“No one had seen faux fur like it and people went mad”
Shrimps’ founder Hannah Weiland in conversation with It's Nice That
It wasn’t a fondness for crustaceans that led Hannah Weiland to name her fashion brand Shrimps. In fact, it was her childhood nickname. “It’s because I was small and pink,” she says simply, sitting in her west London office. On the edge of Portobello, Hannah’s glass-walled office overlooks her small workforce, teeming in preparation for the coming season. In our line of sight, several clothes rails hang with Shrimps’ signature garments, floral organza dresses slotted in between luxury faux-fur coats, while geometric beaded bags are dotted around the otherwise minimal space.
As effortlessly glamorous as her collections, Hannah, with hair like Goldilocks’ trailing down to her waist, is quite tired. She’s just been to a wedding in Lake Como and will attend a pub quiz hosted by Alexa Chung later in the day. But somehow, in between all the high-profile events, she runs a fashion brand, manages a team and designs around three or four collections a year (excluding collaborations).
It comes as no surprise to find out that, since 2013, Hannah has barely put her phone down. In that time, Shrimps has grown from a student side project to an international brand, where Hannah’s absent-minded doodles are the central design element. Over the course of an hour, she spoke about her growing business, sustainability in the world of fashion, and her ongoing battle with high street rip-offs.
INT: When did you know you wanted to start your own fashion brand?
HW: It all started from this one idea, a design for a coat. I didn’t set out to launch a brand, because I’d been told hundreds of times how hard it was. But when I came across this amazing faux fur while studying textile design at London College of Fashion, I suddenly had this idea to create a colourful, Breton-striped faux-fur coat.
INT: And how did the name Shrimps come about?
HW: When I was on this short course, I thought, I need a label in the coat, what shall I call it? I decided to call it Shrimps because it was my nickname and it sounded playful and surreal. I liked the idea of a crunchy hard crustacean juxtaposed against soft faux fur.
INT: It was your nickname! Where did it come from?
HW: Because I was small and pink.
INT: Did your family give you the name?
HW: Yeah, and then my friends started using it. Some of my friends still do, but not so much now, of course, because it has a whole other meaning.
INT: Of course. So, back to you starting the business, which you make sound so easy, what happened next?
HW: Well, I’ve always known exactly what I love, so building a brand just from one design was quite easy for me. I don’t think this kind of thing would happen nowadays, though. When I launched the brand in 2013, no one had seen faux fur like it and people went mad. Soon after, Net-a-Porter put in a huge order for that summer and I was like, “You know this is going to drop in March, right?” But they said, “Yeah, we want it.”
That order allowed me to design and do other things. I added in a little furry clutch bag, I hired my first team member, then she bought a printer and some office supplies and we started working out of my dad’s office in Soho. I started with a collection of outerwear and the brand naturally developed from there.
INT: You mentioned that when you first started the brand, you were warned against it. Do you have any advice for anyone in a similar position?
HW: It is really tough, but I think if you have a really good idea – and I mean, I was fearless, I was 23 when I started Shrimps – you can make it work. But I am so un-fearless in other aspects of my life. I hate rollercoasters, I hate flying, so in other parts of life, I’m really fearful. But with this, I’m fearless because otherwise, if you don’t take risks, you just get stuck. You’ve just got to go for it and not be scared of failing, because then you’ll never do anything! In a way, it’s good to fail. It would be sad if no one did their own thing and if there wasn’t innovative, fresh talent out there.
“If I sit down and try to draw, I never like the results as much.”
INT: You’ve ended up doing something quite different to your original degree which was history of art. Has your degree influenced the Shrimps brand in any way?
HW: Not only did I study art history, I also studied the history of fashion. From Marie Antoinette and 18th Century French courthouse dress to a dissertation on Grayson Perry, which I called Shocking Pots and Frilly Frocks. I’ve always had a strong interest in fashion, history of art just means that I have this huge database of knowledge which includes some very niche artists who continue to influence my work, like the outsider artist Henry Dager, for example. It’s so helpful when it comes to researching a new collection.
INT: Is that what you’re doing at the moment? Designing a new collection?
HW: I’ve just finished designing my collection for SS20 and that’s just gone to Paris. For me, this period is like a fresh start. Of course I’m still in touch with all the sales people and that side of the business, but right now, I’m starting research for my next collection, which is always the best bit, because there are never any boundaries. I can do whatever and afford to be a bit more free.
The world is my oyster at this stage, I look at several different concepts, and if I don’t use them this time, I bank them for future collections.
INT: I’ve caught you at a good time in your process, then. What have you found inspiring recently?
