Wandering Minds…Simple and Beautiful
The owner, Elisa Eymery originally from France, had previously interned for London denim company Bodymetrics, worked as a Merchandising Assistant in Womenswear at House of Fraser and as a consultant for SD Retail. She eventually succumbed to her entrepreneurial spirit, roused by ‘wandering across’ Asia’s exciting fashion markets, to create in 2013 an interesting retail fashion premise born from her own style-led choices, including “the fun, quirky style of Australian labels, the minimalism of Scandinavian labels” and the professional relationships she has formed with designers met along the way. Follow the yellow thread road. And she did.
After finishing her Masters degree at Oxford (in Management with a specialisation in retail) the idea for Wandering Minds developed while Elisa travelled around Asia for a year in 2010. “I discovered the fascinatingly varied fashion landscape of Shanghai, Hong Kong and most importantly Seoul. Fashion was everywhere, in markets, train stations, huge malls and fashion centres opened 24/7, and it looked quite different from everything else I had seen back in England, Europe or the US…a certain type of relaxed, urban preppy-ness mixed with street-wear elements which felt very fresh and easy.”
There is a distinct Korean influence in WM’s collections Elisa is keen to develop, spending much of her time scoping its market for new designers, and according to WGSN research, very much the fashion market already having the biggest global impact. (Korea has interrupted the fashion industry trade weighting of desirable European brands into China, towards what is arguably an easier cultural and design fit from Korean designs, including easier distribution – and a market share that is increasing).
“We stock about 20 different brands, from Berlin (Front Row Society), Copenhagen (Mbym, Modstrom, Just Female), Paris (Cozete, Adeli), London (Little White Lies), Seoul (Outstanding Ordinary, Rocket x Lunch, Margarin Fingers), New York (Bing Bang NYC) and Sydney (Minkpink, Somedays Lovin), with a big emphasis on independent Korean brands, which are very popular in store but also online, with K-fashion devotees being loyal online customers.”
As an overseas designer, having exposure via a retail outlet in London is potentially a very attractive proposition. The opportunity to gain publicity that might be beyond their business development reach and attract wholesalers that could catapult their brand to success is not to be sniffed at. It can also mean a subtly different business relationship. In the case of WM, it means not being forced into taking whole collections, but sampling from full or capsule collections to match their customers and the target demographic footfall magnetically drawn to BoxPark.
For WM says Elisa, this ranges “from 20 to about 38, with most in the 24-29-age bracket. Although our aesthetic is quite fresh and young, the brands that we stock are known for their quality of make and originality of design, which means mid-range prices that a younger customer cannot really afford. We also emphasise simple but very well cut basics, which appeal to a slightly older customer who is in her 30s. Our customer is usually very fashion conscious, and attracted to the idea of buying independent brands from different style capitals.”
Not by accident does GAP have a unit in Boxpark and Nike before them. GAP doesn’t sell the same styles as in its high street locations. Not simply because it isn’t edgy enough, it knows it just wouldn’t work for the clientele that frequent BoxPark – a retail set up aesthetically antithetical to high street homogeneity. The well known brands know this and presumably use it as a low-cost retail experiment for alternative ranges, some taking the pop-up flexibility that a one-week rental option allows, not just start-ups.
Customers appreciate the non-universal nature of the brands in BoxPark, epitomized by WM’s selection of unique styles, suited to their clients. In some ways the individual retailers deliver the Boxpark management mission by ‘doing their own thing’, fulfilling the draw its unique collective retailer offering provides as a distinctly alternative urban shopping experience: edgier, lifestyle-oriented and individualistic. Yeah baby.
A subtly cozier, friendly customer relationship awaits the visitor to each unit, drawn into a more intimate space by very little window dressing. Fact is, there simply is very little showcasing space available in a unit not much more than two and a half metres wide. Blink and you could miss it. But curiously enough, customers and visitors don’t.
For sure, the personable and knowledgeable Aleksandra Koposova, (Aleks) a Russian sales assistant who grew up in Lithuania, fluent in English and fashion and worth her weight in gold trim, works hard to make the WM business successful. And does what every fashion retailer needs. Not just by refreshing the look, daily leveraging the best selling brand, (currently, Mink Pink from Sydney Australia), but by understanding the business she is in, and working conscientiously with the responsibility and autonomy Elisa entrusts in her judgment. In Elisa’s absence, (currently in Korea), ‘Aleks’ walked me through some of the processes and relationships this unique retailer in this prime London location has developed.
Whether it’s manufacturer-designer relationships or designer-retailer ones, the ability to finesse attractive margins, reliable delivery and affordable garment selections (without minimal orders), comes down to the personnel involved in managing the business within those relationships. Selling their clothes also helps. Mink Pink typically has extensive collections. This allows Elisa and Aleks in her place, to select individual pieces that complement what is on the rails from all the other designers they stock. And at the same time, potentiate sales from the known preferences of a customer base, whose relationship is by definition more intimate.
WM, despite their relatively modest size are able for example to get certain styles remade just for them because they know it is a best seller. What designer doesn’t want to hear or respond to this? But they don’t always, if the numbers don’t work for them. Small can be beautiful and boutiques like WM are blessed by this more responsive, customized relationship. Thank goodness in a world spinning 24/7 with anonymous internet purchasing, that we still get to see the customers face. (And tell them how they genuinely look in the outfit they have just tried on).
