Lucy Aylen is the designer and founder of Never Fully Dressed.
Never Fully Dressed started as Lucy Aylen’s side hustle from her parent's attic, and grew into a massive international brand and worldwide staple of fashion — one that is worn by fashion mavens including Beyonce and Kendall Jenner. Lucy owns 100% of her brand, never having looked for outside investment, which is an incredibly impressive feat considering how much the brand has grown in just a few years.
Lucy started her business in 2009 as a way to keep busy between going to auditions. She started by selling garments at London’s Portobello and Spitalfields markets (what she later explains is the UK version of a yard sale). At first she would customize garments by buying bits and adding trims and eventually she used the money she earned to make her own pieces of clothes.
In 2014 Lucy opened her first brick and mortar store in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, as she explains “I was still working from my mum’s loft, constantly dragging stock up and down the stairs. That’s why we opened the shop. It gave us more structure. It was half store and half office.” She adds that (thankfully) they didn’t have London rents yet they’re still easily accessible on the Central line, so people travel to it.
Lucy and her mother outside the NFD store.
Lucy also explains how much she admires her parents, who sold bags and accessories in the Portobello markets long before Lucy started selling her garments there. In fact, she credits her parents with instilling in her —and her four siblings— the importance of work ethic.
Lucy is such a kind and inspiring founder. From our short conversation I could tell how genuine and authentic she is, and how she truly does have the perfect makings of a founder, so much so that she has carved out an impressive space in a very crowded market. Lucy's creativity is the driving force but her business skills never fall far behind, she is not afraid to ask for help and always listens to her gut.
What first sparked the idea to start selling fashion garments? How much of an influence did your background and knowledge from your parent’s experience come into play?
I think you take different things from different people... so from my parents I think I took work ethic more than anything. I’m one of five, we all do different jobs but we’ve all done okay because I think they’ve instilled that work ethic in us. But no one from my family is really creative apart from that. So I think you just take things from different people… When I’ve done interviews before where they asked me “why do you think this worked for you” and I think it’s because I have that work ethic with a bit of the creative brain as well. I think for someone in the creative industry it’s hard to then have a more business head with it, and it’s hard to make it work on a bigger scale -- you’re just great on the creative side. So I think the merging of those two (the work ethic and creative brain) has been what has helped us scale.
Never Fully Dressed started as a side project (while you were going to auditions) how or when did you decide to dedicate yourself full-time to the brand?
I don’t know the exact statistic but I think that 90% of actors are unemployed, so I think as you get older as well you have a responsibility and... it’s just hard to keep on that I think in the back of my mind, acting is still very much a passion, and you don't have a shelf life in it -- I think if it was that you wanted to be an athlete or something that you had to succeed by the time that you’re 18, maybe there would’ve been more of a commitment to that moment in time of making that work… but what was in my head was that I could be 50 and still visit that, or still do that as a hobby so I think as you get older you have a bit more of responsibility and feel like you need more of a career or something that you can rely on a little more. And my mom, she would say “do something proper -- go and get a job” but then that turned out to be a passion I didn’t know I had -- we find enjoyment and passion in all other areas of your business and of your life
"From Essex to the world: the rise of Never Fully Dressed" -- Lucy Aylen
on the cover of Drapers Magazine in February of this year
What were some of the first hurdles you had to overcome ?
At the beginning, when you start small, it’s just you. Now it’s easier: the goalposts move and you have different ambitions, you set different targets and when you start achieving those, that drives you on more. But at the beginning you don’t really have colleagues or anyone to keep you going — it’s hard to succeed, you’re only selling a few things a day (online or in-person) and if you have a bad day it’s hard to keep yourself inspired. That’s definitely a big hurdle at the beginning for an entrepreneur. We grew slowly in the beginning, we grew the same in the first five years than in the following five months. For the first hill the gradient is much more shallow, and it’s a harder journey, especially when you start on your own. And then the challenges, my role has changed so much as we grow, you employ more people, there're a lot of different challenges that change…
Did you ever consider getting outside investment?
