Irene Agbontaen of TTYA – Taller Than Your Average

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Original interview by Caroline Ferry in May 2015, updated in March 2016

IRENE: My Company is called Taller Than Your Average, but that’s a mouthful so I shortened it down to TTYA. I started it back in 2013 because being 5’11”, I found it really difficult to find basic jersey clothes that fit. In particular, things like leggings, maxi dresses, long-sleeved T-shirts I found almost impossible to find any to fit my long limbs. So I designed and made my own.

I didn’t actually have a background in fashion design. The way I got started on TTYA was my impression of what the foundation of any woman’s wardrobe would be. My background was in fashion styling. I used to work at ASOS before I started my brand. I built my brand on what the essential woman’s wardrobe would be; a black legging, a staple white T-shirt, a vest maxi dress. All the things that would make the building blocks of your wardrobe and go with everything else. So that’s my starting point. Those pieces have continuity, so they are available all year round, we just do different shapes and colours and fits each season.

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The route into starting my own business was strange, almost like everything happened for a reason. I was in a really bad car accident, which led to me getting quite a lot of compensation money. I’d always wanted to go travelling, so rather than buying a new car with the money I left my job and spent the cash on a trip to Asia. It was whilst I was travelling that I had the idea to start the brand. Basically, I left London with a backpack containing very few clothes. Everywhere I went everyone was wearing the same thing – a vest, a long sleeved T-shirt and denim shorts. And I could never find those things that fit me! There was never a long-sleeved T-shirt or a maxi dress that was long enough for me. I needed stuff that I could pack light and on-the-go. I kept thinking; staples, everybody needs staples. I mean, I’m skimming over a lot here because from having the idea it took me about two years to actually launch the brand.

I was in New York, in my friend’s apartment when I first realised that was what I wanted to do. It was at the end of travelling and I’d been all over the place to such amazing places and seen such amazing things.  My friend said; ‘what are you gonna do now?’ and I said; ‘I’m gonna start my own brand’ and we laughed and I said ‘but I really am going to do it’ and it kind of just went from there.

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So then I started researching. It took me about two years, just to source stockists and things like that. Learning how to start a company. There was so much I didn’t know. One place I did a lot of research was the British Library – it’s amazing. It has a business centre there, and they have advisors, there’s loads that you can learn there. They have journals that you can take away, and it’s divided by category so no matter what field you are in you can find out about stuff relating to your industry. I spent hours in there, researching and finding out what I wanted to do. Because when you have an idea for a business you instantly think of gazillions of things you want to do. Then you cost things up and realise what everything’s going to cost, and you’re like; OK, that can wait till later! Maybe we’ll start with this. So that’s a good piece of advice I’d pass on; start small. So I started with seven pieces, from an original idea that was probably, when I wrote my business plan, about 50 things that I wanted to make. We launched with seven. I was lucky in that the business was rooted in necessity, I thought, if I need this, there must be loads of girls who need this. You can’t be naked just because you are tall!

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When you structure your business plan, one of the sections is market research. So you have to go out and see; who is doing this, what is everybody else doing, what is your ‘unique selling point’, how are you going to position your brand. Doing a business plan makes you think about it seriously, it’s not just an idea now, it’s ‘I’m going to take this idea and try and make it make me some money’. It took me back to Uni because it was exactly like doing a dissertation. You break it down into sections and you try and handle one section at a time ! It took me two years, but you break it down and it just simplifies it, like composing an essay. It also makes you question everything, production, logistics, OK I’m going make all this amazing stuff but how am I going to make it? How am I going to get it into the country? How much is that going to cost? So you have to phone round and ask people how much things would cost which is time consuming, A business plan structures it all and simplifies it so you can understand how you’re going to do everything.

Everyone’s situation is different, but for me I was lucky enough that because I worked in a creative industry I could always freelance if I needed extra cash. And I think that was something that meant I had the freedom to do this. I was also very lucky that I had been styling for quite a while and I was always sensible with my money and I had invested it in a property. So that paid for itself and I didn’t have to worry too much about my rent. My personal situation was different to some people’s – you could do a full time job as well as setting up a business, it just depends on how much time you can dedicate to it. If you are passionate about it then you will dedicate time to it and do what needs to be done. I would say the planning side of it you could easily do while in a full-time job. The British Library Business Centre is open on the weekend! So it’s feasible.

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Every day there are things that make me wanna quit! Every day you question it you say ‘oh my God did I make the right decision?’ every day! Even up until now I wanna scream sometimes, I have a cry. I do cry a lot actually. It isn’t easy. I couldn’t say, oh I just woke up and had this amazing business one day, that would be a lie. I’m still learning every day, and for you to grow you need to balance. There are still trials and tribulations. There were maybe 15 factories who told be ‘no’ before I got a factory who told me ‘yes’. Everyone said you need to have minimums of 100 units or 500 units and I was like; ‘how the hell am I going to start making one top with 500 units?’ Just finding a factory that would supply me with small quantities was hard. And anybody who has a fashion business will know, that factory is one of the most important things to your business. I luckily found one that could see where I was coming from and they also supplied other high street retailers so maybe they could see that there was a gap in the market. They could see that I had the opportunity to do something about it.