The Mink Pink showroom client visits allow Aleks to pursue selections initiated by the business acumen of Elisa, as she marries them to the styles of what will work best in the store. Even if Urban Outfitters stock the same brand, the overlap is so small (one or two pieces) there can be no sense of me-too retail competition diluting sales. The all-important USP of seeing and buying brands that are not available elsewhere, certainly not the High Street, is thus protected – who wants to be seen wearing what everyone else has for goodness sake?
You simply have to visit their store to appreciate the full impact of WM’s exclusive and pretty extensive variety of alluring, high quality garments. And if you are a size 8-10 female you definitely should. There is some latitude within those sizes, based partly on the nature of a lot of the current loose fitting styling (favored by Korean designers) that can equally fit different sizes without compromising the look. WM will also track down and order other sizes for customers if required. The Scandinavian brands they stock are typically designed for larger or taller women so it isn’t all Korean-centric.
Owing to the size of the store (think shrunken, cute railway carriage) there is no massive backroom for storage, so WM cannot stock multiple size options, so they major on a generic ‘office-sized’ customer they predominantly service. And when you realize, other UK and European designs like Little White Lies (London) and Cozete (Paris) there really is a good cross-section of styling and sizing to meet a wide variety of interest, across a reasonably wide age group, inside this small store.
Aside from sizing, another customer differentiator Elisa mentioned is price: ranging from £30-£35 for blouses/ tops; a mid-range for skirts and dresses that is between £50-£70 with some pieces at the £95-£100 mark, and coats a little more expensive. In addition to shoes, scarves and jewellery, the offerings appear to be keenly priced and affordable for the area and the target audience – markedly different by day – lunchtime office customers and rail gazers, with the weekend – tourists and out-of-town visitors drawn to the clubs and bar scene of Hoxton/Shoreditch and the colorful and bonkers-busy Sunday markets, that include Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane and Columbia Road flower market (WM is literally at the crossroads of all this!).
“The Shoreditch community seems to be a perfect fit for us. We’ve developed a loyal customer base of young, trendy professionals working in the area but also hanging out in Shoreditch over the weekends. Shoreditch also attracts tourists and visitors who are very into fashion, so we get a lot of American and European tourists during the summer, and fashion types going to Shoreditch House during Fashion Weeks. We couldn’t ask for a better location, and are one of the top performing clothing brands in Boxpark,” comments Elisa proudly.
Aleks adds, “the clientele are so different at weekends and are using the locale almost as a social experience, not primarily as a designated shopping focus.” But it is this same audience that keeps things fresh as far as input and customer feedback. A large number of foreign visitors are genuinely impressed and pleased to find one of their local, favorite brands exclusively stocked in WM. This tends to be more the case with the Asian and Australian visitors. Standing inside the store, it’s a sociological consumer treat just observing the styling of the visitors, and knowingly for some of the Boxpark retailers, it’s the impetus behind many of their own styling decisions – ‘street style’ is realized directly from the street wearing fraternity who coolly amble into the stores.
There’s a definite skill in managing stock orders and levels within a finite space, and decision-making in sync with brand delivery times and seasonal choices on behalf of WM. No room (sic) for getting this wrong with limited rail and storage space, and the need to optimize on sales opportunities with each visitor. Smaller in this case is less forgiving, contrasted with the West End sales assistant who might be able to hide order errors in a bigger retail space. Part of the skill Aleks confides is in how Elisa finds and works with brands that are willing to provide samples in the first place.
Aleks embodies an admirable approach to professionally deliver the ambitions of what WM is trying to achieve, witnessed in her attitude and approach to customer service – a joy to observe with customers professionally greeted and subtly encouraged towards what their styling and body shape might best suit. Should be normal, but clearly is not the standard shop assistant experience we encounter. WM get a lot of repeat customers and it is clear that Aleks puts their best interests first – not the quick sale. It’s the sort of behavior that comes from a genuine pleasure in her role, empowered with more autonomy to make the difference.
Apparently, when WM explored developing a Berlin retail offering, the local sales staff was so concerned not to get any single decision-wrong, it became unworkable for Elisa to have to try and answer every query, long distance. Cultural differences have been the undoing of many businesses trying to internationalize too quickly, including the oft-documented inability of (amongst other cultures), Chinese and Japanese employees to operate independently outside of a strict hierarchy in overseas companies. (Can’t help thinking this will normalize eventually based on the increasing numbers of Asian visitors acquiring a European entrepreneurial quick-fit experience, in situ in London!).
What is the future plans of WM? According to Elisa’s vision, they are intensifying their online presence, mainly through Instagram, not primarily for increasing sales but to cultivate a cohesive brand presence. “Our online presence at the moment is mostly about allowing our existing customers to buy from us, rather than acquiring new customers. Online customer acquisition is very costly and isn’t a priority for us at the moment.” The key reason for this strategy is that they are devoting their limited resources to developing a wholesale brand – taking the manufacturing-producer leap to develop own-brand ranges, most likely to be inspired by Korean design partnerships. And at the same time sourcing new store locations and organising pop-up events for Wandering Minds.
It’s inspiring to eavesdrop on a brand’s design gestation, knowing that it has largely been honed by retail-driven experience the hard way, and not blagged by ’celeb-wearing’ coinci-accidents, propelling a hitherto unknown brand into stellar e-tail numbers overnight, trending and trading on air, most of it hot. WM’s first own wholesale brand will be launched Winter 2015. Watch this space. I can’t wait to see what their own brand will do to stir things up in cool containers-ville, Shoreditch.
By Paul J Markevicius