It takes a special kind of tenacity to be an entrepreneur, but what kind of creative resilience is required to maintain a small enterprise during a global pandemic? We talked to ESCP Business School graduate Alexia Genta about her pivot from tailoring high-end fashion to creating her own bespoke pieces – and how it saved her business.
For Alexia Genta, her move to entrepreneur came from a simple case of bad customer service.
After saving diligently, she decided to buy herself a dress from a collection by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, a piece she says she would not normally be able to afford and felt great pride in purchasing. Wanting it to fit perfectly, Genta asked around for recommendations of high-end tailors who would be able to make the adjustments needed that would also respect the value of her fusion silk-satin piece.
Word of mouth took her to a tailor reportedly the favourite of celebrities and royalty, but the experience was grim.
“The floor was dusty. The dressing-room curtain wouldn’t close and I felt a bit exposed. The guy was eating a sandwich, and I remember he was leaving grease marks all over my dress. It was horrible.
“And at that point I wondered why is this the best place in London, and could I make it better?”
Alexia Alterations was born in 2018. As the daughter of legendary watch designer Gérald Genta, Alexia had the value of quality instilled in her from a young age. While her professional experience had taught her that she could be a successful marketer of mass products, Genta decided that this venture had to be high-end.
“Watch design has nothing to do with fashion, but it’s very particular. It’s all about the finest details, whether in the design or the manufacture.
“He always told me that people would pay for quality. That was the biggest lesson I learnt from him.”
Setting up in Knightsbridge, one of London’s most elite districts, Genta’s target market was wealthy female clients who shopped at Harrods, Gucci and Chanel, or who needed expert work to alter couture pieces.
Knowing that it was word of mouth that sent her to the disappointing tailor, Genta set to work using her networking skills.
“I didn’t have any marketing budget at the beginning – I couldn’t spend money on Google ads or Instagram campaigns. Getting the word out was key.”
Genta focused her efforts on a female-only gym she was a member of, making connections day after day at the juice bar and relying on her natural charm to drum up trade. It worked: on opening day, Alexia Alterations already had 20 bookings.
After starting with just one seamstress, Genta was soon able to employ five full-time. With her client turnover heavily reliant on events, her main challenge was to make money in January. This finally happened in 2020: in fact, the company made more that month and in the first half of February than it had in the peak period of July the year before.
And then, in March 2020, the pandemic saw a national lockdown and the closure of all non-essential businesses.
Since COVID-19, it’s been a complete nightmare. My costs are high, and rent is my main issue. My landlord has the power to end my business, and hasn’t given me any rent break.
With no income to cover the costs of maintaining her premises in one of the most expensive parts of London, Genta was faced with losing everything she had worked for just as the business was turning a solid profit.
Many companies quickly jumped on the idea of producing face masks. Genta certainly considered it, given the amount of high-quality off-cut material Alexia Alterations had accumulated, but the profit margin was just too small and the longevity of the strategy too unsure.
“I also find face masks a depressing item,” admits Genta. “I wanted to make something that would bring joy to people.”
Genta quickly put her instincts and creativity to work, which for her had developed into an almost sixth sense during her Msc in Marketing & Creativity at ESCP. The academic environment had given her the opportunity to be as creative as possible without risk, but now it was time to put these skills to the test.
While strategising with her key seamstress, Genta hit on an idea that would prove to be the saving grace of her business.
“That day I was wearing a headband, and that was it. It’s small, it’s trendy. I saw Kate Middleton wearing a headband at Archie’s christening, and thought, let’s do that!”
With a concept that her seamstress could work on from home, the pair set about gathering as much fabric as possible before the lockdown started on 23rd March. The instructions were simple: one month to make as many headbands as possible, and they had to be perfect. No stains, no pulled threads. While her seamstress worked, Genta focused on creating the brand and setting up a website through which the headbands could be sold.
Honestly, it was so exciting. I didn’t have time to think about COVID-19. It took me a year to create Alexia Alterations; it took me one month to launch the headbands. It’s surreal what you can do when you have to. And really fun!
