This week I speak to Claire Burrows on her journey from employee to entrepreneur in the fashion & footwear industry. We looked at her inspiration, funding, challenges and achievements in the interview below:
Can you give YHP a bit of background to yourself?
After Studying at London College of Fashion I got my first break in the footwear industry as a general dogsbody in the buying office at Office Shoes and that was it - I was hooked on a career in Footwear. I learnt pretty much on the job and progressed to various buying roles at Office, Oasis and Kurt Geiger. I love being hands on with product so I knew that buying manager or buying director roles weren't for me, but I will still ambitious, so I set up my own private label business and sold my designs to high street retailers. That's when I really realised my passion for product development and design.
I sold that business and went on to be the Head of Product Development and design at Fitflop which was an incredible experience. The product range was only one flip flop when I joined. I created ranges of shoes, boots, sandals and worked on all the designer collaborations. From there I joined Aldo where I was MD of their UK design office but it wasn't for me, I realised I'd fallen out of love with fast fashion and I had a passion for products that delivered more and would be cherished rather than disposed of after one season. That's when Air & Grace was born.
Can you tell us about Air & Grace?
Our ethos at Air & Grace is "made beautiful for busy feet", we all lead super busy lives and if you're running around town you need shoes that look good and feel good. Look magazine said Air & Grace is "The shoes you want in your wardrobe and on your feet" I thought that summed us up perfectly. We launched 6 months ago and since then we've had an amazing reaction from bloggers including En Brogue, Sylonylon and many more. Sasha Wilkins of Liberty London Girl has been incredibly supportive, she called our Coachella boot "the holy grail of footwear" and we nearly sold out!
Our core collection styling is always on trend but never a fad. Our Tender Loving Air® patent pending technology provides the feel good factor, cleverly hidden inside every pair. Quality and an aspirational brand identity are equally important factors in the mix, there's no compromise in any aspect. To complement the core collection we teamed up with Teatum Jones for a collaboration range launched at their AW15 catwalk show at London Fashion Week. Both labels share a passion for functional beauty and as such we created an incredibly directional capsule range together. Melanie Rickey loved them so much she wore a pair straight off the catwalk.
What was the inspiration behind the business?
I'm afraid it's a terrible cliche but there was a gap in the market. There are lots of amazing fast fashion footwear brands, and there are brands doing a great job in the traditional comfort space, but there is a huge void in between. Air & Grace bridges the gap between the two. it's design led first, but always with wearability in mind. I'm a self confessed shoe snob and so are our fans. Compromising on style is never an option, but I have to admit, like so many other women I have a wardrobe full of shoes I never wear because they ruin my day, or I have to have a spare pair in my bag as back up. There's no reason we can't have it all. My career has included working for brands as varied as Kurt Geiger to Fitflop, so armed with all of that knowledge and experience I decided to take a leap of faith and make it happen.
Tell me more about how you differentiate from the competition?
Our most obvious differentiator is our technology as it's what makes our product totally unique. The worldwide patent for Tender Loving Air® will be published in June. It's a cushioning and shock absorbing system using high performance materials usually found in sports shoes, completely hidden inside all our styles without compromising the look of the shoe. It's basically trainer on the inside, shoe on the outside. People have fallen in love with how it feels and are coming back for second and third pairs.
However I firmly believe that is only one part of our USP and that our real differentiator is that in addition to the benefits of the technology, we put equal importance on style, quality and brand identity. What's the point in having a shoe that feels amazing if it looks ugly? You've got to want to wear it, that's why our product is design lead. We make everything in Portugal using top grade Italian leathers so our customers can be confident they are choosing a product that is built to last more than one season, we're not about disposable fashion. Our beliefs run throughout everything we do including all our communications, we're about happiness, confidence and innovation. This is a shoe brand by women, for women - we understand the problems, we listen to what our audience is telling us and our mission is to deliver what they want, style by style.
How have you funded Air & Grace so far?
At first I financed the business myself. Everything was done on a shoestring and I got good at hustling, there was a lot of "will work for shoes" and that still goes on now. I'm really lucky to have a hugely supportive network of incredibly talented friends and former colleagues who have been instrumental in helping turn my vision into a reality.
I've also received investment from Seedrs as a result of winning first prize in a national competition - the Worth retail Foundation. It was a search for the UK's best new brands. I had to present Dragons Den style to a panel of experts, I pitched like I've never pitched before! In addition to the funds from Seedrs; Michael Acton Smith, who was on the judging panel, liked Air & Grace so much he also invested and acts as a business mentor.
That was a year ago and when I look back it's amazing how much has happened. When I won the funding the brand hadn't yet launched, we didn't even have a website and I was working from the kitchen table. The funding and business support has enabled me to get everything in place and successfully bring the product to market. I've even escaped the kitchen table, we've got a great little design studio in East London. I love the creative vibe there.
What has been the biggest challenge in starting Air & Grace?
Finding a manufacturer who shares my vision has been the biggest challenge. Our product is innovative and therefore not straightforward to develop, so it was critical that I found a partner who understood the benefits It's hard for start ups as there's always an element of risk. Good manufacturers are always busy, they've got lots of big name brands knocking on their door so why should they take a risk on you? I've got a track record of building best selling footwear ranges so that helped give credibility to my pitch when Air & Grace was at concept stage, winning a national competition reinforced that too. Since we started trading our sales have been good and we've placed repeat orders, this is where it all starts to make sense and our manufacturer can start to see that we are delivering the plan.
How have you overcome this challenge?
It's not been easy but I've now found a great manufacturing partner. Flexibility was key to making the relationship work. Being resilient also helps. If things don't go according to plan you've got to dust yourself off and get on with it. I've been told that dogged determination is the sign of a true entrepreneur and I'd have to agree with that. If a challenge comes your way, digest it, and work out how to get around it. There's always an answer.
Startups are full of ups and downs, what gets you through those downs?
It's a definite roller coaster ride! I tend to make sure I focus on the highs, so I've got the emotional energy to deal with the lows. I'm really lucky that as a result of my 20 years in the footwear industry I have an amazing network of hugely talented people around me who I can call on for help and advice. I tend to not take much time away from the business, but when I do, cooking is my thing to de-stress. I love planning a whole feast, shopping for all the ingredients and making lots of dishes to share with friends and family.
What have been your biggest achievements since you launched your business?
Thankfully there have been many. I'll never forget trying on the final prototype and realising that after a lengthy development period we'd got something special. Obviously winning the Worth Foundation search for the UK's best new business was a standout moment. It was a really tough process so I felt honoured to have won. The affirmation that a team of incredible experts also shared my vision on believed in Air & Grace was priceless. And being listed as Smarta's "one to watch" for 2015 was pretty special too.
Seeing the Air & Grace X Teatum Jones shoes on the catwalk at London Fashion Week was very special. I love that being a small business means projects like this can happen, there are no boundaries to our creativity.
We're just approaching the next milestone in the journey - we're about to sign our first international distributor. A lot has happened in a short time, but we've only just scratched the surface and I'm looking forwards to taking Air & Grace from strength to strength.
What advice would you give any entrepreneurs just starting out?
Work hard, be nice and learn how to hustle.