“I’m sure I could have progressed to much higher heights professionally had I chosen to raise my children in a city and work full time but I would have been miserable, so it was a compromise I was happy to make,” says British designer Savannah Miller on life in the countryside...
For her, family has always come first. She became a mother to her stepson, Java, fulltime when she first met her husband Nick Skinner at 23. She had her first son Moses, who is now 14, three years later, with Lyra, 11, and Bali, eight, following close behind. “I never really had an adult life before having children,” she says. It is only really now that she is finally relishing the balance between rural family life in the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside and a thriving fashion business, designing her bridal range and high street womenswear collection for Debenhams, Nine by Savannah Miller.
“I love that my children get to walk across fields and watch the sun rise on their way to catch the bus,” she says. “I love that we can fetch fresh eggs from our chickens and walk our dogs in the beautiful countryside almost every day. It has its downsides because I was raised in a city, and I do miss the buzz of metropolitan life, but I’m often in London and New York for work so I get my fix then.” Travel was a big part of her childhood. She was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York when she was very young. Her mother, Josephine, was a South African model and her father, Ed, was then a banker. When her sister, the actress Sienna Miller was born (whom she describes as the other half of her), the family moved to London and split their time between the city and weekends in Wiltshire. Her parents separated when the sisters were young, and her father went on to marry interior designer Kelly Hoppen (until 2003). “She had her own business and worked with such fierce determination that it was the perfect trio of role models,” she says of her parents and stepmother.
Savannah was first propelled to fame in 2006 with the label Twenty8Twelve, created with Sienna. Her foot was already firmly in the fashion door; she had graduated with a first in fashion and knitwear from Central Saint Martins School of Art in London, and had worked with the likes of Alexander McQueen and Matthew Williamson. The label was a resounding success but with big business came the inevitable motherhood tug-of-war between that and babies. When the sisters stepped down after a six-year partnership, Savannah made a bid to discover a more simple life, and in 2013 the family decamped to Panama while Nick set up an adventure holiday company.
However, cut off from her support network – her son Moses suffered a frightening boating accident – Savannah recognised she was suffering from post-natal depression. “I stupidly subscribed to the notion that I could do it all but ended up on my knees and no good to anyone,” she says. “I have only just got someone to help me at home properly and it has changed my life because the time that I do have is spent with my children, not knee-deep in the dishwasher. “What I am learning now, as I come out of the intensity of having small children, is how to have an adult life beyond being a parent. It’s a bit upside down but I think having my children young was a good move for me. It was very challenging starting big businesses with small babies, but it taught me real resilience and when I did finally break and take some time out, I rediscovered that I actually love what I do and am so lucky to have work that I really enjoy that can support my family.”
On her return to the UK, Savannah was approached by cult New York bridal brand Stone Fox Bride (founder Molly Guy had seen pictures of Savannah’s own wedding gown online and asked if she would like to create a capsule collection). It proved the spark, which ignited Savannah’s own bridal brand, Savannah Miller, finessing that effortless 30s silhouette for relaxed brides looking for a hint of individuality. She has so much good advice on parenting today, building a successful brand and how she deals with feeling overwhelmed that we loved talking to her – and we were surprised to learn something we never knew. Read on to find out.
Photography: Helene Sandberg | Words: Claire Brayford | Styling: Amanda Woodward-Brown
How are you finding homeschooling and life in lockdown?
We have tried homeschooling before and never with much success. I started this time by falling down the same rabbit hole of imagining I was going to be able to engage my kids in lots of homemade craft and cookery but the reality was far from that. Most of the time I feel utterly overwhelmed at the juggle of trying to help two teenagers, who are both at grammar schools and have been set quite intense amounts of work, a lot of which doesn’t make much sense to me at all and help my little eight-year-old who loses interest fairly quickly and needs to be constantly jollied along. All that before I try and do my job, clean the house, cook the food, walk the dogs and, and, and… There really is just too much to do and I have come to realise that I actually can’t physically do it all. I find it difficult to prioritise though when it all seems important. What has really helped bizarrely is the crazy Jo Wicks workouts every morning because they give us a good starting point for the day despite the fact that it’s mostly just me and the dogs left by the end. If I can raise my endorphins everything else feels a little more manageable. Mostly I feel deep gratitude that I get to be at home with my kids, that I’m not permanently rushing for the first time in years and that we live in the countryside and have access to beautiful and expansive space. I have friends who work on the front line who would love to be sitting in my shoes with very little risk of being sick so I’m trying to park the moaning. And yes, I did try to make sourdough but I couldn’t buy any flour for weeks so the starter died. All the cliches!
Tell us a bit about your childhood? Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I was born in Hong Kong and moved to New York when I was very young, and that’s where my formative years were spent. My sister was born there and her arrival heralded the dawn of a new and highly entertaining age. We moved to London when we were one and four respectively, and have lived in England ever since. Weekends were spent rolling around in the British countryside, which is where I really cemented my love for the outdoors.
Tell us about your parents. What do you think you most learnt from each of them?
