Advice for starting a business in your 50s from designer Susi Bellamy
Having spent time as the fashion editor of Brides magazine in her 20s, over the last three decades Susi Bellamy’s life has gone from traditional wedding white to full-blown technicolour. ‘It’s all a bit Wizard of Oz,’ she says about the transition, ‘but now colour is a thread that runs through everything I do.’ At the age of 49, after raising three children and working freelance she decided to change direction, enrolling for an MA in Fine Art at Northumbria University. ‘Art is a great leveller’ she laughs, ‘In the graduate studio space, there was me and a load of 20 year old boys. They looked at me, I looked at them and we all wondered “how’s this going to work?” But we’d happily sit and chat about each other’s projects together.’
While employed at Condé Nast, Susi worked with some of the world’s greatest photographers, including Norman Parkinson and David Bailey – and obviously has a great eye for composition, together with extraordinary creative flair. And then a six year sabbatical in Florence ( when Susi’s husband was seconded to Italy, the family relocated) changed everything. She returned to Corbridge with three bilingual children and a penchant for painting, ‘ Fashion, colour, the Italian Renaissance – it all went into a melting pot and this is what came out.’
While setting up her studio space in Newcastle, after graduating, Susi built a simple shelving unit to display her paintings and abstract prints; looking at the bright squares lined up in a row gave her the idea to turn the artwork into cushions. So she borrowed a friend’s scanner, digitally transferred her designs onto natural fabrics, including cotton, linen and silk. Almost immediately, Susi was talent-spotted, winning funding towards a stand at Top Drawer, a trade exhibition for fashion and interiors retailers. Then the Department for Trade & Industry (DTI) match-funded her trip to Maison & Objet in Paris, and offered additional mentoring and support. By the age of 51, Susi had created her eponymous interiors company producing luxurious cushions, lampshades and eye-catching wallpaper. All of which is made in the UK. Abstract paintings and marble papers are printed onto fabrics in Evesham, while wallpapers are printed in Lancashire.
As well as the interiors side of the business, Susi also sells fabrics and scarves. And readily admits that making a pencil skirt in one of her fabrics was ‘a bit of fun for’ her first trade exhibition. While living in Italy encouraged her to wear more colour, ‘ I was inspired by the women I saw in Florence who didn’t save their best clothes for best. And also by brands like Pucci and Gucci.’ Both her home and her wardrobe are packed with vibrant tones, ‘Colour makes me feel good, I’m not afraid of it – I’m afraid of flying and doing my accounts but not colour. I wish I was even braver!’ With clothes Susi tends to stick to block colours, ‘ I love wearing skirts, they suit my figure more than trousers. I love to have a slice of colour when I wear my winter coat and boots. I’ve got a yellow skirt from COS that I wear with a long grey coat and knee boots, it’s such a lovely surprise to see that flash of colour when I’m walking along.’ And obviously with her maximalist aesthetic, she is not a woman to shy away from mixing pattern with pattern, ‘ You’ve got to get the colour tones working together. I do work with the colour wheel, contrasting colours like red and green are always going to be a winner, particularly tertiary colours like soft brick red and olive green.’
Now on a mission to bring colour to the north, the 56-year-old is a founder member and chair of a non-profit organisation Colour Collective UK. ‘It’s four people who are passionate about colour,’ she continues, ‘colour gets up us in the morning.’ Affiliated with the neuroscience department at Newcastle University and the fashion and textiles department at Northumbria, the organisation aims to create cross-disciplinary events demonstrating the magic of colour.
Second career highlights so far include walking into a bricks and mortar store and seeing her eponymous designs on sale; together with receiving positive press reviews in a number of publications, ‘I love that my cushions are in shops in Italy alongside Gucci cushions and that my work has been featured in Architectural Digest; I always dreamt about the meeting of fashion and interiors. Two things on my bucket list are: to make rugs and to collaborate with a fashion brand.’
Here’s Susi Bellamy’s advice on starting a business in your 50s:
Be pro-active. I went to a social media fair in Newcastle, quite early on, and the DTI had a stand so I took a card and called them. They gave me an advisor who I still work with, funding is thin on the ground but they helped pay towards the show in Paris which was a wonderful opportunity.
Start small. I’ve made plenty of mistakes: over-ordering samples, having too many products. I would advise anyone designing or making to have a simpler range of products to begin with.
Be open-minded about possibilities but prepared to take risks. I took a risk launching wallpaper and fabric and then doing the trade fairs as a small brand. Going abroad to Paris to show felt like my biggest risk. Speculate to accumulate. Sometimes I feel like it is so difficult to get on top of everything as it costs so much for production, photography, accountancy, catalogues, assistants. Money comes in but it soon goes out again, that’s why I’m working out a business plan with my book-keeper!
Hire an assistant. Even if it’s only for a few hours a week. I decided a year ago to get regular help, I was getting busy and needed help with Photoshop and online stuff that millennials are good at! It’s great to work with someone after working largely alone and to have that moral support.
Collaborate with people. I’ve worked with other creatives I’ve met through Instagram and it has been great fun. My latest collaboration is an amazing fringed lampshade in one of my geometric designs that I’ve created with Beauvamp.
Please note: affiliate links in this post may generate commission.
Susi Bellamy will be at Pop-Up Of the North, York House, Malton, North Yorks 19 – 21 March 2020.