Cécile Reinaud founded maternity-wear specialist Séraphine in 2002. Already a successful advertising executive, she launched the business after speaking to young, female colleagues and realising there was a clear gap in the market Today, this Bridgepoint-backed, online-focused retailer sells more than half a million items of clothing a year, with endorsements from royalty, rock stars and a host of A-list celebrities. 

THE INTERVIEW

 

THE INTERVIEW

Maternal

instinct

Maternal instinct

Cécile Reinaud founded maternity-wear specialist Séraphine in 2002. Already a successful advertising executive, she launched the business after speaking to young, female colleagues and realising there was a clear gap in the market Today, this Bridgepoint-backed, online-focused retailer sells more than half a million items of clothing a year, with endorsements from royalty, rock stars and a host of A-list celebrities. ​

Cécile Reinaud is a petite, blonde Frenchwoman, living in St John’s Wood, London, with her two sons. She is also chief executive of Séraphine, the online-driven retailer she developed from scratch 16 years ago. 

“One of the questions I am most often asked is: did you really do this all on your own?” she says. 

The answer is: yes. Reinaud graduated from business school in France and went to work at J. Walter Thomson and Ogilvy & Mather, the global agencies owned by advertising giant WPP.

“When I came out of business school, I wanted to go into advertising, so I spent six years working for the biggest agencies at the time, and I loved it. 

“I became an account director at 27 and I was running big corporate accounts like Shell, Barclays and Unilever. It was great, but after a while I thought I’d rather be involved in something smaller, where I’d have total control,” she explains. 

Initially, Reinaud was unsure about what that “something smaller” would be. 

Find the gap

“I wanted to find an interesting idea that I could be passionate about and where there was a gap in the market,” she says.

Looking around the agency where she worked gave her food for thought. Reinaud had lots of female colleagues and noticed that those who became pregnant complained about a lack of choice in maternity wear. 

“They would moan that it was very hard to get dressed properly during pregnancy. That sparked my interest, so I did some research and found there was a true market gap in the UK. I also discovered that the market was more developed in the US and, as America tends to lead the way in consumer goods, I thought this was a good sign,” she says. 

Reinaud had no formal training in fashion, but she had always been fascinated by the industry.

Cécile Reinaud is a petite, blonde Frenchwoman, living in St John’s Wood, London, with her two sons. She is also chief executive of Séraphine, the online-driven retailer she developed from scratch 16 years ago. 

“One of the questions I am most often asked is: did you really do this all on your own?” she says. 

The answer is: yes. Reinaud graduated from business school in France and went to work at J. Walter Thomson and Ogilvy & Mather, the global agencies owned by advertising giant WPP.

“When I came out of business school, I wanted to go into advertising, so I spent six years working for the biggest agencies at the time, and I loved it. 

“I became an account director at 27 and I was running big corporate accounts like Shell, Barclays and Unilever. It was great, but after a while I thought I’d rather be involved in something smaller, where I’d have total control,” she explains. 

Initially, Reinaud was unsure about what that “something smaller” would be. 

Find the gap

“I wanted to find an interesting idea that I could be passionate about and where there was a gap in the market,” she says.

Looking around the agency where she worked gave her food for thought. Reinaud had lots of female colleagues and noticed that those who became pregnant complained about a lack of choice in maternity wear. 

“They would moan that it was very hard to get dressed properly during pregnancy. That sparked my interest, so I did some research and found there was a true market gap in the UK. I also discovered that the market was more developed in the US and, as America tends to lead the way in consumer goods, I thought this was a good sign,” she says. 

Reinaud had no formal training in fashion, but she had always been fascinated by the industry.

Follow fashion

“I always loved fashion. I did think about becoming a fashion designer before starting my business career, but I was worried that it would be hard to make a breakthrough. But maternity wear was a niche area, so I thought, perhaps naively, that it would be very easy,” Reinaud explains.

At the age of 30, she launched the business, with a store in Kensington, West London. The shop had a 15-year lease with no break clause.

“It was quite a daring move, but I was young, an optimist by nature and had been given lots of support from family and friends. So I went for it. I worked round the clock and I did everything, from designing the clothes to working as a sales assistant. It was a crazy adventure,” she says. 

Learn by example

That adventure took a fresh twist when she became pregnant less than a year after opening the store. 

