February 28, 2018

NATALIE KINGHAM | TOP GIRL

Natalie Kingham | Buying director of Matches Fashion.
natalie-kingham

Natalie Kingham is the Buying Director of Matches Fashion and one of the most influential women in the fashion industry. She is responsible for Matches’ having the most impeccable selection from the best brands, some of which we have come to know, only through Matches. Remember when Matches stocked Vetements before everyone else?

Not only is she a sartorial force to be reckoned with, she is also the kindest woman. In 2015, just after I had left my Accounting job and was finding it extremely difficult to land a job in Fashion, I spotted Natalie front row at the Jonathan Saunders London Fashion Week show and ran up to her, begging for an interview. You never forget the people that help you out at your lowest points in life and thus, I will never forget that Natalie actually got me an interview for a Buying Assistant role at Matches Fashion. As fate would have it, I got another job on the same day as the interview. But, that is a gesture that I will hold in my heart forever and if I admired her before this interview, my heart is now bursting at it’s seams.

I know you got into fashion working at Joseph. You were given a lot of responsibility very early on. What set you apart from the beginning?

I don’t think I was given a lot of responsibility, I think what happened was: Joseph was a very entrepreneurial retailer and he was very passionate about product. He loved furniture, art, clothes and food. He even opened a restaurant opposite the store. These are all very similar passions to mine and similar passions to my co-founders; Tom and Ruth as well.

So, I think he recognised that he had someone young working near him that could probably bring him a younger flavour. He asked me to go and find me some interesting things in London and that is what I did. I found McQueen and brands like that who were just emerging – it was a bit of a similar thing I guess to more recently, finding Vetements. People like this only come around once every 10 years and we were just lucky enough to be watching them just at the right moment.

So on the back of successes like that, we decided that I would join him in going to Paris and Milan. It was at that point that I was going to embark on starting a family so I stopped working at that point because I was pretty young and you don’t earn a great deal of money starting out in fashion. I was about to have a child and I thought I’d be better off just stepping back and coming back into the industry later.

Was that scary for you?

Yes, but in monetary terms, it didn’t matter. I think that when you’re starting out, you really have got to earn your stripes and so you do it all for the love of it, rather than the money.

In an industry that can be so hostile, what keeps you so warm and ready to support young people coming up? Because, when I came up to you and asked for an interview at Matches, with your schedule, making the time to sort it out is such a huge sacrifice. And again, with this Top Girl interview.

I don’t know why everyone thinks the industry is so hostile, I think it’s a bit of a misconception. I think that every business and every industry has challenges. Every industry can be warm and every industry can be hostile. I don’t think it’s necessarily particularly hostile in fashion at all. I think it’s a real misconception.
I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I’ve done many different things. I’ve been important, and I’ve been a nobody. Some of my best friends today are people that I met along on that journey, when I was a nobody and when I was somebody. It’s the same with the designers that we work with. I think that some people are insecure and so, not very nice.
They could be working anywhere. Personally, there are many nice people in this business and one of the cultures that Tom and Ruth really developed at Matches is to be courteous and kind and to be nurturing. Everybody has a voice, to embrace and include. It’s something that they have felt strongly for here and is why so many people have stayed here for so long. It is important, you get the best out of people that way.

A lot of people complain about millennials being entitled and feel that we want to become an overnight success, rather than work hard. You’ve been in this industry for years and you started from the bottom and really put the work in. How do you feel about the young people that you come across these days?

I choose very carefully the young people I have around me. None of them are entitled and they work incredibly hard. I think you have to set a good example because you can’t expect people to work hard and put the extra work in if you’re not doing it yourself, so that’s the first thing.
I think there are people in your generation who are more entitled because your parents were luckier in a way that my parents were not. We grew up in a time where it was more challenging, but I think that’s been the case for generations and generations. The world gets to be a wealthier place and we give our kids the things they didn’t have and with each and every generation, it will get more like that. People will say they are entitled but when I was young, the grannies used to say we were no good because they went through the war. Of course, we have it better than they did, and I think that’s the natural way unless God forbid, we have a world war. I don’t think they’re entitled – it’s down to your upbringing.

You’ve been through so many changes from Joseph to having a daughter to your own clothing line, what has remained constant for you during all of that, those are quite big changes which I have seen and thought ‘oh my gosh’ but what have you learnt?

With my own clothing line, I set that up so I could do things around my daughter. I wanted to be close to her but I also wanted to work. I learned at that time about myself that I was a very driven, ambitious person but didn’t necessarily want to succeed in a way that meant I would have loads of money in the bank or to be in this job that I am now – I never imagined that that could actually happen in my wildest dreams. I wanted to succeed in being happy. I wanted to work and be happy and be at home and to enjoy what I was doing every day.

