As the head of her company for two years, when the UK went into lockdown she had just two weeks to save her seamstress’ jobs, and ended up launching a headband brand: Géraldine London. A fascinating story of creativity, agility and humanity!
We spoke to Alexia to discover her story.
Let’s start with a small introduction!
My name is Alexia Genta, and I’m half-Swiss, half-Monégasque (Monaco). I’m the founder and director of two companies: Alexia Alterations, which I launched two years ago, and Géraldine London, which I launched 2 months ago. Both are based in London and I graduated from the ESCP MSc in Marketing & Creativity (MMK) in 2014.
Can you tell us more about your background and what led you to apply to the MMK?
I grew up in Monaco, moving to London when I was 12. I went to school there and did my Business Management bachelor degree at Nottingham University. I then ended up working for Smythson and Boots in London and Nottingham, where I really developed an interest for marketing, so I was looking for a way to expand my marketing knowledge.
The creativity aspect of the MMK really set this course apart from others and resonated with me on a personal level. Throughout my childhood, I had a front-row seat for a debate between business and creativity led by my mum and dad. My father was a watch designer; for him, everything was about beauty and creativity. He was very famous for his talent, but was not able to run his business to make a profit. On the other hand, my mother is a fantastic businesswoman: she turned the company around. My mother needed my dad’s genius, and my dad needed someone who was able to take the genius and turn it into something great. Long story short, they needed each other. It’s amazing to have a great idea, but how do you then make money out of it? That’s the MMK to me: managing creativity.
Did you launch Alexia’s Alterations straight after graduating from ESCP?
After the MMK I was obsessed with fast food companies, so I did an internship for Prêt-à-Manger. I learnt so much, especially that in the service industry the most important people are those facing the customers; they have the knowledge. It’s a really cool company culture. In terms of creativity, in addition to having great ideas you have to think about how to make it happen without affecting the operational activities in the shops, as well as respecting health and safety regulations. It was quite an amazing internship.
After that I got a job at Unilever working for PG tips (tea brand) as a product manager for two years. I had an amazing experience there: creating products, packaging, all the way to the launch campaign. I also had to deal with the big supermarkets to bring these products to the market. As cool as it was, at the same time I wasn’t happy at all. I felt very lost in such a huge company, like I wasn’t performing as great as I should and didn’t feel enough passion for the job. Subconsciously I think I was always looking for an idea, and that’s how Alexia Alterations came about.
While working at Unilever I was earning a decent salary and could save enough money to afford my first ever beautiful dress. I bought this amazing fuschia silk satin dress, and I was super proud. I decided to have it altered, so I asked my mother’s friend about where to get it done. They all mentioned the same tailor who was supposed to be the best in London and, to put it bluntly, it was awful! I remember entering the shop and the carpet was dusty – you wouldn’t want to be barefoot on that! The curtain didn’t close properly and, worst of all, the tailor was eating a sandwich and left oily fingerprints all over my silk dress. I think the combination of me not being happy in a big FMCG company and this awful customer experience made it clear that I had to do this. So I did my market research and checked if there were any better places. With all the wealthy people in London who spend thousands and thousands of pounds on fashion and want to look good, is this really the best London has? Can I improve it? So that’s how I launched Alexia Alterations.What was the process?
I spent a very long time doing my research and making sure my concept would be approved, and I did all of that while still working. On the technical aspect, even though I took sewing night classes I was also aware I would need a more professional eye. So when I started to interview seamstresses I hired a consultant to help me identify talent. At the same time I looked for premises. I knew that the location would be essential: it had to be very central, close to luxury shops, so I opened around the corner from Harrods.
You just launched a new brand, Géraldine London, during lockdown. What a bold move!
When Italy went into lockdown, a couple of weeks before the UK, I realised that it was going to happen here as well. It was a true disaster for me and my seamstresses. I really needed to be creative and I only had two weeks to find a solution to save my seamstress’s job and my company. Here’s what I had: a couture-level seamstress and boxes full of designer fabrics saved from my alterations and made-to-measure projects. Here’s what I didn’t have: the ability to be in the same room as my seamstress or clients, professional equipment and space. Headbands ticked all the boxes. Bonus points that I always loved headbands – they add effortless style to any outfit and bring light to the face. My seamstress and I spent 10 full days designing and developing prototypes of elevated headbands. By lockdown, we both went home knowing exactly what the plan was.
Can we talk about social aspect behind Géraldine London?
I have a lot of respect for my seamstresses. In my opinion, they are women who are not respected enough and are perceived as cheap manual labour, when actually they are incredibly talented. I also feel that they have been loyal to me in times where the business was growing. They trusted me, so it was my turn to repay that trust.
Also, at the beginning of the lockdown I read an article about the rise of domestic abuse. I’m lucky to live in a safe household and supporting women’s issues just felt right. So I am currently donating 20% of my sales to Women’s Aid as they are acting for women and children to get into safer places. So far I donated £2, 000 pounds and I’ll keep going as much as I can.
So are you meeting your objectives with Géraldine?
I started this business in a very different way to Alexia Alterations. I had no clearly defined business objectives nor target audience. I had two weeks to make this work so I didn’t have time to get into goal setting. But I also like to believe that this is something the MMK taught me: instinct. I instinctively applied the theoretical models I studied. In any case I’m doing way better than I assumed I would. I thought that I would sell maybe four or five headbands a week, and right now I’m actually selling five headbands a day.
What advice would you give to people who are still hesitating about launching their own business?
There’s a couple of things to think about, in my opinion. First, spend as little as possible without sacrificing quality! I was very naive when I started Alexia Alterations and I’ve made some terrible mistakes. I was lucky enough to start with a nice amount of investment, but I spent money too fast. I was too confident, and the reality is much harder. So think about how you can minimise your costs, because however much you think something will cost you it will cost you twice as much.
Second, be resilient; the emotional rollercoaster is huge. The feeling I got when I sold my first headband was almost as great as the day I got married! But when something goes wrong, when your employees are causing issues or a customer complains, those days you feel the worst you have ever felt. For example, right now I am selling a lot of headbands because I am new and my story is being shared online. But I know that the real test is coming in a month or two, when people won’t support my brand anymore and my sales will drop. This is when I cannot give up.
Besides instinct as you mentioned earlier, what have been the most valuable takeaways from the MSc in Marketing & Creativity?
Firstly, I met incredible people from all over the world, and made real friends. Even today, in lockdown, I need to speak to people who can be critical and with whom I can brainstorm. The people I go to are MMKers. They have a totally different perspective, are not afraid to give their opinions, and are happy to debate. Another great aspect was learning to work with people from all over the world. Today I have seamstresses who come from different parts of the world and they all have different approaches to work, different work ethics. I need to express myself differently with them: some will be softer, some will be tougher, and I have to adapt myself. The MMK taught me to identify the best approach with people, and how to apply it.