“Initially, it was great because I was designing all the clothes and I could experiment on my own body. 

That worked very well – until my son was born. I thought I would be able to just leave him quietly sleeping, but he was very demanding and cried a lot when left in the pram! It was a bit of a shock, but I didn’t have much choice but to go with it,” Reinaud laughs. 

“When I talk to female entrepreneurs now, I tell them not to do what I did, because it was a massive struggle. They were two huge life adventures, neither of which I knew anything about.” 

Nonetheless, Reinaud did exceptionally well. Supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson were seen in Séraphine’s clothes at an early stage and the business flourished.

Changing focus

“We were in a prime location, it was a beautiful store and we were the only ones doing attractive maternity wear. There were waiting lists for our denim, which was recognised as being the most amazing on the market, and the business just grew and grew, always with its own cash flow,” she says.

Much of that growth has been online. Reinaud recognised the power of e-commerce at an early stage, changing her business plan and strategy to focus on the burgeoning popularity of online shopping.

“When I first started, my plan was to have 10 stores within five years. Then the economy of the internet began to emerge and I decided this would be our main focus. I put a lot of effort into becoming a leader in the e-commerce space – and it worked,” she says. 

International recognition 

Today the company has eight stores – including in London, Leeds, Paris and New York – with franchises in Hong Kong, Delhi and Dubai. But the company’s reputation and reach extend much further, thanks to the thriving online business and an active social media presence. 

“Our brand is internationally recognised. We have a good presence in Germany, the Middle East and even Japan,” says Reinaud.

This recognition has been fuelled, too, by the string of famous women wearing Séraphine clothes, particularly the Duchess of Cambridge. “She wore our clothes on a very public occasion – the first official 

picture of Prince George. I felt as if this was a real personal encouragement – if I managed that, I should risk more, work harder and go faster,” explains Reinaud. “When you are an entrepreneur, you don’t have many people who give you a real pat on the back. There aren’t many women in business on their own and I don’t have a business partner, so there are always times when you have doubts and get a bit risk-averse. This moment was the big pat on the back. When I got personal thanks from the Duchess of Cambridge, it drove me on and made me even more ambitious.” That was in 2013. Séraphine was immediately put on the map worldwide, clothes sold out and Reinaud decided to make a push into America. 

When I first started, my plan was to have 10 stores within five years. Then the economy of the internet began to emerge and I decided this would be our main focus. I put a lot of effort into becoming a leader in the e-commerce space – and it worked”​

The Duchess of Cambridge wore our clothes on a very public occasion – the first official picture of Prince George. I felt as if this was a real personal encouragement – if I managed that, I should risk more, work harder and go faster”​

Driving growth

“I had been tip-toeing around it because I had heard so many horror stories, but then I decided to go for it and it has been very successful,” she says. 

Life at Séraphine has not always been plain sailing. Some of the biggest challenges have been staff related, striving to find people who were willing and able to grow with the business. There have been IT glitches, too. And then Reinaud had a second son, in August 2008.

“I waited four-and-a-half years between my two children because the first time was so overwhelming, but then when I had my second child, the global financial crisis erupted almost immediately afterwards and I did take my eye off the ball for a bit,” she admits.

Within a couple of months, however, Reinaud had regained her focus. Séraphine barely dipped during the economic downturn and the group has continued to thrive ever since, even as other retailers have struggled.

When you are an entrepreneur, you don’t have many people who give you a real pat on the back, so there are always times when you have doubts and get a bit risk-averse”​

Ahead of the game

“We are doing really well. A lot of retailers have a large physical presence so, when they move into e-commerce, the online business can cannibalise the physical stores. We are not in that situation. We only have a handful of stores in big cities and, in many cases, they act as a showcase for the business,” she says.

In fact, 60 per cent of sales are generated online and this is the fastest growing part of the company.

“Our typical customers are in their early to mid-30s and initially, they were not that comfortable about ordering online. They would worry about whether the clothes would fit and such like. Today, no one thinks like that any more. People just buy clothes online and if they don’t fit, they return them. So the current environment is more of an opportunity than a threat for us,” she adds. 

