Whether you’re in a yoga class, menopausal or lounging by the bar in a sun-kissed location, you want to be cool – and not just temperature-wise.
While sweating is sexy on a hot fireman or that cute guy working out in the gym (like you’ve never thought that…), it’s not something we want on show. I certainly don’t want to be a Sweaty Betty, no matter my name.
London friends Nancy Zeffman, 51, and Eileen Willett, 53, think so, too. They’re the women behind Cucumber Clothing, a range of stylish, sustainable sleepwear and loungewear that uses cutting-edge fabric to help keep your body cool day and night.
They came up with the idea in 2016, while discussing how bad hot sweats were during a holiday to celebrate a 50th birthday. While there were products out there to do this, they were of the type their mums would wear – or actually, would refuse to wear as they were so old-fashioned.
Eileen had a career in fashion – she had worked at Nicole Fahri – while Nancy was a former Saatchi & Saatchi woman, so between them they were confident they could find a solution. And so Cucumber Clothing was born…
Now I know about hot flushes, but I was so lucky that I never broke out into sweats. However, a while ago a friend showed me her bedsheet after a particularly bad night and I was stunned. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to share Cucumber’s story.
Realising that keeping women cool was the most important part of their new company, Nancy and Eileen spent their time meticulously searching for the right fabric. Eventually, they found a smart wicking material that draws moisture away from the body. This means you’ll stay cool, dry and most importantly, comfortable – no more kicking the bedclothes off at night or waking up to strip off and then waking up to put your clothes back on when you’re freezing.
Being used to wicking from my sportswear, I was surprised to find the material is actually really soft and light – you almost can’t feel it. I think this is what Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak must feel like.
What I like most is that Nancy and Eileen may have been inspired by menopause, but these are not menopausal clothes. They’re stylish clothes for any woman, no matter their age, because it isn’t only menopause that causes women to have temperature problems: pregnancy or medication can turn your thermostat up to 11, together with cancer treatments or thyroid problems, for example.
And who wants to wear “menopause clothes”? I just want to wear clothes.
I love the flowing trousers that can take you from yoga to drinks with friends, while their dresses will work as well on a night out as in the office (and no doubt please those shivering with all the windows open because their colleague is melting). The cashmere jumpsuits are also bang on-trend and ridiculously comfy – I’d spend all day stroking myself – and don’t get me started about the sexy shell button PJ short set. They’ll take you from poolside to the market to dinner on the beach and then into bed. As my hero Rachel Zoe would say: I die.
They also come in sizes from 8-20 and – the icing on the cake – barely need washing. When they do, they’re dry in next to no time and they don’t need ironing, so there’s no need to work up a sweat looking after them!!! (Sorry.)
As well as running Cucumber Clothing and preparing for their next collection in June, Nancy and Eileen juggle life with, between them, two dogs, six children and more than 20 years of friendship that they don’t want to lose.
I caught up with Eileen to find out more…
You’ve been friends for years. How did you meet?
We met at the school gate! Between us, we had six children of overlapping ages and two of them became firm friends in year three and remain so to this day.
Why did you start Cucumber Clothing?
The honest truth is we spotted a gap in the market for a solutions-based womenswear brand and decided to trial a collection with the hope of creating a business that could grow into an interesting and challenging part-time job.
Two days after we launched in 2017, Lisa Armstrong featured us in the Daily Telegraph and since then, the words “part-time” have echoed hollowly in our ears.
It’s been a non-stop rollercoaster ride, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is so special about the wicking fabric?
We like to say that Cucumber Clothing is the marriage of the latest luxury cutting-edge fabrics with beautiful design.
As a fabric-led brand, it has been incredibly important to us from the very beginning to use only the highest quality fabrics that really truly work.
Our current collections have been developed using a particular method that cuts the yarn into tiny fragmented pieces to mimic cotton’s soft feel while providing the technical benefits of modern fabrics.
The new collection incorporates an innovative material made from naturally derived volcanic mineral called 37.5® Technology. It has been specifically designed with sustainability and slow fashion in mind – and we’re the first female-led brand globally to use it in clothing.
It helps maintain the optimal core body temperature of 37.5C by moving moisture out of clothing at the vapour stage, before liquid sweat begins to form. We’re excited!
All our fabrics are very long wearing, colour fast and benefit from being incredibly easy care – cold machine wash or hand wash, hang dry and anti-crease, so little or no ironing ever.
Who designs your pieces and what is the brief?
We both do! At the beginning, we covered all the design side, including dealing with our pattern-maker and grader, sorting out technical details with the factory around stitches and finishes etc.
As our business has grown, we’ve realised we just don’t have the time to do everything so now we discuss each collection in detail and decide what we want and work with an external designer to help make the collections a reality.
We want each piece in all our collections to be someone’s “always and forever” garment – the one piece in your wardrobe you always reach for because it feels so good on and makes you look good.
We’ve put a huge amount of thought into each design, from the wide sewn-in waistbands of our drawstring trousers that don’t pinch, the “cut slightly longer at the back” shorts (a blessing – 50Sense), our keyhole tie ruffle dress, which is perfect for breastfeeding… Every piece has multi-functionality built into it and is meant to take you from bed, to newsagent, to après gym, lunch with a friend, dress down meeting, back to padding around at home. It’s just the accessories that change.
What is it like being friends and business partners?
Great question. It’s something we thought long and hard about and we’ve heard some scary stories of when things go wrong between founders.
The good news is that, if anything, our friendship has become stronger through working together. We’re opposites, with complementary skills and personalities, and that somehow seem to make things work.
We also make sure we both have time out to do the things that make us feel mentally and physically healthy – anything from Nancy’s basketball and occasional facial to my wild swimming and massages.
With a start-up, which is really a 24/7 all encompassing project, those bits of down time are essential.
What is the best part of running a business?
So many things, from the feeling that we have created something positive that other people love and that can help people to all the amazing connections we have made.
One of the temptations of age is to stay ever-more-firmly in one’s comfort zone. We love the fact we meet and work with people of all ages, both older and younger, and are trying and doing things we never thought we would be capable of (for Nancy, that’s accounting and for me, coding).
And the worst?
They say you learn from your mistakes and we know that to be true. Early on, we decided that having to take time out every day to pick and pack our orders wasn’t the best use of our time. So after spending what felt like many pots of gold and enormous amounts of time, we moved everything to a “fulfilment” company that was meant to send things out on our behalf and save us time.
After the first few parcels went out with the wrong item or colour or style or double-the-amount, we knew we had to pull the plug or else lose all our customers. It made us realise that outsourcing is not always the answer.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Work all your connections. And that doesn’t mean just for your own immediate benefit. As our company has grown, we’ve been able to help others and give advice and introductions to other start-ups in the same way so many people have done for us on our journey.
With all the turbulence in society today it has given us great faith in humanity. There is still an enormous amount of kindness and generosity of spirit out there.
Finally, what’s made you smile today?
We know each other too well. Nancy will be smiling at my choice of heels to wear to our meeting (high) and I’ll be smiling at the fact she is having – for the first time in her life – to take a change of shoes for our meeting (medium high).
Who knew our sartorial choices would take on such meaning!
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