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The Drapers Interview: Hannah Coffin on growing Needle & Thread into a global brand

Hannah Coffin

It has not all been smooth sailing for premium womenswear brand Needle & Thread, but a series of investments, the successful launch of bridalwear and an expanding overseas operation has set it up for the future

From the moment Hannah Coffin received an old Singer sewing machine for Christmas at the age of 12, she knew she wanted to create her own brand. She spent her teenage years making clothing for herself and friends, frustrated by the lack of affordable fashion where they grew up in rural Gloucestershire.

Today Coffin is sipping fresh mint tea in a restaurant in London and telling Drapers about her premium womenswear brand, Needle & Thread.

Needle & Thread specialises in dresses and separates with intricate surface decoration at an accessible price point. Since launching exclusively with Asos in April 2013, it has attracted a string of stockists around the world, including Net-a-Porter, Harrods and Liberty in the UK, German etailer Zalando, US department store Nordstrom and Asian chain Lane Crawford.

Needle & Thread

Needle & Thread

Needle & Thread

With the dresses in its core collection retailing from £130 retail for a simple ballet style to £450 for an embellished bib gown, Needle & Thread has tapped into a growing demand for affordable luxury. It launched its own ecommerce site in September last year and its first bridal collection for spring 16 and, spurred on by new investment, is gearing up to expand overseas.

But it has not been an easy journey. Like many start-ups, Needle & Thread was nearly a victim of its early success, after it ran out of cash towards the end of 2014 and was forced to appoint administrators.

“The business was so young at the time, we just didn’t have the padding. We hadn’t ever had that capital injection,” explains Coffin. “It was really tough. I felt such a tremendous pressure because of the people we employed.” But she was determined not to let everything she had built collapse: she found an investor and, in a matter of weeks, the business was out of administration.

Coffin will not disclose the name of her white-knight investor, nor the brand’s current turnover or profit figures. However, she assures Drapers the business “is now financially very stable and in a good position to grow”. Jamie Grant joined as chief financial officer in August 2013 from Monsoon Accessorize, where he was head of commercial finance and FP&A (financial planning and analysis).

“He is a tremendous support,” says Coffin. “Everything is managed very tightly.”

It fitted a niche: gorgeous, beaded eveningwear at a contemporary price point

Marigay McKee, former chief merchant at Harrods and president of Saks Fifth Avenue

The brand received another financial boost in May this year when Marigay McKee, former chief merchant at Harrods and president of Saks Fifth Avenue, invested and joined its board of directors.

Harrods was one of the first stockists to snap up Needle & Thread in its early days, and that was the start of a  friendship between McKee and Coffin. When McKee moved to Saks in late 2013, she took Needle & Thread with her. It rolled out to about 15 Saks branches and its website.

“When Hannah launched Needle & Thread, she called me to come and see the line before showing it to anyone else and I loved it,” explains McKee. “It fitted a niche: gorgeous, beaded eveningwear at a contemporary price point. It sat well adjacent to young feminine contemporary brands like Self Portrait, A Piece Apart, Ulla Johnson and others in that price bracket.”

“Marigay is just amazing,” says Coffin. “When you meet her, you end up becoming friends with her.”

The investment – of an undisclosed amount – felt like a natural next step, she adds: “We trust each other and she genuinely wears the brand, so she’s already emotionally invested in it.”

McKee is not involved in the day-to-day running of the business, but helps with advice at a strategic level.

Coffin says: “We have quite a similar way of working, a similar appreciation of design. We talk about how you grow a brand while protecting the product.”

This appreciation of design is what drives Coffin. After spending her teenage years at the sewing machine, she went on to study a BA in fashion and textiles at London-based fashion and design college Ravensbourne from 1999 to 2002.

Upon graduating, she was immediately snapped up by Karen Millen as a junior designer. It was a valuable start to her career: “I’d been trained as a designer, but what Karen Millen taught me was about the commerciality of a collection, how to merchandise a collection into deliveries, how to cost garments, how to liaise with the supply chain. The foundations of how to become a strong designer.”

By the time she left three years later, she had progressed to working with print. “Surface decoration and print engineering has always been part of what I’ve wanted to do.”

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She left in 2005 when a position became available as print and woven designer at AllSaints. “It was at the point when AllSaints was quite an iconic, almost cult brand. They were looking to diversify their womenswear by bringing in a woven handwriting, decoration and a bit more femininity among the bleached, distressed rock T-shirts, belts, skinny jeans and leather jackets. I joined at a very exciting time when the business was exploding and the teams were doubling.”

Coffin stayed for eight years, gaining the essential experience that would help her to launch her own brand. “I was fortunate that there were only about 10 directors in the management team, so that meant we were all very involved in each other’s areas and exposed to the realities of running a business; deliverables such as sell-through, margins and visual merchandising. It was an amazing learning curve.”

She left AllSaints – by then womenswear design director – in 2012, determined to finally set up on her own. She spent four or five months researching and planning, “really looking for that niche in the market”. “That took a lot of time – it’s such a saturated and competitive industry. You have to have a point of difference so your brand is recognisable and has room to grow.”

Needle & Thread has quickly established itself as a key occasionwear brand for us

Asos womenswear buying director Nikki Tattersall

While working at AllSaints, she had regularly travelled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Turkey, Portugal and India. India, with its focus on intricate surface decoration, was her favourite: “The embellishment, embroidery, threadwork – there was so much craftsmanship and creativity, so many possibilities.”

Once she left AllSaints, she returned to India and began developing the textile handwriting for Needle & Thread. This turned into a sample collection of 25 pieces, which launched exclusively with Asos in April 2013.