I don’t have a big team. I have two interns who work with me, they are really cool and have been with me some time. I do the majority of it still myself, from designing, to creative, to marketing. I still freelance bits of it out. I would be naïve to sit here and tell you I know how to do absolutely everything myself. But, if there are bits that need to be done that I physically can’t do myself I freelance out. I would also say that being able to allocate/delegate is part of growing a business. Because you do feel like you do want to do everything yourself, or only you can do it the way you want it to be – because it’s your vision and it’s you who knows how you want it to be. But one of the parts of growing a business is allowing other people to do things so you can focus on building the business. That is something I have learned in the last few months! How to grow.

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It’s been doing really well on ASOS; I was one of the first tall brands they platformed. I’m also in Barney’s in New York and I’m in Selfridges. So that was an amazing stockist to start off with, and it’s not like ‘tall’s not cool’ like it used to be. Plus all the models are tall – so I’ve had Daisy Lowe, Jourdan Dunn, Elle McPherson, all massive beautiful girls who are very much into the brand. It started because myself and Jourdan Dunn are have mutual friends. She was interested in the brand when she found out about it and I send her lookbooks then she requests from that. Then I met Karlie Kloss at the Brit awards and she ended up wearing something to Taylor Swift’s birthday!  Karlie also got papped, wearing TTYA and the picture ended up in US Vogue, which equals instant traffic to the site. It’s all genuine support because they like the range. I’ve never sent out clothes to celebrities unsolicited, I don’t even really believe that works because they just get so much, I don’t know if they even get to see it all!

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I’ve done four seasons of collaborations with Long Tall Sally, the final collection just came out. Originally, they approached me and asked to stock the brand and I said no! The only way I would work with them would be to design a separate range for them. I think the appeal for them is that they wanted to target a younger customer base. I’d never worn it previously, despite it being the shop that my Mum would always try and get me to go in when I was a tall teenager, which I just couldn’t bear – it always used to be so frumpy. I think I’ve helped re-brand them, I even shortened their name down so it was TTYAxLTS. It’s opened me up to a whole new market, and a larger share of that market. It’s been a good exercise for me and it’s been good financially, and I’ve learned a lot from it too.

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I’m not doing another collaboration with them though – I want to focus on my brand for a bit. I don’t necessarily think there is a danger of taking on too much work – personally I don’t think you get ‘given’ more than you can handle and I think it’s fun to push yourself sometimes, you might be surprised how much you can get done!

I still work part time hosting parties, everything from Alexa’s birthday party to Beth Ditto’s fashion launch at the London Edition Hotel so I’m still not relying on TTYA for money. To me having another job isn’t a downside, it helps my sanity as much as my bank balance. It’s nice to work for yourself but it can also be lonely, I could be on the computer for 16 hours a day and that could just be by myself so it’s nice to have something to go to where I can talk to people as well. My goal is to be living off the brand by the end of 2016. TTYA turns itself over but all profits go straight back into the business, it doesn’t make sense to pay myself wages from TTYA when I am trying to grow the business. Also I don’t sleep very much but I am used to it! I can power through, when I was a stylist I would sometimes work very long shifts. I expected the financial side of it ito be like this, if anything, things have moved faster than I thought they would. I knew it would take some time, and things like getting Selfridges so soon was unexpected, it’s like, where do you go from there?

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Starting TTYA Talks: I wanted to put on a talk because I have had so much support and learned so much setting up the business, I wanted to pass that on to other people who’d like to do it. I’ve never had a mentor and I wanted to kind of spread a bit of mentoring and bring people together – inspirational women and people who want to know how they did it. The first talk with with legendary fashion journalist Caryn Franklin; who was one of the first people to write about the range. It was so successful we are doing another series of talks partnering with Shoreditch House for 2016. As well as Caryn and my friend FKA twigs, We’ve had Donna Rooney of Donna Management whose rosta includes – Elle Macpherson, Francesca Versace, Daisy Lowe and Naomi Shimada and 
Fashion Entrepreneur of the Year winner Ade Hassan, who founded Nubian Skin, nude lingerie for women of colour. The tickets sell out really fast and get amazing feedback for being really inspirational.

My advice for people wanting to set up their own business is a cliché but it’s true. ‘Don’t give up!’ Don’t be disheartened. You’re going to get no’s. Everyone’s going to tell you ‘no’. I had loads of factories tell me ‘no’ before one told me ‘yes’ so I could have given up after the first five of those. Believe in your product. Believe in your idea and don’t give up because the potential for what you could manifest could be greater than what you envisioned, which is something I’m living and breathing.

The second thing is ‘use your extended network’. Friends have skills you can exchange and work together. Two heads are better that one. I had a big group of my friends round one afternoon and gave everyone a job to help get my website off the ground, one person re-sizing images, another writing copy.

You don’t need to be that protective of your idea, you know, you can share it! People think ‘if I tell people what I’m doing they’ll steal my idea’ but don’t think that! No-one could do it the way you would do it. There’s always going to be healthy competition, but only you can do it your way. So make it unique to you and the way you brand it.

One of the reasons that I always describe myself as the founder, rather than designer, of TTYA is so that the brand feels like more than just clothes, and that my role is more than just making clothes, which I see as a bit limiting. The brand is socially and culturally relevant and it’s not just a business all about making money. It’s a whole attitude.

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