External partner 

The company also benefits from its specialist positioning in the maternity-wear market. “Our unique selling point is the breadth of our collection. We cater for career women, stay-at-home mums, fashionistas, celebrities walking the red carpet, princesses, everyone. And our pricing is attractive, too, which came from my own experience as a pregnant woman. You have to buy a whole new wardrobe so, as a maternity business, you’re not going to work if you’re too expensive,” Reinaud says.

Having successfully steered Séraphine on her own for 15 years, Reinaud decided in 2017 that it was time for an external partner. 

“It can be quite lonely running a business on your own, so I really wanted a partner who could help, guide and support me. When we want to open new stores, for example, having Bridgepoint as the main shareholder is very reassuring to landlords. I also wanted to drive our overseas expansion and Bridgepoint is very international, which appealed to me. And I liked the people too,” she says.  

Initially, being pregnant was great because I was designing all the clothes and I could experiment on my own body. That worked very well – until my son was born”​

Flat hierarchy 

Reinaud no longer designs all the Séraphine clothes, having delegated that role to a designer she recruited seven years ago, but she retains a passion for that aspect of the business.  

“I designed everything for the first 10 years, but I was fortunate to recruit a super-talented junior designer, so I relinquished the design work – even though it’s the part that I love – because I felt that I needed to focus on growing the company,” she says. 

Female entrepreneurs are few and far between, and Reinaud believes that, as a woman, she manages Séraphine slightly differently than a man would. “I have quite a motherly management style. I try to avoid conflict. I try to champion people and encourage them. We have quite a flat hierarchy and there are a lot of women in this business – we are 80 per cent female. And for me, the team is a critical part of our success. We are like a family,” she says. 

Over 16 years, Séraphine has grown from an idea to a global business, with advocates ranging from the royal family to pop phenomenon Gwen Stefani and numerous ordinary women in-between. And Reinaud remains fiercely ambitious. She says: “People tend to judge the book by the cover – but I love proving them wrong.” 

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Follow fashion

“I always loved fashion. I did think about becoming a fashion designer before starting my business career, but I was worried that it would be hard to make a breakthrough. But maternity wear was a niche area, so I thought, perhaps naively, that it would be very easy,” Reinaud explains.

At the age of 30, she launched the business, with a store in Kensington, West London. The shop had a 15-year lease with no break clause.

“It was quite a daring move, but I was young, an optimist by nature and had been given lots of support from family and friends. So I went for it. I worked round the clock and I did everything, from designing the clothes to working as a sales assistant. It was a crazy adventure,” she says. 

Learn by example

That adventure took a fresh twist when she became pregnant less than a year after opening the store. 

“Initially, it was great because I was designing all the clothes and I could experiment on my own body. 

That worked very well – until my son was born. I thought I would be able to just leave him quietly sleeping, but he was very demanding and cried a lot when left in the pram! It was a bit of a shock, but I didn’t have much choice but to go with it,” Reinaud laughs. 

“When I talk to female entrepreneurs now, I tell them not to do what I did, because it was a massive struggle. They were two huge life adventures, neither of which I knew anything about.” 

Nonetheless, Reinaud did exceptionally well. Supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson were seen in Séraphine’s clothes at an early stage and the business flourished.

When I first started, my plan was to have 10 stores within five years. Then the economy of the internet began to emerge and I decided this would be our main focus. I put a lot of effort into becoming a leader in the e-commerce space – and it worked”​​

Changing focus

“We were in a prime location, it was a beautiful store and we were the only ones doing attractive maternity wear. There were waiting lists for our denim, which was recognised as being the most amazing on the market, and the business just grew and grew, always with its own cash flow,” she says.

Much of that growth has been online. Reinaud recognised the power of e-commerce at an early stage, changing her business plan and strategy to focus on the burgeoning popularity of online shopping.

“When I first started, my plan was to have 10 stores within five years. Then the economy of the internet began to emerge and I decided this would be our main focus. I put a lot of effort into becoming a leader in the e-commerce space – and it worked,” she says. 

International recognition 

Today the company has eight stores – including in London, Leeds, Paris and New York – with franchises in Hong Kong, Delhi and Dubai. But the company’s reputation and reach extend much further, thanks to the thriving online business and an active social media presence. 

“Our brand is internationally recognised. We have a good presence in Germany, the Middle East and even Japan,” says Reinaud.

