By Chloe Hardy
When I first met Michelle Wilkinson, she’d moved to Morzine for the winter and, like so many, loved it and decided to stay for summer. She also happened to mention she’d had an idea to start a women’s road cycling brand. Two years later it’s pre-summer and said brand, KANDESENT, is just about to launch.
“I saw a huge gap in the market for women’s specific road bike kit.” She explains. “All the brands on the market offered men’s ranges and then a small and very basic women’s range, that was obviously an after thought. I wanted to create something for myself and my friends that was built with performance features of the highest spec, but with a clean and unique style that isn’t available elsewhere.”
So how exactly does one woman go about starting a high-performance, technical sportswear brand alongside her day job?
Despite working in the action sports and fashion industry for the majority of her career, starting from scratch was unchartered territory for Michelle. “Being in Morzine with such incredible climbs in the mountains really pushed my cycling and made me supercharge my ideas for the brand,” she tells me. “It has also connected me with a new pool of adventurous people who live and congregate around here.” In fact, it was after moving to Morzine that a friend introduced Michelle to Donna Veraguth, a Chamonix- and Wyoming-based performance sportswear designer, who has previously worked with brands such as Faction and The North Face, and would quickly become her business partner.
“Donna is a badass cyclist and skier,” Michelle says straight off the bat. “I knew she’d already worked on some cycle kit for herself and her friends a few years before, so she already had an idea in her head of what women’s cycling gear could be.” With Michelle’s background in business and marketing and Donna’s in design, they make the ultimate two-woman team.
How exactly do you combine fashion and function successfully? Michelle and Donna wanted to have complete creative control of their initial designs, so they set up the brand on a cocktail of savings and credit cards. “We’ve been really careful to keep it just the two of us.” Michelle explained. “We’ve taken a lot of advice from various different parties, but right now it’s important for us to stay true to our design ideals.” From here, it was a question of finding fabrics that would perform under pressure without losing their shape, achieving a comfortable but flattering fit and perfecting the practical design features. And of course, creating an original look that would stand out from the crowd.
While Donna was tweaking the designs, visiting the factory and working with the factory team on the final product, Michelle was working behind the scenes to get the branding, website and marketing plan on track. She set up photo-shoots, did all the paperwork; “All the really non-glamorous stuff!”
But even with their wealth of knowledge, bringing the designs to reality was no picnic. From finding a European factory that was willing to take a chance on a start-up to finding a distribution centre; from trademarking the designs to knowing the right order quantities. All the know-how in the world can’t prepare you for going it alone. The word ‘learning curve’ crops up a lot as we chat, as does ‘terrifying’.
I’m interested to know, what was the hardest part? What are the unexpected pitfalls that come with starting a business? “You will make a lot of costly mistakes!” was Michelle’s first response. “Trying to fit the day job in alongside starting a business, plus finding enough time to actually go cycling or snowboarding, that’s been hard. But having a great and creative pool of friends to draw on is an incredible advantage, that I feel very grateful to have here in Morzine and back in the UK.”
Michelle isn’t fazed by a few minor setbacks. She’s got big plans for KANDESENT and she’s not one to let inexperience stop her from creating something great. “If I don’t know how to do something I figure it out, or I ask someone to help me, or there’s probably a YouTube tutorial on how to do it. And you know the whole ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ thing? That’s true, no-one knows what they’re doing, everyone’s bluffing it.”
The final product does indeed prove that Michelle and Donna are ‘making it’. Their first collection sees new and unique shapes and mix-and-match pieces that echo the creativity of winter sports styling, but are uncommon at best in the cycling industry. ‘For women, by women’ may be an oft-used phrase, but it’s certainly applicable here. “We’ve done really nice shapes that aren’t just jerseys. We’ve done cutaway backs, we’ve done racerbacks. Because we don’t have to wear a jersey the whole time like guys do. If we want to wear a racer back and it makes sense, then let’s do that.”
Being keen road cyclists, Michelle and Donna road tested their products themselves to make sure they were up to scratch. “We obsessed over having the right seat pad,” Michelle says, “We also spent an age obsessing over details like pockets, so you can fit your iPhone in your jersey pocket; it’s waterproof too, so you don’t have to worry about getting caught in a rain shower.” Going further down the rabbit hole, you won’t find any plastic tags or zips on your KANDESENT apparel. Keeping production based in Europe (“Where all the best cycling apparel is made.”) means Michelle and Donna had access to their choice of premium Italian fabrics, but also that they had more control over smaller details and packaging. Michelle tells me that she plans to make the business totally plastic-free.
And there it is. Two years of hard work in a nutshell. KANDESENT’s first collection is available now and features a small but mighty range of shorts, cropped jackets, jerseys, caps and arm warmers. But it doesn’t stop at just a product range. Michelle’s hopes for brand go further than the apparel; they go towards starting a community that encourages women to get on a bike, to feel comfortable, to ride with other women, to ride with men, to enjoy everything that cycling has to offer. And look damn good while doing it.