Midland textile designer is seeing her business grow in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Nicky Thomson with model Kasia Bober

Nicky Thomson’s woollen dresses, scarves, hats and gloves are a huge hit in Japan, helping her self-titled company achieve a 100 per cent increase in turnover year on year.

Her designs can be seen for sale in leading Japanese department stores like Mitsukoshi and Hankyu, boutique stores like Ships and in catalogues for major shops such as LightUp.

‘‘Japan is a particularly good market for the British because they’re really interested in British goods and are very keen to do business with Britain,’’ Nicky says. ‘‘They’re happy to pay in British pounds, they organise the shipping, they’re very reliable at paying and they’re very honourable and loyal.’’

Nicky’s clothes and fashion accessories are also selling well in Britain, America, France, Germany and Spain and she has ambitions to launch in China and Scandinavia in the future.

Based in the village of Leigh Sinton, near Malvern, Nicky will share some of her tips on successful exporting at an event called The Art of International Trade for Women Businesses at Birmingham Rep Theatre on November 12.

‘‘I started with a second hand, hand-powered knitting machine, working from home,’’ says the former Birmingham University student whose company motto is ‘Made With Passion in Britain’.

‘‘I now use skilled workers in Nottingham and Scotland and employ an assistant and book keeper to help with all the paperwork.’’

Nicky has built up a wealth of exporting experience and has some valuable advice for small businesses wanting to follow her lead.

She says potential exporters should study the market and, whenever possible, visit the country they hope to export to.

‘‘Do the market research, see what other people are doing and compare it with what you can offer,’’ she says.

If the business involves manufacturing ensure that sufficient quantities of the goods can be produced to as high a standard as the samples, Nicky adds.

‘‘Be realistic about what can be achieved – it’s no good looking for opportunities in new export markets if you’d then be pushed to fulfil new orders as well as existing ones.’’

Nicky has just returned from a fact-finding mission to China and although there is huge potential for business she feels that she is not yet ready to sell there as her business is still growing in Japan.

However, she advises that at some point you have to just go for it.

‘‘Get help and funding,’’ she says. ‘‘Also, invest in professionals for your brochures and website. Employ graphic designers and photographers – when I started I tried to reduce costs by doing my own photographs and they were awful! It really pays, short-term and long-term, to do the job properly.’’

Nicky reveals that she tried to save money by doing her own accounting and book keeping. Big mistake, she admits.

‘‘I was spending hours on paperwork which meant I wasn’t able to devote time to designing. Employ a book keeper, don’t try to do it yourself!’’

Nicky graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in textile design 20 years ago. She worked as an interior designer but made woollen garments on her knitting machine as a hobby. When her son was born 14 years ago she decided to set up her own clothes design company but it was not until he began school that she was able to devote time and effort to it.

‘‘I experimented, developing felt fabrics,’’ she recalls. ‘‘I saw an advert from the Midlands Arts Council who were looking for four designers to apply for space at a London trade show. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place and I found myself at the show five weeks later. I took my home made scarves, cushions and throws and ended up with orders from Heal’s stores and lots and lots of little shops. I also met a girl from America who wanted to sell my goods in New York. I thought it was a wind-up but she took samples and showed them at the New York gift fair and got orders.’’

With so many orders to fill the enormity of the task suddenly hit Nicky.

‘‘I had no book keeping in place, I had no invoicing structure. This was in May 2006 and everyone wanted their goods by September. I thought ‘how on earth am I going to make all this?’ I’ve got just one hand-powered knitting machine.’’

Nicky and her husband went on a buying spree, purchasing three knitting machines and four electric motors to power them. These were set up in their home to make the fabrics that would then be manufactured into the ordered goods.

‘‘It was just awful – my husband was kept awake because the machines and I were working through the night!’’

Business boomed, however. Someone was employed to sew in labels and help with the packing but it was still essentially a one-woman operation.

‘‘I was making everything and the phone was going constantly with people re-ordering because they’d sold out,’’ Nicky says. ‘‘In the end I had to turn orders down. I realised I couldn’t work like that any longer and decided to stop the business during the first three months of the new year so I could find some manufacturers to work with.’’

Taking advice from her wool suppliers Nicky visited companies throughout the UK and found a small family business in Nottingham who were able to make the first batch of samples and orders.

Around the same time Nicky obtained help and advice from business consultant Angela Maxwell and UK Trade and Investment, the government department that helps UK-based companies succeed in the global economy. A matched funding grant of £2,500 from UKTI went towards manufacturing samples and Nicky’s participation in another trade exhibition in London which led to many more orders, including from airport shops. Money earned from the first few months of trade, when Nicky  did everything herself, was used to fund the purchase of wool to make the goods.


‘‘Because the customers were all new to me I asked them to pay upfront for the goods before I shipped them,’’ says Nicky.

Things snowballed from there, with each trade show resulting in further orders, on top of existing contracts being renewed. During one show Nicky met a representative from UK Fashion Exports, an independent trade body for fashion and clothing businesses. He told her the products would sell well in Japan but to wait until her company was ready to expand.

That point came three years ago. Despite the recession Nicky Thomson the company had continued to grow but Nicky feared a slowdown was ahead in the UK and it was time to widen her horizons, joining a UKTI trade mission to Japan.

‘‘Angela Maxwell had introduced me to my ITA advisor Paul Thompson who has assisted me greatly with my exports to Japan and I was also enrolled onto the UKTI Passport to Export scheme which helped with travel and trade missions,’’ Nicky says.

‘‘Being on a trade mission is the best way to go because they organise the showcase and tell you a lot about the market. A trade stand is set up at the Japanese embassy and key buyers are invited to meet you and see your samples.

‘‘We were told not to expect to gain orders on the first mission. The Japanese talk to you, find out about your background and your company, what inspires your ideas for your designs. You have to be patient. They may place an initial small order to see if you can deliver on time and if the product is as good as the samples they’ve seen.’’

Nicky had follow-up meetings with a buyer from the Mitsukoshi department store who placed an order – and has been reordering ever since.

Seeing the products’ success in Mitsukoshi other stores became interested and Nicky gained orders from boutique chain Ships, big department store Hankyu and LightUp which has five shops in Tokyo and a mail order catalogue.

She says she loves designing for the Japanese market.

‘‘They are very open minded so I can be more experimental with my designs – and that’s much more fun for a designer.’’