The Career Farm Podcast - From Bank Manager to Sustainable Fashion - with Sara Shaw of Violet

With a background in banking and financial management, fashion is something Sara never thought she wanted to do.

Travel, finance, starting again and the value of a great team

Leaving school at 16, Sara started out in the travel industry and worked her way up to be the manager of a travel agency. Realising she could go no further she moved to banking and finance. She liked banking as she is quite a methodical and logical person - so enjoyed organising and sorting through problems.

She started as a trainee mortgage advisor, back in the day when decisions were made locally.  She liked helping people at a stressful time - 'holding their hand' - and introducing the concept of financial planning for the future to people who'd never considered it before; helping them realise that if they 'put a bit away now' they would be more secure later.

Working her way up in banking, she eventually became Finance Director of a company, but had no outlet for her creative side.

She began to think long term about what she what do I want to do.  To start exploring she got a job in fashion retailing part-time.  She wanted to learn and understand the industry from the customer point of view.  Working for a high-end women's clothing store she learnt all about merchandising and how important customer service is. The store was highly successful, mainly due to the manager who picked and ran a team where everyone worked together and made the most of their different strengths.

A growing unease with fast fashion

However Sara had a growing unease with "fast" fashion.  Having never been a fan of throw-away fashion, she discovered even at the high end of women's retailing there was a relentless push to "buy new" every season. She saw a gap in the market: that it was possible to look great while dressing in way that was more authentic, ethically aware and kinder on the environment.

So she started what is, essentially, a dress agency - although these don't often have a great reputation, so this description absolutely doesn't do Violet justice!

Her beautiful boutique has a cleverly curated collection which represents the season's shape and colours.  'If I wouldn't wear it it doesn't come into the shop,' she says.

The name Violet comes from her grandmother,  an inspirational woman according to Sara who was nurturing and a bit feisty. Sara remembers her home being a place of sanctuary and happiness, so her name was the obvious choice for the shop.

The business model is that she takes in stock for 6-8 weeks and takes the industry standard commission of 50% on any sales. Sara believes this is a great model for a start-up business because it keeps stock costs to a minimum.

To keep a consistent appeal in the shop she also buys and mixes in other pieces, such as customised Levi 501’s,  British-designed accessories, and items such as candles and Jersey Bretons, which are designed in Harrogate and made in Portugal.

Customers will often come into the store and they don't know she sells once-worn clothes; so she sees her role as part-retailer, part-educator. The fact that people who would never normally buy anything pre-owned  are coming through the door shows that she must be getting the concept right.

The Career Farm Podcast - From Bank Manager to Sustainable Fashion - with Sara Shaw of Violet

The costs of setting up a shop

At this stage in her life Sara was able to self finance Violet, although she thinks that setting up a shop is still affordable and achievable. The hardest thing is finding the right location. She is in a part of town which is aspirational, with high end kitchen shops and art galleries, but still affordable. Sara's advice is that you need to be very realistic and keep a close eye on costs.

In her first year she won't draw a income, as she is reinvesting everything into the shop fit and marketing - getting the brand out there. Turnover of stock is quick so social media has worked really well. She has tried some advertising in print magazines but she finds she can keep the message fresh on social media. She has a facebook business page, uses Pinterest and Instagram. It is a low cost way to market to her target audience, and although it takes time she finds it easy to manage.

Sara says one of her keys to success is to make sure she stays in her routine and keeps on top of everything. She schedules a lot of tasks for the beginning of the week when the store is quieter. This is when she refreshes the displays and decides what her marketing message is going to be that week.

Trends for Spring and Summer 2017

For business, Sara sees a growing trend towards a less formal approach.

If she had to buy one item this season? A relaxed suit, with wide-leg trousers you can wear with flats or trainers. Wear it with a silky blouse and double breasted jacket.

The other trend is athletic wear - if we're not at work, we're in our gym kit!

As part of the ethos of shop, Sara wanted to support Harrogate Homeless Project. She sees this as a hidden problem in an affluent town like Harrogate. She decided to produce ethically produced organic sweatshirts - wth the logo HGTE (Harrogate abbreviated). These are limited edition runs of different colour combinations, which keeps them fresh and exciting.  She's proud to have just handed over the first £500 cheque to the charity.

The Career Farm Podcast - From Bank Manager to Sustainable Fashion - with Sara Shaw of Violet

What's next?

The focus at the beginning has been about establishing the brand. The first 3 months was the set up, which was quite intense and exhausting. Now she wants to solidify the customer base, build on the loyalty and spread the word. Keep doing what they are doing!

Mind set - it's tough!

One thing that has kept Sara going throughout has been having a positive mental attitude.

She warns that it's challenging when there are little seeds of doubt, and you need to switch off the internal voice.  You have tell yourself you have a good product, be confident in why you've set up the business and break down obstacles into small steps.

One little bit of doubt can multiply.  So it's important to keep going every day, taking one step after another. That, and looking after yourself - which is easier said than done! Previously Sara was a big walker, but setting up the business has been all consuming. Although recently she has been able to take some time for herself and has recently taken on her first member of staff for a few hours a week.

Have confidence in your idea

Her most important tip is to have confidence in your idea. You know when the time is right. Sara says she couldn't have done it with younger kids, and it's only been recently that the timing was right for her to do it.

Know your limitations and keep your eye on the end goal!



Harrogate Homeless Project

Friends of St Aidan's Clothes & Fashion Shop, Friday 5th May2017 

Thanks again to Sara for giving us his time to be interviewed.

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