Samanah Duran is on a tight schedule.
She returned to London from Barcelona on a 6am flight. By the afternoon she will be in Norwich, where her headquarters are based. Before that, however, she is sipping a black coffee in Amba Hotel Grosvenor, explaining to square mile how she left home at 15, launched fashion brand Critics Clothing at 22, and recently made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Running on tight schedules is one important factor; never slowing down is another.
“Oh yeah,” Duran says when I mention the Forbes list. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to get away with that. Soon, I’m turning 30. I can’t rinse it anymore!
“But yeah. That was amazing.” She speaks in the tone of woman a tad weary of having to rhapsodise about the amazingness of this achievement. “It’s not just another accolade: I suppose you can’t get any bigger than that.”
I draw a comparison to the Oscars, which doesn’t really stand up. (The youngest Best Director winner being a 32-year-old Damien Chazelle.) “Yeah,” says Duran for a third time. “No, it was nice, and I’m forever going to remain really proud of it, but there are many more things for me to be achieving so I’m not one to be complacent, I guess.”
Duran is engaging company, confident in her attributes yet happy to acknowledge her success required plenty of hard work, the occasional support of others, and a few moments of serendipity – as all successes do. There’s nothing robotic about her: unlike some self-made entrepreneurs, she seems a sane, likeable member of the human race.
For some reason people would always be drawn to me
Yet, she home before 18, travelling to London alone, determined not to return home until she had made something of herself – not typical teenage behaviour, it’s fair to say. In London she found work as a TV presenter and part-time model. The presenting gig led her to cover car rallies, touring the world from Albania to Ireland to the US West Coast. A dream job for many, but Duran wasn’t fulfilled. “I wanted something more, that was sustainable,” she says of her 20-year-old self. The decision to launch a fashion label was as much practicality as passion.
“I wanted to develop something that had my name on it, and fashion was where it was at. I didn’t want to launch a swimwear label because all the models were doing that. It was great but not really where I wanted to align myself: I was more like tomboy, streetwear. That’s why I launched Critics Clothing.”
These were the distant days of 2012. Duran promoted her brand what would soon become the old-fashioned way: through hustle, innovation, and working every room she found herself in. “I wouldn’t say I was a master of networking, but for some reason people would always be drawn to me. The more I was talking about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to see myself, the more I got in contact with more and more people.”
A friend, one of the founders of Money Clothing, introduced Duran to factories and manufacturers. Inspiration came from an unlikely source. Following the rally cars along the West Coast, Duran saw a Quetzal feather on the floor of a gas station – a sacred bird in Mayan culture.
“I really liked the representation of what it symbolised in terms of individuality, strength, uniqueness among tribal members. I incorporated that into the brand.”
The aesthetic was simple, with garments designed in a monochrome colour scheme. Duran wears a Critics Clothing original hoodie to our interview; after six years the garment is still in good nick, albeit the logo, adorned with the silhouette of a Mayan headdress, has begun to fade a little.
“It wasn’t as bad as this,” she says, fondly stroking the lettering, “but this has been tumble-dried by my grandma, God bless her soul. But the actual quality is just insane.”
As well as a quality product, Duran wanted to create exclusivity. Garments only had limited runs – “like, 50 of one sweater that was exclusive, and would never be redone. Once it’s gone, that’s it, you’ll never get that design again” – and therefore never appeared in the sales. Your new Critics Clothing top would likely only ever be seen on you.
”Not everyone was wearing it. There’s nothing worse than walking down the street and everyone’s wearing your T-shirt. It was still very much underground, and I think that’s what people bought into – that elusive feel.
Rita Ora put the T-shirt on, did a pose – it got on Twitter, Instagram, and Look magazine picked it up
“That’s something I was really torn between: do we turn it mainstream, mass market so it’s in every single store? Even though that exposure would be great, the profit margins are really still quite small for the work that you put in.”
So she had the clothing: what of the exposure? Duran decided to create her own platform via the Critics Clothing website, and use it as a means to attract celebrities to the brand – influencer marketing before influencer marketing was a ‘thing’.
“My friend started hooking me up with loads of people within TV, media, music, grime artists, actors. I started interviewing these people on the blog of Critics Clothing. They’d have to wear the brand to be interviewed and then the pictures would go out in the press.
“Back then, it was very different. I suppose it was influencer marketing in a way, but not the influencer marketing that we see now. The whole streetwear culture is very much underground. Before it turned mainstream it was all very word of mouth: people would ask, ‘ooh where’d you get that T-shirt from?’”
It’s a measure of how far she’s travelled that she sounds almost surprised when I note “back then” couldn’t have been more than a few years ago. “It feels like it was 20 years ago!”
She tells me a couple of anecdotes from the early days. About how, while still TV presenting, she met her first investor on a boat back from Ibiza. Duran was downstairs watching the Discovery Channel while the party raged on deck. A Swiss gentleman approached her. They got talking, and Duran told him about her fashion label. He sounded interested – just how interested only became apparent when he saved his contact on her phone as ‘Critics Investor.’ The investment deal was formalised in London, and Critics Clothing was away.
Or the night she rocked up to Amika nightclub, and a VIP party attended by Rita Ora, A$AP Rocky and Cara Delevingne. An ideal promotional opportunity – only Duran hadn’t thought to wear any Critics Clothing. She called a friend and asked her to bring a T-shirt to the club. Duran was out with her flatmate, an Albanian who naturally got talking to the Kosovo-born Rita Ora. Her flatmate presented Ora with the T-shirt.
“Rita Ora put the T-shirt on, did a pose – it got on Twitter, Instagram, and then Look magazine picked it up. I remember the lighting was so bad!”
She runs a slicker operation these days – and several of them. In 2016, Duran launched BEYOUROWN, a full-service digital media company dedicated to inspiring and supporting female entrepreneurs. As well as the online collaborations and corporate brand partnership opportunities, there is a BEYOUROWN members’ club (£45 per year), and 2020 will see the inaugural BEYOUROWN Women In Business Awards.
“We’re doing female-centric events and stuff now, but we’re looking at taking that whole digital experience offline as well. There will be a proper footprint of BEYOUROWN – whether that’s pop-ups, coffee shops, etc.”
As her fourth decade dawns, Duran is only just getting started. Watch out, world.