Meet the ladies that launched

What do two sporty women do when they find they have nothing decent to wear on court? Set up a clothing label, of course. Kate Hilpern reports
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With no experience of the world of fashion whatsoever, it may not have seemed the wisest decision for best friends Luci Douglas-Pennant and Amanda Gallagher to launch a high-end sportswear brand. But with their debut collection in 2006 having been taken up by retailers including Harrods and resorts including Gleneagles, the women behind Millie Fox have clearly done something right.

"Amanda and I have known each other since we were eight years old. We played a lot of tennis together in county squads and became very good friends," says Douglas-Pennant who, like Gallagher, is now in her early thirties. "When we got older, we went our separate ways. I studied economics and chartered accountancy and ended up as a director of Pret A Manger, while Amanda did a business degree and then moved into interior design."

Amanda went on to head up the interior design department of an architects' office, specialising in boutique hotels and high-end residential properties. But the pair met up regularly and kept up their interest in sport. It was when they decided to go on a tennis and golf holiday five years ago that the seeds of their business venture were sown.

"Having realised we needed to refresh our holiday wardrobes, we headed off on a shopping trip," explains Douglas-Pennant. "We were both astounded by the lack of choice, and the style vacuum that exists for young women wanting to look chic on and off the golf course and tennis court. The clothes were uniformly disgusting."

It's not as if they didn't look in the right places, she insists. "We scoured all the London department stores and many boutiques, as well as sports shops, and couldn't find anything that wasn't either very heavily branded or that didn't come in nasty fabrics and masculine colours like navy with red stripes."

Fresh with inspiration, they set about designing some tennis clothes. "Since golf was also crying out for a younger, more feminine brand, we focused on that area too."

Despite her career in accountancy, Douglas-Pennant had always suspected she had inner creativity. "Part of me had always been itching to get out of accountancy because of it," she says, "And we knew Amanda was creative because of her interior design skills. We also had a long-time interest in fashion and clothes. In fact, we'd already had a stab in the past at designing our own outfits from time to time and getting a friend to make them up for us."

The next step was to search for fabrics, which they sourced in Paris "surprisingly easily". But then came the first of their major challenges - finding the right factories. "In all honesty, if we'd have known what we do now about the fashion industry, I think we might never have set up the business. It would have just seemed too daunting and time consuming," she admits.

"We ended up trying various factories in three different countries and going through the whole trial process three times until we finally came across the quality and cost we were happy with," she explains. "Not making this any easier was the fact that we needed to find manufacturers who believed in us and were happy to start with small quantities until we got bigger. It's still a challenge to estimate the number of orders we will need. We have to completely guess which of our 40 different styles will be the most popular and in which colours and sizes."

But with the women self-funding their business idea, and continuing to work part-time in their old career fields while they got started, it didn't feel as risky as it could have done, says Douglas-Pennant. "It wasn't scary, but it was much harder work than we'd anticipated."

It was now time for the women to approach their potential client base with their first Millie Fox collection. "We started with top resorts like Gleneagles and K-Club, trying to convince them to see us. As soon as they saw our products, it was straightforward because the product sold itself. But it wasn't at all easy to persuade them to give us the time of day."

Cracking the retail side was even harder. "If you don't do London Fashion Week, nobody is very keen to even entertain the idea of meeting you. Having said that, Harrods was one of the first stockists we got. The buyer loved the product and that had a snowball effect because we were able to tell boutiques and lifestyle shops that we had a big name behind us."

Douglas-Pennant believes it helped that they wear the clothes themselves. "I think they liked the idea that we genuinely play sports and wear our own clothes, rather than sending a rep along who has nothing to do with the product on a personal level."

Today, Millie Fox - which is aiming for a turnover of £400,000 in its second year - has approximately 60 stockists. Having stuck closely to their original business plan, the women - who now have on board a full-time pattern cutter - feel ready to expand abroad. "We're increasingly receiving e-mails from overseas resorts because their members have returned from places like K-Club wearing Millie Fox, and they want to know whether they could stock it," says Douglas-Pennant.

The pair admit to having the odd blazing row about work. "I think having a good argument from time to time is no bad thing in getting the best out of the business," says Douglas-Pennant. "It takes strong characters and views to make it in this industry."