Profile: Polly McMaster, CEO, The Fold

Among business women there is a truth which is universally acknowledged – it is very difficult for women to buy appropriate business-wear.

Among business women there is a truth which is universally acknowledged – it is very difficult for women to buy appropriate business-wear.


Men have their uniforms. At the corporate-end there are suits in varied shades of grey, a choice of ties and sensible shoes. In the creative-space there are equally predictable combinations of brogues, chinos, designer jeans, and so on. Dressing by numbers.

Not only do women struggle with what to wear, but also where to buy their working clothes.  While entire shopping areas are dedicated to male business suits – London’s Savile Row for example – there are no such sources of easy inspiration for women. 

As with all problems, the company which comes up with the solution is likely to profit.  Enter The Fold ( Polly McMaster is CEO and co-founder of this London-based company launched in 2011.   “The Fold is a women’s wear brand focused on dressing the professional woman,” she explains. “We think of our customer as the high flying woman, so we’re not defining it by field or by particular role.  It’s more about understanding the needs that she has in her daily life and trying to create a wardrobe to dress her for those daily needs, but particularly focused around work.  We are building a brand in our own right based on our label and designs.”

As so often happens with businesses, the founder’s frustrations with the status quo were the starting point for the business.  “As somebody trying to climb the ladder in somewhere like private equity you find yourself in a meeting with the senior investment committee or the CEO of a really significant company and you have to dress on a par with the gentlemen who are wearing really well tailored Savile Row suits. The equivalent for women just isn’t there, something that’s actually going to put you at that same level as the men in the room,” says McMaster.

In the UK, where’s there’s such a tradition of men’s tailoring, competing with that and looking as smart as a man in that level of dress is really important because otherwise you’re not going to be seen as having the same levels of confidence and gravitas. So the idea for The Fold really came out of that frustration and because both my business partner and I were serious about work but also interested in fashion.”

Getting there

For McMaster the route to co-founding The Fold with Cheryl Mainland was far from direct.  She has a PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge University and an MBA from London Business School. Along the way she also worked in healthcare consulting and private equity in the healthcare industry.  Mainland has an MBA, is a Harvard graduate and worked for Procter & Gamble. The only gaps in their glittering CVs were start-ups, retailing and fashion.

So, what was the attraction of going it alone in an entirely different and notoriously cut-throat market? “Certainly it has been a winding road. With private equity you get to do everything.  You’re looking at every part of the company from both a macro and a micro level which was fantastic. But, for me, the really exciting bit is when we would have a session with the management team -- a really interesting entrepreneur who’d built up a business in a niche market in an interesting country where there was a lot of different dynamics,” says McMaster. 

“I think going to business school I realised that it was creative and strategic thinking which really excited me and not the finance angle, and at the end of the day private equity is a financial role.   That freed me up to think about what else I would like to do.  Fundamentally I’d always been very interested in fashion from when I was very young and I’d done dressmaking courses and all of my work experience was in couture houses.” 

Starting points

McMaster and Mainland met on their MBA programme at London Business School.  “Once we’d had the idea, we actually used the entrepreneurship courses which went in sequence to test each element of the business as we developed.  So the first one was really heavily focused around the research side.  We did a lot of customer research – focus groups, big surveys – and we found buying the right business clothes was definitely a problem that women had and it was something that frustrated them and they were also willing to spend money or solve that problem for themselves if the solution was available to them.”

While the consumer research pointed very positively in one direction, it didn’t solve the problem of the best business model to meet that need.  McMaster and Mainland then benefited from specialised retail mentoring from Mark Henderson, chairman of the luxury menswear retailer Gieves & Hawkes. “He has worked in luxury menswear for his whole career, so that was absolutely fantastic because he had such an understanding of the industry and already had views and opinions. For us it was perfect because it let us really test all of the different theories that we had on how we could do it,” says McMaster.

The Fold way

Two names loomed large at this stage in the fledgling business’s development.  One was Inditex, creator of Zara, which has championed what has become known as “fast fashion”, brilliant inventory management and the ability to respond quickly to changing fashions.  The second was Net-a-Porter which sells a variety of designer labels online. Zara and Net-a-Porter have raised the competitive bar, but they are not targeted at women in business nor are their offerings bespoke, tailored for the individual.

Says McMaster: “On the tailoring side, a few people strongly warned us against it because women’s tailoring is extremely complicated.  Also there is a very different psychology at work in buying a fully bespoke garment, one that women are not really used to and aren’t necessarily fully happy with when they get to the final product. At that stage it was very helpful to try and eliminate options and then narrow it down.” 

