It was a dress from Mark and Spencer’s 1985 safari range that inspired Maggie. It was her go-to holiday item. And believing every woman should have that cherished piece in her wardrobe that is high enough quality to last through many seasons and stories, she set up a business around the concept.
The Semple dress starts with the sourcing: Maggie uses a single mill in Italy that focuses on silks, silk blends, and pure crepe wool. She knows the mill’s processes first hands and has assurance that no synthetic fibers are used. In the early days she tried buying material in the UK, but not only found that provenance was difficult to ascertain but some shops would suggest that it was okay to mislead clients about fabric’s origins. (Maggie: “this is not okay”.) The mill also allows Maggie to only buy what she needs, which is more expensive, but keeps the textiles fresh and limits storage requirements.
After sourcing the fabric, dresses are made to measure. Women initially come in for an appointment where Maggie and her team get to know her and what she is looking for in a dress. She is able to choose the material based on what she knows suits her, rather than what is available in the shops – and selects one of Maggie’s classic shapes.
Maggie tried different business models for seamstresses, including working with a South Asian women’s cooperative in East London, which she liked on ethical grounds – however the reality was that supply and demand were not evenly matched and work flow was difficult to manage. An in-house solution works much better, and provides the efficiency of having a seamstress in person at all the fittings. Maggie believes in paying her seamstresses a living wage, not just the national minimum wage. This adds to the price of the finished product, but given each client meets the woman making her dress over the course of her fittings, and a relationship is established, it would be difficult to rationalize away the importance of a living wage – something made all too easy by the disconnection between consumers and garment makers in global supply chains.
With this in mind, Maggie is keen for women to understand what it costs to make a dress. The labour alone is about £250, as it takes about twenty hours per dress, and then the costs of fabric, trims and VAT must be added. However, she does offer payment plans so that the cost can be spread over a period of time. If the dress needs taking in or out at a later time, this is done at no charge, and Maggie and her team would much rather provide this service than have the dress left to chance elsewhere.
So that is the innards of a Maggie Semple dress. And the heart? That is Maggie. When I ask her the favourite part of her job, she does not hesitate. “I love meeting women,” she says. And I know this to be true. At my fittings we talked one on one – everything from how my husband is doing (he introduced us) to how I found the backpack that has taken me through African field assignments. When other women came in for their fittings, we chatted as well, as I did with other members of Maggie’s team during the course of the making the dress. Maggie’s dresses ultimately are about the women who made them, and the women who wear them.
More information can be found on her website.