Inside celebrity-favourite boutique Debra in Chigwell

Since opening in 1981, Debra boutique has become renowned for its daring collections and personal service. Gemma Ward meets founder Debra Seller and discovers how it became an overnight success

Debra Chigwell is an Essex institution. Since starting the business in 1981, owner Debra Seller has expanded into a group and scaled back again, triumphed through three recessions and remained current in an ever-changing retail landscape. Her success can be largely credited to her unrelenting commitment to the business, which even saw her meeting with a supplier in the hospital car park shortly after giving birth to her son. Today with three decades of success under its belt, the boutique continues to be a regularly frequented destination for locals, footballers’ wives and celebrities.

Fashion fanatic

Seller began her career at the age of 16. With a passion for fashion, she travelled to Great Portland Street in Central London not long after leaving school, knocking on doors until someone employed her. “The area was buzzing back then and if you wanted to work in fashion, it was the place to be,” she recalls. It wasn’t long before she was snapped up – first by Lady London and then Frank Usher – working as a part-time showroom model and part-time sales assistant. “I worked for the best and learned everything there was to learn about fashion wholesale and retail,” she says. “I answered the phone, assisted buyers and learned how retailers worked. My favourite part was the fashion shows – it was an exciting time.”

Earning £32 a week – which was fairly low even in 1976 – Debra’s entrepreneurial spirit quickly began to surface. And to make more money, she came up with a cunning plan: “All the showrooms sold samples at the end of each week, so I’d use my wages to buy them to sell in Essex for a profit,” she says. “I began to gain a huge clientele and I was soon working every weekend.”

Lunchtimes became a busy period for Seller, too. With a growing knowledge of every emerging designer in the area, she contacted the agents for 1970’s British dance troupes Pans People and Legs and Co with the offer of finding them clothes to wear on Top of the Pops. Word spread and she was soon working unofficially on behalf of the BBC’s wardrobe department.

It wasn’t until 1981 when the newly married 21-year-old decided she wanted to do all of her work from one place. “My husband was so supportive of me and he encouraged me to open my own boutique,” she says. “We found an empty shop in Gants Hill in North East London and just went for it. I felt so lucky to be given the opportunity to start my own business.”

While Debra describes the first premises as a secondary location, she said it was a good start. Her husband ran a jewellery business selling to the trade, so he was able to offer business advice and support. “On the first day we opened there were people queuing outside – it was magical,” she says. “It was just something so different and people loved it. The concept of a small clothes shop in that kind of location just hadn’t been done before.”

Right from the beginning, the new boutique owner was clear about her business philosophy: “I wanted to be bold and exciting with merchandising that was ahead of everyone else,” she says. “I never wanted to be frightened of the competition. I’ve never particularly followed fashion trends and instead always created my own look. I look at shapes and I call tell whether something will sell by the way it’s cut.”

The first Debra store was small, yet packed with pieces sourced from numerous suppliers. “My mum used to help me out on a Saturday – and she still does at 80 years old – and I had another girl during the week,” says Seller. “We created a friendly atmosphere that made people feel calm and relaxed no matter what was going on in the outside world. I think that’s why we became such a big success.”

Dressing people to suit their shape also drew more customers into the boutique. “It should never be a chore to go shopping,” she says. “When people come into the shop and say they hate buying clothes we start them off slowly. Maybe with a pair of boots first and then we’ll work up to the rest. When I’ve finished they can’t believe what they see. I’ve done a few transformations over the years.”

An Essex institution

While Gants Hill remained a popular area, limited parking meant it was inconvenient for shoppers. So as growing numbers of customers started moving further into the country, Debra decided to open another boutique in Chigwell, Essex. “I knew it was an up and coming area with beautiful houses so took a chance,” she says. “My husband already had a jewellery shop there with an empty unit next door – I ended up taking over the whole lot. It was a larger space and while it wasn’t on a high street, it was near the station so there was more footfall and it was easier to park. It was definitely the right move.”

By the mid 1980s, Debra was running three shops in Gants Hill, Chigwell and Brentwood. But now with two small children to look after, it became too much for one person to efficiently manage: “I found myself in the car all of the time running from shop to shop. We always tried to stock individual pieces – but you’d find that a customer in Gants Hill would want something that was in the Brentwood shop and so forth. It just became too much.”

At this point Debra decided to sell the Gants Hill and Brentwood boutiques to concentrate on Chigwell. “Gants Hill was still my baby because that was where it had all started,” she says. “But it made better business sense to concentrate on the larger store in Chigwell.”

