Local Spotlight: Sargasso & Grey Shoes
Interview by Jessica Jefferys
Mother-of-two Katie Owen runs luxury shoe company Sargasso & Grey from her home in Hanwell. Set up during her first maternity leave, Sargasso & Grey has been selling stylish leather shoes for women with wider feet since March 2014. Currently on maternity leave after having number two, Katie is due to return to work at a wealth management firm in May.
How did Sargasso & Grey start?
I work in finance and wear suits and heels every day, but I’ve always struggled to find shoes that are comfortable for my wider feet. I meet many female entrepreneurs in my role, and one day I was chatting to the founder of a shoe company, Cocorose, who make foldable ballet flats. The founder, Janan, said, “If you can’t find them, why not make some yourself?” I put my business head on and thought it must be doable.
I started seriously looking into it during my first maternity leave in 2011. During my nine months off I took a shoe-designer’s course at the London College of Fashion. I then went back to work full-time, so I worked evenings and weekends only. I started trading in March 2014 and then started my second maternity leave a couple of months later.
How would you describe the Sargasso & Grey styles?
Simple, elegant, classic heels that are comfortable for wider feet. Customers range from businesswomen who can’t find shoes that fit, to mums whose feet have spread after having children, to mothers of the bride who are looking for shoes to match their wedding outfits. We produce a high heel and a mid-heel and we’re now moving into sandals and bespoke wedding shoes.
Where did the name come from?
I wanted to create a brand of shoes that were elegant and stylish with an added bonus that they were also made in a wide fit. I think it’s a fair assumption that when people think of ‘wide-fit shoes’ they envisage ones that are practical but frumpy. This is exactly what I wanted to challenge. I was looking for subtlety in the name. I thought about associations with the word ‘wide’ and immediately thought of a book I read: The Wide Sargasso Sea. The brand is a subtle reference to wide without screaming WIDE FEET, which I felt might put many women off buying them. At the same time, it is of course really important that people are aware that the shoes are for the wide-foot market and that is why I use the strapline ‘Elegant heels in a wider fit’ under the brand names.
My handmade in England range is called Sargasso and the ready-to-wear range made in Spain is called Sargasso & Grey as I wanted to mark a clear difference between the two ranges.
Why did you choose Spain?
I loved the idea of making the shoes purely in England, and that’s been fine for selling online. But if I want to try and take them into stores—especially as I often get asked where customers can try the shoes on—I needed a different model. Otherwise I would have had to raise prices.
After research into European markets I found I can produce really good-quality shoes in Alicante in Spain. A lot of British names—like L.K. Bennett and Dune—also produce their shoes there. That said, I am still committed to England for making the handmade range and the bridal shoes.
What were the main challenges? Any lessons learnt?
It took a lot longer to get to the trading stage than I’d anticipated. With the research and then sorting out every last detail—from initial design to delivery—it took around three years. The term start-up is misleading—a lot of ‘start-up’ businesses have been going on for a lot longer behind the scenes than 12 to 18 months.
I’m comfortable with the financial side of the business as I can draw on my day job, but the social media side I’m still getting to grips with. I write a blog and tweet and have found Pinterest to be indispensable. I am also using Instagram a lot more.
I also learnt the importance of trademarking your brand name. I heard about another similar brand name when I was in labour with my second son!
Any advice for someone who has an idea but isn’t sure how to get it off the ground?
Firstly, use the networks you already have. I don’t have a business partner but starting a business in my 30s means I have friends in relevant jobs like PR and marketing—my brother-in-law runs a web design company and built my site—and they’ve all been incredibly helpful. I kept a lot to myself at the start and I wished I had shared more from the beginning. Remember, most people want to see you succeed.
Cocorose have also been fantastic—I wouldn’t be here without their advice. I’m also lucky that my work has been supportive along the way, and I’ve always been careful to keep my 9 to 5 role separate from my ‘5 to 9’ one.
There are always a million reasons why you shouldn’t start something but that doesn’t mean you should listen to them. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at points—but it’s important to break any task down into stages. Don’t feel you can solve everything at once.
How do you manage to juggle being a mum of two with running Sargasso & Grey?
I have a very supportive and understanding husband and two great shoe factories which understand my business model! I’ve been disciplined about when I work on the business and when I spend time with my family. But equally I know there are thousands of women doing what I do—I meet a lot of female entrepreneurs in my job and they all face the same challenges.
What’s the best thing about running the business?
I love getting good feedback and hearing customers’ stories. People email a lot and tell me about their experiences with Sargasso & Grey shoes, which is really satisfying.
What’s next for Sargasso & Grey?
I’m returning to my wealth management role in a few months so when that happens I will need to be more disciplined with my time, but the beauty of having an e-commerce site is I don’t need to be focused on the business in a 9 to 5 capacity. The website and the shoe factory take care of the orders as they come in and I can work on emails, finances and social media in the evening and at weekends. As for the brand, I’m really excited about my summer range—I’m introducing kitten heels for the first time and I’ve started making bespoke wedding shoes with jewels to match brides’ dresses.
I’d love to get Sargasso & Grey shoes into some boutiques and eventually a department store—somewhere like Fenwicks would be nice!
For more, check out the Sargasso shoes website.
About the author:
Jessica is a new-ish mum living in and loving west London. She’s likely to be seen drinking coffee in Chiswick or on the Askew Road and most places in between. She lives with her husband and, as of March 2012, little girl ‘Scrip’ (not her real name, they’re not that cruel). Find her on newmumblings.com or @newmumblings or instagram: newmumblings