It all started with a simple beanie hat and has now become one of fashion’s most successful creators of luxury cashmere.
Both creator and designer of the brand, Madeleine has grown her business intuitively and organically. With her upbringing in both London and Hong Kong, with a Chinese mother and an English father, she was fortunate, she says: “I feel so profoundly lucky for that upbringing, Hong Kong is a very nurturing place and is completely multi-cultural and ‘colour blind’. And London is just the best city in the world, isn’t it?”
Madeleine studied law in the UK, at Durham University. “It’s not an easy degree,” she admits. “And I think that work ethic probably has been helpful, as running your own business takes proper work.” It wasn’t until after university that she became seriously interested in fashion, and back in London following graduation, she worked in fashion PR. ““Even then it took a while for my ideas to surface. I started right at the bottom, sending out samples to magazines.”
Next came a move to Hong Kong, and a job as a buyer in a major department store. “This was very important, as it showed me the reality of the business, which isn’t glamorous at all! It’s about budgets, logistics and the store’s bottom line, and you have to be profitable for the shop so that they keep you on their books. It’s a massively cut-throat business, and buyers are under huge pressure themselves, so it’s a chain, and you’re just one link in it. You can’t deliver late, you can’t have faulty garments. That was an amazing learning experience, and I’ve never forgotten it now that I’m on the other side of it.”
Madeleine’s light-bulb moment came when the store she worked for asked her to start designing for their own label. “And I thought, ‘I would like to do it for myself thank you very much!’” She laughs about it now. “It feels so brave now, I can’t believe I had the balls!”
Madeleine started small, with a simple, slouchy cashmere beanie hat that rapidly became a cult classic, capturing the attention of chic stars including Lily Donaldson and Sienna Miller. Kate Moss, who Madeleine had become friendly with through mutual friends, was an early supporter, as was Vogue. From there, she expanded the brand into a range of minimalist, pared-back cashmere that was soon being stocked by Matches, among other prestigious outlets. The business snowballed from there.
Then, a few years down the line came a turning point for the designer. Madeleine’s simple, classic designs in muted colours gave way to a more directional approach, with cashmere tracksuits, stripes and brightly-hued, statement stripes and colour blocks. The look was strong, retro and an immediate hit, particularly with the social-media and influencer crowd. What made her change direction? “I think that turning point happened when I put more of myself into the business, certainly in terms of design, and also in terms of opening myself up to social media.”
She hasn’t looked back, and the brand has attracted a huge number of new followers. “I am super influenced by the skater and surf vibe of the 1970s in LA, and ‘70s and ‘80s skiwear, and I just love the contrast of pairing that with this intensely luxe cashmere. The 1970s is an awesome mine of ideas. I’m constantly looking at colour and how it is combined and used in different cities that I visit. I’m now designing these massive collections filled with colour, and I absolutely love it, and I feel like people are really responding to that.”
Now balancing her work life with being a mother of three, Madeleine still divides her time between London and Hong Kong. And collaborating with a family-run factory, that she has worked with from the start, has helped the design process hugely, she says. She has the freedom to experiment with samples as much as is needed, and the close relationship means there are fewer constraints in the design process, and more adaptability.
In the end, though, it is Madeleine’s strong sense of who her clients are and what they want that makes the brand tick. “I want the woman who wears my clothes to feel elegant and relaxed. She wants to look chic and feel comfortable, and she knows herself and her sense of style well.” A creative collaboration with UK high-street brand Next is coming shortly. “It’s a perfect collaboration. I’ve worked super closely with them on the designs and getting them right for my brand and feel.” And there is also a possibility in the future of a menswear range. But for now, says Madeleine, it’s “more of the same, only better!” Madeleine Thompson has launched a new online shop where you can browse her full collection, including exclusive pieces, the children’s range plus an outlet section.