Clara Francis & Tania Hindmarch On Creating A Small Batch Fashion Brand

By Charlie Colville

1 year ago

Meet the founders of Victoriana-inpsired fashion label O Pioneers

If there’s one thing British designers have down, it’s a good floral dress. ‘People can sometimes be put off by the idea of a floral dress. It’s too overdone, too prim, too dressy or the styles are too girly,‘ say Clara Francis and Tania Hindmarch, co-founders of O Pioneers. ‘But the number of times a new customer has come into the shop and said ‘not for me’, then tried a few things on and walked out with a couple of new dresses says it all.’ These dresses only become all the more appealing when we learn that not only are they produced in small batches, but many are made using offcuts and deadstock fabric. We sat down with Clara and Tania to talk about O Pioneers, what it was like starting a business during the pandemic and the importance of local networks.

O Pioneers Founders Clara Francis & Tania Hindmarch On Creating A Small Batch Fashion Brand

Tania Hindmarch & Clara Francis

Tania Hindmarch & Clara Francis

Hi both, thank you for joining us today! Can you please kick us off by introducing yourselves and telling us a bit about O Pioneers?

Hello! We’re Clara and Tania, co-founders of O Pioneers.

O Pioneers is a very British women’s clothing label. We create beautifully made, elegant yet quirky ‘forever dresses’, knitwear and separates with a modern take on the graceful – sometimes eccentric – classic English Victoriana style. We set up the brand in the autumn of 2019, not long before the pandemic hit. Not put off by a global disaster, we forged on, nurturing our little brand which has grown slowly but steadily. We now sell globally via our website, have a flagship shop in Marylebone Village and stock an exclusive range for Net-A-Porter.

How did you found your brand?

We met as mums and members of a local book group (which is still going) nearly 15 years ago. We would often talk about doing something together as we liked each others’ style and were both coming to a crossroads in our work lives. We both had a passion for clothes, dresses in particular, and an eye for vintage finds but were frustrated at not being able to find our dream dresses in the styles, prints and quality we wanted. As we can both sew we started playing around with ideas and set about designing our own. We would make things for each other and then friends asked us to make pieces for them too. The seed for O Pioneers was sown!

We made just a handful of dresses in deadstock Liberty print to start off with, which we sold on our website, and then used the money to make more – slowly but steadily growing. What began as a small, kitchen table business has blossomed into a cult classic for women who want to be more mindful in their fashion purchases and invest in beautifully crafted, forever pieces.

We are conscious of keeping our carbon footprint to a bare minimum. Everything is made in small runs using London based ateliers and we work with a network of UK patchworkers and knitters with generations-old skills. The name of the person who made the garment is handwritten on the label inside every piece.

Woman leaning on rail overlooking beach

How would you describe O Pioneers’ signature style?

We’d describe our signature style as elegant, classically English Rose but with a definite edge – the clothes have personality. The floral dress market is awash with options but we feel O Pioneers has a strong brand identity. People can spot an O Pioneers dress a mile off!! A few of our dresses were featured on the TV drama The Split and we had so many friends and customers get in touch to say they’d spotted our dresses on the telly. We love it when people let us know they’ve seen our dresses somewhere.

They’re not just beautiful pieces either, your garments are designed for practical everyday wear too.

When we set up O Pioneers it was really important to us to make beautifully crafted, locally made ‘forever dresses’ that were also practical. We’re both mums, have dogs and lead pretty busy lives. We wanted to make dresses that women could wear day to night and feel amazing in while not hampering the ‘getting stuff done’ that needs to happen!

All our dresses have pockets and are designed to be worn everyday – you can pop them in the washing machine so they don’t have to be saved for best occasions only. This ‘wear everyday’ philosophy is really important to us. If you are spending good money on an item of clothing it should work hard for you – not be kept in the wardrobe waiting for a special occasion to wear it. And wearing a beautiful dress makes you feel great – so why not have that feeling everyday, not just the odd time you dress up for a night out?

Woman stood in front of rainbow boards with smiley face lollies held over their faces

How do you go about sourcing the materials for your garments?

When we started out we would spend hours scouring west London fabric shops for end of roll and deadstock Liberty print cottons. We were making very small quantities then so it worked. As we grew (we still make our products in small runs), we started having conversations with Liberty Fabrics and we now work directly with them. They still help us find end of roll prints that they have smaller quantities of in some far-flung corner of their warehouses though. We are like magpies in that respect; we do love a one-off, unique find.

And what do you do with the offcuts?