The conclusion?  The Fold’s business model is unusual in that products are “semi made to order”.  This appears to be a contradiction in terms, but McMaster explains it as a solution to the perennial worry of holding too much stock.  The Fold carries a minimum of stock and holds stock of fabric rather than having a large number of garments. This means it can turn around the garment in one to two weeks and can offer the customer customisation that they wouldn’t normally be able to have.  Indeed, The Fold can effectively make clothes which are two different sizes for customers who might not be the standard size throughout their bodies.

“We don’t know of any other brand that does that,” say McMaster. “One of the things everybody warned us of is that inventory can be the absolute killer in the retail space. If you make the wrong bets it can make the difference between surviving and not surviving.  So being able to offer that extra service has really been fantastic from the customer side and from our side.  It means that we’re not taking a huge risk on stock and the trade off, obviously, on the margin side is that while we’re investing more per garment, it’s costing us more on the manufacturing side. 

“We don’t have the economies of scale, but what it does mean is that we’re then not having to sell off vast quantities of stock on massive discounts at the end of the season.  So it’s been a very good way for us to scale in a manageable way from the cash flow side, and also be able to keep the customers excited and offer them something different that other people aren’t offering.”

Getting dressed

Launched in 2011 with a pilot collection, The Fold signed up investors in July 2012 – “Our business is targeting women in business, and the brand is supported by and being grown through a network of business women. Having female investors completes the circle.  It was a question of finding people who really bought into the concept and the fact that they were the customer means that they really understand what the opportunity is.”

The Fold is evolving. It was always intended to be a largely online brand. But, it found that because it is a new brand, some customers really wanted to try on a range of dresses, to have a more personal experience.  In response, The Fold now has a London showroom.

The hybrid clicks-with-some-bricks model is an increasingly popular option – examples include in the UK or the men’s clothes retailer Bonobos in the United States which started off online but now is pursuing a more multi-channel strategy. “We offer quite a lot of customisation and so by meeting customers we can do different adjustments and so on,” says The Fold’s McMaster. “And it’s interesting, I’ve been reading a lot about e-commerce businesses and more and more it seems that although the scale can come from online, having the ability to have a more personal service is a trend. So it does feel like there’s still always that need to have more personal service.” 

The Fold now has five full-time employees and its own designer. Co-founder Mainland, though still involved with The Fold, is now in New York where she is Chief Marketing Officer of Promgirl.  After tripling turnover in the months before Christmas 2012, The Fold aims to be profitable by 2014.

“People have said to us that our made to order thing will never work.  And actually it is working. It will be more challenging to scale, but there’s no reason not to persevere with it because it solves other problems and is quite a differentiator,” concludes McMaster. “Fast fashion is everywhere. You can buy a t-shirt for £4 from Primark but along with that is a huge amount of wastage, a lot of it ends up being thrown away. We’re much more proponents of buying one really fabulous dress, it’s going to cost you much more money but it’s going to last you for years. It’s not fast fashion, it’s a classic piece that’s really well made.  Because of our price point, we’re never going to be mass market and we don’t want to be because we’re trying to sell to a customer who’s discerning and who wants quality.”

On being an entrepreneur

“The pressure is absolutely constant.  It never leaves you. You have to be really careful with every decision that you make.  For example, every hire makes a different to the cost base, so that hire has to be absolutely necessary.

“At the moment my role is very much about doing on one side, and managing on the other side, because there’s so much to do. We have a small team and we’re so stretched, there are days when I’ll be vacuuming the office, sewing in a label and then going to meet a customer, and there are other days where I say, right, I’m writing a business plan or having a team meeting, and it’s everything on both sides.  It makes every day totally different and challenging.

“I definitely now think of myself as entrepreneurial because every single day you have to be thinking of every single decision you’re making and being creative all the time and thinking ahead.

“The biggest thing I’ve learnt is around passion and stamina and I suppose having a kind of innate confidence in the idea and really believing in it.  Because although everybody always says, oh, you know, it’s really going to be hard work, are you really prepared for that, you never really are because until you’ve done it, you don’t really know and you can’t prepare yourself. Until you’re in the trenches, it’s very, very different.  And it is such a roller coaster that what I’ve really learnt is how to gather your resources in the tough times to, I suppose, rally and figure out, okay, do I still believe in this idea and am I really, really passionate about it?  And if you are that’s what makes the difference.  Finding out about that inner reserve is like the last stretch of a marathon and has been a big learning experience.“

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