‘I really wanted a beautiful product and to also give something back’
Small business can
Owning her own business was never really an aspiration for Karen Yates. But a desire to find the perfect gift for her daughter led her to set up a company that designs, manufactures and sells designer quality handbags and purses.
The mum-of-three from Portstewart started Taylor Yates with her daughter Ellen and they sold their first handbags last November - with plans to one day open stores in fashion capitals London and New York.
It is an ambitious plan but one that 52-year-old Karen hopes to achieve within a decade.
"You have to think big, don't you," she said.
Karen, who has worked for a number of clothing retailers during her career, was searching for a special present for Ellen's 18th or 21st birthday when the idea for Taylor Yates was born.
"It was when Ellen was 17 and she was just learning to drive and getting her first job and was starting to use a handbag.
"I started to think about how getting a handbag is a bit of rite of passage for a young girl and that it would be nice to get her a really good handbag for her 18th or 21st, but when I started looking I just couldn't find anything that was right.
"There were lots of lower end products but if I wanted to buy her something she would treasure and keep, they were crazily expensive and weren't anything I liked.
"I wasn't overly impressed with the quality of the products either, you were paying a ridiculous amount of money for something that was cotton-lined."
Karen set about designing a number of understated pieces, with the idea that she would use high quality materials and that they would be manufactured to the highest standards.
To begin with, she considered China but, as a result of contacts she had made through her working life, she stumbled upon a tannery in the UK that was willing to work with her.
"I never really thought it would be possible to have the handbags produced in the UK," she said.
"However, I had been president of the Causeway Chamber of Commerce when Owen Paterson was Secretary of State and had met him at a couple of events.
"I remembered that his family had a leather business a long time ago so I made contact with him and he put me in touch with someone who put me in touch with Pittards in Somerset.
"I am very much about the ethos of wanting to produce a really beautiful product and I felt I was going to get that in the UK.
"I also want to be able to give something back, I am originally from Warrington, near Manchester, my mum used to work in Boots, my dad was a mechanic, and another purpose of the business was to give back.
"I would have loved to do it in Ireland or Northern Ireland, but there just wasn't the experience here."
Creating the right designs for the handbags has been imperative and Karen has worked closely with Ellen to achieve this.
"She was originally meant to go to university to study ancient history but she took a year out to help me with the business," said Karen. "She is now actually at Manchester studying fashion and business management as a direct result of her year out.
"We wanted to produce something understated that would appeal to the type of woman you would see out on the street and think to yourself how good she looked.
"We have a great balance when we work together because she makes the brand a bit younger and my view stops it from being too young."
They currently have five different designs produced in four different colours, and family - particularly the female members of Karen's family - features prominently throughout the Taylor Yates brand. The name is a combination of Karen's surname, and her maiden name and Ellen's second name - Taylor.
In keeping with her family and the theme of giving back, each piece has been named after a female relative of Karen who she credits with inspiring her to achieve her goals in life. Originally, the plan was to have more designs but Karen said financial reality has hindered this.
"You are always having to work to ensure you have enough money to keep the business going, to make it a success," she said.
Despite this, Taylor Yates was launched last November to an overwhelmingly positive response. "We actually had a waiting list of 50 at launch," said Karen.
She is keen to not only expand the number of handbag designs, but she also wants to move into men's accessories.
Ultimately, her goal is to set up clothing stores in London and New York. "That would be the dream, although I don't see why we wouldn't open up in Belfast," she said.
"I am just really keen that we make a success out of the business. Before Taylor Yates I started a t-shirt business that didn't work out and I like to think that this one has because I have the right product. It would be amazing if we could continue to grow the business and it could sustain Ellen in employment.
She hopes to make clothes for the business - "the perfect pair of jeans, the perfect black trouser, capsule pieces, the type of piece you have for years and don't know where to replace it".
"People say to me that I must be really proud of myself for what I have achieved, but to be honest, I don't really think about it," she said.
"I am constantly thinking about the next thing, the next thing that I want to do and achieve.
"Setting up your own business, you really do lose a lot of sleep when you are waiting for your product to arrive from the factory, the financing of it, keeping everything going.
"For me, it has really been about trusting my own instinct and if someone wants to start up their own business, they need to understand that it is going to take a lot more work than they probably realise, be more consuming than they ever think it will be.
"However, if it is something they really want to do, it will also be the best thing they will do."