We cannot bear waste. The idea of throwing away even the teeniest-tiniest amounts of fabric is inconceivable to us, so we keep everything and use material offcuts to create other beautiful items. The larger offcuts of fabric we use to make our quilted jackets and gilets (we’ve just started making Liberty print knickers too), while the smaller scraps of fabric are given to our incredibly talented patchworkers to make patchwork panels in our skirts and dresses. Our teeny-tiny pieces are used in applique, which you can see in our recent collaboration with embroidery artist Ellie Mac who created stunning and unique applique panels for our limited edition Stella dress bodices.

Woman in dress holding up blanket on the beach

This means many of your designs are one-offs and limited editions – what’s it like working with low stock and small batches?

We love it and it’s the core ethos behind the brand but it is A LOT of work! We’re making decisions on the smallest details and adjustments, searching for particular prints for things or creating pattern variations for a design – all of which takes much longer. But that is how you create beautiful, unique items of clothing that people will treasure forever. Our customers see the love, time, effort and attention to detail that goes into our clothing and that’s what makes the brand special. We wanted to create a label that was the antithesis of fast fashion – it’s our labour of love. When we get responses from our customers saying how much they love our dresses, how one of our dresses makes them feel when they wear it and how many compliments they get, it fills us with joy and makes all the sweat and tears worthwhile.

We heard you work with other female-led businesses and suppliers to create O Pioneers’ products. Can you tell us what your supply and production chain looks like and who helps bring everything together?

Our makers are the most important cog in the wheel of what we do. Without them there would be no garments! This is why we write the name of the maker in each garment we sell. Whether it’s a seamstress, a knitter or a patchworker. Their skills are hugely valued by us and they are all super talented in what they do.

It has always been a fundamental concern for us to work as locally as possible and with other female-led businesses where we can. This works for us for many reasons. We prefer working with other women (sorry guys!), we’ve found there’s an understanding and respectful way of working that we haven’t always experienced working with male-led businesses, and working with local businesses means we can have meaningful relationships with our manufacturers; we visit the factories, see the makers, talk through the designs and the finishings. We have a relationship with them. Relationships are important.

All our sewing is undertaken by independent, mainly female-led businesses in north and east London. We also have a few professional seamstresses who work from home doing our micro-runs and one-offs. All our knitting is created by our lovely little team of home-knitters. This team started with our mums and has grown organically to encompass a range of ages in various parts of the country and we all keep in contact via our knitting WhatsApp group! Our patchwork is crafted by patchworkers in Yorkshire and one or two who live a stone’s throw from our shop in Marylebone Village.

Two women in floral dresses sat at beach shack

Did you always know you wanted to create a sustainable brand with O Pioneers, or did you have a ‘green lightbulb’ moment?

Absolutely, from the start. As vintage fans and being ‘old fashioned kinda gals’ we are drawn to a simpler, less heavily mass-produced and more traditional way of doing things. For us, being a sustainable brand means making in small runs and working with local makers to create quality items that are designed to last. We are mindful of the business choices we make. We hate waste, we are quite frugal in the way we conduct our business by only using and making what we need. We live in a world with so much excess. So, we have always been very aware of not adding to the huge plethora of cheap and mass-produced clothing out there. We wanted O Pioneers to be something very different, special and unique that embraces a ‘forever clothing’ ethos.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up with O Pioneers (that you can tell us about)?

We love experimenting with new ideas and as a small business we are agile enough to try new things and make only very small quantities to test the response. For example, we have introduced pedalpushers which tie at the knee as a homage to our 80’s childhood. Not everyone’s cup of tea but something that we wanted to do and was fun and lots of our customers really love them.

Having worked solely in cotton to make all our clothing, we recently created a Liberty Crepe de Chine dress for Isabel Spearman’s DailyDressEdit pop-up – which literally flew out. We couldn’t make them fast enough! The silk dresses are something that we are continuing as the fabric falls so beautifully and they have a little extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ for special occasions.

We also love collaborating with likeminded women and craftspeople and so we have a few special treats coming later this year. Watch this space!

Woman in floral dress with candy floss

And finally, any parting words for our readers?

People can sometimes be put off by the idea of a floral dress. It’s too overdone, too prim, too dressy or the styles are too girly, but we have customers of all ages and it’s really all down to finding a style that flatters you – whether that’s chunky biker boots and a leather jacket, trainers and tank top or dolled up with heels. The number of times a new customer has come into the shop and said ‘not for me’, then tried a few things on and walked out with a couple of new dresses says it all. A dress is not only super practical (one item to pick from your wardrobe), but it can make you feel AMAZING! Enjoy that feeling as much as you can.


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Images courtesy of O Pioneers