Posted: Mon 12th Oct 2020
Seema Malhotra had a dream, and nothing was going to stop her realising it. Not even her parents.
Ahead of her keynote session at the Festival of Female Entrepreneurs on 23 October, we caught up with Seema - founder of Forever Unique and star of The Real Housewives of Cheshire - to talk entrepreneurship, pandemic-induced pivoting, and how to cope with having almost a quarter of a million Instagram followers.
Seema, tell me about your journey to becoming an entrepreneur…
Being a British Asian woman, I had quite strict parents growing up. Fashion was my passion from an early age, and I ended up getting a scholarship for Central Saint Martins. But my parents said I wasn't going to take it any further, because I was going to get married. And that's what happened. I had an arranged marriage.
But it was actually my partner who made me believe that if you have a passion, you have to follow it. It was empowering, because by then I had effectively been told that I couldn't follow my dream. I couldn't be passionate.
I consider myself really lucky that I met Sandeep. We realised that, with his business brain and determination, and my creative eye for fashion, we could create a successful brand.
Did launching Forever Unique mean you had to defy your parents?
I wanted to prove them wrong. It's funny - you think working in fashion would be glamorous. But at 23 I was driving to London from Manchester, with my husband, in a battered old white van.
We'd go to factories around London and sell whatever we'd bought at a tiny unit we had in Stevenson Square in Manchester. Within six months we had another unit, because we were so busy selling to market traders.
I soon realised there was a gap in the market, something missing on the High Street. There wasn't that sense of femininity, that glamour, that boldness that typified the 90s supermodel era. Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell - they're my idols.
It was 2008 when I thought that, I've studied fashion, so I'm going to create my own line of dresses that really capture fearless women - still very feminine, but bold, stand-out, glamorous. I wanted to create dresses for women that, when they walk into a room, heads turn.
Did you feel strongly about empowering women?
Yes. I think it goes back to my mum. She's such a powerful woman, but she was never allowed to show it. She was educated but suppressed in the sense of being a stay-at-home mum. She could never live her dream.
This is why I'm on The Real Housewives of Cheshire. I want to show other British Asian women out there that you can live your dream. You don't have to sit at home and have lots of kids. Of course you can do that, but you have choices.
How have things changed for you and Forever Unique since 2008?
Now we have 10 offices worldwide, from the Middle East to Paris to Milan to Greece. The brand's gone global. But my dresses are for occasions. Weddings. We do amazing at the races. Now, everything's at a standstill. It's been the toughest time for my business.
But it's about thinking smart and not panicking. We've had to evolve. We've always produced glamorous gowns; now we're producing glamorous loungewear.
We've been lucky with social media. During lockdown I took over the Forever Unique social. I made my house into a little photography studio, and published daily posts revealing how we've evolved.
It's been challenging but, you know what, I think it needed to be done. It's easy to become complacent with your business.
Talking of challenges, what were the kinds of thing you had to overcome in the early days?
Manchester was never seen as a fashion hub. We'd created a product that wasn't high street, wasn't designer. It was what I call affordable luxury. And a lot of buyers just didn't take me seriously.
It was only by chance that we got into a really good store in west London. The products sold well, and I'm sure other buyers noticed. But lots of them initially said: 'Sorry, we don't buy products from the UK; we go with French or Italian brands.'
The other thing that we managed to do, quite cleverly, was get one of my garments on Kate Middleton. It was before she got married, and she bought it from that one store in Chelsea. It was from that that Forever Unique hit the press, and then social media. It blew up.
I think Manchester is seen as being home to lots of knitwear factories and market traders. And that's really what I was - call me a glorified market trader. I came in just buying and selling products.
But creating that first dress was a real moment. It was a little prom dress. I only produced 50 pieces, and I think it retailed for £275. Within we week we'd sold every single piece. People were asking for more. At that point I felt fearless, so I thought, you know what, I'm going to produce what I feel I want to see women in.
You've touched on social media. How do you cope with having 279k Instagram followers?
I just try and be me. Listen, I'm nearly 50 years of age. I'm not one of these younger influencers. I'm not even sure what Reels are. Hopefully, people just buy into who I am. I'm not trying to be anybody else.
Instagram is such a powerful platform, and we recognise that. I hope I can be inspirational - whether that's me, my family, my life, my work life, my friends, or the empowering people I've met on my journey.
What's your one top tip for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Whatever idea you have, you've just got to go for it. Never give up. Do not be scared of failure. So what if it doesn't work? You gave it a go. You pick yourself up and you try again.
I can create 10 amazing pieces and maybe only two of them will sell, but it doesn't matter. You've just got to keep going. Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with the most positive people. Don't let anyone tell you that it's not going to work."