Yorkshire online independent retailer Very Stylish Girl opened its first bricks-and-mortar boutique in Horsforth, Leeds, earlier this year. Owner Helen Portas talks to Stephanie Smith. Pictures by Simon Hulme.
The most famous words, arguably, of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s are spoken not by Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, but by Patricia Neal as Mrs Emily Eustace “2E” Failenson, decorator and wealthy older girlfriend of Paul Varjak (George Peppard).
“I am a very stylish girl,” she tells him before writing out a cheque for £1,000, a pitch to tempt him away from his new drifter love. As she does so, she is wearing a mauve tweed check cape-coat with matching skirt and violet sweater. She looks immaculate – one very stylish girl, indeed.
“As well as Audrey’s, I loved her style in the film,” says Helen Portas. Actually, Helen loved it so much, the womenswear brand she launched online in 2017 is named Very Stylish Girl. Neal’s words were sampled for the 1996 track Une Very Stylish Fille by French electronic music producer Dimitri from Paris, and Helen made sure this was playing at the launch of her shop on Town Street, Horsforth, in March this year.
Very Stylish Girl began life in Helen’s spare room. Then, as now, contemporary, affordable and ageless were her watchwords when selecting the pieces she offers. “The market is awash with young, inexpensive, fast fashion,” she says. “As a 43-year-old, I and my peers found it hard to find simple, modern fashion which was appropriate and affordable while not compromising on quality.
“I don’t put an age on what I buy,” she adds. “It’s very much about attitude. My styles, because of the designs and the cut that I buy, cater to quite a wide market. It’s all very simple, flattering, nothing is ever too tight, too short, too low cut. Everything is fairly relaxed.”
Right from the start, the goal was to have a bricks-and-mortar boutique. Helen says: “I believe it’s all about creating the experience for the customers – coming in, feeling the fabrics, trying on the garments, having that relationship with them.
“While online is a great portal to advertise your product, I don’t think anything beats getting people into the shop and having a boutique experience.”
This “boutique experience”, this special, individual style of service, is something Helen feels has been disappearing from the high street, and many of her customers tell her they have not been able to find what they want or need in Leeds. Five miles outside the city centre, Horsforth’s Town Street has a number of established independent shops, including Keith James Menswear, Firefly Pottery, Eden Bespoke Flowers and Zoe’s Fancy Cakes, which is next door. Helen suspected there would be no shortage of stylish women looking for exactly the sort of fashion she specialises in. She says: “I wanted to be on Town Street. I was walking along in the rain putting notes through doors, wanting somebody to be giving up their lease.”
It happened and now Very Stylish Girl has just clocked up six months as a boutique. It has a very stylish look, thanks in no small part to her partner, Andy, who designed the branding (they live not far away in Calverley with their 18-month-old daughter, Grace). Inside it’s airy and swish, the garments simply arranged in brand stories on rails, not so crowded that you can’t see them properly.
Owning her own business is something Helen has always wanted to do. Born in Hull, she has a degree in French & Marketing and began her career in retail at Fenwicks, becoming a floor manager, then headed to George where she joined the instore marketing team. She moved back to Yorkshire and worked for companies including Pure Collection and Freemans-Grattan. Her expertise ensures she understands not only what she wants to sell, but also how to present it beautifully.
Most of the brands at Very Stylish Girl are Scandinavian. “It’s the flattering cuts,” she says. “They produce garments in really nice fabrics without the high price point. The sizing is more akin to the UK sizing.”
Labels include Kaffe, Soya Concept, Numph, Saint Tropez, Fransa and Coster Copenhagen as well as own brand Very Stylish Girl. and independent local accessories suppliers including jewellery by Laura Fernandez Designs. Most brands are exclusive to VSG within the area and Helen is also mindful of the exclusivity of other fashion shops nearby.
So far, she is more than happy with how the boutique has been received. “Word is spreading and it’s going really well. People are surprised at the reasonable prices.” She has built a loyal customer following and found support from surrounding independent shops and from local primary schools, collaborating with them for events and prizes. “There’s a real community feel in Horsforth,” she says.
Very Stylish Girl is still online for national and international delivery, and for click and collect. In the future, Helen would like to open another VSG boutique in Yorkshire, but for now she’s content to see the Horsforth shop continue to flourish, sending out orders across the world while establishing itself as a valued part of its local community – and blazing a very stylish trail.
Very Stylish Girl is at 121 Town Street, Horsforth, open 10am-4pm Tuesday-Saturday. Tel: 0113 258 2389. It is also online at www.verystylishgirl.co.uk. Follow Facebook: /verystylishgirluk and Instagram: @verystylishgirluk
* Pictures: Simon Hulme; Styling: Helen Portas; Model: Ksenija Selivaniva (@the_moments); Location: Horsforth including The Greenhouse cafe.