Collen and Clare’s Vanessa Hodgson shares her remarkable story of selling city fashion by the sea

Dominating one corner of Southwold’s Market Place, Collen and Clare’s immaculately dressed windows are often the first thing shoppers look for when visiting the seaside town. In fact, what the mannequins are wearing is now so eagerly anticipated that the retailer has introduced a weekly ‘shop the window’ feature on its website: “We’re renowned for our windows,” says owner Vanessa Hodgson. “Mixing up labels to create unique looks is the principal job of a multi-brand independent like us; it’s something we do well.”

Collen and Clare is very much like a department store’s much cooler little sister – with an exemplary service to match. Behind its blue façade sits 3,500sq ft of retail space spanning four separate rooms on a single floor. Inside shoppers can find a treasure trove of seductive fashion buys – from pop-bright Vilagallo dresses to classic Weekend MaxMara separates. There are timeless Mulberry handbags, vibrant Wushu Ruyi trainers and sustainable denim by Seventy and Mochi. Customers can stock up on cosmetics, skincare and unique homewares. And with a dedicated menswear room, male shoppers are well catered for, too.

The retailer has amassed a staunch customer base since opening in 2003 – from local celebrities and CEOs to day trippers and tourists. Over the years it has been lauded by the national press. Just last month it was chosen by fashion blogger Emma Paton for The Telegraph’s list of ‘50 greatest boutiques’.  

Yet it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Vanessa – despite the store’s location by the sea. But, with the help of her 17-strong team, the owner has successfully steered the business through numerous challenges including a significant restructure in the throes of the pandemic.  

City living

Back in the 1990s, Vanessa – a farmer’s daughter – had a high-flying career in investment banking. But after a decade of fast living in the city, she wanted to return to Suffolk to pursue her own business dream: “I was approaching 30 and worried I wouldn’t like myself in another ten years if I continued on the same path.”

The would-be retail owner had seen potential in her hometown of Southwold for a shop selling fashion she wanted to buy. Located on East Anglia’s coast, the affluent seaside town is a weekend bolthole for scores of Londoners and second homeowners (Keira Knightly and Richard Curtis are among those with houses nearby). “It’s a wonderful place with great pubs and scenic coastal walks – a real antidote to fast-paced life in the city,” says Vanessa. “Like many Londoners, my friends and I would spend our weekends here. We’d have a brilliant time – but found there was nowhere to shop.”   

Inside the store

Teaming up with friend and former retail boss Clare Grady, Vanessa (née Collen) began mulling over the idea for a new boutique. Between them an exciting concept emerged. Their vision, to bring an edit of the best labels to Suffolk, was to be bolstered further by an unforgettable customer experience: “We wanted Collen and Clare to be the antithesis of a pretentious boutique,” she says. “Our idea was to create a little girl’s dressing up box for grown-ups. Women could come in and try on anything they liked without being judged. It was all about having fun; we didn’t want customers to feel pressured to buy.”

Work experience 

After handing in her notice and being swiftly escorted off the premises (apparently customary practise for bankers who resign), Vanessa immediately began seeking hands-on retail experience. “We’d found the right premises, but the building hadn’t previously been a shop and needed a total renovation,” she says. “So, I took on a part-time role at a local discounting store. My previous salary raised eyebrows, but I was thankfully welcomed onto the team.”   

The day after Vanessa’s thirtieth birthday party saw her joining Clare to trawl the aisles of Pure London. Their early brand list included the likes of London labels Neisha Crosland and Omnia as well as Rachel Roberts, Pringle and Wolford. “We wanted to offer a real multi-brand experience with a mix of price points that appealed to a variety of people. We also bought across the categories, bringing in full ‘head to toe’ options from coats and dresses to hats and tights.”

The same ethos remains at Collen and Clare today. The store stocks a colossal 120 brands including Ba&sh, Farm Rio, Rails, Traffic People, Foil and Stella Nova. Shoppers can buy a basic t-shirt for £30 or splurge on a £1,000+ coat. “We offer something for everyone; you can buy a Falke tight or Charnos,” says Vanessa. “We sell Penelope Chilvers boots as well as Shoe the Bear.” Underwear is also popular at the store: “You’d be gobsmacked by how many people come to Southwold for the weekend and forget to pack pants.”

Buying needs

Vanessa personally buys everything stocked at Collen and Clare. She’s regularly out on the road (or railway) seeking out new brands. Buying destinations include London and Paris while she sometimes ventures to Milan and Copenhagen. “Fitting in so many appointments each season is getting harder, if I’m honest,” she says. “I have considered reducing our number of suppliers but it’s difficult, especially when you carry as many categories as we do.”  

