The sartorial solicitor

small business
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The Independent Online
It is arguable whether it is the long hours or the clothes they have to wear that drives many women out of the law. Madeleine Hamilton abandoned her job at a leading City firm in 1991 because she could not see herself as a partner, but she is doing her bit for the sartorial side of things by turning her attentions to selling first shirts designed to go under suits and then the suits themselves.

As she ruefully acknowledges, the job shift has not resulted in an easier life, but it is at least proving successful so far. The third year of trading - just completed - has seen turnover of pounds 400,000, and this month has brought the opening of a second shop.

It sounds straightforward enough. But it is worth bearing in mind that not only has the business, known simply as Madeleine Hamilton (though her lawyer's love of Latin led to the company being called Res Ipse Loquitur, or "The thing speaks for itself"), thrived at the upmarket end in a time of deep recession, it was also founded by somebody who knew nothing about the business.

She says she "certainly didn't have it in mind to do this" when she left Frere Cholmeley. Instead, she drew up a list of things she liked and those she did not, and clothes kept coming up. She hit on shirts as a starting point because of her own difficulties in finding suitable office attire.

Others might have baulked at the fact that they could not even sew let alone design clothes. But not Ms Hamilton. "I believe that if you want to do something badly enough, you'll find a way," she says, aware that it sounds just a little arrogant. Nevertheless, she is keen to stress that the skill of the business lies in the pattern-cutting, which she does not go near.

She does, however, choose the fabric - on twice-a-year trips to Paris - and she designs the products. But primarily she sees herself as a co- ordinator, organising the work of up to 20 "specialist artisans" who - depending on the season - flesh out the full-time staff of just six.

When she first set up, literally in the kitchen of her home, her outlets were mail order and wholesale to the likes of Austin Reed and shops specialising in clothing the legal community. The strength of business she attracted from these shops soon prompted her to open her own first outlet in Chancery Lane, though she says a second, like the one just launched in the West End, was always intended. There are a lot of professional women starved of appropriate clothes in that part of the city, she believes.

True to the current management thinking, Ms Hamilton is keeping her business tightly focused. Her clothes are unashamedly expensive and aimed at women of at least her age (31). While stylish, they are deliberately not fashionable. "I have stayed away from fashion as much as possible," she says, explaining that it is fickle and the products are aimed at young people who cannot afford high prices. "I have chosen to design a more traditional but quirky form of clothing."

Such diversification as there has been is confined to casual wear appropriate to such young professional activities as horse riding and golf. However, some larger stores are showing interest and she has begun designing specifically for the growing Japanese market.

She also conforms to the small business stereotype by having little enthusiasm for the banks. Having had her overdraft request turned down, she won the finance to set up from a different bank by using her status as a lawyer to obtain a personal loan. Though in no need of funds at present, she says she has found the attitude "disappointing", and suspects there is still a suspicion of women in business.

Not that she is looking for assistance from other investors either. Again fitting the general picture of the entrepreneur, she is determined not to lose control and says: "I'm not working this hard for nothing."

And when she says "hard" she means it. Working in law was tough, but her new role is much more wide-ranging - from the love lives of staff to dealing with the VAT man. As she tells would-be entrepreneurs in lectures, "You've got to be prepared to give it your absolute all to make it work."