What I learned from that is that if you have that fundamentally, monetary success does follow. I learned that I had a lot more strength than I realised. I don’t know how I did that business on my own and looked after my daughter or how it was successful- because it was. I don’t know why I stopped it. In a way; I stopped it for personal reasons more than success reasons. By the time I came back to this job, I had learned so many life lessons by being a mother, running a business, running a home, being married, and by growing up.

I don’t think my passion for fashion has ever changed. I have changed a lot as a person and learned a lot about myself and picked up life skills. These skills ensure that you can eventually do the job that you’ve always wanted, hoped to do. So when I meet young people and speak to them, I never want to dampen their passion or enthusiasm for what they want to do. But unfortunately, you just have to get a bit older because you have to learn life lessons before you actually get the thing you really want. But the good news is that you are then really well equipped to do it because there is so much rubbish that comes with it as well that you have to deal with on a day-to-day level.

Success comes once you’ve worked very hard and you’ve got to learn all of that – you just can’t skip it. You can certainly mentor and talk to people and help them but they need to learn it themselves. It’s how I feel being a mum. You watch your children make mistakes, which they’ve got to make. I can’t tell you, I just have to sit here and pray that you’re going to be ok.

What advise do you have for young girls like me? I just set up my own clothing brand. Because I am a blogger and had an audience, I thought that I was going to launch this thing and it was going to sell out and I was going to be rich almost immediately. That is not what happened!

That is so good that you are so honest; it’s hard but those are the lessons. Good on you for doing and for trying. You’ve got to be fearless and give everything a go and sometimes it’s like ‘wow, it really worked’ and other times it’s like ‘I’ve really messed that one up’. Being fearless is something I feel so passionate about. I think I’ve mentioned it before but when you don’t come from a wealthy background, you have nothing to lose so it makes you fearless. The one thing that I maybe feel sorry about in your generation is the pressure. There’s uni and you’ve got to be successful. That’s what I see a lot in your generation. Nobody is just relaxed, sitting at home painting, seeing what happens, going to a nightclub, getting up late – they’re creating clothing lines and oh my gosh! Whatever happened to doing nothing for a week and lying in bed? I had nothing to lose and didn’t have that pressure.

When I set up my clothing line, what I did was I made a sample when it was all ready to go but I never put anything into production until I sold it as a wholesale model. Stores were placing orders and I produced my stock based on that. You’ll learn loads; I learnt loads when I did my own. I was just giving it a go and you can only admire people who do that; I think it’s great.

Thank you. What are the skills and qualities you look for when recruiting entry-level buyers. Is a fashion degree essential?

No. Neither is maths. It’s about the right fit, passion, being bright, a good work ethic. I certainly know when I meet the right candidates, but I am very happy to meet people who haven’t got a fashion degree. I didn’t get to go to fashion school because I didn’t have the qualifications to get in. I really, really wanted to go to fashion school, but you needed to be able to draw and I couldn’t do that so I couldn’t even get in to learn pattern cutting.

To get to where I am today would have been so much easier and a lot quicker had I gone to fashion school but those times you could only learn fashion design. Now you can do a lot more and it is a lot easier. I’ve spoken to girls and I’m like ‘You could be really good at Buying, and they are like ‘well, I’ve never thought about buying’ and I tell them that they have a good eye for product and they are personable. One of the things that people forget about Buying is that, yes there are some elements of maths that you need to know because you are buying and selling but it can be quite basic maths. You don’t have to understand rocket science to understand how to buy and sell something.

One of the important things is the relationship you have with brands and designers. It’s so important but never, ever gets talked about. If you can’t hold a conversation, build good relationships, be somebody they want to hang around with, want to pick up the phone to – you can’t succeed in Buying. Everybody says, ‘you’ve got to be this, you’ve got to be that’, and I’m like, ‘what about being just nice with people?’ You’ve got to deal with 400 brands, all the sales people, the PR; that is quite a skill. As soon as I meet someone, I’m like, what is their energy like? Do they want to work hard? Do people like them? Are they bright? Are they engaged? These are the most important things to me.

How do you feel about ‘See Now, Buy Now’? I’m sure it has a lot of impact behind the scenes that we don’t see. I know that just after the SS18 Burberry show, the collection was on MatchesFashion.com and that meant something completely different to you than it does to us. Is it something you are excited about?

