From bedroom to boardroom: How Leeds Apprentice winner Sian Gabbidon built her fashion empire from scratch
The Apprentice winner Sian Gabbidon started her fashion label with one sewing machine and a heap of determination. She shares her tips for success with Abbey Maclure.
Winning The Apprentice was a proud moment for Leeds businesswoman Sian Gabbidon.
As an avid fan of the show, Sian watched every episode with her dad in her Whinmoor home and promised that one day it would be her in the boardroom.
Scooping the £250,000 investment into her fashion label Sian Marie is something she "still can't believe" - despite years of hard graft building her business from scratch.
The 28-year-old started her label with just one sewing machine, using Instagram to sell her designs while the social media platform was still in its infancy.
"I come from a very humble background," Sian told the Yorkshire Evening Post.
"We lived in the council areas of Whinmoor, but I loved my childhood and my parents always provided for me and put in a graft.
"I’m not from a business background and although I loved fashion, my motivation has always come from my parents. They definitely instilled in me that you have to work hard to get what you want.
“Because of their mindset, and because I’m an only child, I wanted to make them proud.”
While her mum worked long shifts as a nurse, and her dad as a factory worker, Sian spent evenings after school with her grandparents - where she found her creative flair drawing with her nana.
She developed her eye for design while studying fashion design with marketing at a Yorkshire university, but Sian was told she 'couldn't make it' in fashion without moving to London.
Determined to prove her tutor wrong, and without the cash to move to the capital, she forged her own path into the industry - reaching out to stylists, celebrities and boutiques to build her brand.
"I would have liked to move to London, but I couldn’t afford it," Sian said.
“I wanted to see what I could do with social media; it was very organic and slow-moving, but it slowly turned into a business from there.
"Working with influencers was very new, we would direct message celebrities and we couldn’t believe it when we’d hear back from big names."
Her online label was a hit and in 2018 Sian presented her business plan on series 14 of BBC reality show The Apprentice, competing for the chance to be Lord Alan Sugar's next business partner.
"It was much harder than I expected," Sian admits.
"I was a massive fan of the show and I always used to watch it with my dad and think, ‘I could do way better than these people’.
“But it's long days, you’re getting up at the crack of dawn, you’re knackered, and you have to make decisions really quickly with teammates who were a nightmare. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Lord Sugar was impressed with Sian's self-taught knowledge of social media branding and she defeated nut milk brand owner Camila Ainsworth to come away with the prize.
Sian added: “It was crazy, even now I still can’t believe it - especially as a fan of the show.
“When you have a business or you’re self-employed, you’re constantly ticking over and you often don’t give yourself credit. For the first time I thought, ‘I’ve done alright’ - I was proud of myself."
With Lord Sugar's backing and Sian's own growing social media following, Sian Marie quickly became a go-to brand for cutting-edge swimwear designs.
Working with the billionaire has been exactly the experience Sian wanted it to be; she's still at the helm of the business but catches up with him at least once a month.
"He’s got so much knowledge and great contacts, but there’s a boundary," Sian said.
"It’s still my business and I get to make the calls and decide on the plans, it's fabulous working with him."
With sunny holidays off the cards when the pandemic hit last year, Sian had to quickly redesign her business as a loungewear brand - launching the first collection last winter.
“Covid changed the whole game," Sian said.
“We always planned to diversify, but we had to do it a lot quicker. The launch was a massive success, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
"I'm now focused on continuing to build and branch into new retailers to raise the awareness - and just keep growing."
Selling lounge and swimwear to the stars
Sian's fashion label is loved by celebrities and working with influencers has always been at the core of the business.
The first loungewear collection has been sported by Love Island stars Molly-Mae Hague and Maura Higgins and Sian shows off her new designs on her own Instagram, which boasts more than 100,000 followers.
"We’re trying to cement ourselves as a sophisticated loungewear brand, where you can dress it up with heels for brunch, or go cosy to chill at home," Sian said.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of our craftsmanship and the fabrics and finishes, like nice branded trims.
“The swim range is as sustainable as possible, with reversible and multiway styles so you can wear the pieces more than once. People can really make it their own style."
From her bedroom to the boardroom
Turning a bedroom business into a fashion empire didn't happen overnight for Sian. As she prepares to launch Sian Marie in Ireland and Dubai, Sian shared her tips for success.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice; I spend all my time working," Sian said.
"When I set up the business when I was younger, all my friends were out drinking and I’d be at home with my laptop.
“You’ve got to be able to find solutions, there are always issues that you need to overcome. You’ve got to have that entrepreneurial flair where you will find the answer to the problem."
Sian praised the innovation of those who have started businesses during the pandemic, from selling home-baked goods to launching new stores.
She added: “Covid has been such a crazy time, but it’s also allowed people to take a step back and reassess what they enjoy and want to do.
"I’ve always had people tell me I won’t be able to make it in Yorkshire and people can be more negative than positive, maybe because they’ve tried something and it hasn’t worked.
"But as long as you’ve got a solid idea and a strategy to get to where you want to be - just give it a go."
Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.