Yorkshire’s special relationship with fashion lives on in our independent brands

Stephanie Smith continues her series of features highlighting the creative talents and coping strategies of Yorkshire’s independent fashion designers and retailers.

Hannah Roberts models Mila yellow jumper, £29, from Watson and White at WatsonandWhite.com.

Perhaps a new dress or a shawl or a pair of earrings are not top of the essential items shopping list at the moment. After all, there’s nowhere to go and few people to see us in our finery.

But fashion and style have always been about more than impressing others. We express ourselves through what we choose to wear. Personality and temperament, mood, life choices, even our politics are reflected in our clothing and footwear.

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Whether we know it or not, and as Miranda Priestly reminds us in The Devil Wears Prada, our choices from the “stuff” in our closets, that random, half-hearted selection of a lumpy cerulean blue sweater, “actually represents millions of dollars and countless jobs”, adding: “It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room, from a pile of ‘stuff’.”

Somebody's Heroine T-shirt, £18, at WatsonandWhite.com.

Fashion is a massive global industry that provides careers and wages for local people. Here in Yorkshire, we are fortunate to have many creative and enterprising independent fashion designers and businesses. They are part of a legacy of the county’s special relationship with fashion, having been at the heart of the UK cloth-making and manufacturing process since the industrial revolution. Some of our fabric and leather makers proudly live on, providing materials for major international fashion houses, the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton and our very own Burberry, which makes its trench coats in Castleford. Our excellent colleges and universities send out talented fashion and textile designers, marketing and retail experts across the UK and the world. Many remain here and many return, some starting their own independent businesses. Their studios and stores are closed, but they continue to sell online if they can, although the situation, it has to be said, changes day to day. However, forward orders can be placed, and in the meantime, they are taking to social media to inspire us to look and feel ready for anything. Above all, there is creativity, and hope.

Here is how a few of them are staying positive and carrying on in style.

Hannah Roberts, Watson & White, online womenswear retailer, York

Launched in York in 2017, Watson & White was created by friends Kari Owers (née Watson) and Hannah Roberts (née White), who met at art college when they were 18.

Hannah Roberts of Watson & White models white shirt, £32, at watsonandwhite.com.

Hannah said: “The coronavirus has hit us quite hard with a drop-off in sales which we totally understand as priorities have rightly changed drastically for people at the moment. Fortunately, as we are an online business, our overheads are very minimal anyway but still, the slump in sales has affected what is essentially my only income.

“Our business is very much social media-based and as people are spending more time on their phones we have had an increase in traffic from there. We thought long and hard about how to approach our social media at the moment as we do not want to appear flippant or in any way minimise the importance of the current situation, but the general feedback among our followers and customers was that yes, we should keep posting, as it is a nice distraction.

“I have signed up for the GoodSam app and have registered as a volunteer as well as looking out for neighbours and friends. A good friend of mine is a nurse and is unbelievably stressed out and tired at the moment, which always puts your own troubles into perspective.

“We have now reduced our trips to the Post Office to once a week, which we have informed our customers of and they have been very understanding. In our favour is the fact that we have regular customers with whom we have built up a great rapport. So, although the coming months may be a write-off sales-wise, we are feeling positive that when life finally gets back to normal we have a good base to see us through, hopefully.”

Helen Portas, owner of Very Stylish Girl in, Horsforth, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Visit WatsonandWhite.com

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The Yorkshire independent fashion designers and retailers carrying on in style

Helen Portas, Very Stylish Girl, womenswear boutique, Horsforth, Leeds

“There is such a strong sense of community despite the uncertainty,” said owner Helen, who opened her shop on Town Street in Horsforth, near Leeds, in March 2019. “I was going to have a little first birthday celebration, but obviously this is on hold for now.”

Saint Tropez floral print dress, £69.99 at VeryStylishGirl.co.uk.

Helen selects the styles for Very Stylish Girl to cater for a wide market of all ages, with simple, flattering designs, nothing too tight, too short, too low cut and all easy to wear. Most of the brands are Scandinavian, with sizing akin to UK sizing. Labels include Kaffe, Soya Concept, Numph, Saint Tropez, Fransa and Coster Copenhagen as well as own brand Very Stylish Girl. It also stocks independent local accessories suppliers.

Helen began her business online working from home, but from the start, the goal was to have a bricks-and-mortar boutique, creating an experience for the customers, developing a relationship with them as they come in, feel the fabrics and try on the clothes. This special, individual style of service was something Helen felt had been disappearing from the high street, and many of her customers told her they had not been able to find what they wanted or needed in Leeds city centre five miles away.

