Soft-launching in July, Sarka is born of a frustration that the fashion industry abandons their customers once they’ve had a baby, Sarka London’s collection of tops, dresses, skirts and trousers allows them to breastfeed, support a C section and luxuriously cater for a changing body shape postnatally, with no compromise on style. Here, we speak to the company’s founder, Jules McKeen, about allowing new mums to feel like themselves again, an unbalanced funding system and where the company is looking to go from here.
What is the gap in the market Sarka are looking to fill, and why is now the right time to launch your products?
Sarka London is born from a frustration and a market gap opportunity which is global and constantly replenishing: professional, stylish women in cities globally have a baby, and find that alongside the many compromises motherhood brings, their wardrobe is simply not fit for purpose. Having accommodated and ‘made do’ for nine months, many of these millions of women have no go-to brand to rely upon for clothing, accessories and services focused around the form + function needs of their changing bodies (C sections, breastfeeding, weight changes and even rib cage growth all have a huge impact on the functional needs of clothing). Just when they hoped to get their own sense of self back, it’s more diminished than ever, with a choice of terribly made medicalised/ feminised garments or depressing stretchy outfits. This is a compromise too far, and one we can stand against.
We aim to right this wrong, becoming the trusted style partner for the new mother, giving her her style self back whilst accommodating these ever changing new needs. Our ethos is ‘No More Compromise’, and this flows through the business as a purpose and an organising structure.
Never has there been a better time to launch this business; finally, women are feeling confident to talk about their bodies and their functional needs – witness the success of Thinx period pants or Elvie’s breast pump which was worn down the catwalk by a model at LFW last year. Nobody however is truly addressing the postnatal phase when it comes to what you wear and how you feel about getting your old ‘style self’ back.
What challenges have you had to overcome while establishing Sarka?
Women founder teams take home only 1p out of every £1 funded in the UK by a male-dominated venture market (according to Pitchbook for the Telegraph 2019). This is a significant challenge for us, particularly when you add in the fact we’re producing a range of products which serve women’s bodily functions! This is why we’ve gone for angel investment for this first round, with like-minded investors who know the value of building a long term brand and not obsessing so much over cost per acquisition that the longevity and community aspect is lost.
Manufacturing is ALWAYS a challenge when you’re small and ethical – we have produced this first range entirely in Britain, from sustainable fabrics we can track back to the forest. It means we have followed our ‘No More Compromise’ ethos through to the quality of super-soft and well-stitched garments, and the ethical working conditions and air miles have all gone into that thinking. What it of course means is that we’ve accepted a huge hit on the margin for the launch, but businesses have to set out their stall right at the outset; we have to all avoid greenwashing and it ain’t a principle if it don’t cost you!
DTCs often talk about ‘building a community’. Is this something you are also looking to do? How?
In our case we work from the inside out; we run a ‘radical flex’ approach to hiring our own teams, because again for us, ‘No More Compromise’ means we must walk the walk on preventing staff from having to compromise on the happiness of their home lives simply to work for us. This is why we benefit from part time working parents’ oft-overlooked senior skills, who have been ignored by major corporations for not wanting to commute every day.
Every member of our extended team and partners must buy into the need to serve our postnatal mum’s style needs and totally understand and empathise with this fundamental change in her life and identity. When we start from that point, we believe the ‘community’ aspect of DTC will really comprise fans and identifiers who can help us spread the word without bribery! We are working to develop a loyalty programme which is not monetary-based, but where our Sarka Insiders can truly benefit from our wonderful partnerships with other entrepreneurial and ethical brands which are serving her needs.
As a wise planning director in adland once reminded me, the value of your brand has nothing to do with what you as the brand says to customers, but everything to do with what customers say about you once you’ve left the room.
What role does data play in helping to develop your products, and form your marketing decisions?
Data is a critical tool for us, with multiple applications, and with a key output – to better, more relevantly, serve the right customer with something she genuinely needs. We’re doing data tests all the time, from our CRM programme to our paid social; from partner data plays for segmentation across the customer lifetime, to which dress they click on most. I’m lucky enough to have spent so long in adland in my old life that lots of friends have become really very good in their particular area of creative, marcomms and tech, so there have been a lot of favours pulled to grill people on finer strategy points and lots of coffees bought… some even got a sandwich – honour indeed!
We also want to create data-led tools which genuinely help our audience, so this month we’re soft launching ‘Café’s Without Compromise’, which asks our audience to help other parents know which local cafes support breastfeeding and babies – they can put up our endorsement window sticker and help us plot them on Google’s maps app. Hopefully, little tools like this will build grassroots communities who simply know that Sarka London understands them.
We are also laddering up next year into a wider application with The Compromise Report; a rolling quant report aiming to understand the compromises women make when they become a mother, and how that might vary across age and geography. More on this in 2020!
What’s next for Sarka?
We have an intensive schedule of rolling out the Sarka London launch, with new products and services and technology innovations over the next 12 months – plus the Compromise Report and ‘Cafes without Compromise’ building out of course. It’s so exciting being part of a female-led founding team with supportive investors who buy into our “No More Compromise” ethos and understand we want to build this as a genuinely useful company for new mothers.