Bespoke equestrian clothing

Nikki Goldup speaks to Rosemary Mills the founder, chief designer and tailor behind equestrian clothing brand ‘Sporting Colours’. Founded in 1992, this British business produces tailor-made clothing for discerning riders.

Sporting Colours has now traded for over 26 years, what inspired you to start your own business?

In the early 90s the recession erupted and, in the doom, and gloom of uncertainty I was made redundant overnight! My company car, large salary and all the perks I was used to were whipped away from under my feet, I had just signed a new mortgage and naturally, keeping my beloved horse was another concern for me.  It was a horrible moment in time and I felt very vulnerable but knew only I could pick myself up. I had a long hard look in the mirror, asking the question ‘what do I do now?’ I loved my horse and my new house and was determined not to lose either. Having experienced the worst side of the corporate world I decided that I had had enough. I made plans to work for myself and for the things I loved and still love.... my horse...and of course my husband!  I’ve spent a lifetime with horses and have always designed and made my own clothes and horse products, so I decided that an equestrian clothing business was the way forward. In addition, I realised there was a gap in the market as I could never get anything nice to fit me or my horse. I soon came up with the company name ‘Sporting Colours’. I can’t remember how or why I thought of the name, but the business grew from there.

"I had a long hard look in the mirror, asking the question ‘what do I do now?"

Starting a new business is a massive undertaking, how did you begin?  

I started off by designing my first collection, including breeches, shirts, stocks and waistcoats but also horse products like rugs and saddle cloths. With little fabric and no income, I’m not sure quite how I managed to achieve what I did, but my plan was to always aim high and start at the top. I literally knocked on the doors of household name retailers like Harrods, Swaine Adeney and Giddens and to my delight orders were placed. My passion always focussed on good design and quality which certainly helped as customers needed to feel they were getting value for money. During a recession and a financially tricky time I had a great start with flowing orders. I was very fortunate that things took off so early on in the business. The design and development were natural to me and I was lucky to find the whole process very intuitive.

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Hollie Common with Fearless Frank. Photo: Blue Moon Photography
Hollie Common and Fearless Frank. Photo: Blue Moon Photography

"I was working round the clock to make products that I believed in "

How did you keep your momentum going as a ‘one-woman band’?

In the early days it was hard work, but I managed well on my own. As the business developed, I had the help of a great ‘horse’ friend, Fiona Reddick, who also self-employed. She visited retailers and secured a great deal of orders for me. However, several stores then went into liquidation which was a major setback. Somehow, I picked myself up and kept fighting. I was working round the clock to make products that I believed in and knew there was a market place for. It was this tenacity and passion for my business that kept me going.

At what point did you decide to trade directly to riders and bypass retailers?

I was eventing regularly at the time and on a day out competing a friend suggested that, seeing I was already at competitions, I should use this as a platform to promote and sell my products directly to riders. I decided to follow up this idea and the response was fantastic, Sporting Colours bespoke was born! Being a rider, competing on a regular basis, I had first-hand knowledge of what styles riders wanted and the performance required from these products. 

Twenty-six years on, through many ups and downs, hard work and taking my bespoke trade stand to many shows ranging from local to national, I am still passionate and buzzing with enthusiasm.  The focus of my brand is to hand-make great equestrian products which are affordable, stylish, top quality, offer performance and comfort where it counts and most important of all fit perfect in all the right places.

How did offering a bespoke service develop your business?

Looking back, I had so many ideas and products in my head but could not risk asking companies to help with production in fear of them destroying my design ideas and not offering the high-end quality I desired.  At this point I decided to focus on riding wear and lose the equine-ware collections. This meant I was completely focused on bespoke design. I really enjoyed meeting riders and discussing their product requirements and the issues they had trying to source clothes that fitted properly. I found it was inspiring to create and design something just for them and exactly to their requirements.

Did you find your customer relationship changed, now you worked directly with riders?

For sure, with more direct contact with clients I became a bit of an ‘agony aunt’ as horses always throw up a myriad of issues and worries! My business was and still is all about looking after my customers and giving them a great service. I really enjoy the interaction, on a human and social level, that I have with all my clients.’

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Evelyn Little and Bindro T (Dino). Photo: Hoof Prints Photos
Evelyn Little and Bindro T (Dino). Photo: Hoof Prints Photos

"I have created innovative designs for riders that have had reconstructive surgery issues"

Could you explain a little about the bespoke process?

I take a full range of the client’s measurements from head to toe, discuss designs and their shape. One thing for certain is that every rider has a unique shape and muscle tone. Whether riding one horse or ten horses, or simply hacking or competing, or just doing daily yard chores, every rider is different. Body shape also changes with age, being older now I have a good understanding of this! After measuring and deciding on a style of jacket I then make a pattern grade for each individual customer to incorporate every important detail of their body, whether it’s a hollow back, short or long rib, a pear shape or big bust. I have created innovative designs for riders that have had reconstructive surgery issues and also para riders who can sometimes need pattern adaptions to get a correct and flattering fit. With any rider it’s important to get a professional looking, tailored look. It makes an amazing difference to the appearance of a rider in the saddle and gives off the right impression when coming down the centre line, and most important of all the ‘feel good’ factor!