Géraldine London launched in April and turned a profit in just three weeks. Doing everything in-house – from e-commerce to marketing – meant that Genta’s only expense was her seamstress. Her abundance of networking skills had a ready-made fanbase keen to purchase, and she benefited from great PR after deciding to donate 20 per cent of her profits to Women’s Aid, a British charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse against women and children.
“I’m aware that I’m very lucky to have a partner with a full-time job, and who is working from home and very nice to be around. So many women are stuck at home in bad situations.”
Genta is also aware that her home life has helped her significantly in maintaining an income while Alexia Alterations is closed.
“I don’t have any children, so I don’t judge entrepreneurs who are not able to keep up with things. I was resilient, but I also had circumstances that allowed me to be resilient.”
The new business was almost a victim of its own success, with product selling out faster than new items could be made. But when lockdown eased, Genta decided that Géraldine London was here to stay. In early November the brand scored its first major fashion coup, seeing comedian and actor Katherine Ryan styled in a Géraldine London headband on the cover of The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine.
Alexia Alterations survived the first major lockdown thanks to Géraldine London, reopening its shop in mid-June. However, there was no easy bounce-back, with income estimated at just five to ten per cent of the year before. With many weddings postponed the winter bridal market was virtually non-existent, taking with it the bridesmaid and guest alterations that come along with a bridal booking.
“Last year there were seven fittings a day. Now it’s two fittings a week,” says Genta. “It’s just not sustainable. Without the headbands it would have been over.”
Genta credits focusing on adapting her business as helping her cope with the pressures caused by COVID-19 at every level. “During this time I’ve been thinking so little – entrepreneurs think less than they act. They see a problem and have an ability to get things done.
“This project has helped me deal with the situation, especially psychologically, because it hasn’t given me time to think.”
As if creating a new brand from scratch and turning an immediate profit in 2020 wasn’t enough, Genta also decided to put her love of networking and experience to good use and create a network and support group for female entrepreneurs.
The #damnthepan initiative connects women who started businesses in lockdown, and currently has 20 members. Meeting on Zoom each week, the group serves many functions: mental support, brainstorms, problem solving and skill sharing.
“One is an accountant, I am a marketer; another is an amazing illustrator, who is so visual and helps us out with the branding. We are all trading our skills and being so generous with our time to help one another.“
I love networking – it’s the favourite part of my life, so much fun!
Genta laughs when asked why the group is aimed at female entrepreneurs, admitting she has answered this question more than once.
“I have no problem with men. I married one! But I really believe that this crisis has impacted women so much more than men. There is data that shows more women have lost their jobs than men. I believe in supporting women through this.”
With two major projects under her belt, Genta is also convinced that the do-it-yourself mindset is a great asset – regardless of the product you are selling.
With a second lockdown now in place across England and various restrictions not only in the other parts of the UK but across the world, starting a business now can prove to be both rewarding and risky. But Genta is certain that the best advice she can give relates not only to times of pandemic, but more stable periods, too.
“When you start a business, it will impact you on every level,” she warns. “It’s a very difficult thing to go through. I understood it intellectually, but I didn’t really believe it was going to affect me so much. I worked six to seven days a week for two years, 7am to 10pm.”
This is the reality: when you start a business, you have to work so unbelievably hard. If you plan to do it halfway it’s just not going to work. You have to dedicate your entire life to it.
“My biggest practical advice is try to spend as little money as possible. Your money is something you have to protect so, so closely.
“If you are in the luxury business, spend the money on your product or service and nothing else. Make the website yourself. Don’t advertise on Google or Instagram right away. Prove your concept and do everything for free for as long as you can. Once you understand what works, then spend your money on it.
“Money runs out so quickly. It’s not a sexy, inspirational, Instagrammable quote, but it’s the advice I wish I had received.”
Genta is also a cheerleader for the skills that started her entrepreneurial journey. “I’m a firm believer in networking. With the pandemic it’s hard, but people are very kind. On Instagram, people are happy to help out – don’t be afraid to DM people and ask for help.”
“As an entrepreneur, you can’t do things the normal way. You have to think outside of the box.”
Alexia Genta is a graduate of ESCP Business School’s MSc in Marketing & Creativity.
To join Alexia’s support network for female entrepreneurs, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is based on an original interview published by the ESCP Creativity Marketing Centre.