How women stole a march on the high street

Fashion designer, Bo Carter, at her boutique in the Central Arcade, Leeds.
Fashion designer, Bo Carter, at her boutique in the Central Arcade, Leeds.
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Could women be the saviour of the high street? Quite possibly if new research on the number of female start-ups is true. Sarah Freeman reports.

Bo Carter is in the Leeds boutique she opened almost two years ago. She’s sorting out the rails of clothes, a mix of her own fashion range and those she sources from other designers. It’s all very different to her previous life. Rewind five years ago and Bo was an accountant employed by the NHS and tasked with working out whether its various departments were in rude health.

“It’s been a radical change,” she admits. “People don’t tend to associate accountants with having a creative side, but it’s something that’s been with me since I was a child growing up in Poland. I would spend hours making paper dresses for my dolls, it was a bit of an obsession.

“If you’d have told me then, that I’d be making clothes for a living I probably wouldn’t have believed you. When I think of what’s happened over the last few years I still sometimes have to pinch myself.”

Bo is not alone. According to new research by the Federation of Small Businesses there has been a dramatic rise in the number of women starting their own business.

Of the high street outlets launched since the economy went on a downward slide in 2008, 47 per cent are led by women. Look at just the last two years and that figure rises to 50 per cent. So what? you might say. However, consider that just 20 years ago, less than a quarter of high street businesses were founded by females and it represents a wider shift across the UK with increasing numbers of female entrepreneurs driving economic growth in town centres. Mary Portas, the retail consultant and broadcaster who’s spearheaded a high street revival would be proud.

The seeds of Bo’s business were sown in 2010 when she entered a competition run by Leeds Fashion Week. It was a chance to indulge her creative side but she never expected to be anything more than a brief diversion.

“I sent my drawings through on a whim, but when I got through to the final I thought, ‘right I better learn to make better clothes’.” She hasn’t looked back. That December she took her first collection to Virginia Fashion Week in America and since then her range has been showcased in Malta, Baltimore and Bangalore. Shortly she’ll be heading out to Iceland for a photoshoot she hopes will generate more publicity.

Bo sells her clothes online, through a website designed by her photographer boyfriend Steve Gabbet, and through the boutique in the Central Arcade. Just a stone’s throw from Trinity Leeds, home to big name retailers like Mango, River Island and Top Shop, she admits having a presence in the heart of the city centre is not all plain sailing.

“There are still quite a few empty units in the arcade and it would be great if more people knew about it,” says Bo. “It has been tough, towards the end of 2012 I split up with my husband and apart from the financial impact, I also lost the space that I’d used as a workshop. Now my entire flat feels like one big workshop. It’s taken over everything.

“When you are running your own business every day there’s a new challenge, a new problem to solve, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel in charge of my own destiny.”

Samantha King has also come to trust that old adage necessity is the mother of invention. Like Bo she also split up from her husband. Unlike Bo, when her marriage broke down she also had two children to look after.

“It definitely focused my mind and I guess I just decided that I needed to make something for myself,” she says. “I’d always been interested in interiors and they say you should do what you enjoy. I’ve got quite an eclectic taste and the more I looked at what was out there, the more I decided that there was a gap in the market.

“I spent around 10 months sourcing products from designers in this country, but also in places like Holland and America and there came a point when I knew it was time to see if I could actually make a business work.

“It was a gamble and in those weeks just before it launched I did wonder whether maybe I was the only person who liked this stuff.”

Lime Lace opened in 2012 and as well as the online store, which can reach a global customer base, Samantha also decided to open an interiors and gift shop in her home town of Harrogate.

“It would have been far easier just to have focused everything online, but because I was doing something a little bit different I felt it was important that people could see it in the flesh. I wanted to show people how you could sit vintage pieces alongside and against contemporary interiors and the only way to do that was to open a shop.

“I’m also really passionate about the need for independent shops on the high street so this was my way of putting my money where mouth was.”

Lime Lace on Princes Square opens Monday to Saturday from 10am. It means that during the week Samantha can still do the school run and with her mum Jayne helping out she still has quality time with eight-year-old Grace and Freddie, 5. Even so, when you run your own business it’s rarely possible to keep to a neat timetable.

“I source the stock, I process the orders, I write the blog on the website,” she says. “I am everything, but I don’t mind. I do a lot of work when the children are in bed and at the moment at least it seems to be working.

“It’s early days, but I’ve already picked up some interior design jobs from people who have seen the shop. The other day a woman who had just moved to Harrogate came in and said that she’d been looking everywhere for the right style to do out her new home and she’d finally found it. That’s really lovely to hear.”

There has been much talk recently of the lack of support from the banks for small businesses. With established enterprises finding it difficult to secure loans, those starting from scratch have routinely hit a brick wall. However, interestingly many of the women who have gone it alone have done so without the support of traditional funding streams.

Claire Spooner started her millinery business, Quaintrelle, in Pateley Bridge in April 2010 after a number of years working in someone else’s hat shop.

“I knew that if I was going to go into business for myself I didn’t want to have huge overheads or a massive loan. It was about starting small and allowing the business to grow with the orders.”

Claire, who already had a degree in fine art, says her Eureka moment came when she went on a millinery workshop with her mum. “It was just supposed to be a bit of fun, but something just clicked. I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, but from that day I was determined to make and sell my own hats.”

Enrolling on a course at Leeds College of Art and Design was the easy bit. Much harder was finding premises, pulling together the funding and - as a one woman band - getting enough stock to fill the shelves.

The first piece of the jigsaw fell into place when Claire came across the King Street Workshops. Council owned, the rent is much cheaper than traditional high street outlets and provided both the workshop and retail space she needed. Crucially for Claire, it had already established itself as something as a hub for creative types. With a glass blower, painter and jewellery maker already working and selling out of the premises it also meant immediate footfall.

“They may not be in exactly the same business, but they have been through that same journey,” says Claire. “It’s just good to know that if you hit a problem there is probably someone next door who has been there and come out the other side. It has been hard, supplier costs have gone up and rising petrol prices have really had an impact, but I came into this business with my eyes open.

“Making and selling hats has to be my main income, but I know that it’s really important to diversify. That’s why I’ve already started running my own workshops. Of course there are times when running your own business is stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress than you get working for someone else.”