What are the next steps?

When the pattern has been drafted and the design has been agreed I then grade in fabric to begin to make the finished garment. The most important factor of all is the cut. It doesn’t matter what shape or size you are, any design can work for any rider bur needs to be cut properly and made from quality fabric. For the past twenty years I’ve only used Schoeller’s finest fabric which is imported from from Switzerland. Sadly, I have never been able to find a British manufacturer that works to the same quality. The fabric is water repellent, windproof, breathable, lightweight and machine washable (a great saving on dry cleaning bills!), which is an added bonus to riders. I have learnt to be extremely selective with fabrics. Schoeller prefers to deal with high volume orders which is not practical for a small business, but as I have been their customer for many years they are reasonably accommodating which has been a massive support to me.

How long does it take to complete a bespoke jacket?

Lead times to supply a product range from approximately 8 to 12 weeks from the time of order as I have several orders ‘on the go’ and have to pace myself. My attention to detail is very thorough and I work alone so need to manage my orders efficiently.’

How much does ‘customer experience’ matter to you?

When a product is completed I personally contact each customer and let them know the item is ready to be shipped. I always ask they try on their garments as soon as they arrive. On rare occasions, if any small detail needs adjusting or changing this is done immediately and returned back to customer within a couple of days, and at no extra cost. My customers are king, so every detail counts and I can offer a one-to-one service that many other suppliers would struggle to achieve.

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Evelyn Little and Bindro T (Dino). Photo: Hoof Prints Photos
Evelyn Little and Bindro T (Dino). Photo: Hoof Prints Photos

Styles come and go, but what do you find riders are looking for these days?

Dress code rules and regulations are more relaxed now and although I love traditional silhouettes I combine timeless tradition with new modern trends and materials. I need to make sure I offer a complete service and ensure the design for each client is bespoke, whatever the rider’s age, shape, personal taste or the discipline they compete in.  Because I produce bespoke garments I am able to regrade patterns and garments. This means I can maybe reshape a garment if the rider has lost weight or add a panel, or change the colour trim and buttons. If clients want to refresh the look at a later date and there is a small charge for this, but it is very affordable and much less expensive than buying a new jacket. Detail is paramount at any level and that’s what I offer. I make up designs for all riding disciplines but my main demand in clothing is dressage as dress code rules appear to be more relaxed. Waistcoats have been very popular since the British Dressage rule change, and front zip closings on jackets, tailcoats and waistcoats can offer a better line when in the saddle’.

What has been one of your most interesting commissions?

I have supplied all the UK and Eire Mounted Police since 1992 with products ranging from breeches to top coats for the Lord Mayor’s Show in London, anti-shock saddle pads and full high viz gear for horse and rider. When I see them on the television, usually attending riots I am always checking they are dressed correctly!

I was also official supplier to our British teams at the world Equestrian games and European championships in 1998 and 1999 which was a massive undertaking. Riders often let me have a ‘free rein’ when designing their competition jackets. More recently Sofie Butchart requested ‘lots of crystal sparkle!’. It is lovely to be given the opportunity to dress a rider, making something very classy but very different to many of the designs on the market. My biggest achievement was winner of a BETA safety product award in the Year 2000 which was an unexpected honour.

"Everything I do comes from the heart and if I can make a rider feel special and proud about the way they look then I have achieved something"

Running your own business must be rewarding but demanding, how do you wind down?

My lifetime with horses stays at the forefront of my ideas and everything I do. To unwind I produce pastel portraits of horses. Everything I do comes from the heart and if I can make a rider feel special and proud about the way they look then I have achieved something...its lovely when customers send me photos and feedback. Its makes it all the hard work involved worthwhile. Riders can ring me any time to discuss product requirements, or can view my products at competitions, which are mainly in my catchment area or national championships. Some like to visit me personally and it is much easier to chat about ideas. I can also assist with them taking their measurements remotely over the phone or in person. I work with overseas customers and those based in the UK. It is entirely possible to produce bespoke items for riders I haven’t met as long as the measurements I am working with are correct. 

Having traded for so many years and have kept every single rider’s measurement on file, I literally have an encyclopaedia of rider shapes.... maybe I will write a book about body shapes if I can ever retire!

Where do you see your business heading in the future? Do you feel more riders are heading down the bespoke route?

Ultimately, I would like to keep doing my best for my clients. Over the years riders have begun to realise that bespoke clothing offers real value for money and is worthwhile investment. But also, I am able to consistently provide a very high standard of customer service and attention to detail, this is what really matters to me and sets the standard for everything I do.

Learn more about Sporting Colours and their bespoke jackets on their Facebook page:

Sofie Butchart wearing a bespoke, Sporting Colours jacket
Sofie Butchart wearing a bespoke, Sporting Colours jacket