Tamara Hill-Norton Interview

My January ‘Woman of Substance’ is Tamara Hill-Norton, Founder & Creative Director of Sweaty Betty. While working as an underwear buyer in the late ‘90s, and aware of the purely male sportswear on offer in the UK, Tamara, inspired by European and American women’s brands, set about creating her own women’s activewear business. She teamed up with her husband, Simon, and, having raised funds from family and friends, opened her first Sweaty Betty store in 1998, close to busy gyms in Notting Hill. The business now operates shops in the UK and the US. Tamara lives between West London and West Wittering with Simon, their three children and their dog, Ennis.
I caught up with Tamara at the Joe & The Juice bar near her Soho boutique in London.

Tamara, what an interesting business you have built over the last eighteen years – many congratulations! Do tell us why you decided to join the world of entrepreneurs and launch a new business.

After a job as an underwear buyer, I took the opportunity to evolve the concept I had long been contemplating: as a sports enthusiast, I felt there was a gap in the fashion sportswear market and I wanted to fill it. Together with my husband Simon, who is now CEO of Sweaty Betty, we wrote the business plan and researched products. We then raised funds from friends, family and the bank and we found a site for our first shop in London’s Notting Hill.

You have, in more recent years, developed the business into the US – do tell us how you tackled this market, particularly given the local competition?

Moving the business over to the US was quite an eye-opener. Developing it from a well-known brand in the UK to such a popular market in the States meant we had to think quite differently. To our advantage, I think one of the key points that differentiates us is our Britishness, so it’s been great to engage with our new customers about the London personality of the brand.
We now have a whole team in New York and Los Angeles and have focused on opening shops in key areas where our customers live and work out. We now have a real focus on local marketing to introduce Sweaty Betty to these target women.

What do your children think of the business now they are old enough to appreciate what you do? They must be very proud of you – do you involve them in the business in any way?

Thank you, that’s lovely to hear. I like to think that they are proud to have parents with their own business – maybe they’ll be entrepreneurs in their own time! My kids’ ages range between 9 and 16, they all love sport and we live a very outdoorsy life when we are in West Wittering. I do check in with them about trends and ask their opinions on some of our new designs – it’s great to have that injection of real youth for the brand.
When I travel for shoots and work, I try to ensure they join me in the school holidays, as I think it’s an amazing way for them to see the world and experience what I do.

Your job involves a lot of foreign travel for research, shoots and PR. What are your travel tips and would you share with our readers how you pack efficiently?

I never over-pack! I always like to pick up travel mementos so I keep plenty of room to bring them home. I make sure I take swimwear, a few jumpsuits (as they work for day and evening), plus my running gear - trainers take up no room and it is the best way to explore a new place.
For the plane, I always start with a roomy, lightweight bag like our Luxe Gym Bag that I can fit a laptop and all my plane essentials in. Then to fly, comfort is key so I usually wear our super soft Assemble Knit Jumper and Rhythm Merino Pants. These pants are temperature-regulating and honestly as comfortable as pyjamas.

How wonderful that you divide your time between the city and the sea – what drew you to West Wittering and if we visited where must we go?

I grew up living in different countries, such as Hong Kong, Italy and Gibraltar, as my father was in the Navy and was posted abroad. We always lived by the sea (even when we came back to the UK to live) and although we live in London now for work, we wanted to find a coastal base in the UK.
I love West Wittering because it is such an escape from the city. The beaches are amazing and we spend our weekends trying various watersports. I always try to travel by paddleboard everywhere I can. My favourite places to go are my friend Niki Perry’s yoga studio, followed by the Drift In Café in East Wittering for pancakes. I also love the Crab & Lobster in Sidlesham, it’s a really cute pub with amazing sea views.

What is your personal style for work and at home - do you mix activewear with other pieces?

I cycle to work so I tend to wear Sweaty Betty all day. If I need to dress up, I will put on a jacket and maybe heels or a cool pair of trainers. I like to mix smart and relaxed shapes and modern fabrics with more natural ones – so I'll wear track pants with a tailored jacket or leather pants with a sweatshirt. Our new collections have expanded to include more fashion pieces, so it is so easy now to throw on a cool knit over my leggings and go from a class to drinks with friends.

January is a classic time to re-energise, tone up and refresh our wardrobes. I know you have had a sneak preview of our Winser Spring collection. Do share which are your favourite pieces and how you would wear them.

I love the new Winser Cotton Twill Utility Jumpsuit in khaki – so ‘me’! - I’d wear it for day with cool trainers and then switch to heels for evening. I’ve also got my eye on your Cashmere Oversized Wrap which is just what I need for long plane journeys! I’d choose a neutral colour to match as many outfits as possible.