Creative with costume
We all take for granted now the influx of Halloween merchandise to our stores in October, and any other number of events which we celebrate through the year with themed fancy dress.
What happened to the supposedly reserved British? Children have always loved the joy of scrambling in the dressing-up box and emerging as a princess or a superhero but as adults many of us are first in line to dress up.
I went to meet Dominique Peckett, director of Smiffys, the Gainsborough based fancy dress company, who has played her own part in shattering that reserve. Dominique, along with her brothers Elliott and Henry, are the second generation to join the family business. Their father Ray, bought RH Smith and Son Ltd forty years ago. He worked as a consultant to the long established company which specialised in making real hair beards and wigs for judges and cancer patients but Ray saw an opportunity to expand into the costume hire and theatre sectors; and there began the foundations of the business today. Smiffys employs 250 staff and has a turnover in excess of £55m.
“I can remember first coming into the business in the school holidays,” explained Dominique, “when I worked helping in the retail shops, cleaning and repacking for pocket money.”
After school Dominique went to university and studied politics with a strong economics bias with the intention of pursuing a career in political research.
“I never thought that I would join the business long-term but after finishing my degree I came to work here for a few months. It was an exciting time, though, with the Tiger economies emerging and a great opportunity for us to expand the manufacturing and export side of the business,” she said.
“My father sent me off to the United States for the year to help set up our American sales and distribution chain. I lived in San Francisco for twelve months before being sent next to Dublin to fulfil a similar role. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and although my role was heavily sales focused, it sealed my decision to make my career with Smiffys.”
The experience had also given Dominique time to discover where her most effective input into the business could be made.
“I had enjoyed the design and creative side of the business more than the commercial process so I took over all the marketing services,” said Dominique. “I saw the opportunity to move the business away from theatrical quality costumes to fast fancy dress. By bringing in designers we could create our own unique products and that is where ‘costumes in a bag’ have been so successful for us.”
As Dominique took me on a tour of their headquarters there were teams of designers, web developers, licensing negotiators, telephone sales and the marketing team working in the bright, open plan space. Next, we moved to the vast warehouse through which most of the 64 million items they manufacture per year pass. There is also a satellite office in Leeds which is home to a further team of designers and material specialists who test and approve the flame retardant and safety features of all Smiffys products.
Dominique explained that Smiffys employs an in-house legal team to combat counterfeit copies: “We never lose sight that the consumer is our end customer. The danger of counterfeit costumes has been highlighted nationally on TV and in the press and we work with Trading Standards to safeguard our customers. It is not an easy job but now Amazon and eBay are helping to weed out counterfeiters too.”
Ray is still chairman of the company and while Dominique looks after marketing services, Elliott has concentrated on the financial side of the business and the most recent family recruit, Henry, is focused on e-commerce, the web and the impact digital printing will have in future.
“We are launching a new website this year which will really allow us to engage with our consumers,” continued Dominique. “We have a fifteen-strong New Product Development team who study trends and always have their eye eighteen months to two years ahead. We study the catwalk trends, new release films as well as reading trends which will influence World Book Day. We hold the licence for Roald Dahl and Horrible Histories character costumes and we aim to predict which will be most popular when the day comes round each March.”
My final question was where will be the next innovation for Smiffys? Dominique has a unique perspective given her academic background and experience of travelling the globe to manufacturing suppliers in China as well as roadshows and exhibitions in America and Europe.
She said: “There has been tremendous growth in costumes for events such as festivals, marathons and fun runs which require more personalisation and shorter lead times than for the large scale manufacturing which will still follow developing countries. This is where digital printing is so exciting. We are looking at bringing smaller run production back to the UK and Europe and creating localised websites for these territories.”
Dominique is the first to admit that the business is all-consuming but she and her teenage daughter spend lots of time with the rest of the family and are renovating a property in the county. “I couldn’t be happier with my chosen path. Smiffys has given me the chance to work with exceptional people both here and abroad and I cannot wait for the challenges and rewards that the future will bring.”