September 2, 2011 10:12 pm

A head for figures

City professionals are directing their business skills into starting, backing and working for fashion brands

The idea of celebrities such as the Beckhams, the Olsen twins and Sarah Jessica Parker crossing professional boundaries to launch second careers as fashion designers has become a familiar one in the 21st century. But beyond these famous fashionistas, a surprising number of financial and legal specialists are also foregoing their former areas of expertise to enter the style arena.

Natalia Barbieri, a former foreign exchange sales executive at Deutsche Bank, set up shoe brand Bionda Castana, which features lace stilettos and ankle boots, with her business partner Jennifer Portman in 2008. Two years earlier, Britt Lintner, who works in hedge funds at GLG Partners, launched her eponymous dress brand while still working full-time with the intention of creating the female equivalent of the suit. Recently Sally Hartfield, originally a City lawyer, decided to pursue her passion for design and created the label Matilda & Quinn (named after a particularly stylish great-aunt) as a direct response to a “serious lack of clothing that was both smart and ‘safe’ for the office, yet also stylish and individual”.

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Last year Nancy Gibson, who worked “on Wall Street when it was still Wall Street”, arrived at a party in a striped jersey from American heritage brand Robert P Miller to find friend Jennifer Murray in the same design; the two women subsequently persuaded the century-old brand to produce Edith A Miller – a sister line to Robert consisting of striped tees and mini and maxi dresses, now available in the prestigious boutique Browns in the UK and department store Barneys in the US.

This crossover goes beyond former financiers setting up labels. Ruth Runberg, who started her career on Wall Street, is now buying director at Browns; designer Joseph Altuzarra’s mother Karen, a former investment banker, now works as the chief executive of her son’s company; and Megha Mittal, a former Goldman Sachs analyst and daughter-in-law of steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, bought existing label Escada, and asked British designer Jonathan Saunders to create a capsule collection. Finally, there’s Tania Fares – who has a background in fundraising for charities and the arts, and has partnered with Lulu Kennedy, the founder of London new talent initiative Fashion East. With Fares’ backing, Kennedy has been able to create Lulu & Co – a collection that produces one-off designs from Fashion East alumni such as Roksanda Ilincic and Louise Gray.

According to those involved, switching to the design business from finance or law has advantages, not least that, as Fares says, “I have a good insight into our clients. After all, I started off being one of them.”

These words are echoed by Oscar Udeshi and Cad & The Dandy, both tailors set up by ex-City workers to cater to former colleagues. “I’m not a fluffy fashion person, I can talk straight to our clients,” says Udeshi. “That’s how you gain confidence.”

“We have heads of banks in here who want the formal, Savile Row service,” says Cad & The Dandy’s James Sleater. “We have to blend in with whoever it might be.”

“James understands the attention to detail people require in a corporate context,” says client Daniel Riley, who works in private banking.

Lintner began her brand with a similar idea in mind. “I wanted something that would work from 8am to 9pm,” she says of her dresses, which used stretch and were lined with satin for both comfort and crease-resistance. Sleeve lengths, colours and hemlines were roadtested at Lintner’s office. “I would never produce something without wearing it to work first,” she says. “I needed to make sure it wasn’t too hot, too cold, too low-cut, too colourful.” Lintner actually decided to stop making dresses in July, as although the business was successful, it was too time consuming alongside a full-time job and family, but is thinking about other lifestyle projects.

The benefits of an alternative professional background don’t end with understanding design practicalities. “You’re going to do the maths correctly – that’s a given,” says Nancy Gibson. “But the biggest thing I learnt was never to underestimate personal relationships. We grew our relationship with our mill like they’re the client, not the other way round.”

“I gained an understanding of cashflow and budgets,” Natalia Barbieri says of her former profession. “And I am able to work in a fast-paced environment.”

The point, says Ruth Runberg, is it is time people stopped assuming “that all financial minds are limited to financial thought, and all creative minds are disasters at business. You can actually be talented at both.”

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Details

www.barneys.com

www.biondacastana.com

www.brownsfashion.com

www.cadandthedandy.co.uk

www.escada.com

www.josephaltuzarra.com

www.matildaandquinn.com

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