Liz Jefferson is palpably excited about the latest opening for her womenswear indie group, Doodie Stark. It’s the second home for the retailer’s shop in Lindfield, Sussex and joins another six-year-old store in Horsham, too. But this new addition to the family is extra special.
Set inside a completely reimagined former bakehouse, the new 1,720sq ft Grand Designs-style destination store is the stuff independent retail dreams are made of. “I’m so excited to walk through the door every day,” says the founder, who designed the airy space with her husband, Rupert. “Seeing what we’ve managed to achieve with this unique shop fills me with so much pride.”
A new home
The building itself, once quite literally the place a baker would make bread to sell in the shop in front, was derelict when Liz first set her heart on it in January last year. However, despite the smashed windows, peeling paintwork and decades of dirt, she knew it had great potential: “As soon as we saw the Bakehouse, we wanted it,” she says. “But there were two other parts to the plot that we didn’t want: an old run-down house and small high street shop. Unfortunately, the seller wasn’t prepared to let us buy the building on its own, so we had to take a huge risk and purchase all three properties. Thankfully, we managed to sell on the other parts quickly to fund our renovations.”
Today the original Bakehouse building is completely unrecognisable. Working with a local architect and team of builders, it underwent 10 long months of transformation. Two brand new ‘wings’ were added onto the structure’s original shell, creating a contemporary u-shaped shop floor. That now surrounds a serene outdoor courtyard area laid with stone tiles, comfy seating, luscious plants and a spa-like water feature. “We drew inspiration from beautiful Californian stores such as James Perse, which incorporate outdoor areas,” Liz says. “Then, for the interior, we looked to some of our favourite retailers in Copenhagen.”
The new shop’s modern barn-style exterior, finished with brick slips and black wooden cladding, is still very much in-keeping with the area’s historic buildings. And although hidden from the high street’s main thoroughfare, its strikingly dramatic façade has been designed to capture the imagination of approaching visitors to create a true destination store.
Liz’s journey to becoming an indie retail owner is just as impressive as the new Doodie Stark. After studying clothing technology and management at the London College of Fashion, she landed a job as the assistant to John Galliano’s production manager during the heady supermodel era. But getting the job turned out to be slightly more ‘hands on’ than she’d expected: “I began as a pattern cutter on a work experience placement,” she says. “But John Galliano, who does a lot of the cutting on the body, noticed that I’m very tall, so asked if he could pin and cut garments on me.”
Liz spent hours each day watching him work. And once her placement finished, she was offered a permanent position for post-graduation: “After university I worked there full-time in all aspects of production, from ordering fabrics and trims to distributing samples and collections. I also monitored the progress and quality control of collections to meet delivery deadlines into stores.”
Those were the days when Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell were walking the catwalk – and Liz also got to attend all the shows too, either helping dress the models or seating the press. “It was such an exciting time,” she says. “I even made accessories for some of the shows and stepped in as a model during rehearsals. Sometimes I had to pinch myself that I had such an amazing job.”
In 1996, when Galliano left the UK to work for Dior, Liz was appointed as production manager for diffusion label Galliano Genes. She then moved into the sales side of the industry, working as a distributor for Valentino Jeans UK from a showroom on South Molten Street: “At that time they were one of the best jeans collections around and I sold to the UK’s biggest buyers – it was fantastic experience,” she says.
Later Liz started working for mid-market brands such as Sticky Fingers and Great Plains, where she “learned how to be commercial.” This experience essentially helped lay the perfect foundations for her career as a retailer: “I worked closely with the designers to ensure every sample was the perfect shape, fit, price point and colour to maximise sales,” she says. “I also looked after several large department stores such as Fenwicks and Bentalls, learning the importance of reporting, analysing sales figures and budgeting.”
Having worked in her mother’s fabric shop as a little girl, Liz knew moving into retail would be a great way to transfer her skills and enjoy a more flexible career: “I met my husband quite late in life and wanted to leave London and start a family,” she says. “I’d already had a fulfilling career in fashion, but I was keen to move onto the next stage in my life. Being my own boss was really appealing and the experience I had in production and wholesale provided the perfect background for opening my own shop.”