This recognition has been fuelled, too, by the string of famous women wearing Séraphine clothes, particularly the Duchess of Cambridge. “She wore our clothes on a very public occasion – the first official 

picture of Prince George. I felt as if this was a real personal encouragement – if I managed that, I should risk more, work harder and go faster,” explains Reinaud. “When you are an entrepreneur, you don’t have many people who give you a real pat on the back. There aren’t many women in business on their own and I don’t have a business partner, so there are always times when you have doubts and get a bit risk-averse. This moment was the big pat on the back. When I got personal thanks from the Duchess of Cambridge, it drove me on and made me even more ambitious.” That was in 2013. Séraphine was immediately put on the map worldwide, clothes sold out and Reinaud decided to make a push into America. 

Driving growth

“I had been tip-toeing around it because I had heard so many horror stories, but then I decided to go for it and it has been very successful,” she says. 

Life at Séraphine has not always been plain sailing. Some of the biggest challenges have been staff related, striving to find people who were willing and able to grow with the business. There have been IT glitches, too. And then Reinaud had a second son, in August 2008.

“I waited four-and-a-half years between my two children because the first time was so overwhelming, but then when I had my second child, the global financial crisis erupted almost immediately afterwards and I did take my eye off the ball for a bit,” she admits.

Within a couple of months, however, Reinaud had regained her focus. Séraphine barely dipped during the economic downturn and the group has continued to thrive ever since, even as other retailers have struggled.

The Duchess of Cambridge wore our clothes on a very public occasion – the first official picture of Prince George. I felt as if this was a real personal encouragement – if I managed that, I should risk more, work harder and go faster”​​

Ahead of the game

“We are doing really well. A lot of retailers have a large physical presence so, when they move into e-commerce, the online business can cannibalise the physical stores. We are not in that situation. We only have a handful of stores in big cities and, in many cases, they act as a showcase for the business,” she says.

In fact, 60 per cent of sales are generated online and this is the fastest growing part of the company.

“Our typical customers are in their early to mid-30s and initially, they were not that comfortable about ordering online. They would worry about whether the clothes would fit and such like. Today, no one thinks like that any more. People just buy clothes online and if they don’t fit, they return them. So the current environment is more of an opportunity than a threat for us,” she adds. 

External partner 

The company also benefits from its specialist positioning in the maternity-wear market. “Our unique selling point is the breadth of our collection. We cater for career women, stay-at-home mums, fashionistas, celebrities walking the red carpet, princesses, everyone. And our pricing is attractive, too, which came from my own experience as a pregnant woman. You have to buy a whole new wardrobe so, as a maternity business, you’re not going to work if you’re too expensive,” Reinaud says.

Having successfully steered Séraphine on her own for 15 years, Reinaud decided in 2017 that it was time for an external partner. 

“It can be quite lonely running a business on your own, so I really wanted a partner who could help, guide and support me. When we want to open new stores, for example, having Bridgepoint as the main shareholder is very reassuring to landlords. I also wanted to drive our overseas expansion and Bridgepoint is very international, which appealed to me. And I liked the people too,” she says. 

When you are an entrepreneur, you don’t have many people who give you a real pat on the back, so there are always times when you have doubts and get a bit risk-averse”​

Initially, being pregnant was great because I was designing all the clothes and I could experiment on my own body. That worked very well – until my son was born”​​

Flat hierarchy 

Reinaud no longer designs all the Séraphine clothes, having delegated that role to a designer she recruited seven years ago, but she retains a passion for that aspect of the business.  

“I designed everything for the first 10 years, but I was fortunate to recruit a super-talented junior designer, so I relinquished the design work – even though it’s the part that I love – because I felt that I needed to focus on growing the company,” she says. 

Female entrepreneurs are few and far between, and Reinaud believes that, as a woman, she manages Séraphine slightly differently than a man would. “I have quite a motherly management style. I try to avoid conflict. I try to champion people and encourage them. We have quite a flat hierarchy and there are a lot of women in this business – we are 80 per cent female. And for me, the team is a critical part of our success. We are like a family,” she says. 

Over 16 years, Séraphine has grown from an idea to a global business, with advocates ranging from the royal family to pop phenomenon Gwen Stefani and numerous ordinary women in-between. And Reinaud remains fiercely ambitious. She says: “People tend to judge the book by the cover – but I love proving them wrong.” 

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2018  |  Issue 34