In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
At 28 years old, William Tempest has already dressed the likes of Emma Watson, Alexa Chung, Rihanna and more; collaborated with high-street label River Island; been compared to Alexander McQueen; and had his work exhibited at Kensington Palace. The New York-based, British-born designer's career kicked off the way many buzzy British labels do — with recognition from respected industry institutions: He was chosen by Donatella Versace to show at London Fashion Week in 2008 as part of the Fashion Fringe Initiative and won a WGSN Global Fashion Award shortly thereafter.
But the trajectory of his business after that has been atypical — at least when compared to the brands you tend to hear about. Tempest, who is now based in New York, doesn't show collections during fashion week, and despite getting his first collection picked up by Browns and Harrods, no longer wholesales, preferring to maintain a bespoke business working with private clients all over the world.
I met Tempest earlier this month in Puerto Rico of all places at the W Retreat & Spa on Vieques Island — the designer has collaborated with the fashion-friendly hotel chain on a number of projects over the years — where he put on a runway show of archival pieces for hotel guests. We chatted about how he got started so young, why he feels a bespoke business is more sustainable, turning down investors and getting back into ready-to-wear. Read on for our interview.
Tell me how you got started, have you always been interested in fashion and design?
Well, I was always interested in design and art when I was very young. Even when I was like six or seven, I'd make costumes and I used to make all these masks out of paper plates. I'd use bean bags and old clothes and things and dress up in my sisters' clothes. I remember she was a bridesmaid and I was very jealous. Then when I was about 15, I was studying arts at school and I wanted to do a fashion project instead of the traditional still-life painting everyone else was doing. My teacher was really supportive and she said, 'Just go for it.' That was the first thing, the first real project I did and I ended up making some outfit. I mean it's probably hideous thinking about it. Then, I left school and went to study fashion when I was 16. When I graduated from [London College of Fashion], my collection got quite a lot of press, which was good for me. It actually got the interest of some backers to start my label.
Did you end up working with them?
They already had a portfolio of brands and they wanted to add me into the mix. That didn't work out in the long run. Then I did the Fashion Fringe competition, which was chaired by Donatella Versace that year. That was when everything kind of started for me and then I set my label up off the back of that on my own. Then, everything snowballed. I guess one of the interesting things is that people from the Middle East have been very interested in my aesthetic. I would do quite a lot of bespoke and made to measure for those people.
I was actually spending my time between Dubai and London while I had a lot of clients over there, and I did that for two years. I had a setup there and I'd go over for two weeks and go back to London for three or four weeks. That's something that I still do quite a lot of today. Well, most of my business actually is made to measure. Then I moved to New York in the end of 2014. I carried that side of the business on in America and I now split my time between Boston and New York.
I really enjoy making the clothes as well. Most of my things are pattern-cut myself and most designers don't find that part very satisfying, but I quite like the craftsmanship of that. I say that my clothes are all about quality and construction as much as they are about my aesthetics.
You dressed a lot of celebrities quite early on. How does that tend to come about?
It usually comes about either through my PR or just through meeting people. They sometimes just contact me out of the blue and say they have seen some dresses or they've seen a particular dress and they'd really like to wear it. I used to do a lot more celebrity dressing than I do at the moment, like in the aftermath of Fashion Fringe, because that was such a high-profile event. Actually the first celebrity I dressed was Emma Watson. That was because she was at my first show.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge so far of getting your brand off the ground and keeping a steady business?
I think that the biggest thing for young designers is that, there's so many big brands out there and there's so much competition. I think that I probably learned this because I was trying to compete. My first stockists were Browns and Harrods in London when I was next to Channel and all these crazy names. It's like, how do I fit in? How do I get a customer to want to buy me over somebody else? Then at the same time, young designers are doing shows twice a year. It's so expensive and so much money goes into it and you have to think at some point, 'How do I sustain this?' That's why I decided to focus on the made-to-measure side of the business a lot more.
[In terms of ready-to-wear], I think there's definitely something in growing a very niche product that's something that doesn't evolve very much and really develop a following around that. For me, because I like to create one-off pieces and to continue designing different styles, I think that what works best for me to sustain is to do what I have done with a business like this. There's just so much money that goes into making a collection, with pre-collections now. Everything is just crazy.
It seems exhausting. Five years from now, how do you see your brand developing? Do you want to keep it where it is?
Yeah, I think that I'm quite happy maintaining it as I do now. I mean, I would like to go back and do ready to wear again, which I've not done for a few years now. It's like I was saying before is, how would I approach that? That product, that doesn't, like I was saying, it doesn't evolve so much season to season.
