Hannah Weiland, the founder of the clothing line Shrimps, is most well known for making fabulous faux-fur coats, and for emphasizing color and texture in her creations. The London-born designer dove right into launching her own brand in 2013 after attending the London College of Fashion. Her coats caught the eyes of model Laura Bailey, British Vogue contributing editor Alexa Chung, and the founder of Net-a-Porter, Natalie Massenet. Earlier this month, I spoke with Hannah about the origins of her brand’s quirky name, the importance of having a unique product, and not fearing failure.
SHRIYA SAMAVAI: Hi, Hannah! I started this column so I could talk to women and minorities who run their own businesses, because it still seems like there aren’t many out there.
HANNAH WEILAND: I think it’s hard. Maybe it’s harder in America, but in the U.K.—well, I feel like I’m in a fashion bubble, because loads of my friends are female fashion designers who have their own brands and businesses. But I know it’s a tiny, niche group. I suppose it’s a hard thing to get off the ground! You have to have that one idea, and luck, and a slight business brain. I think in London, we have the British Fashion Council and there are a lot of companies who support us.
Did you grow up in London?
Yes, I grew up in London, and my parents have a house in the countryside, so I’d spend weekends in the country, which I always loved. It was definitely a big influence on me. I love going there. The British countryside in the summer is my favorite place to be. When I’m starting a new collection I’ll go out there to get some peace of mind and to research. It’s really nice to have that! But London is definitely my favorite city.
What were you like when you were younger? Were you always interested in fashion or business?
I always loved clothes, I’ve always had strong opinions on them. I was a tomboy when I was younger—I said I would never wear a dress! Then I became obsessed with these Mickey Mouse leggings, and then I started wearing this T-shirt with a dog on it for months. So I had these clothing obsessions. I always loved art, and I think fashion is something I’ve always wanted to do. At school I had amazing relationships with my art teachers. I studied textile design and my teachers said, “It’s all about surfaces with you.” I’ve always been interested in pattern, texture, and prints. The support of my teachers was really important. After school I went on to study history of art, which was quite academic. I loved the theory behind it. I did my dissertation on Grayson Perry and his dresses, and I became really obsessed with his embroidery and tapestries and textiles. So I went London College of Fashion for textile design and whilst I was there, I came up with the idea of Shrimps. Fashion was always a part of my life. My parents are really into fashion. Our family weekend trips in London were to Dover Street Market. My dad always wore a lot of Comme Des Garçons and my mum loved Marni, and those are really beautiful brands that use color and shape in amazing ways. So that was a huge influence throughout my life. I absolutely love Dover Street Market, and now I stock there and I can’t believe it!
After you finished your degree at London College of Fashion, did you go work for a different company or did you dive right into starting Shrimps?
So when I was at London College of Fashion, I had the idea of this faux-fur, colorful Breton-striped coat. I was put in touch with a factory that had really low minimums, and I made a sample with them. I started it when I was there, and after finishing I went straight into starting Shrimps. I did lot of internships when I was young, and it’s weird because my team is 10 people now, so I’m a boss to 10 people, but I’ve never had a boss myself. I learn on the job and everyone calls me the “baby boss.” I think learning on the job is a different way of doing it, and maybe you make more mistakes, but you learn really quickly because you’re thrown into it headfirst. So that one coat I designed happened before the brand. I designed this coat and I really loved it and I thought, I want to make it for people. I don’t want to just keep this one sample for myself. I should probably name it. And I didn’t really want to name it after myself. I’ve always thought my name Hannah was kind of boring, but I have a nickname, Shrimps, and I loved the idea of a beautiful, soft, faux-fur coat being named after a crustacean. I love the surrealism. So it started out with the one faux-fur coat and I added a little clutch bag in to match. It was a very organic process. For the business side, my dad is in film and advertising so I had the help of his accountant and bookkeeper. They helped me because you really need to keep track of every invoice and everything.
Did you start with a business plan?
There was no business plan at all. That’s just how it happened for me, but I think it’s probably quite good for people to start with a business plan if they can. But now I have one—I made it to the final five of the Vogue Fashion Fund, and when you apply you have to put in a whole business plan so I have all of it now. It’s really important!
Were you nervous to launch Shrimps?
If I’d have known what I know now, I would’ve been scared to do it. It’s a huge commitment, and it’s rather mad. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. But I’m really glad I did it. You can’t really be scared of failing. You have to believe in your idea. I was rather naive then, though. The fashion industry is notoriously tough. With management and cash flow, young brands without the financial investment—it can be so tough. I absolutely love it and I’m so happy I did it, but I’m glad I was kind of naive at the time.
You started out just with jackets first and now do ready-to-wear. What was that transition like?
Well, I absolutely love outerwear. It will always be the crux or the heart of the brand, what we’re known for. But as I was doing presentations at London Fashion Week and photoshoots, I wanted more of a full brand experience. I had been doing printed linings for the jackets and hand-drawn illustrations. The label is hand-drawn and I have a signature drawing technique, so it was easy to translate that into the ready-to-wear. I started out with printed silks and then embroidered organza. A lot of the ready-to-wear fabric, I develop myself. I go to all the fabric fairs and work with people to develop my own fabric. There needs to be something special about it. For example last summer I found this cotton paisley but then I said, “I want this coated in plastic,” and we made that happen. I like things that have a slight difference. I want Shrimps to be unique and be about different textures. I’ve had that brand identity from the beginning, so the ready-to-wear has been well received. It’s still growing though, and I’d love to properly expand my accessories and do faux leather handbags. And one day I want to make shoes. That’s all in my five-year business plan!
Did you do any initial market research to see if there was a customer base before launching? How did you know that people would buy what you wanted to sell?
I did no research at all, it’s absolutely mad! Lots of people starting brands would have probably done that. But for me—well, it wasn’t a mistake, but it was just this one coat that I made. I never wore real fur, and I never wore faux fur because I never found it in good quality. When I saw this faux fur, I had that lightbulb moment and thought, I just have the best idea for this! The sample was received so well. Laura Bailey, the model and writer, wore my first sample for London Fashion Week in September 2013 and Natalie Massenet chased her down and said “Where’s that from? I need it at Net-a-Porter!” She followed up to me immediately with an email saying she wanted to order it. Net-a-Porter changed me, they placed the order and paid for it immediately. They had just stopped selling real fur, so it was so exciting, and I think what I had been doing had just never been done before. I would wear the coat out and I’d get stopped every time I walked anywhere, so I got the feeling that it was something people wanted. My friends wanted it, my mum’s friends wanted it, my sister’s friends wanted it, so it was very exciting! That was how it happened.
What about the fashion industry do you want to change?
I think the British fashion industry is doing a good job supporting young designers. I’d like the rest of the world to be like that. I don’t feel like there are the same chances as much in America, Italy, or France. I’d like to see fewer people using fur because it’s horrible. I really do love the fashion industry—you hear those stories where people say it’s really horrible but I’ve only ever had amazing experiences. I’ve had so much support from brilliant people, I love that!
What advice do you have for young people who want to start their own business?
Have a unique idea, don’t over-think it. Maybe create the product before you do all the market research and big business plan because you need the product there to visualize it and see what it could be. Don’t be scared! Don’t have the fear of failing, otherwise you’ll never do it. ♦