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Liz Houghton on why following her dreams helped launch fashion business Mini Velvet

PUBLISHED: 12:53 28 February 2014 | UPDATED: 12:57 28 February 2014

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When fashion executive Liz Houghton’s business world collapsed she and colleagues took a chance to fulfil dreams, launching fabulous Mint Velvet. Karen Kay tells us more

So many of us tick along in life, going through the motions each day until a curveball comes along and makes you look at things differently. We may dream of doing something new, but habit provides a security blanket that is hard to shake off – until it is blown away in circumstances beyond your control. And, for many people, when disaster strikes, it can be a catalyst for positive change.

Liz Houghton, of Great Missenden, was a respected senior executive who’d earned her stripes working her way up from a Burton Group (now Arcadia Group) graduate training scheme to become Head of Womenswear across a stable of brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Racing Green and Principles.

When her colleagues led a successful management buyout of Principles, Liz joined them as Brand Director but, when Icelandic banks pulled their funding for the business in 2009, the chain went into administration and all the employees were made redundant. The retail sector was struggling and for lesser women, this would have been doom time.

However, as a mum of three who had invested her whole career into a corporate structure, Liz had honed her can-do mentality and long harboured a secret desire to nurture her own label to suit her personal wardrobe needs and those of others with a similar lifestyle.

“I had worked my whole life in fashion, yet I found it hard to find clothes I wanted to wear,” says the insouciantly elegant 49-year-old brunette, her hands wrapped around a morning cuppa in an Old Amersham deli cafe.

“For most women, when we reach a certain point in our lives, we just want to put things on that flatter and make us feel good. Being on trend is important, but not our top priority in the morning. Comfort is important, but doesn’t negate the need for style. Fit, fabric and a flattering cut are the key to making us feel fabulous. And because modern lifestyles mean a shift in dress codes, working wardrobes are less formal and we like to dress up a little even when we’re off duty, so there’s an element of relaxed glamour that I felt was lacking elsewhere in the marketplace.”

So, within a month of her departure from Principles, Liz sat down with Jane Rawlings and Lisa Agar-Rea (another Bucks resident, based in Great Kingshill), two of her closest colleagues from her former team, and began to brainstorm the concept behind a new venture.

“We were ourselves the kind of customer we had in mind,” recalls Liz, dressed today in a long-line tactile sweater, a butter-soft leather jacket, skinny stretch trousers, ankle boots and a casually draped fringed scarf – all in muted, milky neutral tones and textures that harmonise in an enviable, effortless way. “We wanted grown-up femininity, with a slightly rock and roll edge – easy, everyday clothes that could take you from the school run to a business meeting, to a girlie lunch and on to dinner. We had this vision of creating an ever-evolving range of easy separates that would work around some style staples to make a hard-working wardrobe that had the feel-good factor. Everything would work together in a combination of layers, and could be dressed up or down with heels and jewellery or a sequinned top instead of a sweater, say.”

The trio took their idea, with a selection of mood boards, to a contact at House of Fraser, who told them if they could pull a collection together in three months, he would give them ten concessions. Their combined industry background meant they had burgeoning contact books and professional credentials that gave third parties faith in their proposition where an unknown would have been batted away.

But, for even the most experienced executives, creating a fashion start-up and going into production within weeks during a global economic downturn was a major challenge – one they rose to with gusto. With Liz as Managing Director, Jane – from Tunbridge Wells - taking the role of Design Director and Lisa as Buying Director, Mint Velvet was born.

“The name came about because we wanted people to have an emotional reaction to what we were doing,” explains Liz, pictured left, with the kind of passion and instinctive understanding of women’s needs and desires that suggests she could never have failed in her enterprise. “We had this vision of a brand that when you walked across the threshold in one of the boutiques, it would be about more than just clothes on rails. It would be about a more holistic, sensual connection: the smell, the warmth, the textures, the soul. We wanted an evocative name that would capture that multi-sensory mood, so people would immediately identify with our philosophy. There’s something fresh and comforting about the smell of mint, and velvet instantly conjures a sense of luxury.”

The following weekend, the fledgling entrepreneurs flew to Hong Kong to source fabrics and factories, and then worked flat out to meet the deadline set by House of Fraser. With their own money invested in the project and private backing from a former colleague at Arcadia who took the role of Chairman, the stakes were high. Their homes became mini design studios and warehouses when stock began to arrive, and families were roped in to work on aspects of the operation from marketing, to graphics to packing orders. It was a huge leap of faith for everyone concerned, but their efforts paid off.

