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Fashion Entrepreneur Bronwyn Gives Start-Up A Kick With MBA
Bronwyn Lowenthal began her fashion start-up with a market stall in Detroid. 12 years on from Toucan School and she is using an MBA at Cass Business School to take the business to new heights.
It has been 12 years since Bronwyn Lowenthal was made redundant. Before the financial crisis struck, she was dismissed from menswear fashion giant Ben Sherman as the company went through a shake-up.
The notoriously brutal fashion industry has always been her passion, and Bronwyn soon picked up a job creating a new label for another prominent brand. Until it suddenly hit her.
If that company trusted her to launch a label on her own, why not break away and run her own?
"I wasn't getting paid very much so I thought, why don’t I just run my own label? I thought the time was right ," she says.
She quit that job in 2002 and just a week later was on a plane to Turkey to source a new fashion product. She was thrown a life-line by the Prince's Trust, a UK-based charity founded by the Prince of Wales, with a £2,500 loan to launch a start-up.
Journey to Cass
Bronwyn, now an MBA at Cass Business School, created Lowie - a fashion brand for women that produces clothing as ethically as possible. She used the loan to set-up a stall in London's trendy Portobello Road Market.
"I've always worked in and studied fashion. It's a field that I love. I could never work in another industry," she says. "A year before I launched Lowie I had been to Turkey on holiday and brought back knitted products for friends as gifts, and they loved them. My first idea was to turn that model into a business and sell the products in the UK.
"I got a market stall in Portobello Road, mostly selling knitted socks at first, and in my first season I managed to get some of the products into Topshop and House of Fraser."
She soon began designing her own products, rather than importing them ready-made from Southeastern Europe - she insists you're not a "proper" fashion brand until you design your own clothes. The pricing was "unworkable" importing from Turkey anyway, she says, and there were issues with quality.
Once the SME started to take off, Bronwyn began working with small, family-run production units in the Middle East. Just as female entrepreneurs are a rarity in the UK, all too often women in countries such as India struggle for economic independence. Bronwyn pays them a "decent price", and Lowie prides itself on a fair production cost for a good product.
But that was 11 years ago. Her clothes are now worn by fashionistas including Fearne Cotton and supermodel Lily Cole. And more has changed than just the endorsement of London's model-crowd. In fashion, reputation is everything - and it has not always been plain-sailing for Lowie.
"Your name and your reputation is everything," says Bronwyn. "You have to spend a long time building a name for yourself. After a few years it becomes easier to sustain the business, and you don't have to work quite as hard to spread the word."
That's not to say that she hasn't worked hard. Building a fashion brand from scratch is a tough process. Chuck in the fact that one-in-three UK start-ups fails within the first three years of operations and you have a recipe for disaster.
Part of Bronwyn's success comes from keeping things fresh."Part of fashion is that everyone wants something new," she says. "You have to design new collections and keep up to date without sacrificing your USP.
"I've had to change the business model a lot. We're still wholesaling, but we're moving more and more into online retailing. We've opened our first store in London and I'm hoping to open more in the next couple of years."
An MBA might have made things easier. And there's no doubt that Cass, a high MBA Ranking b-school in London, has championed the cause of the entrepreneur. Last month, two Cass MBAs scooped up awards for their entrepreneurial ventures, and the university has its own incubator to give student's a head-start.
But those ventures were born out of b-school, not before it. Why does Bronwyn feel the need to obtain a part-time MBA a decade after launching her business?
"After 11 years of running the same business I felt like I needed an injection of knowledge to take it to the next stage," she says. "I needed to learn some new skills. It's difficult to balance my time but I'm enjoying the challenge."
As an entrepreneur who used to man a lonely market stall, working in big groups on the MBA programme is a great experience for Bronwyn.
Location was equally important, too. Leading fashion brands hitting the pavements of AW14 in London today for men's fashion week stir memories of Bronwyn's own visit to the elite fashion festival.
"I won a few free exhibition stands at London fashion week last year," she says. "Cass is such a prestigious school and its been really helpful and really beneficial to me. I'm confident I'll be better informed about the best way to take Lowie forward.
"I would’ve got to this stage in the end, but this MBA scholarship opened doors for me, doors that I otherwise would've had to pry open."
The business has already beaten the odds. And Bronwyn is just getting started.
Ben Sherman must be ruing the day they let her go.