Needle & Thread performed well on Asos from the get-go.

“Hannah has an exceptional eye for detail and the level of craftsmanship in each piece is truly unique,” says Asos womenswear buying director Nikki Tattersall, who has worked with Coffin since the launch. “Needle & Thread has quickly established itself as a key occasionwear brand for us.”

Coffin attributes her early success to the relationships she has developed in the industry, with the likes of McKee, Tattersall and founder of Asos Nick Robertson. She admits she is “very blessed”, but she has also worked hard on pricing – the price points are remarkable for the level of detail and handwork.

Coffin employs around 40 people in total, around 25 of whom are in London and 15 in India. The UK team does the atelier function, setting the concept, doing the research, pulling together mood boards, designing the shapes and doing the toiling. Everything is hand-drawn and the artworks are engineered into the pattern pieces, and graded across different sizes. The designs are then executed in India.

“It’s a very creative business – the way the collection is developed is quite high end,” explains Coffin.

Needle & Thread Bridal

Needle & Thread Bridal

Needle & Thread Bridal

Needle & Thread is now carried globally online by Net-a-Porter, Harrods, Nordstrom Direct, Revolve Clothing, Asos, Zalando, Liberty, TNT, Beymen, Myer, ShopBop and Lane Crawford. Its bricks-and-mortar stockists are: Brown Thomas in Ireland; Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and China; Harvey Nichols in Kuwait; TNT, Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew in Canada; Bhldn, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Tootsies in the US; and Myer in Australia.

Coffin plans to use McKee’s investment to grow the international business, particularly in the US and Canada: “It is key territory for us – there’s so much appetite for this product.”

In Asia, Needle & Thread launched into luxury department store chain Lane Crawford for spring 16. It is now seeking out partners in other countries, including potentially Korea, China and Japan.

The brand is also “under-potentialised” in Europe, Coffin says: “We’re online with Zalando in Germany, but we’re not in France, Spain or Germany bricks-and-mortar so there’s a lot of opportunity there.” She is exploring whether to take on a European wholesale agent.

The brand’s DNA is now well established, particularly its dresses – although separates, which it introduced for autumn 14, have become “more and more significant”. “Now when you see the lookbooks, we’ve put shirts under certain dresses, bombers over things; it’s a much more styled collection,” says Coffin.

A decision to launch into bridalwear, taken last year, has allowed the ready-to-wear collection to become more playful and fashion-forward.

“We now do embellished dungarees, bombers and bib dresses. We’re beginning to own a more fashionable way of dressing.” There are some collaborations in the pipeline for spring 17 and plans to expand the core collection in terms of categories, but Coffin cannot say more at this early stage.

Bridalwear launched exclusively on Net-a-Porter and Needle & Thread’s own website for spring 16. For autumn 16, it will also be available in the US via American chain Anthropologie’s bridal offshoot Bhldn. Coffin explains: “It was beginning to become more and more obvious that this was an organic step for the business to take. People kept asking, ‘Does this come in white?’ If you listen to your customer, she will tell you what she’s going to buy.”

The first collection consisted of 17 pieces, a mix of dresses and separates priced at £105 to £850 retail. “There has been a very positive early reaction,” says Coffin. “There is a growing hunger for affordable bridalwear, particularly when you’re offering so much work in the intricacy and design at an affordable price point.”

The collection will grow in size next season, with plans to add to the top tier. “There’s more demand for another level up on the bridal – more work, more elevated pieces.”

Holly Russell, senior buyer at Net-a-Porter, says: “Needle & Thread is known and loved for its romantic, feminine designs with embellished details, so when the opportunity arose to collaborate on a bridalwear capsule, we knew it would be an instant hit.”

Coffin says the returns rate for the collection is below the bridal industry standard. However, she acknowledges that some brides-to-be may be turned off by the idea of buying their dress online, so Needle & Thread will launch bridal trunk shows from July – offering physical spaces where brides can try dresses on, with friends and family, in a high-end, boutique setting.

The first will take place in a suite overlooking Hyde Park in London. “We’re really going to give [the customer] a luxury experience: flowers, champagne and a photographer on hand. We’ll have fit experts and I’ll be there as creative director, giving advice. It’s a fun part of her life to be involved in.” But it’s not just fun: “The performance has given us the confidence to build bridal as a serious part of our business plan,” confirms Coffin.

Another growth opportunity comes in the form of its ecommerce site, which soft launched last September before its formal unveiling just before Christmas. Before September, Needle & Thread did not have its own presence online.

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“We’d been so busy focusing on other development areas,” explains Coffin. “So when that investment came in [in early 2015], one of the priorities post-stabilising the business was hiring the right people and developing a site.”

The site now delivers to around 30 countries. Coffin will not disclose what percentage of sales are made online, but says it “exceeds budget month on month”. She has just recruited a digital assistant “to really speed that part of the business up”.

The digital assistant is one of a number of recent hires and Coffin anticipates making more over the coming weeks and months, bulking up the design, digital, wholesale and customer care functions. Having started off in 2013 in a “tiny, tiny office” on Bond Street, Needle & Thread is now on its third headquarters, in north London. But the team has already outgrown the space, and another office move is on the cards.

It is a sign of how far the brand has come in just three years – and the next three look set to be just as successful.

 

Hannah Coffin’s CV

1999-2002 – Studied at Ravensbourne

2002 – Joined Karen Millen as junior designer

2005 – Joined AllSaints as print and woven designer

2008 – Became womenswear director of AllSaints

April 2013 – Founded Needle & Thread

 

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