Indie Oxford Interview: Emma Woodward of Aspire Style
This week we catch up with Emma, co-founder of Aspire Style. The company opened its doors in 2005 and we can’t wait to hear more about this super indie business.
Tell us about how you started Aspire Style.
I own Aspire Style with Sam Yair – we were best friends since our primary school days and always talked about owning our own business one day. When we were at uni we used to meet up and go on shopping trips to London where we fell in love with beautiful independent lifestyle boutiques but would flinch at how expensive they were. We decided we wanted to create something similar back home – stores packed with unusual clothes, gifts and accessories but at prices everyone could afford.
We opened our first store in 2005 in Warwick. We now have 5 stores including the one on the High Street in Oxford that we opened about 11 years ago.
We specialise in dresses but are well loved by the tourists and locals for our unusual gifts and accessories as well.
Have you always worked in retail, and what does your day to day role entail now?
Previously I was a marketing manager for a confectionary company and Sam was a design engineer, so we had no retail experience.
You learn quickly when you start your own business and make a few mistakes along the way! Our time is spread between the 5 stores – we try to visit them each week but the day to day running is left to our managers who are incredibly passionate about the stores and have amazing customer service and merchandising skills. Sam and I now work in the background searching out new products, doing the admin and the marketing.
Have you faced any challenges in your work, and what lessons have you learned along the way?
The first challenge was letting go of control when we opened our second store. As a business owner you have very clear ideas about how your business should be run to give over some of that control to staff is hard. However, get the right staff and it makes that world of difference – we found they had skills that we didn’t have and now we give our managers and their teams lots of freedom to try new things.
More recently ever increasing costs (rent, rates, pensions etc) and administration have been a challenge, they seem to be coming at us from all angles. It stretches our time and means we have to watch costs a lot more closely. It’s challenging for small businesses that don’t have an accounts, HR or legal department to help look after these things! We’re members of BIRA (British Independent Retailers Association) and they’ve been a good support and are always at the end of a phone if we get stuck.
Where do you source your products, and what is the inspiration behind your ranges?
We visit trade shows and go to see suppliers directly. We also keep an eye on products that we see entering the market and approach brands that we think will work well with our brand. We love small British independent clothing brands that offer something a bit different.
We also like to keep our eye on social media – Instagram is our favourite at the moment, as there are so many ideas and products that we get inspiration from. It’s also quite a good way of contacting designers and suppliers directly.
Which are your favourite pieces at the moment?
We love our personalised jewellery. We invested in an engraving machine last year which means we can engrave jewellery while people wait! Prices start from £16 so it’s a really good way to get something completely unique.
We’re noticing a big trend for dinosaurs this season – we have dinosaur jewellery, dinosaurs on dresses, lights and stationery.
We also hunt out really quirky prints and designs. Our cut out cat blouse is a huge seller for us at the moment.
Sugarhill Brighton is one of our favourite brands. They do dresses and tops but it’s the tops that really stand out – the rainbow jumper is fabulously kitsch and suits everyone from teenagers through to grannies – they all love it. We’ve worked with Sugarhill for about 8 years now and their brand has really developed into having a really strong identity. It fits well with our target customer of 25-40 year olds who want something fun and different to wear to work or at the weekend.
What makes the shop unique, and who are your customers?
Unique products, good product knowledge and excellent personal service. We try to make Aspire Style a shopping experience, not just a store. Creative and constantly changing visual merchandising is key to creating a store where customers want to linger and enjoy visiting.
We like to run customer events in the evening to show new collections and get merry on Prosecco. We also love to run events with live music. Something fun and different to offer our customers.
Lastly, which are your favourite independent businesses in Oxford?
It very hard to work in the store and not pop next door to Taylors at some point during the day for a cake!
I also like to try and find an excuse to go to Handlebar Cafe (combines my love of bikes and food) or the Vaults for tea and cake, which is just around the corner from us.
We can’t wait to head down to Aspire Style and pick out some unique finds for the summer season (*that* dinosaur dress)! We’ll also keep you up to date on their awesome customer events, who doesn’t love a complimentary glass of prosecco?!