First, tell us a little bit about you both and the founding of Cucumber Clothing. What motivated you to start the business? What principles drive its evolution?
Cucumber Clothing has Co-founders with long roots. Nancy and Eileen met at the school gate almost twenty years ago and launched Cucumber Clothing in 2017 with a mission to create the clothing and sleepwear they could never find - collections that give women confidence and help them to feel good. Our ethical, sustainable and locally made clothing empowers women using cutting-edge technical fabrics that feel gorgeous on but require the simplest care.
Our mantra from the start has been kindness, whether to others or our planet, it is what fundamentally drives the vision of our business.
Speaking as two ‘mid-life’ female founders (one from an ethnic minority), it is still astonishing to see how often we confound those whose image of a founder tends towards a twenty-year old male, with beard, beanie and single speed bike. Reconfiguring the idea of what an entrepreneur can be has been one of biggest joys.
We are very proud of our 5 mile radius – once our fabrics are in the UK, everything we sample, grade, manufacture, store and send out is done within a five mile radius of our London base. This means less waste and lower transport emissions – we believe in the power of local!
We use minimal packaging, and have taken plastics out of our chain. Our packaging is 100% compostable and biodegradable film using vegetable starch and is made in Lancashire, as are our recyclable packing tape and recycled and recyclable postal sacks.
Our trims, extras and packaging are sourced within England, which also means fewer transport miles.
We know our supply chain inside out and will only ever use companies that have good working conditions and pay fair wages. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start and one we aim to continue improving on.
In many ways, it is so much simpler for a small brand to make sure they are creating something that they feel proud of.
How has your own menopause transition influenced your outlook towards work and life?
Working in an area where a sizeable cohort of our customers are journeying through the perimenopause/menopause has been an eye opener. We’ve learned an enormous amount about just how much natural hormonal fluctuations can affect day to day lives, and feel grateful that Cucumber has been able to give welcome support to some. As mid-life women we can see that the menopause is simply another essential and inevitable part of every woman’s life. Until now women at this stage have been sidelined, ignored and even mocked - we are thrilled times are changing since we truly believe that this time of life can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling of all. Early morning and late night meetings no longer pose a childcare crisis, last minute changes are welcome, weekend work spillover and what seems to be a constant 24/7 timetable of ‘things to do’ are now possible. With the luxury of less ‘other stuff’ to juggle, we can fully concentrate on our business, and happily fit in our our friends, families, holidays etc. in the pockets of free time that appear, rather than the other way around. Yes, menopause can be challenging, but it is also an incredible life stage we are delighted to have reached.
How do you define success for your business and yourself individually?
It may seem strange, but we like to define our success in terms of happiness. For instance, is running a business making us happy? If it’s not, the knock-on effect on partners, family, friends and finances would probably be negative. Do our choices in how/where/what we manufacture make us happy? If yes, it probably means we have made what we feel are good planet positive choices in all of these. On a very basic level, measuring the happiness quotient of decisions we take can be powerfully meaningful.
What correlation, if any, do you see between age and ambition?
Interesting question - the answer seems much clearer to us at mid-life than it would have at 18 or even 28 simply because there are so many things we have already tried/succeeded/failed at simply by virtue of having lived more than several decades! Apart from an elite few, a clear vision of what it takes to get to the ‘top’ and what the ‘top’ even looks like is generally fairly hazy before life experience begins. It’s not clear what shape Cucumber would have taken if we had started this 25 years ago, but In mid-life our ambition was first to create a brand we could be proud of in all ways, not just the designs and styles, not just the increasing sales, but also the ethics and sustainability that we have carefully built into our brand so that we can look at what we have created with a feeling of happiness.
What are your aspirations for your business over the next 24 months?
During Covid we were chosen to take part in Cambridge’s Institute of Sustainable Leadership’s Accelerator programme. An exciting element of the Accelerator was an introduction to new technologies in sustainable fashion. The bulk of these were created by scientists (aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists) who were coming to the sector with a brand new perspective. The future looks much more hopeful through their lens where many of the polluting elements we take for granted (tanning leather for instance) can be solved with technology. Technology is built into Cucumber – our technical fabrics (including one that incorporates volcanic minerals), means they always feel amazing next to the skin while breathing, cooling and thermoregulating. We are looking to incorporate some brand new cutting edge fabric tech in upcoming collections which we believe will make our pieces even lovelier and more sustainable to wear than ever - it’s exciting.