Collen & Clare’s famous windows

A quick peruse of Collen and Clare’s brand list proves how persistent Vanessa is in her perpetual search for the next fashion must-have. Some labels have been mainstays for many years. The indie has sold Mulberry handbags, for example, at its physical store for the best part of two decades. Others join its roster when they’re practically brand new. Collen and Clare was among the first to stock Scandi favourite Stina Goya while it also helped kick-start the popularity of Rixo. More recently, Vanessa brought Barcelona brand Dr Bloom to the UK after discovering it in Paris.

While some retailers may feel frustrated to be a stepping stone to a brand’s success, Vanessa is quite philosophical: “I’ve always felt that my job as an independent retailer is to help launch brands and give them an audience. We take them on a journey of growth. I love it when brands do well. The trick is knowing when to continue that journey or step away.”  

Retail ambition

After trading in an “absolutely tiny” store for a couple of years, Vanessa was in a position to purchase much larger premises on the “sunny side of the street.” That’s where the Collen and Clare flagship remains today.

The building itself has a fascinating backstory, having been a clothing retailer in one guise or another for 500 years. “There’s a clause in the deeds that state it must be used as a drapers and clothiers,” says Vanessa. “It’s such a privilege to be the custodian of this amazing building.”

A decade after first opening, Clare stepped away from the business to concentrate on her family. Filling her shoes came former M&S marketing whizz and Southwold resident Steve Sharp, who’d been watching the business flourish from the start. “Steve was a keen supporter of ours, so I had my very own Dragon’s Den moment,” says Vanessa.

Their plan was to introduce Collen and Clare to other key coastal towns. So, with Steve now on board as chairman, they rolled out two more sites. The second opened in Aldeburgh, just 20 miles from the Southwold flagship, in 2015. This was soon followed by a third site over 70 miles away in Burnham Market. “It was great and I loved both locations,” says Vanessa. “But journeying between them was hard.” Finally, with the online side of business also experiencing exponential growth, a separate warehousing facility was added with its own dedicated team to process e-commerce orders and returns. 

Scaling back

But the pandemic had a devastating and unexpected impact. With three stores located at opposite ends of the East Anglian coast, Vanessa struggled with the logistics of selling online: “Fulfilling orders was tough with the rest of the team on furlough,” she says. “A customer could potentially order for a dress located in Southwold, socks in Burnham Market and a jumper in Aldeburgh. I just didn’t have the infrastructure in place.”

The final nail in the coffin came when Steve was forced to pull the plug on his stake in the business: “Personal circumstances meant he had to step away and we would have needed another investor to keep all three shops going. I was already juggling so much, including home schooling two teenage children. I just wasn’t ready.”

Collen & Clare’s team

Instead, Vanessa restructured the business and devised a new plan to scale its operations back down to the Southwold flagship and website. Sadly, the other two shops never fully reopened again following the first national lockdown. “The impact on my team was heart-breaking,” she says. Meanwhile, the owner also enrolled on a local government-funded Help to Grow course for SMEs, which turned out to be a “crystalising” experience: “I went in thinking I wanted to gain new customers from all over the world, but soon realised our technology was woefully out of date,” she says. “We needed to focus on the customers we already had and instead make some serious investments.”

Online transformation

The course saw Vanessa partnered with Quickfire Digital co-founder Nathan Lomax as her mentor. “He helped me transform the website. We moved everything over to Shopify and then had everything redesigned.” Investment has now reached an eye-watering six figures and yet the process still poses a number of challenges. Perhaps most detrimental has been its dramatic fall in visibility on Google. “It’s something people don’t tell you, but changing platforms can seriously damage your ranking,” the owner says. “Retailers aren’t just retailers anymore – we’re running tech businesses. Things have changed irrecoverably in the past 20 years. The days of running a little shop without a ‘tech stack’ are long gone.” 

Historically, Collen and Clare’s online sales have made up around 30 per cent of its overall revenue. While that has dropped since its recent changeover, Vanessa’s plan is to increase it again by tapping into the store’s already-loyal supporters.

When it comes to bricks-and-mortar retail, the owner is also overcoming numerous challenges, not helped in the slightest by this year’s incessant rain and whipping winds. “Don’t get me started on the weather,” she says. But Vanessa has plenty of tricks up her sleeve to pique shopper interest. These include product exclusives, such as its recently launched De Siena resort slides emblazoned with the word ‘Southwold’. There are numerous in-store events planned on the calendar, too. Plus, she’s also just opened an experimental beachwear pop-up shop in almost the exact unit Collen and Clare first started in.

And Vanessa’s best secret weapon, apart from those exceptional windows? “It has to be my team. People might initially walk in for the edit, but they come back for the advice and atmosphere.”

For now, the indie owner’s biggest desire is to just keep going: “I want to make sure there’s an independent retailer in this building for another 500 years,” she says. “More people are recognising the benefits of shopping in cool destination towns. You can come to places like Southwold and park for free, grab an artisan coffee and visit unique independents. There’s a real return to the old-fashioned way of shopping. I hope that’s something more and more people will embrace.”