How the hip hair brand sought alternative financing to expand
Take a peek at Bleach London’s Instagram feed and a glut of colour greets your eye – pools of purple dye, rainbow braids and red glitter eyeshadow keep you scrolling. The hair and beauty brand, which began within a nail bar in Dalston, east London, back in 2010, now has three salons across the capital, and its hair and makeup lines are sold across the UK.
Friends Alex Brownsell and Samantha Campbell (nee Teasdale) are the founding duo. Brownsell’s background is as a fashion hairstylist, while Campbell brought the business know-how. It began with Brownsell’s desire to own a salon. “I started to develop a style of colouring that was the roots of Bleach; a lot of bright colouring, washed-out colouring, pastel shades, things that weren’t really very commercial at the time. And I got overwhelmingly busy. Sam was one of my clients, and kind of my agent as well.”
So they went into business together, but seeking investment proved tough. “We were looking at deals where they’d take around 80% of our company and for barely enough cash to even start anything,” says Brownsell. Then, one day, they made a stop at then Dalston-based WAH Nails.
Brownsell and Campbell got chatting to WAH’s founder, Sharmadean Reid (now the recipient of an MBE, the founder of futuregirlcorp.com and a Guardian columnist). They told Reid: “We want to do something like you have, quite different and disruptive, and to start it organically in east London.”
Reid suggested they set up a few chairs in her salon and insisted they only pay to use the space once they could afford it. Campbell says: “She had such a refreshing attitude, compared to other business people we’d had meetings with. To just give all of your wisdom to somebody who is starting out is so refreshing. She was just amazing.”
And so, after forking out for a plumber to install the sinks, Bleach London built a grassroots following, via social media and through the network of customers Brownsell had already established. WAH and Bleach London proved a good fit. “Bleach was really well aligned with WAH as a brand and for a customer base,” says Campbell.
From there, the business caught the eye of Topshop and Bleach soon set up in-store at the retailer’s Oxford Circus branch. Next came Boots, which approached the founders about starting a hair product range that came to fruition in 2013. “We’re quite opportunity-led, things come to us,” says Campbell. “But we also say no to lots of stuff, so it is strategic.”
Campbell explains that, at the time, they would never have been able to develop a product range without huge investment. “Doing it in a licence with Boots meant we didn’t have to worry about financing. We had a deal where Boots bought all the stock, gave us loads of stores, and we got a royalty.”
Meanwhile, Bleach took over the Dalston salon from Reid and soon decided to secure its own, standalone branch in central London. This was followed by a salon in Brixton, south London, which is run by a member of staff who has been with the business since the start.
As the salon side of the business has grown, so too has the founders’ ambition for their products. When their licensing agreement with Boots finished last year, they decided to strike out alone. It was an opportunity to start a wholesale business and roll out Bleach products to other retailers. However, this came with challenges.
Campbell says: “It entailed raising finance for stock, a lot more personnel and resources. The business model completely changed from a quite easy, amateur one to something quite big and scary.” And, as well as developing their hair products, Bleach decided to launch a makeup line, a venture it embarked on with Lou Teasdale, Sam’s sister and a well-known makeup artist, whose clients have included One Direction, among others. Products in the range include eyeshadows, powders and lipsticks in bold colours with playful names, such as Gordon Brown and Washed up Mermaid.
To develop the ranges, Bleach London sought finance. This included a substantial sum in May this year from Spotcap, a platform that specialises in financing small- and medium-sized enterprises based on the financial health of their business.
“We wouldn’t have been able to have the wholesale business if we couldn’t have raised money,” says Campbell. “Manufacturers won’t speak to you unless you order a lot of stock. We have done really well to have this business without capital investment and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without Spotcap.” She estimates they sell around 30,000 units of product per week now and are in 800 Boots branches and 80 Superdrugs.
The company has worked to ensure that its hair and makeup lines are vegan and cruelty-free, but the bigger challenge has been a commitment to using recycled and recyclable packaging.
Bleach London has been insistent with suppliers about its eco-friendly principles because, although recycled and recyclable materials aren’t necessarily more expensive, they can be harder to source, says Brownsell. It is also working on swapping to biodegradable glitter in its products.
Aside from working on their current product lines, what are the founders’ plans for the future? Brownsell points to their professional range of hair products, which will be out next year. They’ll also start selling their hair and beauty lines in Selfridges Beauty Workshop in April.
Meanwhile, Campbell explains their overseas ambitions: “It would be really nice to have salons in key cities [eg LA, New York]. That would make any kind of product range distribution a lot easier, because we’ll be positioned exactly how we have been in London.”
She adds: “We really want to maintain our position in the market. We created a creative colour category, which is a growing hair category in among lots of declining hair categories. We really made that happen.”
Originally published on Guardian Labs
Emma Featherstone is part of a paid partnership with Guardian Labs
Originally published June 14 2018 , updated February 24 2020