Polly McMaster comes from the competitive world of consulting and finance, with a Cambridge Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and an MBA at London Business School. It may sound pretty random to pivot from biology to fashion. However, once you connect the dots, it makes more sense! And that’s exactly what Polly did when she co-founded The Fold.
Polly has always been a generalist and found it hard to know what to focus on at school. She was a creative thinker, which helped her apply herself to different disciplines. She loved science, but she also loved art and enjoyed them both equally.
During the 90s, it was the era of the super’s; Christy, Helena, Naomi, Kate… Polly was literally obsessed with the world of fashion, but she didn’t feel brave enough to pursue art school. The analytical nature of science and its practical application appealed to her, and that’s the direction she headed in. Polly majored in Pathology at University, and she studied immunology and virology – VIRUSES!
Fast-forward to a few years later, and after some time spent learning about business and investment, Polly wound up working in Strategy Consulting and Private Equity. The thing that really struck her (at the time) was how few women there were in these industries – it was shocking! This, combined with the appallingly low statistics regarding the number of women on boards and in positions of leadership, made Polly acutely aware of the importance of female role models and support networks.
Added to all of this, Polly’s clothing choices were pitiful and uninspiring. The fashion magazines weren’t interested in ‘real clothes,’ and fashion brands didn’t seem to be addressing clothes that women might want to wear to work. It was always an afterthought or an edit – once a year. Polly found her only options to be terrible, unflattering trouser suits or eye-wateringly expensive tailoring.
All of these things led her down the path to starting The Fold, a womenswear brand that celebrates ambition and says you can be smart, professional, and love fashion.
“Looking as smart as a man in his bespoke suit gives a woman the same level of confidence and gravitas at work. The idea for The Fold came out of that need, and we really believe that being serious about work shouldn’t compete with being interested in fashion,” Polly explained. “The Fold is about understanding the professional woman’s needs in her daily life and trying to create a stylish, contemporary wardrobe for them, but particularly focused around work. To this end, we are building a brand in our own right based on our label and designs.”
Our Interview with Polly McMaster, Co-Founder and CEO of The Fold
Why are you passionate about The Fold? And what should people know about the company?
The Fold’s mission is to empower women to achieve their ambitions. We want to dress women to feel their confident best, and that means investing in quality, great design, and versatility. We want her to feel like she can take on the day and achieve her goals in an outfit that works for her.
One of my main aims has been to build a brand around women, one that celebrates ambition in all its forms. That’s why the remarkable and multifaceted women who wear our clothes are at the heart of the brand. We shine a light on their stories through our Fold Woman feature and Pay it Forward podcasts. It’s a community-led brand, and I’m really proud of that.
Over the years, it’s been so rewarding to hear from customers on how their Fold outfit helped them get the job, nail a promotion, collect an award, or supported them through a TED Talk in front of 300 people!
Now more than ever, when we all have so much choice – a brand has a responsibility to have a purpose and product that they can really stand behind. Our collections are genuinely incredible and unique. We choose only the finest fabrics and champion skilled craftsmanship. The collection is designed in-house, and we consider every single detail, from fit to fabric, lining and finish. Because we don’t wholesale, you get designer quality at a more affordable price point.
We are also proud that we are on a journey of both ethical and sustainable production. From suppliers to products and packaging, we’re taking steps to reduce waste, improve our carbon footprint, and make positive changes wherever we can. That includes producing collections made from sustainable fibers, such as our Clever Crepe and Ultimate Wool capsules.
Tell us about your product development and how you decide what designs to carry in the store?
The customer is at the heart of everything we do. Our creative team is always looking at how she spends her time and what her needs are. We often reach out to the customer directly to ask, what would you like to see more of, how can we help you? We want our products to help her to feel inspired, empowered, and most of all, comfortable.
The creative process at The Fold is incredible – our designer sources luxury fabrics from prestigious Italian mills. We either design our own prints (including literally hand-painting them) or work with vintage archives and specialist designers.
Our garments are made in highly skilled factories, working with the latest techniques – these are expert tailors and dressmakers. It is quite a team-wide effort to curate the final collection. It has to pass the team test. Will she love it and feel confident in it? Will she wear it for years to come?
Has the COVID-19 climate affected The Fold – and how have you had to pivot during this time?
It has been a very challenging year, but we have been fortunate that the team and suppliers are healthy, and fundamentally, we are doing OK!