“As a new business, you rely and thrive on support from your loyal customers and the local community, so I hugely appreciate this continuing even with the doors closed to the boutique for now. I am pleased I have the website as those who now can’t visit the shop can order online and I offer free delivery – either “contactless” to their homes or via Royal Mail, whichever they prefer. Social media is also key to enable you to keep your customer updated and create positive dialogue. Times like this make you really think differently on how to adapt your business to current needs.

“As I order my collections 6 months in advance, I am keeping in contact with my suppliers to understand how future orders may be affected.

“I am remaining positive that people will continue to support indies as much as they are able. I hope my customers remain positive and well – we have a great Yorkshire spirit that keeps us going, no matter what.”

Visit VeryStylishGirl.co.uk

Penny Cole of York, who is in her 80s, enjoying the sunshine in self isolation wearing one of Conscious Apparel's Nila Rubia shawls. Sylvia Schroer says: "It seemed a lot to spend £60 on a shawl, but she has worn it every day for two months - and it looks fantastic. It's much easier to put on than a cardigan or jacket too. Our brand isn't about youth or a particular age profile - it's about wearing what makes you feel happy and good. And we will certainly need more of this in the times ahead."

Sylvia Schroer, Conscious Apparel, online fashion retailer, York

An ethical fashion company based on the principle of kindness to garment workers and the environment, Conscious Apparel was founded by Sylvia Schroer who runs it with Karin Barter, a friend she first met many years ago travelling on a bus to India.

Sylvia said: “Our clothes are ethically made in India, which is in lockdown. Fortunately, most of our collections have come in. We have some beautiful bamboo silk dressing gowns in stock, and we have been selling these with people spending more time at home.

“We have also set up a collaboration with Ruth Claydon, of Moth & Magpie jewellery. We hope that people might fall in love with something, although we do appreciate that they are thinking about essentials and many are financially affected and unable to work. There are many people down the line who will be affected by coronavirus, not just the UK retailers. We deal with small companies, but these are family businesses, and livelihoods are going to be affected. It’s going to be tough.

“Being an online retail business and working from home as two individuals in separate houses, we don’t have to worry about personal safety issues. We are a small start-up business with everything invested in stock. With it being slow fashion, it will still be beautiful next year if it hasn’t sold this summer.

“Environmental and labour exploitation issues within the fashion industry are our raison d’etre. Going into and coming out of the crisis, we think these values will be more important than ever and that the ‘less is more and buy kinder’ ethos will hold us in very good stead.

“Please enjoy browsing our website as a lot of work has gone into making the clothes and jewellery. We hope the vibrant colours, beautiful fabrics and lovely creations will cheer you up. We sell beautiful things – and we hope they will lift your spirits.”

Visit ConsciousApparel.co.uk

Laura Draper, Indie • Boho • Vintage, vintage and vintage-style fashion and homewares online shop, Shipley

Laura said: “Business-wise, sales have remained pretty constant up to now, which is a relief. Both myself and my partner are self-employed with three children. He is a musician and understandably, but worryingly, has had all work cancelled for the foreseeable future.

“When the coronavirus situation started to worsen, I wondered for a while whether it was still a good idea to be posting my pieces for sale. It seemed a bit flippant. I wondered what the right thing to do was. I am working from the position at the moment that yes, we are in a crisis situation, yes, it is very strange and very worrying, but we have bills to pay still and I can do my work without putting myself or anyone else at risk. I can follow the Government guidelines and still remain in business. I buy and sell a lot of vintage clothing and homewares but I’m obviously not going out on stock-buying trips. Lucky I have some fab pieces in the stock room ready to step in and save the day. I’m also only posting orders once per week but am more than happy to arrange collection or delivery at a later stage too.

“I feel like some sort of normality is going to keep me sane in a pretty insane situation, and light relief can’t be underestimated too. I’m thankful for a break from the news here and there to scroll through photos of other people’s interiors or outfit inspo.

“I do the vast majority of my work and sales on social media – Instagram and Facebook – so I haven’t had to suddenly adapt to a new way of working like some. I’m just trying hard to find the balance of staying visible and being considerate, that some days we can all be feeling a bit delicate, scared, upset.”

Visit Indie • Boho • Vintage at Instagram @indiebohovintage and Facebook 

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Moth and Magpie pendant, £70 at Conscious Apparel on ConsciousApparel.co.uk.
Laura Draper wears secondhand and vintage clothing from her online shop Indie Boho Vintage.
A selection of rings from Shipley-based online shop Indie Boho Vintage.