25 May 2012

A Day in the Life of Lissa Cook - Peak Princess

Many stitchers make a living from sewing for other people, capitalising on the market for beautifully handmade clothing. Imagine making vintage-style children's clothing in Liberty fabrics for a living! For this month's A Day in the Life we meet Lissa Cook, founder and designer of online boutique Peak Princess, who juggles her PR job with a successful business doing just that. How does she do it? "And what time does she go to bed, please?" you ask. Let's see...


"My husband Nik and I both work from our home in a small Peak District village called Chinley. We moved up from London five years ago - I was working for BBC Radio 4 news programmes and Nik was managing London’s top personal training studio so we were both pretty exhausted from long hours and irregular shifts. I’d started working for an independent in Manchester producing radio documentaries - though the work was great, it was still high pressured. Nik’s new career as a freelance adventure sports writer was going well so when a long-term contract ended I leapt at the chance to take six months off. I had the idea for starting to make handmade childrenswear during a picnic in the park with my very well-dressed little god-daughter (another Tilly!). Four years on Peak Princess has been successful beyond my wildest dreams with sales all over the world and my dresses featured in magazines like Brides, Sunday Times Style and Country Living. The media coverage for Peak Princess led to other small businesses asking me for advice. I was blessed to find a wonderful dress-maker to help me with the sewing leaving me more time for my PR work.

Working from home means we can get up when we like but we’re both naturally early birds. We have two Finnish Lapphunds and as Nik has endless amounts of gear reviews to do and training for events he’s out every morning. I’m not as disciplined so rely on a twice-weekly 7.30 running ‘appointment’ with my graphic designer friend Hannah (Design Everything who designed my logos) to force me out the house.

We’re coffee addicts. The 6 cup stove top Bialetti goes on for pre-run pick-me-up followed by the 12 cupper after breakfast - normally porridge or omelettes. My golden rule of home-working is to get dressed every day. My only concession is that if I have to work at the weekend (accounts, last minute orders etc.) I’m allowed to stay in my dressing gown. I chop and change between jeans, skirts and dresses depending on how the mood takes me or if I need to dress to impress for a client meeting.

We’re both disciplined about starting work on time. I’m a smart-phone addicted, A-type personality so I force myself NOT to look at emails until 9am and I’m learning from Nik not to respond to each one as I open them but to write a prioritised list. That and a strict division of time in colour-coded slots on iCal keeps me on track.


I work either in my sewing room at the top of the house or at my laptop on the kitchen table. Over the past few months, PR has been taking up more and more of my time as people started asking for help and advice. I had a stroke of good fortune (my Mum calls it serendipity) when Millie Crawford e-mailed me out of the blue last year asking if I needed any dress-making help. I was struggling to deal with orders and keep up with my PR & journalism as well so it was perfect timing. She used to manage wedding dress designer Anneliese Sharp’s Chelsea boutique and has two little girls of her own. At first it was terribly difficult to relinquish control - Peak Princess was my own little empire. A year on it’s the best thing I ever did. I think I’d have been forced to close up shop under the pressure otherwise. I now mainly handle the business side of things while Millie does the bulk of the sewing.

I try and get orders and customer enquiries dealt with first thing. My typical Peak Princess customer is a 30-40 something professional Mum or bride-to-be, often in London but I post all over the world. (Tasmania’s the furthest - thinking about it, I’d have to deliver to the moon to go any farther).

The USP of Peak Princess is offering any of my designs in the size and Liberty print of your choice. Liberty of London have been wonderfully supportive. My sister-in-law Sophie is the Design Director at Jellycat toys stocked by Liberty’s Regent Street store. She suggested I contact them and show them my samples - they loved the designs and agreed to supply me and featured my debut range on their Liberty Loves blog. The tana lawn is silky soft and a dream to work with as the weave is so fine.

The bridal side of the business has really grown. The range of Liberty prints and constant introduction of new designs gives customers almost limitless choice. It means brides can easily match dresses to their colour theme and add touches of Liberty for ushers and page boys with waistcoats and ties. I stock about 50 prints but increasingly people are choosing their own prints and posting them to me so we’re working on a BYO (buy your own) section of the website with advice on lengths to buy and dress-making price quotes.

Fabric designer Kate Yorke who makes my accessories lives just down the road while Millie lives in London. We’ve come to quite an efficient system of posting patterns and fabrics back and forth. It helps that she’s super organised and her sewing is amazing. My Mum was a couture designer (also now living in London) and she oohs and aahs over the quality of Millie’s seaming and hemming! We talk a few times a week and text and email throughout the day. It’s a delight to have someone to puzzle over a pattern with or to let off steam about a demanding bridal customer.