In a business context, the world changed this year – generally, The Fold customers wear our clothes to go somewhere – to the office, to an event, an interview, to give a presentation. So with most of those canceled, we have had to be nimble and really understand what our customer needs right now.
Our Autumn collection has been amazing. We worked really hard to make our products relevant and flexible when we are often working at home, but still needing to feel confident and pulled together – even in a virtual world.
What’s your power suit?
I genuinely love tailoring, and although I’m biased, our tailoring is exceptional. My power suit is a Fold suit cut from Italian cloth in a navy and toffee check. It has a tailored waistline, and the check is mapped out to draw the eye in to flatter your curves.
I wear it with tailored culottes and a fab pair of heels. I had my in-person board meeting recently (first one this year!), and I made a conscious choice to wear heels! It felt great to dress up for a meeting again!
What does your day-to-day look like – and what you love most about what you do?
Your days running a business are full-on! I think it’s essential to know that if you’re thinking of starting your own business! You can never switch off because you are responsible for your team, your shareholders, your suppliers, your customers. You are the backstop of everything. That makes it a big challenge, but that also makes it really rewarding, and most of the time, really fun!
I am a creative problem solver at heart, so working with the team to grow in a challenging market, constantly inspire our customers, evolve, and innovate – is really exciting!
Day-to-day, you might have a budget meeting, HR meeting, IP meeting with your lawyer, rent negotiation with your landlord, 121 with a colleague, trade meetings, product sign-offs, marketing brainstorm… you get the picture. I love the mental gymnastics that this requires, jumping between detail and the big picture, and strategy and decision making. It suits me being a generalist, being analytical, and also being creative. These are all reasons I love what I do!
When I started the business, I wanted to create a brand that resonated with a group of high-flying, ambitious women who deserved better clothes to wear to work. So I love that I get to work towards that every day and hopefully make a small difference in their busy, challenging, multi-tasking lives.
What does success mean to you?
Such a big question. I guess I think about it across the aspects of my life – as a businesswoman, as a mother, a wife, a friend… The unifier across these is probably values-driven. I believe in working hard for success, being authentic, being kind, achieving high standards, doing something that has a purpose and drives positivity.
If, at the end of the day, I can look back at what we have achieved at The Fold and believe that we upheld these values, made a fundamentally robust and financially successful business that our customers loved and where the team was proud to work – I would be immensely proud.
How do you practice self-care?
I definitely internalize my stress. There have been many extremely difficult moments – this year being one of them! The best that I can do is to try to keep doing exercise (YouTube yoga like Boho Beautiful, zoom yoga, the occasional run, etc), get a massage (if it is allowed under COVID!), get acupuncture, and use aromatherapy oils (I put a few drops on the shower door to diffuse in the morning). All of these things help.
But the biggest thing is probably compartmentalization. When I get home, I’m with my husband and kids (I’ve got a daughter who is nearly 5 and a 2.5-year-old son). Evenings and weekends are all about them. The focus on them is refreshing and joyful. My husband is also an absolute superstar – he is a CEO of an incredible fast-growth business, and we enjoy a lot of the same aspects of our jobs and our lives, so we make a great team.
It can also be exhausting – running a business, pandemic, small kids, etc. – so I think a little bit more “me time” would be amazing!
I would say, though – stress can be positive. The adrenaline and the pressure we’ve all survived through this year is a good example. It is incredible what everyone has achieved in this moment of absolute crisis. It is ‘stressful’ but drives us to the limits we didn’t know we had, and out of that can come resilience and results we didn’t know we were able to achieve.
If you could go back and give yourself three pieces of advice when you first started your career – what would you tell yourself?
- Set high challenges – it is uncomfortable to reach for something ambitious, but if you don’t have a go… you’ll never know.
- Stop worrying about what other people think, be true to yourself and what you want to achieve, and be proud of it.
- Enjoy the journey, and don’t be in a rush all the time to let it pass you by.
What single word or saying do you identify most with? Why?
I think it is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt – “A woman is like a tea bag, you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”
There are so many incredible women achieving amazing things while balancing so many aspects of their lives. It is continuously inspiring!
What’s next for you and The Fold
We have an exciting vision to empower women to achieve their ambitions. With the world ever-changing, we are planning our strategy to be relevant to our customers in her working life and beyond.
Hopefully, in 2021, there is a real moment of going back into society and into work and of embracing our newfound freedom. We would love our customers to be feeling confident and inspired by new energy while wearing The Fold!
New products, new channels, expanding our international reach – I hope that there is new positivity on the horizon after such a difficult time!