Like a seasonless?
Something like, a collection of white shirts, say, and that's what you're focusing on. The model seems much more scalable than doing 30 incredible red-carpet dresses every season that celebrities will wear and you'll get a lot of press and attention. But for me, I think that is obviously where my heart is, is in very creative red-carpet dresses, but the way for me to do that is to do one by one. I would love to do ready-to-wear again, but just for me it would be figuring it out. It could even be like a version of my dresses that are a bit more accessible. It's something that I will definitely start to look at again in the next few years.
That's exciting. I know you've done a few different collaborations with the W around the world. How did they approach you in the beginning. How does that relationship benefit you?
I first worked with W London and obviously I was based in London at the time, in 2012. They just approached me out of the blue and said, 'We've heard about you and you're a young British designer and we would really like to do a project that's focusing on men's and women's pajamas or loungewear and do something that's really British.' I said, 'Let's do a pajama, like a stripey, traditional pajama.' They loved the idea and they came up with the concept of having a huge pajama party with everyone in their pajamas. It was loads of fun. Then, a few years later, they asked me if I'd be interested in designing a bikini and some shorts at the hotel in Barcelona, which we launched last year.
I guess with W, they are always trying to promote the upcoming, new aesthetic in fashion. It's a good brand to be working with.
Have you done many other collaborations that you feel like have helped you or have been good experiences?
I did a collection with River Island, which is a high-street store in the U.K. That was received really well. What I liked about that project is that I got to work with [producing in] India and in China on a mass scale for the first time, which I'd never done before. I actually found it really rewarding because I designed all these intricate sequin designs and embellishments and the quality they were able to produce at the price was actually quite astonishing. We actually did a video that went along with the collection. We filmed it in this huge mansion in Hertfordshire, north of London. We showed it at Somerset House in a party during fashion week. I like it when I can get involved in the other creative areas around what I created.
Now, do you have investors?
No, I have not actually worked with an investor since I graduated. They didn't actually, it actually got quite complicated with them. I think I was a bit burned from that whole experience. I mean, I have spoken to people since then, numerous times, but I've always decided not to.
It just depend on the type of partnership they want?
Yeah. I think it gets quite, well, I know designers in London that have taken investment. I think it can either go usually one or two ways. One is like an emotional investor, somebody that is really interested in fashion and wants to be involved and sometimes that could be a hindrance, maybe more so than just taking the investment. Or, then you get an investor that really knows what they're doing, and would bring a lot of value to the business. That would be something I would definitely would like to explore.
More like a partner?
Someone that has experience in the industry, ideally. That would want to be involved with running the business, more hands-on, in a good way, rather than someone that just wanted to be involved in making decisions about things. You know what I mean.
How big is the team? Do you have someone that handles that business side of things?
Well, I work with my partner. We split that work. Also, when I have a dress made I work with sample machines that will come in or I will send it to a particular sample room that will make it, so that way I can manage the whole process. In the Garment District, there's so many amazing sample rooms.
Is that where everything is made?
I make quite a few of my dresses there at one particular sample room on 37th Street.
Are you glad that you started your own brand so quickly after school?
When I was at the University I worked for Giles Deacon for two and a half years, as a pattern cutter. I think that's because, like I said, I started to study fashion and pattern cutting at 16. By the time I was 18, I was at the point that I could've helped with pattern cutting in his studio. That was invaluable experience to learn. Almost like to learn how I would then go and do this myself, in a way because then his team was quite small, it was about five people that were just in the studio. Then, after I graduated I did work for Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for a season before coming back to do fashion. I do have a bit of experience working for other designers. Sometimes I think if I were to have the restriction of having to go into work everyday, I don't think it would suit me very well. I much prefer to manage my own time and my own projects.
How, generally, do you find new clients?
It's mostly events or word-of-mouth. Mostly in the Emirates or Middle East it's a lot of word-of-mouth or they've seen something on somebody else, some event or wedding.
I was there for two years and I learned how to play polo at the polo club.
Yeah, because a lot of the ex-pats there, the Brits, they just don't integrate, I kind of had to. I had to find a way in to meet people. I found the polo club to be quite a good place. I've always ridden so was something that I was interested in, as well.
I didn't even there was polo over there.
Well you have to drive out like 45 minutes straight into the desert and then this oasis appears with all these trees and fields.
Wow. So is a lot of your job kind of being social and getting out there to meet clients?
Well, you would think, but I'm am actually not that social of a person. Even last night, I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to have to talk to people.' Then when I do, I really enjoy it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
W Hotels covered my travel and accommodations at the W Vieques.