‘See now, buy now’ has always been quite a big thing for online business because of your ‘Just In’ page that people go to everyday when they are at the bus stop, when they’re on the tube, jumping in the back of a car somewhere. I do it, I go to the ‘what’s new’ page, that page is so powerful.

You’ve got to be thinking about what the consumer is wanting all the time. You would think that today, the 2nd November would be a ridiculous day to drop in a load of summery sandals. However in certain parts of the world like Australia, it is summer. But I stopped thinking in seasons and started thinking about the product I wanted to drop in on the site every month. I started looking at it a lot more like that. You have to get the right product coming in at the right time and it’s not just the obvious stuff like Christmas or summer. We always need summer products because you are always going to want to go on holiday, chasing the sun. It’s hot somewhere, someone always needs evening-wear.

It’s very important to an online business and I think that a lot of brands have realised that you don’t need cashmere to be dropping in August. In August, it’s not really cold anywhere in the world. Just because you call that Autumn/Winter deliver doesn’t mean that anyone will wear your cashmere sweaters so it might not be the best time to drop them. They all started thinking a lot more like that, so it really became an important thing for everybody.

It’s very smart. There is a hunger for when you see a fashion show, to want that product straight away. They are still the only ones who do it like that and it works pretty well but it’s very difficult. To get all the stock in at the right time? It is not as easy as it seems.

Buying sounds like so much fun. For people who want to get into buying, but just can’t seem to land an opportunity – which was me – what route would you advise them to take?

Why did you not land the opportunity? I’m always looking for people and I never get many. I do get some good people through door – but not as many as I would like.

I don’t think a fashion degree is necessary, but I think if you really want to get your foot in the door without a fashion degree, you just need to work a little harder. Find out how you can catch somebody’s attention. You don’t need a degree but it helps to come through the process chain of landing in front of the right person. But if you really want it, then just do something a little extra special to get yourself noticed. There is no formula, you’ve just got to really want it and work to set yourself apart.

As a director, what does leadership mean to you?

The challenge with a big team is making sure you get to speak to everyone and hear everybody and watch everybody. I try my best to do that, really hard. To understand what they want to do; where their strengths are; what they’re good at; what they’re not so good at; where they can learn; how they can grow, and I hope they would say that I do that.

I try to be nurturing and kind of maternal rather than scary. They’d probably say I’m scary as well but if you do something wrong all the time, I haven’t got a lot of patience for it. I am motherly like that- ‘I’ve told you three times, get it right!’ But I always aim to be firm and fair. I don’t think I’ve ever had a horrible boss or horrible mentor, so I haven’t learned any bad habits. I do think you learn from other people.

I’ve read that you don’t shop on the high street anymore and you only wear Matches products as you are a representative of the brand; I think that’s great. Practically, have you found that these clothes last longer and are more sustainable than what you used to buy on the high street; do you have a better wearing experience?

We are dealing with luxury products and luxury products can be quite delicate. They shouldn’t necessarily be worn every day; it’s silk, it’s a lot more delicate. Cashmere is more delicate than wool, silk is more delicate than cotton. They are not the most hard wearing, you have to really look after them, that’s what I’ve found.

I do look after stuff: everything gets stuffed, everything gets re-heeled, re-soled, everything hangs in a dust bag, everything gets folded nicely – you have to look after your things, they cost you a lot of money. I love the high street, but I stopped because I’m a representative of Matches and I wanted us to be buying the whole wardrobe, even what you wear on the weekend, what she wears to the gym, to the beach. That was the idea. But the more luxurious, the more expensive to maintain- the more delicate and fragile it is.

I never thought of it like that. Your drying cleaning bill must so high!

They do like me in there!

If you could speak to your 21 year-old self, what would you say to her?

Be confident, trust in yourself. I doubted myself a lot. I wish somebody had told me this.

You have a job that a lot of people really covet, at what point will you feel like you’ve made it? Do you already feel that way?

Probably now. What am I now – 46? It’s taken a long time. I didn’t think it could get any better than this – I love what I do and I’m happy, it’s really good and it’s successful. Yeah, probably now.

What do you do when you’re not working? What’s your favourite country?

I’m always working, I don’t think I ever have time anymore. But if I am not working, I like art galleries, films, hanging out with friends, the usual stuff but I think I’m always working.

I do love going to Paris, it’s a great city. It’s so beautiful, I never get tired of going there.

One thought on “NATALIE KINGHAM | TOP GIRL”

  1. Mo says:

    What a phenomenal woman! Natalie has shared so much wisdom that’s relevent to those both inside and outside of the fashion industry.Thank you so much Fisayo for sharing so honestly about your own path. This interview represents what happens when 2 incredible women meet. Keep up the great work.

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