How designer Makeda Matheson turned cashmere into a cash cow

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LUXURY FASHION designer Makeda Matheson’s mother founded the self-dubbed ‘Cashmere Mafia’ with her sisters in the 1980s.

Together, the young women would, and still do to this day, says Makeda, “go out shopping and find these amazing cashmere sales and tell each other about it or buy up everything and share it among the group”.

So when Makeda founded her own fashion line of luxury cashmere garments in September – almost three decades later – it was less of a fluke and more like a rite of passage.

“My mum and my aunts have always instilled in us this innate understanding of quality and what that means in your clothing,” the Yorkshire-born, London-based designer explains. “No one is rich, but everyone wears cashmere sweaters as standard. I think that was where I got the understanding of what it means to wear something of quality and have it last.”

The designer founded Makeda Matheson after stints in New York with stylist Robert Verdi, where she took on the role of buyer’s assistant helping style Hollywood stars Eva Longoria and Hugh Jackman and years at an events company, which included putting on affairs for high fashion clients including Louis Vuitton.

But her love of cashmere always led her back to knitwear.

“I was always collecting knitwear so it didn’t feel abrupt when it happened,” she explains. “I was drawing jumpers for four or five years and was thinking about knitwear I’d like to see.”

After conversations with established names in the fashion industry, who she had met through her time in former job roles, the 27-year-old was persuaded to go it alone.

“I was meeting people like Olivia Von Halle [a British luxury nightwear designer] and Chinti & Parker [a British luxury ready-to-wear label] who are probably the most prevalent designers working with cashmere at the moment,” Makeda says.

“Our paths crossed when I was working with the events company, so they knew my work. Meeting them, I was like ‘Oh, maybe I’ll work with you for a bit and learn the industry’, but they were like, ‘You already know the stuff, it’s just that you’re applying it to a different medium,” she said.

Makeda considered going back to university “to work on knitwear designs so I could learn how to do technical patterns because knitwear is one of the most technical designs,” but was put off by the three-year completion date.

“It crossed my mind to go back to university and to work for somebody else, but I thought, ‘Do you really want to give over your creativity when you feel you have the tools to do it yourself?’”
After a conversation with friend, Blaize Duffy, Makeda was given the initial cash injection to start her business.

Laughing, she recalls the conversation.

“I was telling Blaize what I had been doing and she was impressed with what I told her and asked what I would need to make it happen. I told her the amount I needed and she was like, “Ok, do it!” She paid for it in the beginning.”

The Makeda Matheson range of ‘Lounge Lux’, which means to “lounge luxuriously”, includes her “cash cow” cashmere socks, which retail from £40, cashmere T-shirts (£125), jumpers (£195), jumpsuits (£375) and a new long-length cardigan (£730).

ETHICAL SOURCING: Makeda in Mongolia

With prices veering to the higher end of the hundreds, is she worried that she’s pricing her consumer, who she says are “women in their twenties, thirties and forties”, out of the market?

“I advocate the concept of ‘accessible luxury’,” she says. “My items aren’t the same standard of crew necks that you might get from Marks & Spencer. I make investment pieces, which are adaptable. My main piece is the ruff sweater with an interchangeable neck panel, so you can wear one piece five ways. Customers can feel like they’ve invested in something,” she explains.

“Compared to my competitors, I’m actually charging a low price point. Cynthia Parker sweaters are priced £350, whereas mine are £195 and you’d pay about £1,000 for a Ralph Lauren one.

“In addition,” she says, “all of my garments are produced in a factory owned and run by its workers in Mongolia. Wool is sourced from cashmere goats of nearby farms and the factory runs on a zero waste policy, with every part of the fibre used for myriad purposes.”

At the time of our interview, Makeda, who balances her new venture with a full-time job in filmmaking, has just returned from a business trip to Mongolia where her cashmere is sourced and items made.

On her trip, she said: “I wanted to make sure everything I’m sourcing was done properly. I didn’t want misery in the weave.”

Throughout her stay, Makeda was happy to see the factory was as described and “that everybody was well treated, well-paid and happy”.

“That’s the thing,” she adds, “when people are purchasing something, they don’t necessarily know where things come from. It’s important for me to ensure the brand champions ethical luxury.”

But far be it for that to mean customers can’t save a few pounds on cleaning bills. All Makeda Matheson products – which will include brighter colours and different designs for the summer months – are machine washable “so it eliminates the fuss of having to go to the dry cleaners”.

“Most people don’t know that the more you wash cashmere, the better it gets. Most cashmere companies tell you to ‘dry clean only’ because it limits responsibility if you do it wrong.”

Though the savvy entrepreneur admits her first year in business has been a good one – with her socks proving to be the most popular item at her stockist, T&Shop, and recent news that her garments will be on sale at the annual Design Junction exhibition in September – Makeda says she still has a lot to learn about running a company and fulfilling her goal of being stocked in Liberty, Matches and Net-A-Porter.

“Business is a constant learning curve,” she says. “In my daytime job, I deal with budgets, selling films and all that stuff, but when you’re doing it for yourself, it’s very different. I’m learning a new type self-confidence and pride in what I do. It’s a new level of learning and I’m enjoying working out how to navigate it.”

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