Carol Rawson and Sallie Belton: Suit the City
It’s one of the coldest days of the year and I’m en route to Suit the City.
Following a forty-minute delay at Marylebone, I’m grateful to sink into the heated seat of Carol Rawson’s car on arrival at High Wycombe. Soon, she tells me, we’ll be away from the urban sprawl and into the beautiful countryside of Buckinghamshire. She’s not wrong. Only 30 miles outside London, and surrounded by acres of sprawling scenery, we pull up to a beautiful converted barn which houses the HQ of Suit the City.
As the name suggests, Suit the City provide high quality, made-to-measure suits and separates for men and women. Carol, I learn, had conceived the concept in the 1980s, when suits were the uniform de rigueur. Women were still something of a phenomenon in the Square Mile – Carol, in fact, was the only female in a team of forty – and options were limited. “Smart stores just didn’t cater for women”, exclaims Carol.
“There was never room in the bust and – for me – too much room in the hips!”
Sadly, at the time, the systems and technology required to produce tailored garments in large quantities were unavailable. Bespoke suits, which were always hand-sewn, took up to eighty hours to complete, and thus only available to the very well off. So Carol focused on developing her own consulting business, mentoring senior level women and helping them realise their board ambitions until such a time as it was practical to launch Suit the City.
Fast forward to February 2015 and we are sitting in a studio surrounded by swatches and mannequins. The dream has become a reality, and the reality has progressed from rags to riches in just eight years. Much of this is down to new technology, which has dramatically reduced production costs without sacrificing quality. However, a great deal more is thanks to the partnership between Carol and Sallie Belton, Suit the City’s Technical Director, who helped launch the business in 2007. Sallie was fresh out of university – having met and worked with Carol during her sandwich year – and returned to Denham Farm upon graduating to take up Directorship of their new made-to-measure business.
“All my friends were beginning corporate careers in London and I was entering the world of start-ups. Becoming a director at 21 was incredibly daunting, but it was definitely the right step for me.
“I would hate being in a typical 9-5 job as I love the thrill of running a business and dealing with all the challenges!”
The respect and trusted relationship between the two women is evident. Sallie admits that she is not a morning person, and Carol voraciously agrees, explaining instead that they end up working odd hours in order to be flexible for clients and franchisees. Being able to work to their own timetable – and work around that of their clients – is one of the advantages of being your own boss, both agree.
Behind the high spirits, however, is a steely, determined dogma driving them forward. Quality is at the forefront of the whole business model – from suppliers on Savile Row, to the ethical working conditions they insist upon in their factories, to the personal rapport they build with customers – and they go to every length (literally, no size is too big or small) to ensure people feel a million dollars. Indeed, Sallie smiles as she confesses that seeing her clients stand taller and more self-assured in their suits is what keeps her motivated.
“When you walk through our doors there is no ‘normal’. We build people up and provide a personal service without judgement, which is why clients come back time after time.”
You might wonder what place tailoring has in the 21st century, a world where fashion is readily available at a click, 24/7. Certainly it crossed my mind that every option I need, and more, is available on the high street. But talking to Sallie and Carol, who consciously decided not to add size labels to their garments, the answer is clear: this isn’t just about clothes, it’s about confidence. The high street designs for the average person, but Suit the City are yet to find an ‘average’. They make real clothes for real people and do not talk about size or shape ‘norms’.
A brief interlude in the conversation as the postman tries to deliver a parcel for next door has me thinking: where do customers come from? We’re in rural Buckinghamshire, there is no public transport, and the sound of birds is a welcome break from the sirens that dominate my waking hours in N1. Of course, this was all part of the strategy, and customers have several channels via which to purchase their suits: they can visit Denham Farm, which Carol notes is a popular option as there is no time pressure and ample parking space; they can book an appointment at the offices of Suit the City’s main fabric suppliers, Holland and Sherry on Savile Row; or they can request a home visit and have one of the team go to them. In fact, Sallie has just returned from measuring a lesbian couple for their imminent wedding – business and weddings being two of many reasons why clients come to the team.
There is a clear USP here, and that is customer service. Mistakes are expensive, notes Carol, as well as unprofessional, and so a traditional consultation – in which fabrics are chosen and measurements taken – lasts between 45 and 90 minutes, although for an entire wardrobe update the consultation may take longer. Customers, I’m told, are 50/50 male-female, which I think is impressive for an industry that feels stereotypically masculine, but the girls are keen to point out that their product, unlike that of many competitors, can be very feminine. Clients range in age from 21 to 96, which is the beauty of the business model: it is timeless. Indeed, Carol showed me some fitted jackets, all with a lovely unique lining and pretty lace trim, that would look fabulous paired with skinny jeans on any millennial female.
For all their ambitions, Carol and Sallie remain rational, and know that success doesn’t come easily. And with a couple of decades between them, the challenges are different. Carol, for instance, finds new media challenging, and vows never to touch Suit the City’s Facebook or Twitter accounts, prefering to do business face to face. By contrast, Sallie, at 29, loves social media but finds networking more difficult, and feels that when she is with Carol or one of their three male franchisees, people tend to gravitate towards experience and gender.
“It’s getting easier with every wrinkle that appears, though!”
But in many ways, their understanding of and ability to harness their complementary skills and mindset is the genius of their partnership. It is also a rare opportunity for me to ask, from their differing perspectives, what advice they would impart to young women in the workforce today. Without hesitation, Carol answers that it’s all about listening to everyone around you. Ask lots of questions and don’t think you know it all. Sallie feels you should find a job you enjoy and have a passion for – though if you make the wrong choice at 21, Carol gently advises that it is not the end of the world and that it is never too late to change your career. Be flexible and able to put your hand to anything, she suggests.
With this sage advice ringing in my ears my taxi arrives to whisk me back to High Wycombe. As I sit in the cab, a lack of signal meaning I’m unable to check my emails, I find myself wishing that Carol’s colleagues from the City – those who made jibes about her dress sense and openly questioned what a woman was doing in their workplace – could see her now. There is something quite prophetic – and exceptionally pleasing – that it is she, and her young female business partner, who are changing the face of tailoring.
30 Second CV: Carol Rawson
Age: 54 going on 24
Current Title/Company: MD, Suit The City
Educational Background: Environmental Science degree and MBA
Tea or coffee? Tea
Wine or cocktails? Both if I’m in the mood.
Morning or night? Night every time – I am useless in the morning!
Favourite book? Changes from week to week. I love reading.
Favourite singer? James Morrison
I wish I knew how to______? Fly a plane. I’ve had a couple of lessons and loved it.
Best advice you’ve ever received? Show the men how it’s done (my boss at Xerox when I was selling copiers!). Also the worst advice, actually, as the men wouldn’t talk to me because I did!
Woman you would most like to have lunch with (and what you’d order)? This is hard – there are several. Hillary Clinton, Diane Abbott M.P. (she would be fun!), Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian Cosmonaut (I always wanted to go into space). I would definitely order Chateaubriand and some good wine!
30 Second CV: Sallie Belton
Name: Sallie Belton
Age: Definitely not 30 this year!
Current Title/Company: Technical Director, Suit The City
Educational Background: BA (hons) Business and Management
Tea or coffee? Coffee
Wine or cocktails? Both without a shadow of a doubt!
Morning or night? I don’t like mornings.
Favourite book? Time Traveller’s Wife and The Secret.
Favourite singer? Depends on my mood.
I wish I knew how to______? Walk in heels properly!
Best advice you’ve ever received? If you want anything done, do it yourself.
Woman you would most like to have lunch with (and what you’d order)? The Queen – she is amazing. And I’ll have what she has (unless it’s red meat!).