Starting out as a pure play online retailer, Very Stylish Girl opened a physical store in the leafy Leeds suburb of Horsforth in March 2019. The business – named after an infamous line from Breakfast at Tiffany’s – offers shoppers a curated edit of Scandi brands and local labels. Founder Helen Portas cherry-picks high quality timeless and fashion-led pieces each season while paying careful attention to fit and pricing. Over the past four years, the store’s customer base has come to rely on the boutique as a go-to destination for stylish clothing and a friendly experience.
Let’s get physical
The retailer’s journey began in spring 2017 when fashion marketeer Helen Portas launched an e-commerce site from her spare bedroom. Working part-time alongside her day job, the initial idea was to offer “high quality, considered fashion for women of a certain age.” By harnessing years of experience from her career she discovered a winning formula – and promptly began making plans to expand the business.
Not long after the site’s launch Helen fell pregnant and took time off to look after the new baby. It was while on maternity leave that she realised she wanted to run her own business full-time and move into physical retail: “It was always the plan to bring the brand to life at some point – and that just felt like the right time,” she says.
With a tried and tested e-commerce brand and suppliers list already in place, Helen started to search for the perfect bricks-and-mortar location. So, with a baby in tow, she scoured several local areas around Yorkshire – ultimately deciding on Horsforth, which is located five miles away from Leeds City Centre. “It’s a really lovely area with lots of other independent shops and fashionable locals,” she says. “I came across one particular street and it really stood out. All the buildings were built with traditional Yorkshire stone and there was a real buzz to the area.”
Determined to secure a unit in that exact location, Helen began posting notes through shop doors asking proprietors if there was an opportunity to take over. “I have a really fond memory of pushing my daughter in her pram in the rain and having that eureka moment,” she says. “There was one particular shop that really caught my eye, so I posted a note for the owner. I couldn’t believe my luck when they got in touch to say they wanted to let it go.”
In three short months Helen had already signed a lease and was preparing for a spring opening to coincide with her new collections landing. To keep costs down, her family helped refit and decorate the store while her partner – a graphic designer – helped translate the branding for the website into a physical business.
Helen describes the 350sq ft boutique’s interior as clean and contemporary, with a pared back design that allows the products to stand out. She has continued working with her original brands since the beginning, which include Soya Concept, Numph, Saint Tropez and Fransa: “We focus on Scandinavian brands and I try to buy a combination of timeless garments alongside more statement fashion-led pieces,” she says. “Our customers want flattering styles that are easy to wear.”
Meanwhile, Helen has also added footwear from Woden and jewellery from Estella Bartlett and Big Metal London to the store’s line-up. And following a trial with homewares during the pandemic, the store now also carries candles and diffusers by CAHM. “We do very well with t-shirts in the summer and knitwear in the winter,” says the founder. “We’re also finding more relaxed occasionwear is selling well for shoppers looking for wedding outfits.”
According to the founder, Very Stylish Girl’s product line-up appeals to a broad spectrum of customers. The online business was originally targeted towards working women and stay-at-home mums aged 30 and over, but the physical boutique attracts an older market too. Its customer base is divided into two: women aged 35+ who want to be smart for work and casual at home, as well as older stylish ladies who want to shop locally: “I think some of our customers wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to shop online but they don’t want to go into the city either, so the target market has widened,” she explains. “We get a range of women visiting us – from mums on the school run to retired professionals.”
Today sales are split 15/85 between online and in-store, as Helen focuses on growing the bricks-and-mortar business. “A lot of our customers browse online and use the website as an online shop window,” she says. “They also spot items on social media, which will prompt them to visit the shop to feel the fabrics and buy. Regardless of sale online is an essential part of the buying journey now.”
Instagram and Facebook have become increasingly important for the business since the pandemic and lockdowns. Very Stylish Girl has also introduced a loyalty programme where shoppers collect a stamp for every purchase – receiving a 20 per cent discount once they’re reached five. “This has been really successful and it was a lovely way to give something back to customers who supported me through the pandemic,” says Helen. “But more than that, it gives me a greater understanding of my customers as I can see what they are buying and how they are spending.”
Like most indie retailers, Helen says the cold weather in March and April dampened early SS23 sales. However, she has noticed a rise in footfall after the Easter break: “Unfortunately, because of the weather, the spring collections haven’t yet sold through,” she says. “Rain and bad weather in general has a detrimental effect on footfall. We really notice it when the sun comes out.”
The rising cost of living has also meant the store’s shoppers have been increasingly considered in their purchases, opting for pieces that make good investments for their wardrobes. “People really want value for money at the moment,” says Helen. “They’re looking for pieces that can be worn again and again rather than those special occasion-only outfits.”
But despite the slow start to the season, the indie owner remains very optimistic about the months ahead. As well as implementing the store’s loyalty scheme, Helen is focusing on collaborating with other independent businesses to raise awareness and expand her customer base. This includes a joint in-store event with a beauty salon based in the upstairs unit above the store: “We’ll be introducing a series of boutique takeovers this year where groups of friends or businesses can have the entire shop to themselves,” she explains. “We’ll provide fizz and a party atmosphere while there will be beauty treatments available from the salon upstairs. Attendees will be able to browse the collections and make purchases.” Likewise, Helen is also planning several fashion shows in the coming months that will take the brand to shoppers in different areas.
With these strategies in place – and the promise of some warmer weather – Helen remains hopeful that strong sales will return. “It’s been a tough winter, but I’m feeling very optimistic about the rest of this year,” she says. “I feel independents are going to ride the economic storm and come out stronger on the other side. Shoppers are looking for unique products, an outstanding experience and to be completely ‘wowed’ when they walk into store. I think as long as indie retailers can continue to think innovatively, keep coming up with new ideas and products, we’ll grow. It’s all about offering that point of difference.”