I try and allocate 2 hour blocks to PR clients. I’m privileged to be able to pick and choose. I’m working with a wonderful not-for-profit company Community Sports Trust which runs a grassroots sports project called the Derbyshire Village Games; and also for an adventure sports events consultancy which runs the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival and Cliffhanger Outdoors Festival. Both have gone so well that we’re launching a new Peak District film and speaker weekend called the Buxton Adventure Festival in October. I also freelance for a brilliant Brummie PR guru called Neil and am running Social Media for Sport courses. My latest client is a local website designer. So my life is a weird and wonderful mix of sport and sewing! I keep my hand in at radio producing a podcast series and doing the odd shift reading the news at High Peak Radio.

Nik does all the cooking. We try our best to force ourselves to stop and shut our laptops. I’ve developed a wheat intolerance so sandwiches are out. Lunch is often jacket potatoes or salads. We’re lucky to have a great deli in the village and on Friday’s we try and take a long lunch at our favourite cafe (In a Pickle in Chapel-en-le-Frith). My ultimate aim is to take Friday afternoons off but it’s a pipe dream at the moment.

I work two two-hour blocks - generally PR after lunch and sewing later on in the day as I’m still taking on the odd order myself and am working on persuading Millie to make boys’ clothes. She loves dresses. At the moment I’m mainly dealing with men’s ties which have really taken off. It took months and months to develop a pattern I was happy with and find a weight that cut the mustard with my husband and his friends.

All of my clothes are individually marked out with chalk and cut by hand. My Mum knows all the tricks of the trade having been taken on as an apprentice dress-maker at 15 so she taught me how to get the maximum number of pieces out of a width of fabric. My tiny sewing room has three “areas” - the cutting table, sewing machine and overlocker. To be efficient I try and cut a week’s orders all at once. As far as possible I’ll try and group patterns so you make two or three of them same pattern at the same time. To avoid getting RSI I make a conscious effort to be on the move between sitting at the machine and standing at the ironing board.

I try my best to finish work at 6pm so I’m generally clock-watching - either sewing while I listen to my old programme Radio 4 PM or winding up emails. But it’s gone 8pm now so often good intentions go out the window. The thing I enjoy most about my job is my job. The hardest thing is to stop doing it. We both love what we do so our personal and professional lives tend to bleed into each other. Nik’s often racing at weekends and for me that can be a quiet moment to do the accounts, write an article or finish buttonholes or slip-stitch ties without the phone going.

I’m a terrible praise-seeker. The thing I love most about Peak Princess is opening my email and finding a picture of a little girl or boy wearing my clothes. This week I was sent a link to the Love My Dress blog which featured a wedding I’d made six ties for - it made me cry. I loved making radio programmes but though 2 million people listened, you only ever heard the complaints. No-one bothered to write in a say they appreciated what you did. The thing I love about PR is getting my clients in the press. It’s a childish, rather ego-centric joy but I find it fulfilling.

I’ve gone from being a real evening exercise person to more and more of a morning runner so often evenings are spent either walking the dogs to the pub for a glass of wine, going round to see friends (the advantage of village life is all your friends live within a 5 minute walk) or crashing out in front of a box set (it’s dark Danish drama at the moment with The Killing). Either that or I’m catching up on editing dress photos or updating my website. (I’m a total nerd and love my Mac book).

Nik will have cooked something delicious. I wash up! I’m not good at relaxing. I have a no TV before 7pm rule but am a total sucker for reality television and a twitter addict. I do now try and avoid dealing with emails after 6pm.

We’re both never happier than when tucked up in bed by 10pm with a book or even better an audiobook. It’s a joke with our friends that there’s no point phoning us after 9pm.

Looking back I feel like I’ve come full circle. Peak Princess has been a wonderful adventure that’s allowed me to carve out an eclectic, busy career - I've just launched a new website for Lissa Cook PR.

My top tip to anyone thinking of setting up a “creative business” is to separate the creative from the business. Too many people indulge their creativity and don’t want to be bogged down by the detail.

  • Be realistic - can you afford it? We allocated a certain amount of savings and agreed that if we exhausted them I’d go back to working in Manchester.
  • Get started. You do have to do market research but the proof is in the pudding - if it sells you’re getting it right. If it doesn’t, try something else.
  • Don’t spend money you don’t have. I was quoted thousands for advertising, website design and photography so I did my own PR and asked my talented sister to teach me how to use a decent camera. I’m lucky - I’m a natural nerd. I love spreadsheets so learning to do book-keeping was interesting and I built my and SEOed my own website. I’ve seen too many people who don’t know their turnover and margins.
  • Read The E-myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work. Recommended by my friend Lisa’s brother - a very successful entrepreneur - I read it before Christmas and wished I’d been bought it when I started out.

Wowzers, what a busy life! So inspiring how you manage to fit it all in. Thanks Lissa!
Readers, if you liked noseying into the life of this crafty business lady, check out the other A Day in the Life posts.