5 Minutes With: Austique Founder, Katie Canvin

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If you live in the UK or have plans to be here any time soon, I insist you visit Austique. Or to be specific, one of the two equally delectable Austique boutiques in London. Today’s interviewee, Katie Canvin opened her first store on the Kings Road back in 2004. Over the next few years she honed her carefully curated stock of contemporary designers from around the world to include the likes of Markus Lupfer, Alice + Olivia, Mara Hoffman and Rebecca Minkoff, developing Austique’s reputation as the fashion lover’s go-to for gorgeous, eclectic and exquisitely presented pieces. Now Katie owns and runs two Austique boutiques, one in Chelsea and the other in Notting Hill, not to mention a booming online store and her own underwear brand, Cheek Frills. As you can probably imagine, she’s a pretty busy lady but still managed to spare a few minutes to answer my questions…

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LPA: Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up and what were you doing before you launched Austique?

KC: I am a country girl and grew up in Devon with no interest in clothes, a total tomboy. The only real fashion memory I have is never wearing shoes in summer and not liking jeans as they made a funny noise when you walk! Makes no sense now that I own over 30 pairs… (my husband counted them recently!).

LPA: What prompted your decision to set up Austique in 2004? Was that always what you hoped or planned to do?

KC: My sister and I are half Australian and the idea of opening a store that offered amazing service but in the laid back Australian way inspired us. Also selling brands and labels from all over the world which we hadn’t seen in the UK. That was 10 year ago. We actually only ever planned one shop and thought online was the way forward by selling gifts. I sound like such a dinosaur but this was the days when Net-a-Porter was widely reported as putting in huge investment but hadn’t yet taken off – Natalie Massenet was amazing in her vision and she really proved everyone wrong as the feeling from everyone was that clothes would never sell online. I cannot understate how much I admire her for sticking to her guns and proving all the doubters wrong. We wanted our site to be a gift site rather than fashion. Now we have two successful shops – one in Chelsea and one in Notting Hill plus our online business. We also have a range of underwear called Cheek Frills – this was never the plan but they are our best selling product – Selfridges approached us about stocking them so we launched them in 2012 and are now stocked in stores such as Liberty, Bloomingdales and on Shopbop, very exciting! Sometimes you just have to follow what is working rather than sticking religiously to your business plan.

LPA: I think it’s fair to say that Austique is one of the most in demand independent boutiques in the country but I can imagine all has not been plain sailing along the way. What was the greatest challenge you faced building the business?

KC: Retail is SO hard – your overheads are huge so you need to constantly be driving the business, there is never a moment to rest! Everyday is a new day and you are starting from scratch. The only day I am not checking sales figures is Christmas day!! Actually now with online I am even checking them then!

When the credit crisis hit in 2008 we had to really reassess our business – it was a good discipline for us. The days of women with really unlimited budgets disappeared and everyone began to think about what they were spending. We used to have many more American customers but they moved back to the states. We changed our buying so we had a bigger selection in our best selling price range and that had a huge impact on our business – we actually have seen our turnover increase every year but we have had to work hard to get there so it definitely made us a better business. And people now spend longer thinking about their purchases which can only be a good thing, you never hear customers say oh I’ll put it on the credit card and worry about it later anymore! Which might be bad for business but is definitely better for them!

LPA: One of the things I adore about Austique is the highly curated selection of contemporary and often quite niche brands from all over the world that you stock. How do you source and select your labels?

KC: We ask ourselves questions when we look at EVERY product we buy:

1. Is it widely available elsewhere in the UK?
2. Is it worth the price tag? We don’t mind how expensive or cheap something is as long as it is worth it.
3. And on the same basis if you pulled out the brand label would you buy it anyway? Our customer is so savvy and confident she does not come to us for the brand put the product.
4. And the most important question – is it in in the Austique voice – we work so hard on our brand and everything we do is for the girl we all aspire to be – ‘Jessica’. We know what she reads, which films she likes, where she goes on holiday etc etc. We have committed our share of brand crimes in the past but now we are much more confident in our brand so these are a thing of the past.

LPA: Talk me through a typical day in the Austique office…

KC: It is generally chaos and everyday is different – which is why I love running my own business. When you run your own company you are involved in every aspect from the accounts (I always put this off until last!) to the marketing to the selling which is my absolute favourite part of the business. I love dealing with customers – we have the same women who have been coming in for the full 10 years we have been open, I so rarely get the time on the shopfloor but I love it whenever I do.

LPA: While e-tail and social media were getting going back in 2004, there have been enormous developments in the digital landscape since then which have had a huge impact on the fashion industry. Do you feel this has changed the way you run Austique and communicate with your consumer?

KC: Touched on this above but yes – when we opened everyone knew the internet would change everything however we had no idea how it was going to happen. It is so exciting to have been a part of it all evolving and has opened up a new world of opportunity for businesses like Austique. We’re all totally obsessed by Instagram at the moment and this is a fantastic way to communicate with our customers and show them sneak previews of great new deliveries. It is amazing that now we can reach women anywhere in the world online and we don’t need to open more shops to do that. The sky is the limit for us online. It does make me worry about the high street but I think we will always have shops even if they are simply showrooms and people use websites to make the purchase.

LPA: Austique now has boutiques in Chelsea and Notting Hill. Do you try to keep the aesthetic and brand offering uniform across all three or adapt each one to a slightly different consumer? Could you ever see Austique opening a store in, say, Shoreditch?

KC: I think you have to really know your customer and stay true to your brand and for us we work well in affluent areas with a really international customer. I think we would do better in new capital cities rather than any more stores in London. We would love to open in say Hong Kong, Sydney or New York although that is a while away. The sky is the limit online so we are very focused here right now and growing Cheek Frills. So generally we have exactly the same offering, whenever we have moved away from this you end up not looking your best and compromising what you do.

LPA: Not that I’m asking you to play favourites, but which Austique brands are you particularly loving right now and why?

We produce our own range under the Austique label and of course I am majorly biased but I am completely obsessed with our cashmere and I wear it everyday! I also desperately want our brocade shorts which are coming in in the next couple of weeks. From our other designers I am obsessed by Zoe Chicco which is a new Jewellery label from LA exclusive to Austique in the UK. I was really indulgent and treated myself to a ring chain bracelet in gold with diamond v’s, it is so unusual and eye catching I love it, I have to have perfect nails to wear it – it is so amazing! Fashion-wise my pick is Parker, again almost exclusive to us it is from New York and is a fantastic brand, everything is silk and so well made in great shapes, colours and prints. There are lots of new brands I am excited about for Spring Summer – again mostly exclusive to Austique – such as LOVESHACKFANCY, Marisa Webb and Christophe Sauvant. It is going to be a great season we saw some amazing pieces. The other thing we and our customers are loving right now is a brand of stationery called Sugar Paper – the most beautiful stationery from LA. Everyone loves great stationery.

LPA: What advice would you give to someone thinking of launching their own retail business?

KC: Research research research. You can never look too much at your business plan and be so careful about the area you pick and the actual shop as this will make or break you – we got so lucky with our Kings Road store as the shop had a great feel from the word go. And stay true to your brand, don’t commit brand crimes, you have to love everything you sell – never compromise on this. Whenever we have we have got it wrong.

Love Ella. X

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