Life & Culture

‘I couldn’t find petite clothes so I set up my own business!’

Jennifer Ison saw a gap in the market - so she gave up her legal career to meet the clothing needs of short women


As a short person, I often find that people think I am younger than I am, and I often find it harder to garner the respect that taller people my age get automatically.

So when I meet fashion designer Jennifer Ison, who is five foot one, I understand exactly what she means when she produces a picture of similarly short Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, alongside the quote: “too tiny to be scary.”

Of course, those who are familiar with Ginsburg know that, for the judicial powerhouse, who is formidable and successful in her own right, her slight frame has presented no obstacle to her success.

And Ison, 56, says that is exactly how she wants women to feel when they are wearing her clothes.

The former financial lawyer left the City four years ago to set up her own, eponymous clothes brand to cater to the smaller woman after years of “frustrating” shopping experiences and “struggles” to find clothes that fit.

“I had always had this idea that I wanted to do a petite brand,” she tells me over coffee, dressed head to toe in her own designs. She might be small but her clothes fit perfectly and, like Bader Ginsburg, I get the impression she is no push-over.

“I took a gap year from the law after I had my children and did a post grad degree in history of art.”

There were eight lawyers on the course, which, she says, shows the creativity suppressed by legal careers.

Smallness had run in her family and she “always found shopping so hard. After my course, I thought, ‘instead of moaning about it why not just do something?’”

So Ison enrolled herself on a four-day course at the London College of Fashion on how to set up your own business — and off she went.

“At first, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Was I just going to source the clothes and sell them? But then I couldn’t find any for a petite brand.” Undaunted, she decided to create her own.

New to the game, she scoured LinkedIn for a designer, “I had no contacts, no one in my family is in fashion.”

Eventually, the Wimbledon Synagogue member found a designer and after a lot of market research, Jennifer Anne launched in the spring of 2017.

Ison believes it is never too late to start your own business.

“It is tough to establish yourself, but I was very lucky. In the first month, I had a dress in Woman and Home magazine and then I was in the Independent as one of the top petite brands in the UK.”

She believes there is a desperate need for more petite brands considering that the average height in the UK is just over five foot four, and “in the Jewish community, you can only imagine, it is a lot less.”

For shorter-than-average people, going shopping is often “like going on a treasure hunt,” she says and while some places do petite things “there is no one like me who is a stand-alone petite brand.”

While the fashion industry has made some “fantastic” inroads in terms catering to plus-size women, the industry needs to be more diverse.

“We are starting to see normal-sized models but you never see small models. You are still being sold the message that you have to be tall and beautiful but, actually, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and we want people to stand up and feel as good as anyone else.

“It is not my fault I am small; it is the fashion retailers’ fault that they are not catering to people like me.”

Starting a petite brand has opened her eye to challenges around representation, as she admits “finding a petite model for my clothes is really hard.”

She struggles even more to find “someone who is older and looks in their 40s,” which describes her typical customer, although younger women who want to look smart do also shop with her.

Jennifer Anne is for women who are willing to spend money on looking good. A dress costs between £180 and £250, so it’s not throw-away fashion.

The designs are elegant, smart and stylish and Ison enjoys the hands-on role she plays in the design process.

“It is all made here in London. I have a studio in Wimbledon and my designer lives a few miles away.

“I can walk into the studio, I can feel the material and see the people,” she says.

Manufacturing in Britain is something that she has always been “passionate about from the beginning. There is a surprising resource of manufacturing in this country.”

One of the challenges about starting a new business has been learning to use social media.

“I didn’t grow up with any of that and I have had to learn it all. I have learned a lot of new skills as a small business.”

She says people who have discovered her clothes “are always so excited that the clothes fit, you don’t have to go and get them altered or use your imagination to think what they will look like.”

And, while finding customers are a challenge, “when you find them, they are loyal. I have customers all over the world. One woman ordered 15 things from the collection. I think smaller women sometimes feel they can’t dress smart or get the clothes that make they feel confident.

“When they are buying my clothes they are buying into the whole thing — the story — it is an emotional choice.”

Was she brave, switching careers in her 50s?

“I don’t think it is brave, I am just doing something I want to do and I am very passionate about it. I don’t feel brave, but it has certainly been challenging.”

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