When Claire Locke graduated from Oxford University she did not follow her peers into the civil service or management consultancy. Instead, she indulged her twin passions – Italy and clothes – and became an agent for upmarket Italian clothes makers. Within a few years she was supplying top department stores such as Selfridges and John Lewis. But in 1995 she changed tack. ‘I was on a hiding to nothing as an agent. I felt I could do a better job than many of the buyers I was representing,’ she says. ‘And I was frustrated at not being able to influence the manufacturers, who were selling what they made, rather than what the customer wanted.’ With her husband Glyn, a former international rower, she set up Artigiano to sell Italian womenswear by mail order. Locke worked with Italian manufacturers to create upmarket clothes for Britain, and the first Artigiano collection was launched in 1995. The company has since gone on to launch Spirito di Artigiano for larger sizes, and Spirito di Artigiano for men. Sales have grown 91% a year from £979,000 in 1997 to £6.8m in 2000, when the company employed 31 staff. Locke, who describes mail order as ‘both an art and a science’, has invested heavily in IT to process up to 2,000 orders a day. Unlike several other upmarket mail-order businesses, hers is already profitable.
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