Posted: Thu 11th Nov 2021
Throughout September and October, Enterprise Nation invited people to vote for their favourite female founder of 2021. After whittling down the shortlist, we asked the three finalists to pitch to a live panel at this year’s Festival of Female Entrepreneurs.
Emerging victorious on the day was Victoria Jenkins, founder of adaptive clothing brand Unhidden. With her company having been crowned Female Start-Up of the Year 2021, Victoria tells us the story of the business and the challenges she’s faced along the way.
Victoria, congratulations on winning Female Start-Up of the Year. How was your experience of the event?
The festival itself was absolutely amazing. I did the Brush and Bubbles class and spoke to some of the other people who were there. It was really so good, and it helped make me less nervous for the live pitch in the afternoon.
How nerve-wracking was that? Is pitching something you’ve done before?
I do public speaking, I’ve spoken on panels. So I wasn’t so worried about that. It’s more that the business is so much a part of who I am. Talking about advocacy, for example, versus talking about my own business is just that bit different. So I was nervous about it in that respect.
In terms of the pitch, I really didn’t expect to win. I thought, ‘Just get through it. Turn up and do the pitch and hope that it’s enough.’ But I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I might actually win it. So when it happened, I was stunned.
What prompted you to apply in the first place?
I receive the Enterprise Nation emails and I try and join as many of your events as I can. It’s thanks to you that I first did the pop-up shop with Sook in May. And I always think, ‘If Enterprise Nation puts it forward, it’s something worth doing.’
In this instance, I’d submitted my application anyway, but then five of my friends all emailed me the link and said, ‘If you don't apply for this, you’re an idiot.’
Before you set up Unhidden, you studied fashion design and then worked in the industry as a garment technologist. Was that line of work always something you wanted to do?
No, I fell into it. I hadn’t heard of garment technology at university, but it’s actually one of the bigger jobs in the fashion industry. It’s all about how garments are made. We’re the link between the clothing company and the factories.
We decide what finishes are used, what fabrics, whether they work. We test everything, make sure everything measures correctly, fits properly. The technical side of things.
So for years that’s what I was doing. But once I got sick, I no longer had a career path in mind. It was just about surviving the job. Accepting that I wasn’t going to get better, and so managing my illness.
In many ways, getting sick was actually a gift because it’s given me this. An awful lot more purpose and direction that I don’t think I would’ve had otherwise.
Did you ever envisage yourself running a successful business and being an advocate for so many people?
It’s only something I’ve really dared hope for, or strive for, in the last two years.
I always wanted to make clothes that make people feel good. And I was always very aware that that wasn't the case when you mass-produce. I’ve never wanted to make any old clothing range, but I don’t think I knew specifically what that meant.
But how things have changed in the last 18 months or so, it’s taken me by surprise. It’s just a case of having confidence. Being a woman in the fashion industry – and then being a sick woman in the fashion industry – it’s always been safer to keep your head down and plod on.
So putting my myself out there has been a bit scary, but hugely rewarding in so many ways that I didn’t expect.
You started the business back in 2017. At that time, the adaptive clothing landscape seemed quite barren. What’s it looking like today?
There are people like me who’ve seen the gap and want to help. Not all from a fashion background. Not all disabled. But there aren’t nearly enough of us. If you look at where plus-sized fashion is now, it feels like we’re about 10 years behind that.
Fashion design schools are starting to wake up to it, which is good. As far as the industry goes, the disabled community doesn’t need the likes of Chanel and Gucci doing adaptive clothing, as generally they aren’t people who are spending thousands on their clothing.
It’s about high-street brands being inclusive. And meaning it, not just using models for one campaign and never again.
The thing is, the fashion industry doesn’t really employ disabled people. And it isn’t entirely their fault, because the problem exists in other areas of society, like education. Disability needs to be normalised.
When it comes to adaptive fashion, it needs to be disabled-led. At least initially. It isn’t that non-disabled people shouldn’t design because they should, inclusively. But at this early stage, it has to be done hand in hand with the community or it just isn’t meaningful.
How is making adaptive clothing different to making clothes for non-disabled people? And what’s stopping clothing manufacturers from doing it more widely?
There are differences, of course. For example, designing for wheelchair users, and seated positions. That’s a different type of pattern, but once you have it, you have it.
You might also need to consider dexterity problems and different fastenings. A lot of makers go straight to magnets or Velcro, but that one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. If someone has a pacemaker or a prosthetic, they don’t want magnets in their clothes.
One big issue is that clothing brands haven’t engaged with the community, ever. They don’t know how to talk to us, and they haven’t learned. Another issue is that because adapted clothing tends to come with more fastenings, the unit price is higher.
