Our Story – Jane Rafter and Slinks

Jane Rafter

Jane Rafter

From the moment I started to chat to Jane her passion for life and for business was obvious. This is exactly the same feeling that shone thorough when Jane appeared on dragons Den earlier in the year.

Jane has an international, cosmopolitan background; her father is an Irish theatre director and mother Australian and Jane was born and brought up in Spain. Having been schooled in Spain until the age of 16 she completed her formal education at the United World College in Wales and at Art College in Dublin, where she trained as a fashion designer before moving to London. In London she first worked for publishers Conde Nast before joining leading costume designer Anthony Price, moving on to join a more mainstream designer, producing designs for high street brands such as Bay Trading. From here Jane joined a TV production company in more office based roles, HR and office management, learning mainstream business skills in a creative environment.

I asked Jane whether she had always aimed to work in fashion and design, whether she had a career plan. “No, I never really thought a career through. I knew that I liked art and design but didn’t have a plan at Art College. In fact I studied sculpture in my first year.”

So how did Jane get involved in running her own business? For those of you who haven’t heard of Jane’s product “Slinks”, they are a fabulous, novel, useful invention. Put simply, Jane has designed stylish, comfortable sandal bases to which a variety of beautifully detailed uppers can been added. When in place the uppers look fixed and permanent but the clever bit is that the uppers can be changed quickly and easily. Jane explains that, in common with many new businesses, Slinks started as a part-time venture, taking over her evenings, weekends and holidays. When demand from friends, family and demand generated by word of mouth increased Jane returned to Spain to visit a factory which specialised in shoe production and the part-time interest began to turn into a full-time job.

Things started to really take off at Jane’s first show, Top Drawer in 2008, where as well as picking up orders from 10 shops, Jane won the prestigious Best Fashion Accessory Award. Shortly after Slinks were declared the British Consumer Invention of the Year at the British Invention Show. When Jane was named as a British Female Inventor of the Year in 2009 it led to Jane being contacted by researchers working to recruit entrepreneurs willing to appear on the BBC’s flagship business program, Dragons Den. Since Jane was considering taing on investment to fund expansion plans she agreed to take part.

Now, I’m a devotee of this program and assumed that entrepreneurs arrived at the big warehouse, walked up the stairs and were grilled. Not so it seems. Prior to the program there are extensive discussions and even a screen test. In the weeks leading up to her appearance in The Den Jane worked to ensure that she was fully prepared, that she had answers to all of the questions that she expected to be asked and, crucially, she knew all of the financial-past, current and future projections. The hard work in advance paid off as, while Jane admitted to me that she was very nervous, to me as a viewer of the show, she gave a virtually flawless performance. And what we see on the screen is what actually happens..no outtakes, no second chance..it’s all done in one take.

I asked Jane if she had any plan for the Dragons? Was there someone in particular she would have liked on board? Someone she was keen to impress? “I knew that it wasn’t really going to be Duncan’s thing. I thought that Theo, with his high street retail interests might be the one. As it turned out both Deborah and James gave good, practical advice. I tried to be upfront and honest with the figures and I think that the Dragons appreciated this.” In the end concerns about the potential market size and patent protection stopped the Dragons making the investment Jane was looking for. But had the experience been worthwhile? “Oh Yes. The feedback was very positive and the publicity has been invaluable.” And the patent issue is not a concern to Jane. As she puts it in this day and age ….”what is to stop anyone copying anything at anytime. It is far better to have a great idea out in the market place and deal with immitators if and when they arise rather than having a great idea go to waste sitting on a shelf for fear of copycats. Anyway, Slinks are my design and if the branding is successful people will always want the cache of buying from me.”

Since Dragons Den aired in August Jane has pretty much sold out of stock! She explained that she didn’t want to simply place a repeat order for those initial styles and wanted to use this opportunity to design a brand new collection. With the strength of the Euro increasing production costs in Spain Jane decided to start from scratch, finding new production facilities in India. With the Dragons pointing out that the original collection was quite expensive if Jane wanted to reach the high street, Jane was keen to reduce cost but without any compromise on quality. As Jane says ” It would have been easy to skimp on quality, to use lesser quality and fewer beads or to use man made materials instead of silk for the accessories but this is not my vision for the product.”

So is Jane still looking for investment? “No, not really. I am very good at controlling costs, even on overseas trips to meet buyers in New York or set up production at the new factory in India. Friends and family have been brilliant in helping me to get things going and continue to be supportive. I like to do a lot for myself. My graphic design experience has meant that I can do a lot of the design for the new website myself. This is something that I wanted to do and it has meant that I can keep the web site costs to a minimum too. I like the hands on approach. When choosing beads, for example, it is better to rummage through the beads and choose the exact colours I want rather than trying to explain the look I want. By doing things myself, without a middle man, I can keep my vision clear.” And for the future? “I have plans to introduce different base styles to the range; some with lower and some with higher heels. I would like to introduce an ethnic range, maybe with African beading, in limited edition, short-runs with profits going to local producers.” ” I have had a lot of interest from the USA, Dubai and even Australia. I love America and it is a dream to have Slinks in New York!” Jane would also love to have Slinks on the UK high street and since the new production facilty can turn out 2000 pairs of shoes a day meeting future demand should not be a problem.

Jane is confident, open, friendly and determined. Combined with her fantastically innovative sandals a winning formula we think!

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