HOW many of us ‘girls’ spent our younger years talking with school playground pals or uni flatmates about entering into business together? In these days of entrepreneurialism and ‘I CAN’ attitude – probably a fair few. Here, Eloquently Her tells the story of Caroline Begley and Katie Greytrix, who’ve moved from campus antics to commercial success.
Pipe dreams have their place.
They keep weary students and frustrated wage slaves battling through the highs and lows (and lower stills), and they give hope and heart where optimism is ebbing away fast.
And besides, might it be true that every successful entrepreneur who has gone on to conquer the entrepreneurial minefield, has had to start with that same lofty pipe dream vision of future triumph?
For Caroline Begley, those days of wistfully sitting in her university digs and comparing pipe dream ideals with her closest campus chum, are as vivid a memory as ever.
What sets Caroline apart, however, is that she, together with student-day partner in crime Katie Greytrix, really has gone on to bring that dream to life.
Today, the pair have transformed their idea of ‘some fashion business together’ into a rapidly growing and ethically focused ‘lifestyle brand’, which even to this day owes many of its elements to those university-time ambitions.
“I don’t suppose we were that dissimilar to many 20 somethings in university,” Caroline says, beginning to tell the story of how the pairing first came together.
“We really hit it off when we met at Winchester School of Art on a fashion course, and like so many other students around us, we allowed ourselves to ‘dream big’, and we were particularly keen on the idea that we could have a business together.
“Ultimately, I suppose that was a bit of a ‘pipe dream’ at the time, but it kept us going and it kept the friendship strong. It just took an awful long time before we eventually found ourselves taking the actual steps of developing something commercially together.”
With one based in Brixton and the other in Berkshire, the pairing are the dynamic and energetic pairing behind Lala and Bea.
The brand, for those of you who haven’t yet indulged in gift-buying from their captivating online shop, is positioned as one of ‘practical but fun’ products.
What started with a small array of beautiful woollen hats, has rapidly grown into sweaters, nightwear, accessories – and even a recent addition of its own beauty range.
“We didn’t exactly follow a straight-forward route to setting up a company together, but really, having separate journeys has ultimately brought us together as stronger and more capable people,” Caroline continues.
“I went in to the design side of fashion, working for the likes of Jack Wills, while Katie found her niche in merchandising and was quickly working her way up the ranks for brands like Karen Millen.
“We never really ‘parked’ the idea that one day we would have liked to have our own business, but life gets busy, children come along, and then you have to make some bold decisions which see you wrestling heart and head.”
That ‘busy life’ scenario led to both women having two children, with Katie’s first born in 2006, and Caroline’s some time later in 2010.
Despite meeting up socially on a regular basis, and being continually in touch over social media, it took until 2014 before the pair would finally decide to take the plunge and live out the collaborative dream in the world of fashion.
“I think the switch went for me when my son was due to go to school,” admits Caroline.
“I was at White Stuff at the time and loved what I did, but increasingly I knew I now wanted my work to be really ‘flexible’.
“However good your employer, sometimes it’s just not enough when you’re starting to think more about your family and where you really want to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
“That stage combined with my grandmother passing away and leaving me a small amount of inheritance.
“Somehow, things came together as a bit of a catalyst. I realised I could now afford to buy some initial stock and establish the kind of truly ethical and family focused lifestyle business which Katie and I had talked about decades before.”
Caroline admits that some friends and family immediately stepped into ‘cynical worry-wart’ mode, urging her against the idea of jumping into business with a long-held friend.
Ironically, however, Caroline’s previous two professional encounters – for Jack Wills and for White Stuff – were both brands where the clothing companies had been established by long-time university chums.
“Of course there’s a risk in going into business with someone you value as a friend,” she confesses, candidly.
“I was old enough and wise enough – having seen some of the issues play out with previous employers – to know that there might well be differences of opinion or challenging times, but it didn’t stop me feeling it was the right thing.
“We properly started the conversation in the early part of 2014, and by the Christmas time of that year we had launched our website with our first ‘own design’ stock, and were on our way.”
As if the ‘best friend collaboration’ didn’t already feel truly heart-warming, there’s another twist to this tale. And it perhaps provides the reason that Caroline and Katie are so keen to tag the business as a ‘family lifestyle brand’.
Indeed, it was Caroline’s Mum, who is herself something of a legend with the art of knitting, who first crafted Lala and Bea’s initial hat range.
“While I never really focused on the connection at the early stage of establishing my career, it happens that my Mum had a knitting business when I was very young,” Caroline reflects.
“She used to have an army of knitters who she would turn to when she had a number of requests, and so when I shared with her what we were preparing to start as our first line, she was more than happy to be handing some design ideas and put the prototype ideas together for me.
“It was Mum’s creations which we took to the manufacturer for our multiple order, and I’m so proud that I can look back and say that there was a truly family approach to getting started on our business adventure.”
Following a number of successful trade fair encounters, and some slightly less so (“we were often disappointed with the fact we didn’t immediately walk away with a John Lewis contract or that we couldn’t get big brands to understand our sustainability ethos”), Lala and Bea gained online traction quickly and consistently.
Today, the pairing are successfully enjoying a presence on Not on the High Street, as well as with numerous online boutiques.
They remain as ambitious as ever about the desire to capture a ‘big name’ stockist for their breadth of offering, but at the same time, they feel more focused on remaining true to their brand ethos, and to getting ‘buy in’ only from retailers and wholesalers who truly understand their sustainable and ethical approach.
“Naturally we want to have some big department stores stocking us, and seeing more and more high-number sales over the coming years, but I very sincerely mean it when I say that our priority is preserving integrity of our brand,” Caroline says.
“Fast fashion is so far from where we are. We know it has a place, but we also know we’ve spent a long time thinking about what we would want from the brand – not only as owners of a business, but as people who shop for our children, our friends and our family.
“Lala and Bea has always been about the provision of lovingly British-made sustainable pieces which really stand out in the world of fast fashion.
“We have no intention of that changing, so if we find commercial collaborators who like that approach, and see something special in two friends who once sat at university and dreamed big before making it happen, then great. We’d love to hear from them.”
You can visit Lala and Bea’s website at www.lalaandbea.com
Caroline and Katie are kindly offering a limited time only offer for Eloquently Her readers.
Those wishing to purchase from the site can use offer code EH15 for a 15 % discount between now and the end of August.