We feel ready for the future after more than a year where we were unexpectedly able to have a thorough look at our business and consolidate and improve. We have huge plans for the months ahead and we will be taking all of those learnings with us.
What do you wish your younger self had known about:
Life - live it
Love - the more you give, the more you get
Health - your mother was right, it’s the most important thing. Treasure it and treat it well
Work - don’t be afraid to fail.
What would be your key advice to women transitioning through menopause today? What practical steps could they take to better support their bodies and minds?
Starting Cucumber Clothing, our fashion-with-a-function, luxury, sustainable nightwear and leisurewear brand was a project we fell into by happenstance in our early fifties. Since then we’ve thrown ourselves at it 100%, building it into what we hope is the first and the best of a new generation of fashion labels that use technical and sustainable fabrics to keep the wearer at their optimum temperature – looking and feeling cool. We feel clothes should do more than just dress a body.
We often ponder what it might have been like to have launched this company in our thirties. We reckon it would have been not just very difficult (a given with any start-up) but with many more obstacles in our way.
With our own children now moving to independence, our dogs need fewer walks (they are a bit older too) and with steady relationships in hand, our fifties have turned out to be the best time we could have chosen for a new career.
Our self-confidence seems to have blossomed where it might have faltered in earlier years with the stress of thinly stretched energy and emotional resources. After years of what is best described as successfully herding hormonal cats, we know we can macro and micro manage, we know we can do long hours with little sleep, we know that we can play the long game and we know that kindness always pays back.
So the idea that fifty can be the new thirty sounds tempting, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Fifty might mean a few more wrinkles, but it also heralds a quietly tectonic shift in life that if embraced, can be the start of something amazing.
Traditionally, our fifties are often the time of life that women perceive as being the beginning of the end. With menopause looming, children heading off, wrinkles and grey hairs sprouting (in quite extraordinary places) and the dreaded ‘empty nest’ syndrome kicking in, it may feel like a bit of a bum deal.
The good news - it’s all manageable. Just like having that houseful of teenagers, it’s all about knowing what to deal with and what to ignore. Our generation, the crossover between the baby boomers and generation x are quite different from our mothers. We have been brought up to expect more from life and from ourselves. Fifty plus is no barrier to rock hard abs (if that’s what you want) or creating a successful business. Figure out what you want, then go for it.
A few tips from us both below to help negotiate any shoals, we’ve tried them all and have found them immensely useful. We hope you will too and that this may be the beginning of your best decade yet.
Exercise – not rocket science, but we think fundamental to mental and physical wellbeing especially as you grow older. Age really is no barrier to anything from basketball (Nancy – two broken fingers down) to wild swimming (Eileen, 3°C Windermere). Find the activity that makes you feel good and soon you won’t be able to function without it.
Socialise – it’s so tempting as you grow older, just to hang with all your old mates, rehashing old times and enjoying the comforting duvet–like quality of the people who know you best. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is vital to mix it up with new friends and connections – try and make sure at least a third of the people you spend time with are either ten years older or younger than you. It will open new windows to your world – we promise!
HRT etc. – this is a toughie. For years we struggle through monthly bouts of PMS, bloating, headaches and hormonal rollercoaster rides. When it all finally comes to an end, we are ‘rewarded’ with restless nights, migraines, dry everything and the mother of all hormonal rollercoaster rides. Whether or not you decide to go down the road of HRT or investigate alternative solutions, there are many things you can do and try and so many resources online. It’s now officially a thing, and people are talking about it – get informed so you can feel at your best.
Eat really well – another no brainer, we’re afraid, but super important. It’s impossible (well, we find it impossible) to be relentlessly strict about no sugar, no carbs, no alcohol etc. all the time, and let’s face it, we still want to have fun. So we work the 80/20 rule, where 80% of the time we are very mindful about what we eat, and 20% of the time we are just enjoying whatever it is that floats our boat. Cheese, if you’re wondering.
Get groomed – gone for us are the days when we could roll out of bed after a ‘big’ night, shake out our hair, draw on some kohl and still look pretty fine (hello 25). Identify which bit you find most problematic (Eileen – skin; Nancy – hair) and find someone you really trust to make it all better. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this regularly, we can assure you, it does wonders for self-esteem. (We’re also great fans of regular self-applied home facials and hair masques – you’ll thank us in a few months.)
Be happy – smile, do random acts of kindness, call someone to have a chat just because. All these good deeds add up and make us feel happier while making others feel happier – and it shows on your face. What better virtuous circle to live our lives by?