Lulu O’Connor founded the Clothes Doctor, an online clothing maintenance service, last year. It offers repairs and alterations with all the convenience that the modern consumer has come to expect. Inspired by Lulu’s own moment of epiphany over her overflowing wardrobe and its contrast with her mother’s make-do-and-mend attitude to clothing, she sought a solution. Not finding it in the dry cleaners of the capital, she took the ease of the online boutiques from which she once indulged in regular sprees and combined them with a studio of seamstresses in Cornwall, where she was born. She aims to shake up the fashion industry and tackle its waste. Here she shares the moments that marked the journey to her start-up…
Lulu with her dog, Otto.
“As a child, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs from my brothers. My parents were the post-war generation. That generation have a very different attitude to the current generation. They don’t see clothes as a consumer good. Clothes are something that you buy, you look after, and you keep for years and years. You made do with what you had, you repaired what you had, and yes, for special occasions you might buy a new dress but it wasn’t a regular occurrence. If you didn’t need to spend money on it, why would you?”
Sewn by hand
“My first special piece won’t be forgotten. My favourite colour was green, it still is. My mother made me a dress that was corduroy with a bird print all over it… Pheasants… Parrots… I just loved it so much. I used to just get such a kick out of wearing it. I certainly wasn’t a tomboy. I loved dresses and loved dressing up, I felt like a princess. But yes, day-to-day, I lived in my brothers’ hand-me-downs. They were perfect for climbing trees!”
Sewing as a skill
“Unlike my mother, I’m embarrassed to say I cannot sew. I can sew on a button and sew up a hem but nothing more! I did sewing classes at school but it was all based around making new things on a sewing machine – cushions, outfits – never repairs and alterations, never the useful skills that you need. Darning is such an amazing skill that so few people can do, and a much more useful one than knowing how to sew an outfit from scratch. They just didn’t teach it.”
From high street to high spend
“I grew up in Cornwall where my local high street had Tammy Girl and Topshop. I loved them and made some disastrous fashion choices there! My love of fashion was fired up by magazines like J17 and Mizz… I used to buy them all. My mum would comment disapprovingly that they were “rather ephemeral, darling” but I devoured them every month. I started to realise how clothes can transform you. From an old baggy t-shirt to a sparkly, shiny thing on the rails of Tammy Girl, it altered your mood.”
“As a student at Oxford I wanted to differentiate myself from my peers. I branched out from the high street and foraged through vintage shops for cool pieces. I loved that process. But vintage wouldn’t cut it in the boardroom. When I graduated and began working in the City, there were standards to uphold. I was in client meetings by day then taking clients out to dinner most evenings. I needed a day-to-night wardrobe and began investing in expensive brands like Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Chanel. I realised that cheap clothes just look cheap in that environment, and owning them also doesn’t pay off in the long run: they would fade from cleaning, and there would be creases and splits down the seam at inopportune moments.”
“Online shopping was where I got my hits. I didn’t actually like shopping, but I loved having new “stuff”. It was a binge attitude to shopping. Because I binge-shopped I had a lower standard, too. I just “quite liked” them all rather than falling in love with them like my green dress as a child. I had a great disposable income and I wanted to enjoy it. I don’t want to be self-righteous about it – shopping is a lot of fun, but my desire to buy was almost an addiction, I craved that kick out of it. You find something you love, it makes you look fantastic, but then the feeling of the “hit” fades…”
“I reached a tipping point. I had a huge walk-in wardrobe and there was no space left. Not an inch. It was a moment of epiphany. I had a good look through it and so much was damaged: Hems falling down, buttons missing, cashmere moth-eaten. Where could I go to get it repaired? I tried local dry cleaners but they would say no to anything but the most basic mending. That was my gap in the market.”
“Like me, most people don’t know things can be repaired. They think moth damage is irreparable. If a zip is broken, they just bin it. That’s a real tragedy. I wanted to address this with my company plus bring the convenience of online. I wanted to level the playing field.”
“Very quickly from launch we found that the brand resonates most with premium shoppers. They spend on their clothes and they care for their clothes; they have an emotional attachment to them. It’s lovely to build that relationship with these customers, to see them fall back in love with a garment because they are so delighted with the way a garment comes back. That’s a positive thing we are able to do without us having a product that we sell. That’s the genesis of a strong brand, in my mind, it’s that emotional connection.”
“The brand was founded from my personal experience but then when I began to research sustainability in the fashion industry, to discover how much it pollutes, I was shocked. There is a lack of definition around sustainability, a lack of a benchmark. I was in a particularly low-cost fast fashion retailer the other day that declared in a poster on its Oxford Street store that they are sustainable, and they pay their workers a fair wage. How is that possible given the product’s price? For a consumer, that’s so confusing, it muddies the water. So many brands on the bandwagon of sustainability but there needs to be an official authorisation or distinction.”
Plastic forever (and ever)
“Like many people, my big gripe is plastic, or equally, man-made fibres in clothes. Fundamentally, that’s the thing that surprised me the most when I started researching. It terrifies me that the plastic wrapper I just threw away will still be here for lifetimes to come. Imagine how much has built up already? The same applies to clothing, and that has to change. The best way of addressing the plastic and waste problems our world faces is simply by consuming less. You can do that with clothes by looking after your existing wardrobe and buying less. With food, we still need the calories, so we need to find viable alternatives to plastic packaging.”
“I’ve made a conscious decision this year to eat less meat and I’m not going to be pretend it’s been easy. I love meat! I grew up thinking every meal had to have meat or cheese or it wasn’t a meal. But I’ve discovered the joy of a vegan curry. Likewise, I’m careful with my fish choices. At home, we eat a lot of mackerel and try not to eat salmon. I will try to buy smoked trout rather than salmon. Most of all, I’m a believer in eating locally and seasonally. That’s my approach. I avoid buying exotic foods which have clocked the air miles!”
“Having just moved, I’m redecorating and sourcing lots of furniture second hand. There is no market for second hand furniture so the prices are unbelievably good value. I use PreLoved and Ebay – again, I love online shopping. It doesn’t have to be endless foraging in markets and car boot sales. I feel there is such a glut of used furniture, and I’m happy I can buy something that has already been used and loved. I’m also enjoying using RiseArt to rent artwork.”
Learn more about the Clothes Doctor and how you can support its growth campaign.
Read our guide to how to care for your wool pieces.
See Rosanna Falconer’s picks of Instagrammable and sustainable fashion brands and our guide to dressing ethically.