Business management

Tahlia Gray: Sheer ambition

The Sheer Chemistry founder talks about her personal mission to make the hosiery industry more inclusive, and how a willingness to learn and seize opportunities for collaboration helped launch her brand.

From investment to fashion

Before starting her business Gray worked in HR within the investment banking and legal sectors. She says her passion for helping people achieve their professional goals has influenced her long-term ambition for Sheer Chemistry: not just to empower women to feel gorgeous and celebrated in their own skin, but to encourage other Black women to “step into their power, and follow their dreams of starting their own business”. However, Gray’s journey into an unfamiliar industry was not without its obstacles.

“The first hurdle was finding a manufacturer. Not having a background in fashion, I was able to overcome it by really immersing myself in the fashion world and networking at business events, where I was eventually introduced to a factory that I ended up doing all of my product development with.”

Raising funds to finance her first stock order was also a challenge – as was staying motivated and keeping herself accountable once she did go full-time with Sheer Chemistry. “I found networks such as OneTech and YSYS [Your Startup, Your Story], which support under-represented founders, to be really, really useful in that respect,” she says.

Sheer Chemistry provides tights in a wide range of skin tones.

A brush with royalty provided an early win, when Gray was invited to provide her tights to the Kingdom Choir for their performance at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018. “She [Markle] had been very conscious of representing Black culture and Black people on the day,” says Gray, “so to have my products anywhere remotely involved in the wedding really was a monumental moment.”

Sheer Chemistry originally launched in collaboration with the luxury W Hotel in London’s Leicester Square, where Gray sold her products for the first six months. Pre-coronavirus, staging pop-ups at events such as Black Girl Fest and Afro Hair and Beauty Live gave her the chance to not just sell products, but share stories. “Tights tend to have more emotional connotations than many would expect. It’s not just about a purchase, but about the time at school when they had to wear grey tights, and all the times at ballet when they had to wear pink tights; when they couldn’t find products like mine, and celebrating the fact that’s now possible.”

The first hurdle was finding a manufacturer. Not having a background in fashion, I was able to overcome it by really immersing myself in the fashion world and networking at business events

Tahlia Gray
Founder, Sheer Chemistry

Gray has seen progress in the representation of diversity in the beauty and fashion industries in the past few years – she cites the success of Fenty Beauty by Rihanna as a great example – but she is frustrated that it took major retailers so long to acknowledge “the vast array of women of all shades of brown not being considered. We shouldn’t still have to have conversations about whether or not a product like mine is deserving of mainstream shelf space”. 

She says the tragic events of the summer, including the death of George Floyd, have increased the general consciousness of the need for more representation: “I remain optimistic that we are heading in the right direction.”

Black History Month is an important chance to “acknowledge and celebrate the contributions that Black people have made to the UK, and acknowledge this outside the realms of slavery”, although she stresses that this shouldn’t be confined to one month. “It’s important to really give Black people a platform, to acknowledge all the talent that exists, and that the contributions we are making are happening every day.”

The next steps

So what’s next for Sheer Chemistry? Along with most of the country, Gray is based at home currently – though she hopes to get back to her co-working space in Shoreditch in the not-too-distant future. The pandemic had an immediate impact on sales – “tights are one of those products that is dependent on people leaving their homes, which people weren’t”. But Gray took time in lockdown to reach out to her audience via online events and Instagram Live, discussing topical issues from mental health and starting a business from scratch, to body hair and beauty standards. 

“For us it was about supporting and engaging our community, which allowed us to gain momentum once the world opened up again. Our customers acknowledged us as someone that remained present during some people’s hardest and darkest times.”

This dialogue with her audience is a central pillar of the Sheer Chemistry brand – as is Gray’s mission to provide inspiration to other women looking to start their own business. Her best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is just to start. “Start with what you have exactly where you are. Don’t think you have to know each single step before you start – just put one foot ahead of the other and you will find that all the dots do eventually connect.” 

Pushing yourself not to be afraid to share your idea is also crucial: “In the initial stages, share with as many people as possible; generally people are willing to help but they can only do so if they know exactly what you’re trying to achieve.”

NatWest is marking Black History Month with a series of interviews with influential Black business leaders and entrepreneurs.

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