Suzanne Neville Ltd: Suzanne Neville
The bridal and evening-wear designer on how her eponymous label became a leading brand
“People are frightened of new businesses and they’re frightened of new designers. They tend to go with the names.”
In the world of bridal design, Suzanne Neville is a big name. Her hand-worked, British-made wedding dresses have graced the cover of Hello! magazine, and her evening-wear can be seen on prime time television shows like Strictly Come Dancing and the X-Factor. But it wasn’t always so.
Nineteen years ago, when she graduated from the London College of Fashion, Suzanne went to work on a high street design team. Soon finding she had insufficient room to be creative, she decided the best thing was to set up on her own. Suzanne – who had already made a couple of wedding gowns for friends – was soon mocking up new designs in her parents’ garage.
In that first year, when she made up and exhibited her first collection, she won the Condé Nast New Designer of the Year and Traditional Classic awards. In just a few short months, she was selling her dresses in the Tatters-run bridal room in Harrods.
“I thought to myself one day, I’ve got my collection here… I wonder what Harrods’ feedback would be,” Suzanne explains. “So I phoned up the buyer and asked if she would like to see my dresses. I put them all in a black cab and drove them all the way there. She saw them and took them on instantly. So Harrods was actually my very first retailer!”
To fund her first collection and start-up retail operation, Suzanne contacted her local enterprise agency, Harrow in Business. They helped her apply for and win a Prince’s Trust award; she also secured a grant, and her grandmother lent her another £3,000. She won the Shell LiveWIRE Business Award, too. “There was no big backing of thousands,” Suzanne says, “Basically, I set up my business with £6,000 in hand. It was just organic growth over the years: each year it’s gone up and up and up.”
Between that first, small garage space; a small stand at an exhibition; and retail contracts, Suzanne gradually earned enough to establish a basement studio at Harrow-on-the-Hill. It grew from there, and by the second year she needed to take on an assistant. As orders increased and business grew over the years, machinists and pattern-cutters were added to the studio, and she opened a shop: “I learned as I went along,” she says. “I didn’t know how to run a shop or do anything like that. But because it was wedding dresses and it was couture, it wasn’t like a normal retail establishment.”
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In the early years, Suzanne says she had to work very hard to get her name known. “I invested money in advertising, placing ads in lot of the bridal magazines,” she explains. “It was expensive, spending money for models and photo-shoots. But you’ve got to do it; the photographs are important.” And it paid off: the more she advertised, the more shows she did, and the business grew very quickly. Perhaps even too fast, as Suzanne explains: “I think in the early stages it grew so fast that business-wise it was hard to keep up.” To help with the increasingly complex business side of things, Suzanne joined forces with business partner, Tony Hampton, after running into a ‘sticky patch’ some ten years ago – and she’s never looked back.
Of all the dress designers stocked in the bridal shop owned by Jane Hampton – Tony’s wife – Suzanne had been the primary one. Now the unit, based in Guildford, is a Suzanne Neville shop. “It’s an equal partnership; Tony basically put the two of us together,” Suzanne explains. “Jane runs the wholesale side of the business, Tony does the finance – and I’m basically left to be creative.”
Since Tony came on board, the Suzanne Neville brand has expanded, with outlets opening in Knightsbridge and Cheshire, and evening-wear, perfume and shoes lines joining the bridal wear offering. “The perfume and shoes probably came about just when we opened the Knightsbridge shop, which would have been around six years ago,” Suzanne says. “It’s all about branding and getting our name out there.”
As for the future, Suzanne launched her new collection at the Tower of London this week, and says she plans to focus more on her evening-wear line. The brand might even make the move to high fashion: “I would love to do London Fashion Week and do an evening-wear, ready-to-wear collection,” Suzanne says. “It would be fantastic. I wouldn’t mind looking into that over the next couple of years.”