Alyson Walsh meets the women behind Sahara
The Sahara Story
Borne out of founder Suzy Coppersmith-Heaven’s creative spirit and wanderlust, Sahara launched its first shop in London over 40 years ago. Now a family-run business employing over 150, including Suzy’s daughter Tiffany and husband Vic, the Sahara spirit of collaboration and discovery continues. Journalist Alyson Walsh talks to the mother-daughter team about style, sustainability and what it’s like working together.
About Alyson Walsh
Alyson Walsh is a freelance fashion journalist, author and founder of the popular blog That’s Not My Age. A former fashion editor with many years’ experience –including seven years at Good Housekeeping magazine – she has been at the forefront of an online movement; speaking out about ageism and encouraging change within the fashion industry. Alyson’s first book, Style Forever, was published in 2015. Her second book, Know Your Style is out now (both published by Hardie Grant).
Alyson: I love that you say ‘clothes add to the story of our lives’, please tell me about the story of your lives…
Suzy: After leaving the Royal College of Art, in the late 1960s, I worked as a consultant for different companies, ranging from book illustration to textile interiors. I was really immersed in design (I studied ceramics, pottery and textiles) and this background helped to establish me within the fashion industry. But as I lost interest in consulting I went in search of stimulation to get new ideas. So I travelled to South East Asia to source materials and see the thriving culture. I visited Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra and Java, which in those days were undiscovered, they were amazing and magical. I discovered the multitude of crafts practiced in Bali firsthand, and immediately felt at home and decided to settle there. I worked with a community of painters and craftsman and put on exhibitions back on the King’s Road to showcase their incredible work. We put the money from the work we sold back into the local economy and community. I then started working with a successful Italian clothing designer… and that’s how it all began.
Alyson: So when did Sahara begin?
Suzy: It was too far to keep travelling to Asia. I had my family and a successful fashion business. So, I fled, and discovered Morocco. Marrakech had the wonderful souks, and I experimented with their beautiful local materials. That’s when Sahara was born. I was living in London and travelling back and forth almost monthly. I am passionate about bringing the best of each country to my collections, working in sustainable ways with small, family run factories. And now we’re proud to be working with many English factories. For our Autumn/Winter 2019 range, 60-70% of the clothes will be made here in the UK.
Alyson: That’s fantastic!
Tiffany: We don’t work with fast production and low wage factories. We never have. We love working with small scale factories, so we all benefit together.
Alyson: How is it working as a mother-daughter team?
Suzy: Good! Tiffany has been on board since 2003; she’s given us a new life, and visual ideas. As we have travelled together since she was a baby, we’ve got similar taste. Tiffany brings a new perspective to the brand, which really works.
Tiffany: I just keep quiet - have you noticed! The truth is that we get on really well as a family, my dad got involved around the same time as me, we’re a proper familyrun business. We’re careful about how we share responsibility and we have our own boundaries. If any family is going to successfully work together, I think this is key. When I joined the company it was 8-10 people, and that was more challenging in a way; now there’s a bigger workforce, there are buffers between us! We tend to agree on the way forward, collection ideas, styling, design, print and colour, and because we’re a family, we’re all essentially on the same page.
Alyson: Are there things you’ve chosen to ignore, in the mother-daughter working relationship?
Tiffany: Diplomacy is a big thing. We need each other’s support to make decisions. We are a team. And you have to share that responsibility. And remember that we have different tastes and so do our customers. Our relationship has evolved through collaborative work. It’s quite a cooperative exercise, there are lots of voices, opinions and ideas flowing through all the departments. It’s a different way of working, and it’s satisfying (sometimes frustrating!) but generally more satisfying.
Alyson: What have you learned?
Tiffany: On a practical level, we’ve learned how to grown a business organically and not sell out. To stay true to the ethos of the brand which has never been to make lots of money. Our ethos has always been to make interesting clothes inspired by other cultures’ crafts and costume. We produce clothes because we love the creative process. Money isn’t the driving force of the business. What we’ve learned is to keep working without any outside investment. It’s been quite a hard lesson at times, but ultimately it’s rewarding.
Alyson: Did you go to art college, Tiffany?
Tiffany: I did Art A-level, and then I went onto an art foundation course at Cheltenham. I wanted to be in film actually, to be an art director. So I studied for my photography degree at Bournemouth. It was amazingly creative. When I left college, I wanted to travel and go back to the places I grew up in. So I went to work with mum for the summer holidays and then took off and travelled for the rest of the year. I did this for a few years, before settling down.
Alyson: Are you responsible for the look-books and all the imagery?
Tiffany: I came into the business originally to help set up Sahara’s computer system. I remember being told that it was unlikely we would ever use email, as we had a perfectly good fax machine. Oh, how times change! I would help out at the office each summer holiday and I launched Sahara’s first website in 2001, it didn’t transact because e-commerce didn’t exist back then. I also started producing all the photoshoots and imagery, I’d look after the photography and the printing the catalogues.
Alyson: Who makes the final decision?
Tiffany: Eventually someone has to call the shots - and it’s usually mum!
Suzy: We collaborate and make decisions between us. But I suppose I do have the last say. Someone needs to call it, at the end of the day. But I do love the collaboration between us all.
Tiffany: I’m sure we are much more collaborative in our approach than other companies.
Alyson: Suzy, you’ve been in the industry for a long time - what still excites you?
Suzy: The discovery of new ideas and new fabrics. Sticking to what we believe in, that still excites me. Finding those small companies producing amazing things - that’s the challenge. Travelling and meeting new people, keeping the Sahara ethos alive is our purpose.
Alyson: What are you aiming for when you create a collection?
Tiffany: We try to communicate as much as we can through the clothes. The Sahara customer is unique, and very loyal. She wants to feel vibrant in our clothes but she cares about sustainability and the environment. We’re interested in clothes that last a lifetime. People email us saying they’re still wearing something they bought 30 years ago, can they buy another one! It’s also about the spirit of the woman, when we think of our customer we’re not talking about their age, we’re talking about a mindset.
Suzy: Where possible we want to keep ancient craft going, such as woodblock printing and garment dyeing. That’s quite a challenge.
Alyson: Final question: Do you have a Sahara motto?
Suzy: We have a few, and they are forever changing! But the first thing we thought of when we changed our name to Sahara when working out of Morocco is ‘we are all but grains of sand, and each one individual and unique.’ It relates to our customer and it means a lot to us.
Tiffany: It describes what we are and acts a reminder to be true to ourselves. It reflects our free-spirited attitude, which we hope will live on through our collections season upon season.