Q&A: CLARE HORNBY
The founder of Me + Em on ‘fashion Lego’, the secret to looking younger, and her reverence for Coco Chanel
Interview: Jackie Modlinger
Images: Brendan Freeman
Me + Em is one of the most talked-up brands on Planet Fashion, the label du jour as well as toujours. Aficionados include Amal Clooney, Rosamund Pike, Thandie Newton, Emilia Fox and the Duchess of Cambridge (after Kate sported one of Me + Em’s cobalt blue Breton tops at a polo match, sales went viral).
Earlier this year, a Me + Em store appeared on New Cavendish Street. It immediately begged the question: who’s ‘me’ and who’s ‘Em’?
I meet ‘me’—the brand’s owner and founder Clare Hornby—at the Groucho Club where, over double espressos, I learn about the brand. “I worked in advertising, and I was trained to look for a gap in the market. So I thought, what does the consumer not have that they need?” she reflects. “My business partner back then, Emma Howarth (the ‘Em’ bit) and I brainstormed on holiday in a villa in Majorca and started a business called Pyjama Room. At that time, the loungewear revolution hadn’t really begun and PJs were relegated to the darkest, most distant corner of the department store.
“The insight was that you spend a lot of time at home with your partner, you want to be comfortable but always end up hanging out looking scruffy, so we tried to elevate that. The ethos of Pyjama Room was great, but it was too narrow a concept. We launched it online and then realised we had a much bigger idea, Comfortable Luxury, which we then re-branded as Me + Em. It opened us up to knitwear and outerwear and everything.”
Tall and rangy, Clare, who defines her style as “pared-back with a bit of edge”, looks incredibly cool in her own-label put-together navy, pinstripe tux-style jacket, with contrast satin revers over a bright green top, paired with faded, fray-hem jeans, accessorised with pink slip-on Common Project trainers. “I don’t like going smart top and bottom—to go casual with one, that’s how we look younger, I think. We’re always in that battle: how do we dress our age?”
With her centre-parted ‘lob’, Clare bears a striking similarity to Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter. She likes the analogy. “Oh, really that’s a compliment. Sadly, I’m not as successful,” she chortles. The way things are going, such stellar success surely beckons. Clare employs some 70 people. Me + Em now boasts five stores in prime London locations. The brand is expanding rapidly, with new west London headquarters.
Her background has lent her a more modular approach to her craft. Consequently, Clare has her own template and mantras—expressions such as “fashion Lego”, meaning easy pieces that slot seamlessly together. “Everything is an outfit, so we make the tops to go with the trousers so that the silhouettes work with the lengths,” she explains.
‘The Three Fs’—the essential ingredients for her fashion recipe—are flattering, functional and fashionable. “It’s quite simple to buy from us, because in the main, we do the same shapes season after season. We update them with contemporary twists and trends and colours.” Wardrobe “unlockers” (like the Breton stripes), “fashion icons” (familiar styles and silhouettes re-interpreted with a new colour hit every month) and “gatekeepers” are all part of her vernacular.
Think athleisure, sport luxe, layering and clashing textures and you get the picture, though dresses and more evening wear are in the pipeline. “We’ve just done a floral wrap midi dress,” enthuses Clare, “I am not normally a floral person, but I wore it with trainers at the weekend and I have never had so many compliments.”
Clare studied retail marketing at Manchester Polytechnic before joining a graduate course at Harrods. “You have to be creative and commercial—the two are intrinsically linked,” believes Clare, whose business and advertising background has given her the ideal synergy.
Were you interested in clothes when you were growing up?
Yeah, obsessed, I think. Mum and I used to make all my clothes. She was super stylish, my mum. We’d pick patterns and fabrics—I think that’s where my eye for detail and fit originates, because I used to spend hours in front of the mirror fitting clothes with her. We lived in a big textile area, so I worked in denim and dress factories up north, and I worked at Oldham market. I had my own little shoe business. I’d buy from a wholesaler and then go up and queue for a stall. So I think I’ve always had retail and clothing in my blood.
What was the thinking behind the name Me + Em?
A name is less important than people think. You’ve got to get a name and then that name becomes what you are. I liked Me + Em because it’s a palindrome—it reads the same way backwards and frontwards—and when we put it into a logo, it just looked really iconic.
Do you think you have a good understanding of what women really want to wear?
I think if you’re part of your own target audience, that gives you insight and ideas that you can’t have if you’re not, in some sense, your own customer. I get ideas by wearing my own clothes; by getting to know what I like and don’t. It’s a permanent research project.
Who is the Me + Em woman?
Really interesting question, that. I now think the Me + Em ‘gatekeeper’ pieces are actually becoming multi-generational—my mum wears the cashmere hoodie and so does my 14-year-old daughter—but I think that the age range is probably around 40-50. She’s not a really corporate woman—not City, I’d say more journalism, film, advertising. It comes from my background; I never dressed in a corporate way, but I did want to dress in a smart way. I think also that workwear’s changing. People are de-constructing a little, becoming more experimental, using separates more, jackets and jeans. I do love jackets and that’s a great area for us—smart with jeans.
Who in the industry do you admire?
Anyone who has established a brand that’s seen it through the decades and anyone who’s run a successful and profitable business. I massively admire Natalie Massenet—I think she’s a phenomenon. She single-handedly changed the way people shop luxury. Jo Malone, Chrissie Rucker [of The White Company], Johnnie Boden, anyone who’s built a brand and stuck to it—who really understands their customer and has a vision. If I was to pick one designer who I think has defined luxury, it’s Coco Chanel, for her insight. She created the palazzo pant. The insight was, how do women get off gondolas in long skirts? She created the Breton as a fashion icon. She’s the one who put functionality into fashion.
What brought you to Marylebone?
I really love Marylebone. It’s great—it’s kind of like a London village. It’s got the big business community, as well as a transient community, so you’ve got the locals, those that work here, and then the international, so for retail it’s perfect because you get all-year-round business. You’ve got lots of working women round here, too. It’s very good for brands like ours. Marylebone’s amazing—it’s doing so well, that store, and it got out of the starting block so quickly.
Do you think your two teenage daughters might go into the business? Then you could call it Me + Them…
I think they think they might—there’s a long way to go, though. I could see a role for both of them in it. I am making them work for the business now in their school holidays. I get them very involved—not just on the clothing side, but also the business side. They look at Google Analytics. I quite often help them with their homework through talking about how it works in business. I think maths becomes easier if you know what goes on in the real world.
How do you relax away from it all?
Cooking—I cook a lot. I love cooking with the children. I’ve just gone vegan, so lots of vegetables, leek and potato soup. I have so much more energy than I used to have. Walking the dogs—I have a labrador and an English cocker show spaniel. We go on quite a lot of holidays, skiing, watching movies with the girls, and going to my book, film and entrepreneurship clubs.
What’s next for Me + Em?
We are going to get back into bags next year, then shoes—we’ll start with trainers. More category growth, then growing online, internationally, concessions. We’ll probably look at America in two to three years’ time. Watch this space.