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My Fashion Life: etailer SilkFred founder Emma Watkinson on her love of independent labels

Since launching her etailer to support independent and emerging womenswear labels, founder Emma Watkinson cannot stop shopping

Emma Watkinson cut her teeth at etailer before launching her own site, SilkFred, aged just 28. Focusing on independent and emerging womenswear clothing and accessories brands, Watkinson has seen 400% sales increase year on year and was a finalist for entrepreneur of the year at the London Business Awards 2014.

Emma Watkinson of SilkFred

Emma Watkinson of SilkFred

How would you describe Silk Fred?

An online marketplace to discover unique designer fashion at high street prices. It is a central destination for shoppers to find affordable pieces that their friends won’t have and a powerful sales channel for the best independent brands.

You have 10 years’ experience in the industry. What did you do before launching the site?

I [mostly] worked at etailer on its buying and merchandising team. I loved the company vision and had followed the company since its early days. It was exciting to join a team that had its roots in offline retail and was navigating through the new digital space for fashion. I was also lucky to work with some of the industry’s top people. I learnt a lot.

Why focus independent and emerging brands?

Digital has changed how brands reach new audiences through ecommerce, social media and advertising – there are routes to market that didn’t previously exist before. On a more personal note, I have unlimited respect for anyone who takes the risk to start their own business and create something that didn’t exist before. It’s so difficult to put yourself out there for judgement and so much hard work – someone who starts a fashion brand and actually gets a product into such a competitive market is someone I’m going to work hard to empower and support.

What does the name mean?

The original vision for SilkFred was a marketplace with a social network that meant shoppers could discover, share and talk about their favourite finds. So we had “Silk” because it was related to fashion, and “Thread” because it connected the commerce and the social. We didn’t end up building the social element as we loved the simplicity of a cool marketplace that was fun and easy to shop, but we loved how quirky and unique the name was.

Why did you use crowd funding to help set up the business. 

We had carved out a valuable proposition for both independent brands and shoppers, and it was time to raise money to grow the business and start making some noise. It was hard work to raise the investment but then it should be. I did a lot of pitch events, meetings and networking to fuel and support the online fundraise. We raised £150,000, which allowed us to start marketing SilkFred.

Sales have risen 400% year on year. Why are you so successful?

SilkFred is growing rapidly and I’m excited about our future. I love that we have created a business that supports those that choose the path to create their own business and be independent. At the same time we have cultivated an incredibly loyal and growing customer base. There are lots of things I could say that have contributed to our growth: a superstar team that are in the trenches with me every day, supportive investors that coach and mentor me and a laser focus on strategy. But above all, it’s about being resilient, by being willing to work longer and harder and push yourself so far out of your comfort zone, you wouldn’t even recognise yourself.

How important has social media been to the business?

Digital is at the heart of what we do, so understanding how our shoppers behave on social media differentiates us and helps us to stand out. We’ve grown exceptionally quickly, thanks to the support from loyal shoppers quick to share their purchases and to celebrate their unique fashion finds. This has resulted in a cult social media status, growing from 5,000 to more than 300,000 Facebook likes within a year.

How do you find new brands?

We discover brands online through social media and offline at trade shows. At the moment we are getting approached by a great number of brands, which is awesome, as it means through word of mouth we are attracting companies that want to work with us and have their brand aligned with ours.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

When we hit a new sales record a couple of weeks ago and it tipped us over the edge of a big milestone. It was quite surreal as I always believed in the potential of the business but when I remembered the days when the team was very small and we celebrated when a shopper that we didn’t know personally bought something. It dawned on me how far we had come. It was quite overwhelming.

Silkfred jpg

Silkfred jpg

What has been the lowest point of your career and how did you overcome it?

There have been a few but the one that sticks out the most was when we were at the end of the crowdfunding campaign and after 10 weeks of relentless pitches, 16 hour days and having to defend the business from every angle, the largest investment pledge, which was 40% of the campaign, fell through. I was exhausted, and just wanted to shut the curtains and go to bed for a week. If you don’t raise 100% of the funding in crowdfunding, the entire deal collapses. I took one day to reflect and then I just started again. We not only filled the gap, we went over our investment target by another £30,000 in less than a week.

What’s the best and worst thing about your job?

Building the team, empowering independent fashion brands and seeing the value that creates. The worst thing is that you constantly question yourself, what you do and if it’s good enough.

Do you shop on your own website?

All the time – it’s so addictive. Especially when I’m meeting new brands, looking at new styles and constantly surrounded by so much uniqueness. Even though we work with independent brands, we launch at least 100 new styles to the site each week. The last thing I bought was a black fringed fake suede cape. I throw it on over my black leather jacket in colder weather and it just makes my winter outfit look that little bit more interesting.

Where are your favourite places to shop?

SilkFred, obviously! I also like Everlane for basics – they recently introduced international delivery and I was so excited. I like the concept store Merci in Paris also. I was also in Savannah in the US recently and they had some awesome independent boho-style boutiques – it was so cool to discover them in an unexpected place.

What are your current favourite brands?

I really like For Love & Lemons, Dancing Leopard, Essentials for Zula and Missoma, especially the Lucy Williams collaboration – I haven’t managed to buy anything yet because I can’t decide which pieces I love the most.

What one fashion trend do you wish would disappear?


What do you do to switch off from work?

I love to read. I’m currently reading the The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth – it’s hilarious. I also love listening to podcasts – This American Life in particular. Lena Dunham also has just launched one called Women of the Hour, which is pretty good.

Whom in the fashion industry do you admire and why?

Natalie Massenet – lots of people didn’t believe luxury fashion could be sold online but she had a vision, created a company culture that allowed the business to thrive and genuinely changed the playing field for luxury retail. I really admire what she built.

Tell us something not many people know about you?

My secret skill is video arcade games and I can pretty much quote South Park seasons 1 to 15 word for word.

If you weren’t working in the fashion industry, what would you be doing?

I’d be a detective.

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