Alicia Drabble-Castellano of Single Swan: 'When you're starting a business, you don't have much money. So getting all this help and advice for free is great!'

Alicia Drabble-Castellano of Single Swan: 'When you're starting a business, you don't have much money. So getting all this help and advice for free is great!'
Marc Gardner
Marc GardnerOfficial

Posted: Mon 25th Apr 2022

Enterprise Nation partnered with Wandsworth Borough Council to run Wandsworth Digital, a free programme to help small businesses in the London borough get online.

Through a series of free online webinars, small business owners, freelancers and entrepreneurs could grow their businesses' online presence and boost their digital sales.

We're checking in with some of the business owners who have taken part, to find out how it's benefited them so far. Here, we talk to Alicia Drabble-Castellano, whose clothing brand Single Swan makes handmade pieces for women who care about the environment and others.

When and how did you make the move into running your own business?

I registered with Companies House on 20 February 2020. I wanted the founding date to be memorable, but of course, no-one had any idea how memorable 2020 was going to be!

I'd had the idea for a while. I was a teacher for 15 years. Like most teachers, I was really passionate and it was my vocation in life. Unfortunately, though, I got glandular fever, which then became an autoimmune illness. Every time I fell ill, my body would shut down.

I kept on teaching for a couple of years but after a while, my condition wasn't improving and so I had to stop. I had some operations as well. I was quite lost for a time because teaching was all I'd ever wanted to do.

I'd started cutting out articles and photos from magazines and newspapers and putting them on the inside of my wardrobe. Just things to inspire me as I was recovering. One day, I looked at these cuttings and just saw them as a clear sign that I wanted to do something that merged clothes and mental wellbeing.

My big goal long-term is to give some of the profits to a women's mental health charity. You've got to have a big dream, and mine is to work with an organisation that supports women who've been in domestic abuse situations. And to give them the skills and the finance and the identity of having employment.

How did you make that transition from teaching to designing your own clothes?

It was a total switch. I'd always loved clothes and how they can make you feel. When I was recovering from the autoimmune illness, I noticed that some days I'd wear really bright colours, and some days clothes that were really comfy and nurturing. As if my clothes were reflecting my wellbeing.

At school I was quite geeky and academic, and I was told not to go near anything creative. To avoid art and all that sort of stuff. So I didn't think I was creative at all. I didn't know how to sew. But then as I went into teaching, I was given the job of learning environment and display co-ordinator.

And that's about making sure children have a good environment in which to learn. One really important aspect is the visual displays, and I'd make those. So I learned that, actually, there's quite a lot of creativity inside me.

I'm tenacious too. When I have an idea, I don't let go. I knew I wanted the business to be about clothes and how they make women feel. And so that was my goal, and I had to work out how to get there.

How did you learn the skills you needed?

I did some courses on how to start a small fashion brand, and sustainable fashion. Through those, I learned what sort of clothes I wanted to make.

I spent about a year just doing research. Talked to lots of different people. I have a friend who works in bridal design and she's helped me massively. I looked into ethical and sustainable manufacturers and wholesalers, and I found a small local company that could do my printing.

I also spent a lot of time researching pattern makers. There's a brilliant one in East London. I take the designs to her and then she makes the pattern and the samples.

I started with jumpers and T-shirts, because they're quite easy. But now I'm making jumpsuits and tulle skirts. They'll look amazing and they'll be high-quality, but the main thing for me is how I want the women to feel when they put these clothes on.

We've been tweaking the jumpsuit design for about a year and a half now. So, yeah, it's been a lot of learning, and a lot of reaching out to different people who have the skills to help me.

Were you having to learn about the other aspects of running a business too?

The first year of the business, it was all about that. Because I had no prior knowledge with any of it – business, marketing, tax, anything. I did a brilliant one-day Enterprise Nation course in January 2020. That had lots of different speakers, and was incredible. I've done lots of the Lunch and Learn sessions too.

I'm part of Catherine Erdly's Resilient Retail group. I do lots of her courses and she's been amazing. And I did a brilliant course through Wandsworth: the Beluga Bean academy. They talk through your brand values and your brand goals. I started a business plan with them.

And I've read a lot of books about how I want my business to be, what my values are, and how to use my skills from teaching. A lot of those skills are quite similar.

What are your business values?

Sustainability is really, really important. I've a long way to go before I'm truly sustainable, but all the sweatshirts I make are organic cotton, and my jumpsuits and tulle skirts will be made from deadstock fabrics. All end-of-line stuff that the big companies and designers don't want.

Being ethical is important as well. Making sure I know who is making my clothes and that they're treated well. They're not cheap clothes, because I want the people I work to receive a good wage. I'm working with a local seamstress in London and I'm making sure that she's paid properly.

But another value, perhaps the most important one, is being kind. There's the quote from Robin Williams, that everybody you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. I try to only work with people who I admire and genuinely like. I want to show that you can run a business by being nice, you know?

How did you become aware of Wandsworth Digital?

I've done quite a lot of Enterprise Nation courses. And through that, somebody recommended the Wandsworth Beluga Bean course. And then I was on their mailing list, and I got the email newsletter talking about Wandsworth Digital. And I thought it sounded incredible. When you're starting a small business, you don't have much money. So the fact that it was free was great.

I filled out all the information and then Lisa contacted me and told me I had a place on the programme. I was really excited.

And what did the programme help you to address?

I had the website audit with Jess, which was really useful. At that stage, my website hadn't launched; it was really in its early stages. I'm not digital-minded at all, and I'd watched a Shopify tutorial on YouTube. How to set up a Shopify store in an hour. Well, it took me about 15 hours! I literally pressed pause every second.

But the audit was amazing. Jess told me exactly what I needed to do. And then it was just about having the confidence to do it, because if you're not a technical person, it's way out of your comfort zone. But actually it isn't that scary, and I made all the changes and tweaks as Jess suggested.

You received some mentorship as well.

Yes, I met one-to-one with a mentor through Google Digital Garage. My mentor was Anya and she'd worked in fashion herself. She was amazing. I feel like I know her now as a friend, like I've known her for ages. Really, really comfortable and so good with the advice.

She talked me through more about the website – all these phrases I had no idea about, like long-tail keywords and search engine optimisation. She suggested I do a blog to get the traffic coming in. And she communicated everything in a way that made me realise I can manage this. I'm 45, I'm not technical, but I know I can do it.

To be a small business owner, you've got to be tenacious. In the last 12 years, I've had a lot of health issues to overcome. So I shouldn't be scared of this! I spent a long time doing research and learning about business, and now I just have to take the leap.


StartUp UK: How to start a fashion business guide

Free guide: How to start a fashion business

Our guide covers everything you need to know about setting up a fashion brand and breaking into the industry.

Get your free download

Marc Gardner
Marc GardnerOfficial
I'm one of Enterprise Nation's content managers, and spend most of my time working on all types of content for the small-business programmes we run with our partners.

You might also like…

Get business support right to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive business tips, learn about new funding programmes, join upcoming events, take e-learning courses, and more.