My mother is an incredible homemaker and was incredibly nurturing growing up. She taught me how to make a killer roast chicken and how to be a loyal friend. My father taught me unconditional love and acceptance. He is very generous of spirit and very relaxed. My stepmother, Kelly Hoppen, was a very ambitious and passionate role model for me growing up. She had her own business and worked with such fierce determination that it was the perfect trio of role models.
How do you make it ‘work’ being a mother, a businesswoman… is there anything you have learnt or advice you can offer?
It is challenging because of course you always feel like something is suffering. If you are spending time investing in your business that is time you aren’t spending with your family. I am lucky because I have managed to shape my professional life around my children with a studio near to where they are at school but it is a perpetual juggle. I’m sure I could have progressed to much higher heights professionally had I chosen to raise them in a city and work full-time but I would have been miserable, so it was a compromise I was happy to make.
What has your journey to motherhood taught you?
It was intense but when you are in it you don’t really know any other reality. In truth I could have done with a little more support. I stupidly subscribed to the notion that I could do it all, but ended up on my knees and no good to anyone. I have only just got someone to help me at home properly and it has changed my life because the time that I do have is spent with my children, not knee deep in the dishwasher. I became a mother very young so I never really had an adult life before having children. I took my stepson on full time when I met my husband at 23, and then had my first child at 26. What I am learning now as I come out of the intensity of having small children is how to have an adult life beyond being a parent. It’s a bit upside down but I think having my children young was a good move for me. It was very challenging starting big businesses with small babies, but it taught me real resilience, and when I did finally break and take some time out I rediscovered that I actually love what I do and am so lucky to have work that I really enjoy, that can support my family.
How would you describe your parenting philosophy?
I honestly have tried so many different methods, and really I think what my kids need most is my time and undivided attention. I try to spend half an hour one-on-one with each of them every evening, just connecting and playing games and being together, and it really works for them. They bicker and argue like all children but I try to help them understand how their behaviour makes other people feel. Some days are great, some not so! Lots of love is always really nourishing for all of us right?!
You have talked about struggling with postnatal depression - something which affects one in ten women in the UK - how did it affect you? And how did you get to grips with it?
I had to stop trying to do it all: it was completely unsustainable. Trying to run a business and look after a newborn with a nasty case of reflux as well as two other small children was just too much to manage.
Do you still ever feel overwhelmed?
I do, but I am much better at looking after myself these days. Sleep deprivation is a big one for me. If I get overtired things very quickly spiral and I feel overwhelmed. It helps enormously having children who now all sleep deeply through the night! I practice yoga and try to workout three or four times a week, which really helps to keep me grounded and level-headed. If I eat well and avoid things like sugar and caffeine I’m even better, but I love those things.
Savannah wears skirt and top by Ulla Johnson at Iris. Children wear Caramel
Stepping away from Twenty8Twelve label must have been a huge decision. What made you start to want to make wedding dresses?
Getting into the bridal world was a happy accident actually. I was approached by Molly Guy, who owned the achingly cool bridal boutique, Stone Fox Bride in New York, and invited to collaborate with her on a capsule collection. It was a huge success so I decided to create Savannah Miller bride, and we are currently in the process of designing the 10th collection!
Who inspires your bridal designs?
I am always drawn back to the effortless ease of 1930s Hollywood and the nonchalance and elegance of that period. I really believe my brides want to look like the best version of themselves on their wedding day so I try to design fashion forward, understated elegant gowns that can facilitate that.
What are some of the lessons you have learnt from launching and building your brands?
You have to really be true to your own vision of what your brand is. We live in a digital age where copycat culture is just accepted but, in my experience, the brand messaging is diluted the minute you pay attention to what other people are doing and attempt to conform. Hard work and a commitment to your brand objectives are vital for a successful small business.
Do you think yours is a good industry to be a working mother?
I think being a working mother has challenges whichever industry you are in. Thankfully I have now got to a point in my career where I can be a little more flexible so I very rarely miss out on important school events.
Do you have any efficiency tips you can share?
I feel like I am permanently juggling, but I have a wonderful young girl who is helping me out at home now and it has been a total game changer.
Why did you decide to move to Panama and what was life like there? What did your time there teach you?
I needed to take some time out after the birth of my third child, and my husband’s father had retired there. I couldn’t see a way of stepping off the train and staying in the UK. It turns out, it was the most difficult thing I could have done because in removing myself from the UK I removed myself from all of my support networks, and it was a very challenging time – not the break from reality I was hoping for!
Who do you most look up to?
I am very inspired by the women in my life who manage to juggle busy working lives with parenthood. It is awe-inspiring.
Do you and Sienna spend a lot of time together – what do you most love to do?
Sienna is the other half of me. We don’t get to see each other as often as we would like because I live in the UK and she lives in NYC, but we make it count when we do see each other, and we Facetime almost every day. Thank God for modern technology!
And finally, what would surprise people to learn about Savannah Miller?
I’m a qualified doula (holistic birth partner). I trained after the birth of my first child. He was born at home, and I found the experience of learning about my body and understanding the physical and mental process of birth really empowering.