Last year was one of wallowing for Stephanie Allan. She had almost put her life on hold to look after her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009, and was dividing her time between her own south-west London home and her mum’s in Cornwall.
She’d spent two years as her carer, and trained as a Dementia Champion for the Alzheimer’s Society. But towards the end of 2014 she realised she needed more of a balance.
“I was becoming a bit negative, and thinking ‘Is this me now’? At the end of last year, I thought ‘no’.
“My mum doesn’t know me and my brother any more but she would have said, ‘Stephanie, life is for living. You have to get on with it’. And that’s what I did.”
She started spending more time on her own interests of gardening, improving her golf and playing bridge, while still travelling down to see her mother. And she decided to go back to work.
My career in fashion
Stephanie, 56, had spent her working life in fashion and events. In their 1980s heyday, when Cindy Crawford modelled for the company, she was a PA to the chairman of Windsmoor and Planet. She was an image consultant for Mary Spillane, the American founder of style consultancy Colour Me Beautiful.
Then she developed her own consultancy, Style Studio, and for 17 years helped business people improve their image and ran events ranging from corporate to collaborations with fashion and beauty houses.
Some of the biggest names she has worked with include Donna Karan, Nicole Farhi, DKNY, Max Mara, DVF, Matches and Net-A-Porter.
Being PA to the chairman of a growing fashion brand meant being exposed to all aspects of a large, successful retail business. She worked her way up to regional controller.
She says: “The great thing about that time was that you were involved with everything. I’d be involved in the shop fit, the layout, employing and training staff and merchandising. It was such a learning curve.”
It was one of the first retailers to introduce concession stores. “They would say, ‘Why don’t we put Stephanie into Harrods or Harvey Nichols and she can cover the shop while the store manager is away’. I absolutely loved playing at shops.”
The idea to work for myself
Once she had made the decision to go back to work, the idea of working for herself began. She loves work, and the mental boost it gives her, and is the type of person who likes to say yes to everything that comes her way.
With her experience, she had the advantage that many 50-somethings starting businesses have: a network of contacts. And two potential clients approached her at the start of this year.
One was Time and Leisure, which publishes a magazine for affluent south-west London areas; the other was bridge champion Andrew Robson, who runs luxury bridge holidays.
“All of a sudden they all said yes to working with me, and that’s when I thought, right, I’m going to properly start this business [Event Privé] and register it. I committed to the events and I’ve never been happier.”
My first events
She is arranging the Time and Leisure Food and Drink Awards for 300 people this September and a residential weekend for Andrew Robson at Warren House (a Victorian home) in south-west London.
We meet her on the day of a third event she has been involved with: an upmarket afternoon tea at Warren House to raise funds for the water aid charity Just a Drop.
She’s used her network of contacts to arrange raffle prizes and goody bags, and persuaded celebrity make-up artist Trish McEvoy to sponsor the event.
Trish also gave all attendees an invitation for a free makeover, and Warren House waived its charges for the venue so that all of the £20 ticket price will go to the charity.
Growing the business
Stephanie’s start-up costs have been low, spending about £1,500 on a website, using a consultant to design it on Squarespace.
Her next step will be to hire people. For anyone wanting to get into the events business, she advocates learning on the job, just as she did when she started out in the 1980s.
“I’ve thought about getting on board some young people that are just out of university, or want work experience, to help out. I’d love their young input.”
Building up her new business means that she can decide how and when she wants to work. “I’ve still got time to go and see my mum, and I feel so much more positive about everything – and yet I’m busier than I’ve ever been.”
Tips for starting a business in your fifties
• “Do something you are passionate about. None of it feels like work because I am doing something that I love.”
• “Don’t listen to anybody around you who is negative. Just go for it. You’ll be surprised how people are very helpful and encouraging.”
• Have support. “My husband has always been 100 per cent behind me.”
• Barter. “I’ve done some bartering with people. I’ve done something for them, and they’ve done something for me.”
Stephanie’s three 50+ style tips
• “Keep reinventing yourself. And let someone else have a look at you.”
• “Maybe go to a different hairdresser It might be good to go grey, depending on your colouring. I think grey hair looks great with blue eyes.”
• “Fashion is about seasons. Every spring and autumn you have the new season coming. I re-look at my wardrobe and ask myself honestly if things still suit me.”