When the range launched their collection was an instant hit, with key pieces selling out and waiting lists accruing rapidly. The store group rolled out their new label in 24 more venues across the country, with the confidence that they’d signed a contract as an exclusive stockest for the first year of Mint Velvet’s trading. While John Lewis and others were knocking on the door of Houghton’s High Wycombe office, she was focusing on growing their e-commerce operation and opening standalone boutiques in affluent, chic locations. Initially, they opened in Chichester and Windsor, followed in quick succession with Marlow, Beaconsfield, Tunbridge Wells and more. With a growing presence in department stores – they’re now stocked in John Lewis and Fenwick as well as all House of Fraser stores - Mint Velvet currently boasts 18 shopfronts in ‘appropriate towns’, with another 20 planned in the coming couple of years - this month, they are opening in Berkhamsted, Herts. The company was listed at the end of 2013 in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, an authoritative look at businesses to watch in the UK. Not bad going for a business that began on a Great Missenden kitchen table just four years ago.

And this high flying career in fashion all came about because Houghton, a former pupil at The Grange School in Aylesbury (“I had no careers advice at all, I just did the things I loved at A level which was Art, Politics and Biology”), rejected her Social Administration degree at Loughborough university and applied for a corporate trainee role with Burton Group.

“There were 12 jobs and 2,500 people applied,” she recalls, laughing at the memory of her interview day. “I walked into the foyer of their head office, near Oxford Circus, and there were 25 male models waiting for casting. I immediately thought ‘I want to work here’. But I looked around me at some of the other candidates and I very quickly realised that I had completely misjudged my outfit. I was far too businesslike. Luckily, I’d arrived half an hour early, so I went and bought a completely new outfit, including shoes, and changed before my interview. I didn’t think I could be a buyer because they were all blonde and skinny, but I quickly grew to love the buzz you got from being a successful buyer, when you could track the sales of the pieces you’d ordered, and see them selling out on the shop floor. Topshop was the only retailer doing daily sales numbers in those days, and it was really thrilling to monitor your work in that way.”

Houghton gets the same buzz from ‘fourth baby’, Mint Velvet, but the ability to manage this alongside a balanced family life is one of her cherished motivations. Her husband, Richard and their three children – Will, 18, Tom, 17 and 12 year-old Sophie – are clearly supportive of her business and proud of her success – a recent birthday card from them was signed by the kids “and Mint Velvet”.

And, where her relationship with her business partners, Jane and Lisa, pictured above, was originally a friendly professional one, they are now “best of friends who have a great time working together.”

“We have very different tastes, but we have similar things that drive us. We agree on everything about the brand, its vision and direction, but we debate how our customers might want trends translated – this summer’s cropped top, for example. We call it ‘creative collision’ and we really thrive on that.”

Liz regularly spends her Fridays walking her working cocker spaniel, Flash, in the Chilterns, where she gets much of her inspiration in terms of prints, colours and textures. “I can be on Coombe Hill with the dog in my wellies, then change my shoes and jump on the Metropolitan line and head into Shoreditch, where we do all our photo shoots. It is the contrast of rural life and city life that so many of our customers have, and that feeds into everything I do for the business.”

“The hardest thing is never having enough time, I could do with one extra day every week – or maybe two. But I don’t know a woman who doesn’t say that. I want to be a good wife, a good mum, a great sister, a successful and fulfilled businesswoman. I sort of believe you can have it all, but you have to be honest about limitations. I know I am a c**p friend: I am always there when my friends need me, but I’m not in daily contact, chatting inanely. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love every minute of my life.”

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My Buckinghamshire: Liz Houghton

What does Bucks mean to you?

Beautiful countryside, fun, family and friends - home!

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Your favourite Bucks view?

Angling Spring Woods opposite my house looking over Great Missenden towards St Peters. I always stop and think how lucky we are to live here.

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Your favourite place to go for an informal, affordable meal?

I am a real sucker for an open fire and a traditional pub. The Old Swan in Swan Bottom is perfect.

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Your favourite place for a more formal meal / for a special occasion?

Even for a special occasion I love a relaxed vibe but with fabulous food, like the Hand & Flowers in Marlow or Hinds Head in Bray. For a special occasion, we often pop into London which is so easy from south Bucks.

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Your favourite place to meet for a coffee / tea?

New favourite is the Grocer at 91, Old Amersham.

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Your favourite shop(s) in Bucks

Am I allowed to say Mint Velvet?! I love shopping for my home so Big Sky in Great Missenden has some great pieces, or Sue Chases in Old Amersham.

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Where would you spend a wet afternoon / day in Bucks?

In front of the fire with family watching sport or a film.

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Where you’d spend a sunny afternoon / day in Bucks?

Walking our spaniel, Flash, or riding bikes with the family in the Chilterns. Visiting Coombe Hill reminds me of my childhood.

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Your favourite cultural experience / venue in Bucks?

Aylesbury museum, as my Mum does some great work there! Or Tring Museum as it reminds me of my childhood and when I took the children there when they were younger.

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Where you’d recommend a visitor to Bucks to go?

Bring a bike and enjoy the country lanes and fresh air in the Chilterns.

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What’s the best kept secret in Bucks?

Cream teas at the church in Lee village in the summer.

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