But it’s a feeble excuse. Adding two extra zips to a garment isn’t a good enough reason not to make that garment. But that’s traditionally been the bigger brands’ argument. And it does cost more to make these garments, but not so much more that the manufacturers still can’t generate a profit.
How much more expensive is it then? What’s the difference in reality?
Adaptive clothing, by nature, will cost more. Very few of the big brands are doing it, and the only ones that are were all told off for being too expensive. We’re small businesses in the main, and we aren’t making thousands of garments. So that’s one reason.
Another is not using sweatshops. I’ll always be more expensive because of that. I also don’t over-produce, which the big brands generally do.
And I use construction methods that make the clothes last longer. I could make them and have them finished really cheaply. But if they start falling apart after two months, who does that help?
And there’s the role fast fashion has played. We need to get people out of the mindset that you should be able to get things for five quid. Because you shouldn’t.
There’s also the feeling among some disabled people that everything should be free because they’re disabled. And I agree with that sentiment somewhat, but not completely. Because if we did that with every marginalised group, no-one would pay for anything.
So ultimately it’s getting people to understand that we’re small businesses that have been fighting and working for this for years. The big brands still aren’t doing it. We’re the ones who are trying to help.
The need for clothing to be sustainable is now arguably more important than it’s ever been in terms of consciousness in society. Is the tide turning as far as consumer awareness goes?
I think those people who can afford to are changing the way they shop. But, of course, those who can least afford to, which is primarily the disabled community – who I think are almost 50% more likely to be in poverty – they’re not going to be buying from sustainable brands.
But people are starting to question it more. Fashion brands can be very quick to leap on a buzzword and twist it. So consumers see that a company has used sustainable fabric and think that’s good enough. But then you find that, actually, the fabric isn’t even that sustainable. It’s so easy to lie about it.
Brands must be honest about their impact. Not just on carbon emissions, because that’s easy to cover by saying something like, ‘We plant a tree for every T-shirt sold.’ There isn’t enough space for all that planting! So there’s a lot of dishonesty, which makes it very difficult for the consumer.
It’s all about transparency, and the manufacturers needing to be more open about how they make their products.
If they say, ‘This is what we’ve been doing, we know it’s bad, we’re trying to change it’, fine. Because it isn’t as simple as just stopping working with certain factories and mills. Where do all those people go for a job? If we stop making certain fabrics, what are those farmers who grow the fibres for that fabric going to do?
So it isn’t a quick fix. But for new brands starting up, it’s easier. With Unhidden, I was sustainable from the ground up, which means I don’t have to switch an entire supply chain.
I’m also transparent on cost. On the website, I have a price breakdown of every garment. What the fabric cost, what we paid to get it made. And you’ll see that our profit margin is not very high. We’d have to be selling so much for it to be profitable. But I believe in being super-honest.
Did running a business come easily to you? Were there people you turned to for help and advice?
Some of it did come surprisingly naturally. I have good ideas and I implement them, and so far that’s worked out. However, I can very easily get distracted by a new idea – or anything new really – which makes it hard to focus. But there’s a lot of stuff I find hard.
Like accounting. I don’t understand it so I have an accountant who does it for me. And it costs more, but it’s less stress. I’ve accepted what I don’t know, and that I don’t need to do everything. Quite often that’s drilled into small business owners, that you have to do it all yourself. You don’t.
I’m now at the point where I need help, so I have two interns. I want the business to be disabled-led so I’m only hiring from within the disabled community. One of my interns has Crohn’s and the other has a limb difference.
What impact has winning Female Start-Up of the Year 2021 had on your business?
I already had a lot of enquiries and leads coming in, but since winning the competition, the number of emails has trebled. So it’s finding enough hours in the day. Because I’m still also the fulfilment and the warehouse. I’m wrapping orders, chasing up fabrics, the lot.
I’m also running social media, which is an absolute beast! It used to be fun but now it just stresses me out because there are so many channels. When you have to write alt text and video descriptions, make sure you’re using accessible hashtags and so on, it all takes that little bit longer.
The response to your company and your products must have been amazing. What kind of feedback do you get from customers?
They ask why it’s taken this long. Many buy two items rather than one, because they need them so much. We’ve had some pushback on price, but that always happens. So then I explain that we’re partnered with Klarna and you can pay in instalments.
If you see what we’re charging, and why we’re charging it – this is actually what clothes should cost. If anything, we’re doing ourselves out of profit because we don’t have a huge mark-up like the big brands. And we won’t ever go on sale. If we could afford to sell it for less, we would.
On the whole, though, the response has been very positive. We’ve changed people’s lives, which is awesome.
2020: Jessica Heagren – That Works For Me
2019: Molly Masters – Books That Matter
2018: Ruth Bradford – Little Black & White Book Project
2017: Joy Foster – TechPixies
2016: Mel Bound – This Mum Runs
2015: Chloe Tingle – No More Taboo