With the help of her husband, Liz pinpointed the affluent Haywoods Heath area as the ideal location for the business. Just 35 minutes on the train to London Bridge and with several prestigious private schools in the vicinity, its local demographic was her ideal target customer. “Although we weren’t borrowing anything from the bank, we put together quite an extensive 16-page business plan,” she says. “We tried to cover all bases in our research, even discovering that the area has the highest number of first-class rail season ticket holders in the country. In our minds we knew we had found the ideal location.”
In 2010, the first Doodie Stark opened its doors on Linfield High Street. Set over 800 sq ft, its interior boasted exposed beams, wooden flooring and an open plan area under a large glass lantern roof. The shop sold entry level to premium womenswear brands from around the globe and was an instant success with locals. “The brand mix has changed over the years, but I’ve always tried to keep the price points varied,” says Liz. “I don’t ever want to alienate people and make them think they can’t afford to walk away with a purchase.”
Seven years later, Liz decided to open a second shop in the nearby town of Horsham. While it offers a similar product offer and customer experience, the owner says its customer base is quite different to the Lindfield store. “It’s positioned in a larger town, and I wanted to test both location types,” she says. “There’s more footfall, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to sales. The conversion rate is much higher in our village shop. You get a lot more people browsing without buying anything, whereas in Lindfield you know customers will most likely leave with a purchase.”
Core brands at Doodie Stark include American Vintage, Dea Kudibal, DL1961, Suncoo, Shoe the Bear, Greek Archaic Kori, Lollys laundry, Primrose Park and Campomaggi. Meanwhile, it also stocks the likes of Depeche, Charli, Castaner, Mos Mosh and Suzy D London. Liz says it offers a wide selection of denim and is well known among locals for its expert advice on fit and shape. And while the emphasis is on everyday styling, it also carries some occasionwear for weddings and race days at nearby Goodwood and Ascot.
When it comes to buying, Liz visits trade shows in Paris and Copenhagen – ever searching for brands that haven’t yet made it to the UK. She adopts an analytical approach to ordering – learned from her previous career – never leaving anything to chance. “Data is my most important tool when buying for the shop,” she says. “I run full sell-through reports for each collection at the end of each season, so I know exactly how much to spend. Sometimes I have to gauge the strength of the collection and tweak the budget as necessary, but taking this approach is a tried and tested method that really works.”
While the new Doodie Stark store only opened in June, the idea to move has been in the pipeline for several years. “Our landlord wasn’t particularly supportive during the pandemic,” says Liz. “We needed to move but we also wanted to stay in Lindfield, so there was pressure to find the right property. It took a while, but we found the bakehouse just in time for a break clause in the lease.”
During this period the business also took its first foray into e-commerce, launching an online shop in May 2020. Liz had a lightbulb moment when it came to mask-wearing and created the shop’s own branded scarf masks, which rather fortuitously helped drive traffic to the site. “We designed it with one of our suppliers, creating several different prints,” she says. “Customers really liked it and we sold around 4,500 units. We donated a sizable portion of each sale to the Mind charity and promoted it by working with some influencers and a PR person who got it into some magazines. It helped promote our website when the physical shops were closed.”
Currently, Doodie Stark’s online sales make up around 10 per cent of the business, which is a number Liz is keen to grow. So now, with the new store now in place, she is dedicating more time to e-commence: “My next focus will be updating our EPoS system, creating a new website and continuing to invest in SEO,” she says. “That will help increase online sales.”
But having created such a standout physical retail presence, the owner is also keen to make the most of it: “I think pop-up events will be a really big opportunity for us moving forward,” Liz says. “My plan is to work with other brands and retailers to increase our customer base. We have the scope to host anything here from outside yoga sessions to tasting events and art shows. We could even invite several brands to create a pop-up Christmas market. I want to attract shoppers from further afield as well as our loyal customers to become a real destination for fashion in Sussex.”
Yet, despite her undeniable talent for creating an amazing retail space, Liz has absolutely no desire to increase Doodie Stark’s portfolio with another store. “We have a great business model, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my days stuck in the office doing admin,” she says. “My heart is on the shop floor with customers and that’s exactly how I like it.”