We did consider that at one point last year, that was the first time for us. We were going to sponsor “Love Island” -- which I know you have in the US as well, so we won the sponsorship for that which was amazing. I think it exposed us as well to how unsophisticated we were in that more of a business space, so a massive learning curve for us. And ultimately I just... In my gut, I knew it wasn’t right anyway. If it would have been we would’ve made it happen, but I don’t think the alignment worked. But that was the first time [I considered outside investment]... I never had a credit card before, do you know what I mean? I’ve always just been driven by “if I can afford something I buy it, if I can’t I can’t.” So the whole way I built the business has been like that. I started the business with a few hundred pounds, I probably did the equivalent of a “yard sale” and that would be the first money that I would use to make a few pieces of clothes. I just worked on our cash flow. And that always served us quite well until a time when we didn’t have that chunk of money that we would have to raise. Again it was a big learning curve for us business-wise, so we employed an FD, off of the back of that experience, which has been quite game changing in how we now operate. So now we manage our cash flow and we don’t really need that investment.
You recently partnered with Global-e to boost your international offerings sales. How did it come about? Was it catalyzed by COVID?
To be honest, COVID’s affected our international sales. The US pre-COVID was about 30% of our traffic, and that’s just grown organically. About 40% was international and 30% was from the states. So during COVID our sales were really quite domestic -- and a little bit international in certain territories that were less affected. But growing internationally has always been in our long term growth term strategy. We used to be in LA in the month of April. It’s just nice to touch base with our international customer there. Eventually I think we will dispatch in the US (fully have an operation there). It’s all grown organically. I think you do get some brands and the goal is to “smash America” but where it has really grown, is that our social community is so worldwide. Our customer is our influence, we ask them “where do you want to see us next?” and if they say pop-up in LA, we pop up in LA. We listen to them, and we are just really lucky that they are so vocal. But globally it’s been great, we had our payment gateways in the UK, but now if you shop in China you can pay with AliPay, WeChat -- each territory with its payment gateway , and it's on its localized language and currency. This is especially important for our new customer base -- we’ve got a great returning customer base-- but our new base is growing, and they need that confidence to purchase with a new international brand, so I think that just gives them a bit more confidence in checking out.
I love your focus on “our customer is our influencer”, your size inclusive range and your emphasis on positivity— has this been an intentional focus since the beginning?
I think for anything to work it has to be honest, rooted in the right place. So I think as a person, even as a small company, ever since we started in 2009 I was doing charity work, we would sell ranges for certain charities. so I think that’s just ingrained and we’ve grown with that. There was no Instagram when I first started so I think we’ve grown with it -- I think we’ve just matured over time. And for me, with my other interests and what I used to want to do, in order to work long term for my career at NFD I had to think about what I would get out of it, job fulfillment for me. So I think that does come with the charity, with the sense of community. Because I suppose those would’ve been other career choices I would’ve made. So I think then I get that fulfillment and my enjoyment and my job satisfaction comes through that … and just, if we can make a difference, if we can make someone feel confident. We look at what we do (which is making clothes) and think about how we can do that in a positive way — do our little bit to make people smile. The #FeelGoodFriday (Instagram campaign) came out of COVID and it was meant to be a relief, a lighthearted thing that wasn’t fashion related at all. And about the curvy sizes, it feels natural that you’d have that size inclusivity. I think naturally because of the price of our product and where we sit in the market, our customer is 25 to 45-50. So a lot of them are of baby kind of age, so you have a bit of a mom-tum. And we just want to normalize everything and how women feel, we just want to feel nice in something. People try something in the shop and they just stand different, you see how they just smile a bit. And how nice for them to go out and feel like that.
And finally, what do you wake up looking forward to? What’s next for the brand?
I’m really excited because we just finalized our baby collection. We just finalized what the next months of development will look like for us to launch that. We are really excited. I think there’s going to be a bit of a baby boom early next year, so the whole “mini-me” and “our prince”— it just feels really fun for us. I’m also excited about our Autumn-Winter collection, our knits are a bit of a game changer for us. I think historically we’ve been a summer brand, whereas now we found new factories so we do our prints in knits — and I'm so excited for that. I think our Autumn-Winter is looking the strongest that I’ve ever done. Because I think that I always used to want to wake up and it’d be March again, whereas now I’m really excited about what we’re bringing out at this time. We are launching some pajamas, I think more people are going to be home more than ever, so that kind of elevated lounge vibe. And we are re-launching gym. We did test it about two years ago and it was a success , but I think resources-wise we just weren’t ready for that. So we’ve developed that and are launching it in January as well. So I’m just excited about the new product offerings, just because the way people are living is changing so much, we are lucky that our business is a size that we can be agile and move to that. So keeping our prints, keeping our signature, but offering that in a way that works around people's lives. Today you can find Never Fully Dressed online and in uber popular shopping websites like Shopbop, Nordstrom and Asos. NFD has also run international pop ups across Dublin, LA, Barcelona, New York and Sydney.