Inspirational Women In Travel: Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman

Inspirational Women In Travel: Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman
1st June 2020 Alessandra Alonso

For our latest blog we sat down to chat with co-founders of Cucumber Clothing, Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman, to talk about their experiences in the industry. Take a look at what they had to say!

1. What is Cucumber Clothing, and what do you do?

Cucumber is clothing created by women, for women.

Cucumber Is seasonless, sustainable collections, minimalist design and exceptional quality in combination with the latest cutting-edge performance fabrics. Cucumber clothes means no creasing, overheating or feeling of confinement.  Fabric and design work together to allow the body to move, stretch, twist and breathe making the clothing perfect for everything from early morning Pilates, multitasking days, evening drinks and through the night. Cucumber clothes become the go-to pieces that busy women reach for time and again for their fresh fashion meets technology take on modern clothing.

Nancy and I launched the brand in September 2017, and as founders of a start-up we have done everything from picking and packing orders, designing websites and clothing, negotiating with manufacturers and mills, and personally answering every email that comes in. Oh, and we also went through the mill of Dragons’ Den! And survived!

2. What inspired you to start Cucumber Clothing?

We are friends who met at the school gates almost twenty years ago and who have both always loved to exercise. We realised that the fabric technology that made our workout gear so amazing to wear couldn’t be found in our day-to-day-day work/life wardrobes.  We felt there was a gap in the market for clothing and nightwear that worked with women, not against them. Our vision runs through the ethical and sustainable base we have laid for our company, the simplicity of design, the incredible advances in fabric technology and a true understanding of the needs of modern women

 3. How did you get to where you are in your career today?

 Nancy’s background is in advertising, (Saatchi and Saatchi), which has been extremely useful in gaining us press attention. She has been our star in the press and marketing department. She also spent some time in the charitable sector while her children were young.  I have always worked in fashion, starting out as a fashion illustrator then working at Nicole Farhi and helping to build the then newly launched Nicole Farhi Menswear brand.  While my children were young I launched my own succesful accessory brand. I would say I am pretty much our creative department!

 4. What attributes would help someone aspiring to create their own brand?

 I think it’s possible to distill it down to two simple things: a unique idea and a willingness to work very, very hard.

5. Describe a typical day at work in 100 words?

Perhaps it is a cliché, but as with most start-ups, a typical day means something different everyday.  Pre-lockdown, we spent at least three to four days a week holding meetings and working at The Allbright, our club in London, with the other days meeting with our factory, fulfilling orders at our warehouse and dealing with everything else from customer queries, to website updates and analysing data, either at home or on the hoof. We also took part in a multitude of talks and events. Now we have long zoom meetings, and are working with others planning webinars and podcasts. Nancy has been walking to our warehouse daily to fulfil orders (lucky we do everything in a five mile radius!) and since our factory is reopening, we have been paying them a few visits to check on our new collection.

 6. What is your most memorable moment creating Cucumber Clothing?

As a veteran of ecommerce from my previous business, I knew just how difficult it was for a new brand to drive traffic to its website. Two days after our launch, the Fashion Director of the Daily Telegraph, Lisa Armstrong wrote a lovely big piece on us. The orders came roaring in – it was extraordinary and we realised that we really did have an audience.

 7. You have a ‘travel’ line of clothes, are you inspired by travel, how does travel affect your design process?

Our first collection was a capsule sleep collection.  The strong feedback we received made us widen our offer to multifunctional day/night wear. Further feedback made us realise how perfectly suited our whole concept was to travel. Our fabrics do not crush, hardly need washing and can be dressed up or down. We really did not need to alter our designs, all our pieces are happy to be squashed into a suitcase.

 8. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered during the process of creating the brand?

 We are probably not unique as a start-up in finding that our most precious resource is time. There are only so many hours in the day, but somehow never enough to get things done.  So time management has been a huge challenge. We think we are getting better at it, we hope! I would also say that backing ourselves, having an innate belief that we are capable, is something we need to work on too. It is sometimes easier to believe in ‘experts’ than your own self.

9. How has COVID19 affected Cucumber Clothing, and what response have you used to combat the challenges?

Like every other business out there, we have had to chop and change to move forward. 2020 had been the year where we had a juicy amount of events planned, ranging from fashion shows to large talks and a brand new collection which should have dropped in late March. With all of these being cancelled we have focused hard on moving as many events as possible online, engaging with our Cucumber community to see how we can support them, and with our factory reopening, making sure that our new collection gets as much exposure as possible.

 10. What drives you to succeed?

I think as older entrepreneurs our drivers and environment are different from those of a twenty-something year old. We have both raised our families, have a steady relationship, have somewhere to live and food on the table.  If a meeting goes on longer than expected, we no longer need to worry about childcare. So our ambitions really come from within. At this stage in life, it is fantastic to be able to stretch our wings fully in the hope we will really take off.

 11. What would be your top three tips for women who are interested in working in your field?

Do your research. Before you do anything, talk to as many people as possible, make notes, scour the internet to make sure you have a very clear idea of what your brand is.

Find a Co-founder. Statistically, start-ups with two or more founders do better than those with solo founders. We know why! Running a start-up is nose-grindingly hard work that sucks up every second of your time. I think neither of us could imagine what it would have been like if we had done this alone.

Just do it. A bit like any life-changing decision, getting married, having a baby, buying a property, it never seems like quite the right time. But if you believe in your idea and have done as much prep as possible, you should just go for it. It is a rollercoaster ride, but a really fantastic one.

 12. What one change could help more women become leaders in their industry?

This is a difficult one since we have found, as two women launching a brand, that by and large the women and men we have met along our journey have been both generous and helpful in dispensing advice and contacts.  There is also an enormous amount of support out there for female based companies, in terms of networks, funding and other support. We have been fortunate in having had two wonderful mentors who have given us their time and thoughts. I think that the more women, as they rise up the ladder, put back in their own time to help pull others up, the more beneficial it will be, and being a female leader will become completely normalised.

 13. How do you relax when not working?

Nancy: I’m very lucky to live near the heath and I find a long dog walk with my cockerpoo really relaxing. Just being outside in the fresh air, whatever the weather, can help get everything in perspecitve. I also love to exercise and in non-Covid times, I play for an over 30s women’s basketball team one evening a week. Exhausting, but fun. I’m having to make myself go for a weekly run at the moment. Once I’m out there, it’s fine, but not the same as a team sport. Otherwise, I find a good book (currently Hadley Freeman’s biography of her family – House Of Glass) or a good box set (I’ve just finished the latest season of The Bureau on Netflix) help me wind down after a day of zooming! I do love to cook too, but now that I’m cooking non stop, not so much…

Eileen: My three roads to sanity lie in reading (at the moment, Dominion by Tom Holland), making things (I love sewing, crochet, drawing, anything with my hands – I am now in the middle of making a lockdown sweater) and exercise (yoga, weights and walking) – if I can squeeze a bit of each in everyday I feel my brain relaxing!