Buying secrets

When it comes to discussing the labels stocked at the boutique, Debra is fiercely secretive. Today the majority of its pieces are imported from Italy, France and Greece while the owner also works with brands to create her own unique designs. “We probably carry pieces from 80 suppliers every season,” she says. “It’s hard work but it pays off. I might only have three or four pieces from one supplier and I make up my own stories to keep everything unique to us. If I ever see one of our pieces in someone else’s shop it makes me feel sick! I want everything to be completely different.”

Debra describes the boutique’s signature look as “quirky and affluent” with all the hallmarks of typical Italian style. It’s something that is very popular, particularly with the women of Essex, and also those further afield who travel in their droves to the store.

Many of the boutique’s customers live either abroad or elsewhere in the country, so if they can’t visit frequently, Debra offers a very personal service: “We do have some customers who’ve never visited the store personally,” she says. “But we don’t let that stop us offering them a personal service. I’ll ask them to send me a photo and then I’ll put together a capsule range of dresses and pieces and send it over to them. I get texts most evening from customers asking for pieces in their size; I don’t mind, it’s all part of the service.”

When buying in collections, Debra also purchases extra fabric from suppliers for alterations. The boutique offers customers the use of a dressmaker who can work change aspects of a particular piece or create the perfect fit. “I have everything I wear altered as I like my things to fit me a certain way, so I like to offer this option to customers,” she says. “Most women want to show off their best bits and hide their problem areas – it can be impossible to achieve this with clothes straight off the peg.”

For race goers and wedding guests, customers are also able to order bespoke hats that match the store’s dresses perfectly. “We’ve had an amazing milliner working for us for about four years now and he’s just as passionate about hats as I am about fashion,” says Seller. “We do a lot of business for race days such as Ascot and he creates these unbelievable hats to go with our dresses.”

Star quality

The support of local celebrities has also been a great factor in the store’s success. “We used to attract a lot of footballers’ wives and girlfriends, especially because the Tottenham Hotspur ground wasn’t too far from us,” says Debra. “A famous manager once came in with his wife and told me our collection was ‘better than Harrods.’ It’s a real compliment coming from someone you know can afford to shop absolutely anywhere.”

Its popularity led to a six-page feature in OK! magazine, which saw three footballers’ wives modelling Debra’s latest pieces. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” says Seller. As she has created all of the styling herself, the magazine began asking her to send in clothes for shoots. “I went all over sourcing all of these amazing clothes,” she says. “After that I just did one celebrity after another.”

In 2010, before ITV’s new reality show The Only Way is Essex hit our screens, original cast member Jessica Wright visited Debra asking for clothes. The owner was unsure how the area would be portrayed by the show, but the gamble paid off. “It was a risk because I had no idea how the programme was going to be perceived by the public. But I think if you dress people correctly it can only be good for your reputation. Luckily it really paid off.”

Debra Chigwell became a location for TOWIE, with numerous scenes played out on the shop floor. But the cast were genuine customers and even when they left for other pastures, many still visit the shop. “Amy Childs still comes in with her mum,” says Debra. “She was the reason I got on Twitter – I’d never heard of it and now it’s such a great tool for the business.”

Using ‘real people’ to promote her store’s collections is a long-running strategy for the owner. Despite having access to local celebrities and models, Seller always chooses customers to model the store’s clothing for its marketing and online look book. “We do two photo shoots each season and we always use our customers,” she says. “They’re happy and look gorgeous plus they’re real – I think this really works for us as our other customers can really resonate with the images.”

While many indies have focused their efforts online to keep up with consumer demand, Debra’s owner believes it’s the wrong direction for the boutique. She did trial e-commerce for a short period, but found that her buying style didn’t fit the internet shopping concept. “I might only buy one particular piece in small, medium and large,” she says. “But if a lady orders it in two sizes to see if it fits and then takes a while to send it back, the opportunity of selling it in the shop is impeded. I’d rather send handpicked pieces to individual customers who can’t get to the shop or persuade our ladies to come and see us.”

Having spent the past three decades at the helm of her business, it’s unsurprising that Debra is mindful of slowing down. However, despite spending “most of her life” travelling for buying trips, she is reluctant about the idea of passing on the reigns completely. “The business has just got stronger and stronger over the years and I would like to continue to build on that,” she says. “But obviously I’m aware that there will come a time when I need to slow down a bit. I can’t see me ever giving up the boutique completely, but maybe one day someone will buy the shop and take over the business side while still employing me to do the buying.” She concludes: “I am the only woman for the job, after all.”