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'I remortgaged my home to start a business from the spare room - now I've made £1m'

Charlotte Mills remembers drawing sketches of shoes when she visited her grandma's on Fridays as a child and always knew she wanted to create her own designs one day. She took a big risk in 2014 while working full-time, and remortgaged her home to set up her own business in the spare room.

Her aim was to create a wedding shoe brand with a difference - after previously working for brands such as River Island. After failing to get a government loan or any money from the bank, she kept her new business a secret from her employer, in case it folded, and spent every waking moment outside work trying to get it off the ground.

Charlotte, from Oldham, was the first in her family to go to university (Emma Ryan Photography)
Charlotte with her husband Ross and daughter Margo (Charlotte Mills)

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Initially, orders trickled in but after seven years of hard work and a 'disaster' that saw her plunged into debt, her company turned over £1million in 2021 - making more than £400k in profit - with this year's sales so far up by 30 per cent.

From a working-class family in the small town of Failsworth in Oldham, Greater Manchester, Charlotte was the first in her family to head to university.

She studied at the London College of Fashion - alongside the likes of Sophia Webster and alumni Jimmy Choo - and her interview to bag a place was the first time she'd visited the capital.

Although she didn't achieve the A Level grades she was meant to, the prestigious university let her in but she always felt like an outsider. "I love London now and have the best time when I go, but moving there as a student was difficult and lonely," Charlotte told The Mirror.

"I was coming home a lot at weekends because I was so homesick. Being a northerner in London, I was really intimidated by all the other girls in my class."

"They all had posh accents and had been to boarding school and I just felt like a little commoner from Manchester," she laughed.

While the mum-of-two enjoys being creative, Charlotte became more interested in the commercial side of the industry - fashion you can actually wear, as she puts it.

After graduating, she went to work for Danielle Group - a Manchester firm specialising in imported clothing including footwear for high street shops such as River Island.

Charlotte spent eight years there, which saw her travel the world including visiting factories in China, and worked her way up to design manager.

She had always had the idea for her own bridal shoe collection and presented designs for her final-year degree show, however, it wasn't until she spent time at a footwear factory in Spain that she could truly imagine her vision becoming a reality.

"I got goosebumps and thought 'this is how shoes should be made'," she recalls from her visit.

"Everyone there was so passionate about it and so skilled. There was leather everywhere... I just had this feeling."

Desperate to make her dream a reality, Charlotte remortgaged the cottage she had bought in her hometown aged 25 to release equity and start the business.

Struggling to get financial support due to not having any orders on the books, she then secured a grant from a local businessman who invests in Oldham entrepreneurs. Armed with a £20k loan combined with a bunch of credit cards, she set up the brand over the space of a year in 2014 with about £60k.

The couple had a son, Billie, last year (Charlotte Mills)

"It's a lot of money when you don't know if anyone is going to buy anything," Charlotte, who has been with her husband, Ross, 38, since she was 17.

"In the beginning, I was getting one or two orders a week on the website. I used to go out on my lunch break and visit bridal shops to see if they wanted to stock the shoes."

Her business was slowly growing - and her wedding shoes were appearing in magazines, prompting Charlotte to come clean to her boss.

Happily, they recognised there wasn't a direct competition, and she continued to work for them for the following 18 months, slowly reducing her days as the brand grew in popularity.

Inspired by her own wedding where her friend's mum gave her a sixpence as her 'something old' that she kept in her shoe, her handcrafted designs reference tradition - with the Old English rhyme engraved into the soles of the shoes.

Each pair, which resembles the 'something new,' has an embossed sixpence in the insole as a nod to 'something old', with blue lining for 'something blue', and for something borrowed, each shoe box comes with an envelope, that brides post back with a photo of their wedding day.

Charlotte officially launched Charlotte Mills at a trade show in London. "I was so excited and thought everyone was going to go crazy," she remembers. "But I didn’t sell one pair.

"I sat in my car sobbing my heart out afterwards thinking 'what am I going to do?' But then 12 stockists got in touch within a few weeks of seeing me at the show."

Charlotte's designs incorporate the traditional rhyme for brides (Emma Ryan Photography)

She attained 50 stockists before deciding to open up her own boutique in Manchester's Northern Quarter, with a pop-up shop in the capital in Chelsea following later.

But in 2017, Charlotte almost lost it all when she decided to launch a 'disaster' fashion line - which saw her indebted to her own mother and gran.

While she had celebrities like Fearne Cotton donning the collection she had invested £80k into, her usual clientele, which she says will save up for a pair of her shoes for their special day, didn't buy into it.

"It was a vanity thing, I thought Charlotte Mills needed to be this big brand. The shoes were fun but it was an absolute disaster," she says.

Tearing up, she adds: "I had all this money to pay back and it got to the point where I had to start asking my family to loan me money just to cover the running costs of the business, which was quite difficult.

"I'm from a working-class family so that was everyone’s savings really. That was a really hard time. I had staff to pay, a lot of the employees were friends that had come on board, then there was the factory workers."

Charlotte, who was pregnant at the time with her little girl, knew she couldn't fail with so many people relying on her. She continues: "Knowing I had everyone to pay back spurred me on. I thought I couldn’t quit now, I owned by gran 6k, my mum 5k.

"I took a step back and focussed on what we were really good at, which was wedding shoes, and I learnt to not see that as not important - it's so important to people and that is the business."

Following a struggling 18 months, the business was back on track, before skyrocketing in the 2020 lockdown.

Brides-to-be had no option but to browse for wedding shoes online, and with many big days postponed, there was more time to save up for their dream pair to walk down the aisle in.

The mum-of-two is expending her business further, with a warehouse and website in the US (Charlotte Mills)

"The business went nuts," Charlotte says. "People had to go online and discovered new brands so it went crazy.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of shoes on pre-order and couldn't meet the demand. People were waiting three or four months for their shoes."

Charlotte admits that while a £1m turnover was her goal eventually, she didn't foresee it actually happening.

The business has gone from a team of three, including herself and her mum, to 11, and is expanding its offering with jewellery and matching handbag launches.

Customers are based across the UK and globally, particularly in Australia, Ireland, and America - where a new website and warehouse will be set up.

Charlotte, the mum of Margo, four, and Billie, one, is also in the process of creating a new HQ in a converted church in Saddleworth, Oldham, which will house their offices as well as an 'experience' zone for brides-to-be to try on shoes, including a bar.

Recently returning from her second maternity leave, the businesswoman adds: "I'm really proud of everything I've achieved and I've got such an amazing family that has helped out from the start.

"When there were problems at the beginning with a factory, my family come round and sat with me repairing them - they were all stacked up in my living room.

"I know that everyone’s behind me. This year I thought 'we've made a good profit, we can either just enjoy it and have a quiet life and keep going' but I feel like there’s more I can do.

"I’m ready to go now."

Do you have a success story to share? Please get in touch at saffron.otter@reachplc.com

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