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One of the questions that people in fashion are asked most frequently is; how would you go about starting your own fashion boutique? We asked the owners of two of the most talked about boutiques in London.
Willa Keswick, (above) owner and founder of the trendy West London boutique, The Village Bicycle, who previously owned her own club and then worked in PR, had been planning her dream shop since she was 15 – and had worked as a fashion buyer for a shop in Singapore. Before setting up her present shop, Willa went to Portobello Business Centre, ‘which is a small firm with wide range of services for people who want to set up on their own and for already established business planning to expand’ to get more practical and legal knowledge – essential for starting a business from scratch.
We also tracked down Helen and Joanna Nicola, two generations of the same family and the founders of Oxygen Boutique, which is located in Eastcastle Street in London's newest Art District, Noho, as well as online. They run the shop as a family business, and had experience in different areas – Helen in fashion design and production, and Joanna had worked in the film industry and was a connoisseur of shops, from having travelled extensively, which gave them the ideas they needed to start up Oxygen Boutique.
Oxygen boutique in London
Working for yourself in the ultimate cool line of business – a fashion shop - seems like an absolute dream, and when it is going well, it must be. But then again, we’re currently in a recession, the internet is revolutionising retail and shops go out of business all the time – just look at Woolworths, let alone small independent businesses with no backers. So, we wanted to know how they’ve made it work for them and this is what they told us . . .
Willa Keswick of Village Bicycle says, ‘at the moment it is very hard to get a loan so I advise anyone to start small. Really do your research on different lenders. Make sure you receive advice, and track down services and support to help your business grow. Get advice from family members. I am constantly ringing up my brother, Archie who works in car sales or Ben who is a financial director to get their perspective on things. Any advice is good advice.’
Joanna Nicola revealed; ‘we have not borrowed at all, we have put our own money into it and we have been fortunate enough to be able to do this as a family. We are growing slowly and organically. I think getting a small loan would be fine as long as it is managed and you get it from a reputable company. I wouldn't ever risk getting a huge loan in this climate, but if someone started small and they really believed in their concept then go for it.’
Helen added that ‘we used our own money to start up and will then look at further investment, as we expand.’
Village Bicycle in West London
Willa; ‘I would sit outside shops and note how many people went into other shops in the same area of London in my lunch break or at weekends. We found out; what was the average basket price per customer, or the average spend in one day was, and how many of the people walking in and out actually bought anything. We thought about how our current economy is affecting us... there are so many questions you have to ask in order to feel really confident.’
In addition to research on the ground, Willa adds that ‘I spent a lot of time in the British Library looking at retail industry research, data, statistics and forecasts taken from analysts like Cobra or Mintel.’
Joanna; ‘we researched like crazy, trying to find interesting designers to suit our vision of what we hoped Oxygen Boutique would become. I found a lot of labels in New York that we contacted and tried to find labels that were not everywhere over here. We wanted people to buy something from us and know that they would not see 20 different people wearing the same thing. We did go with instinct too. If we loved a label then we bought into them. We scoured the shops in New York (which was obviously lots of fun), researched labels on the internet and also went to look round trade shows.’
Helen said; ‘we were very careful in selecting and editing the mix of brands and products we wanted to buy in to, in order to offer our customers something exciting and fresh.’
According to Willa, not everything she’d chosen for the shop at first sold out. ‘My first 'buy' a year ago was driven by my taste in clothing and as I'm a bit of a 80's ladette it wasn't to everyone’s fancy. It is all about trial and error and catering for everyone’s needs. The key to it is engaging with your customer to find out what they want!’
Joanna says ‘I am always surprised by certain things coming in and flying out. I love to try and track what causes the hype and the following certain items have'.
And Helen added that; ‘watching what customers pick to buy is fascinating. It keeps us intrigued!’
Customer service Helen says; I honestly believe that customer service is one of the most important parts. Our customers really trust us, and what we bring into the store whether its a new designer or an existing one. We always go out of our way to make sure our customers get what they want. I also think it is very important to believe in what you are selling and the concept you are trying to create. I believe in every single designer and label we sell and love them all so much and think this comes across really well to our customers.
Online business Joanna says of oxygenboutique.com that ‘It is the most important side. We are selling more online than in store now. We’re shipping internationally and in Europe. We are really growing our website at the moment and it is a very fascinating side to the business.’
Enjoy what you do; Don’t forget to enjoy it, says Willa; ‘Have fun! I wake up every day excited about going to work as there is always something new and exciting to get your teeth into.’ Helen from Oxygen wisely points out that ‘Anyone wanting to start their own business in fashion needs to give 100% of their time to it. It is very demanding and if you are not prepared to make sacrifices and take measured risks, it will not work.’
In other words; you’d really have to love the industry and believe in your own skills to undertake something as big as this – it’s a real labour of love!
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