HW: I was just in Italy for my honeymoon, which was incredible. At this stage, it’s so important to be out and about collecting research, so my latest collection has become honeymoon and romance-inspired. I don’t think I’ve ever been off emails since starting Shrimps and I went off it for just a few days in Italy. But when I was there, on the Amalfi coast, it was so beautiful and I just thought, I’ve got to go on my phone. I had to take a picture of this flower, or this tile, it was all inspiration. I guess if you love what you do, then it’s fine. But because I make every single creative decision (which is quite terrifying), it basically means that I can never turn my phone off.
INT: So much nicer than just scrolling on a screen. Can we talk a bit more about how your illustration style has developed over the years?
HW: From about the age of 18, I’ve had the same style. I’ve always drawn these little faces, they’re like my imaginary friends. I draw them all the time, in meetings, during talks, whenever.
“When I launched the brand in 2013, no one had seen faux fur like it and people went mad.”
Growing up, my friends always knew them, they’d be like “draw him” or “draw her”. I just love the act of doodling, and actually, a lot of my prints are just called “the doodle print”. If I sit down and try to draw, I never like the results as much.
INT: Do all your illustrations have a personal story behind them?
HW: Everything’s a bit personal really. I had a childhood teddy called Dog Dog who’s often in my drawings. And I did a collection based on daffodils because it’s my birthday flower and my mum used to throw me daffodil birthday teas. Even my wedding dress had mine and [my husband] Arthur’s doodles on it, telling our story. But the faces will always be the heart of the brand.
INT: I love how your illustrations feel so lighthearted, but then they’re printed on super high-quality material which is a great way to elevate the drawings.
HW: I hate it when you paint something and it loses its texture through print. I love to see the actual brushstroke in the medium, so that’s why floral prints printed on organza work well for us.
INT: Did you come up with the Shrimps logo in a similar way?
HW: It came about when I realised that I needed packaging to send out my coats. I’d done the drawing about a month beforehand – not with packaging in mind – but ended up using it and that’s still the packaging today. It’s all about creating an aesthetic that you want to be involved in. I want the design to talk for itself. That’s ultimately what I want the brand to be: a recognisable piece of clothing that you save up for and keep forever.
There have been times in the past where, sales-wise, I’ve been pushed to design something that didn’t feel quite right, and it just never does well. The best-selling products are things I particularly believed in and did on a whim. So now I’m like, just go with your gut instinct.
INT: You mentioned that when you first started the brand, you didn’t know that much about this relatively new material that was faux fur. How did it come to be what Shrimps is mainly known for?
HW: It’s still very much a new technique. In the Far East, the factories have developed new ways of creating realistic and luxurious materials. Now, however, there’s the whole sustainability debate and faux fur has become slightly more controversial. But the factory that I work with develops faux fur from recycled plastic and you can also get these animal-friendly, wool-based, faux-fur fabrics, which I’m looking into.
“I’ve always known exactly what I love, so building a brand just from one design was quite easy for me.”
INT: How hard is it to keep up with all these new fabrics and technologies coming out?
HW: We go to fabric fairs about four times a year and it’s interesting to see the sustainable area of the fairs getting bigger every year. There’s one girl on my team who’s especially interested in sustainability. She keeps up with the news, but because the fashion industry moves so quickly, it takes a while to put it into place. You can even get faux leather from pineapple skins! I guess it’s something we’ve all got to do. Otherwise we’re all going to die of plastic overload.
INT: What else have you looked into on the sustainability front?
HW: We recently went on a trip to Peru, a country trying to be at the forefront of the sustainability conversation. The fabrics are all made from alpaca fur and they roam around freely just outside the factory. It’s a new incentive implemented by the Peruvian government so they paid for us to go out there. They set it up to gain more international business in the hopes that companies will outsource their production there.
INT: I also wanted to ask you about the high-street brands which have ripped off Shrimps’ designs.
HW: It’s awful.
INT: I can imagine. What can be done about that from your end?
HW: You know, you get used to it. In the beginning, I would cry whenever it happened. I would spend around two years on a product, then they would copy it in about two weeks! And it looks shoddy and badly made. But it hasn’t affected sales, because it’s a different customer that buys those copies. It’s a really horrible part of the industry and what annoys me the most is when people tag fakes as Shrimps on social media. I’m just like, “Nope! Remove!”
“You’ve just got to go for it and not be scared of failing because, then you’ll never do anything! In a way, it’s good to fail.”
INT: Is there any conversation with those high-street retailers to stop it happening?
HW: You can get in touch and then they’ll say: “Yeah we’ll remove it in two weeks.” But that’s the sale period for them anyway, and then they just ignore you. There’s one particular high-street brand at the moment who is the worst for us, they copy all our bags.
INT: Oh no! What are the copies like?
HW: It’s cheap, throw-away fashion. It’s just a horrible business plan on their side, purposely ripping off young designers to sell knock-offs. There are lots of brands that do it, to both emerging and established designers. But you’ve just got to be tough and move on to the next thing.
INT: And hope that it doesn’t happen again?
HW: Yeah, but it does always happen.