are entitled to 20% off the Nicola Sexton range at www.nicolasexton.co.uk with the code debretts20. Offer excludes sale items and expires Tuesday 29th June.


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