Jess Schuhle-Lewis is the brains behind Orwell & Austen, a playful and fashion forward knitwear brand which has been featured in Grazia, The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail to name a few.
The brand was set up in 2012 and has fast become a well-supported brand with a growing community and following on social media.
Jess has faced many challenges while growing her business, we caught up with her find out how she translated her vision and passion into a successful business…
What inspired you to set up Orwell & Austen?
I started the brand when I was still working as a corporate lawyer. I HATED my job, and was uninspired working in the city with long hours, zero creativity, and only a (admittedly generous) pay cheque to look forward to. I wanted to do something creative, but didn’t have any background in design or fashion, so couldn’t see any way to move from law via a more traditional route. I set up, and ran the brand whilst still doing legal work (though moved to temporary contracts as opposed to my old 9am - 9, 10, 11pm job) for many years. Only recently (post second child) focusing full time on the brand. In the early days I figured if all else failed, and the brand didn’t work, at least I would gain the skills I needed to move into the industry I wanted to be in. I was inspired by a love of playful, colourful design. At the time I started, cashmere choices were pretty plain and boring, and fun sweaters were usually made from cheap materials, and mass produced. I wanted great quality and great design, so decided to try and make it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Never quit on a bad day. Starting a business is hard. You will get knocked back, things will go wrong, and sometimes it will feel like you will never get a break. But, keep plugging away at it, adapt, don’t compare yourself to others, and celebrate the small victories, and you will be surprised by what you can do, and how far you have come.
What's the toughest challenge that you've faced since setting up in business?
My toughest challenge was knowing nothing about anything when I started! I’m constantly still learning, and I made a million mistakes in the beginning. My legal background has helped with the business side of things, but on everything else (especially the manufacturing side) I’ve had to learn by trial and error. I’ve worked with the same small factory from the beginning, and we still encounter problems, but I’ve worked hard to build my vision with them. They are based in Nepal - which is a great producer of cashmere - and allowed me to start small production wise, which was a huge help. A lot of designers struggle with finding a factory who will allow small runs in the beginning, and it can kill a business. I managed to get my factory to put their faith in the brand, which has paid off for us both.
What’s your biggest career achievement to date?
My biggest career achievement would be growing the brand to a point where I can focus on it full time (without having to do another day job), and finally feeling comfortable calling myself a designer! Because I had zero design training, I always felt a bit of a fraud calling myself a designer. I always felt like I was playing at being a designer, but wasn’t a proper one. I’m finally getting over that.
What advice would you have given to yourself 10 years ago?
I stayed in a job, and industry that I didn’t like for 5 years more than I should have. I would tell my 10 years ago self to quit law sooner, and take a chance doing something that was more personally fulfilling. I would also tell her to start an Instagram account when it first came out. I was a bit late to the Instagram game, but have found it to be an amazing tool to grow the business and meet some incredible, talented, and supportive female entrepreneurs.
Do you think there is a compromise with the perception of ‘being comfortable’ in ladies fashion?
I think more and more brands are realising that you can have great design, wonderful style and produce something that is comfortable for your customer. For me great style and comfort go hand in hand. I want the fashion pieces that I choose, to reflect that.
A&G founder Claire has picked her favourite 3 pieces from the current Orwell & Austen collection... and it wasn't an easy task!