Interview with Sophie Slater, founder of So English

Find out how Covid gave fashion designer Sophie Slater the time to create So English, a towelling beachwear brand.

Do you have a background in the fashion Industry?

It’s the only background I have! I studied at the London College of Fashion in the 90’s and my first business venture was in bridal, selling wedding dresses through Liberty and Harrods and abroad. In 2003, I moved to Sussex and in between raising two daughters I started designing uniforms for hotels, spas, restaurants, and City firms.

I’ve written a book (Sewing Pattens – 200 Questions & Answers), taught sewing skills and am now based in a gloriously light filled studio at the foot of the South Downs with So English, my towelling beachwear adventure!

How did Covid play a role in launching So English?

It was key. Once the pandemic hit and people stopped going into work, the corporate side of my business (designing and manufacturing uniforms for City firms) completely dried up. I kept busy producing scrubs as a volunteer for the Scrub Hub in Brighton and made links with skilled local seamstresses.  

It was the first time in many years however, that I had creative time in my studio and the chance to do what I love, which is design what I wanted to wear but without the usual commercial pressure.  I perfected the styles, made the first samples and launched the towelling beachwear collection in April 2021.

Had the idea for So English been gestating for a little while?

I got the idea for my first towelling design about 15 years ago. I found a piece of retro flower vintage fabric in a London market and based the design on a short Moroccan kaftan. (I still wear it and love it).

Over the years I’ve made versions for friends (and friends of friends) and I think it was an idea waiting for an opportunity.

What were the biggest challenges associated with starting the brand in the early days?  And what have been the challenges since?

Launching during lockdown made it very difficult for our audience to fully appreciate the collection without feeling the fabric and trying it on. 

It was only last year, when we were able to engage at events and pop-ups that the idea started to gain traction. The response was amazing. We’ve found that our customers are the greatest promoters of what we offer. Once they wear and understand the designs they spread the love.

The biggest challenge going forward is to get the word out to a bigger audience. 

In a nutshell, what does So English offer?

So English is a towelling beachwear brand.

We offer a range of cover-ups and dresses that are distinctive, beautifully made and super comfortable.  We believe in slow fashion, with the accent on producing timeless styles that are made to last, season after season and from one holiday to the next.

Why do you think what you offer is different from anything else out there?

The vision was to design a collection that slotted between sporty fitness gear and floaty linen dresses – a lifestyle choice. The towelling we use is a brilliant fabric, mid-weight, double sided Italian cotton. It’s absorbent, doesn’t cling or crush and suits a temperature range from 15º to 30º – perfect for an English climate.

What was the early response like?

Great. Our initial audience was small but the feedback from our customers has been brilliant.

It’s also been lovely to have well known people like Sophie Ellis Bextor and Amanda Lamb championing the brand.

What have been the most popular designs to date?

It would be easy if there was one stand out design, but each style has been designed with a different personality or activity in mind so they appeal for different reasons.  Short or long, pull over the head, hoodie versions or front opening, but everyone loves the Limited edition vintage pieces.

What’s new for S/S23?

The collection is constantly evolving. Rather than bring out a new seasonal range, we introduce new styles and fabrics as soon as they are ready.  So, in the pipeline is a bespoke print in a vibrant super retro design screen printed in the North of England. A sleeveless dress and more of our ‘So Limited’ offerings that are made with the same Italian towelling but trimmed with original vintage fabric.  When they’re gone, they are gone!

Please can you talk us through your creative process? Which bits do you love best? Which bits do you struggle with? What drives you forwards? When do you know a creation is finished?

I love a retro vibe and have been collecting 60s and 70s towelling from around the world for many years.  A bit like a Magpie, I collect inspiration from all over the place – flicking through racks of vintage clothes, old films or watching people on the beach and around Brighton.  I also love listening to our customers and hearing what they like and want to wear.  

It all starts with a sketch one I have a vision for a new design.  I then cut the pattern and make a toile (tester garment), followed by a towelling sample.  All our garments are made by local skilled machinists or factories in the UK.

I have endless designs and ideas, sometimes I struggle with pulling back and keeping the collection simple and uncomplicated.

I’m not sure a design is ever fully ‘finished’ as a good garment gradually evolves.

What are your top tips for enabling creativity/wellbeing?

Creativity and ideas strike at any time and in my experience, usually when I’m relaxed and not actually thinking about anything!  Trips to galleries and museums are a great creative boost.  My favourite museum is the V&A, which endlessly offers inspiration.  As for wellbeing, making sure I get out of the studio and keeping up regular exercise even when life is busy.

Is it inspiring to be located close to Brighton?

I couldn’t create the collection and find inspiration if I wasn’t near the sea with regular visits to Brighton.  There is nothing better than wandering around the Lanes and flicking through the racks of vintage clothes in shops like the fabulous Snoopers Paradise.

What do you make of Brighton as a hub for fashion?

Brighton has colour and vibrancy which is energising and always good for people watching.  A great place for inspiration for the collection in a city that’s never afraid to push the boundaries of fashion and style.

What are your future plans for So English?

To spread the word! We’ve been very low key so far but have attracted interest from the US, Australia and New Zealand so we are exploring export opportunities.

In the studio we are planning to expand the range, combine towelling with other fabrics, and experiment with new prints, colour options and along the way, enjoy the journey.

Find out more about So English.