Willow & Wolf founder Isabella Wookey talks retail challenges and investing in the future

Named in Drapers’ 30 under 30 list, Willow and Wolf founder Isabella Wookey has created a hugely successful business selling premium womenswear from around the globe. She first opened her own shop as a teenager in 2012 with a £6,000 bank loan. The enterprise was a success, allowing her to sell it six years later and use the profits to fund Willow and Wolf. Today the Wiltshire-based business sells in-store and online, experiencing year-on-year growth across all channels. Here the founder reveals why she went into business at such a young age and how she juggles motherhood with her career…

What is your career background?

I opened my first shop when I was 19 years old as the fourth generation of retailers in our family. My father was an antiques dealer while my mum was interiors obsessed, so my passion really began there. 

What inspired you to go into business at such a young age?

I spent my childhood on the shop floor of my father’s antique shop and was fascinated by the whole experience. I loved the customer facing role and when teamed with my passion for interiors and design it created a winning combination. I have always gone with my gut and acted on impulse, so my thoughts were, ‘I had nothing to begin with so what do I have to lose?’ 

What was the idea for your original store and how did it evolve into the Willow and Wolf trading today?

I wanted to curate beautiful pieces in a beautiful space. I am so affected by my surroundings, so I wanted to create an incredible place where there was something alluring in every corner. Willow and Wolf is exactly that: an Aladdin’s cave that you walk into and feel instantly transported to a world of beauty. The shop is a rich sensory overload of colour. It’s a place you can come to forget the world for the time you’re there, absorb the positive energy and great vibes and leave with a hop in your step and some great goodies in your bag.

Inside Willow and Wolf

What kind of service do you offer your customers?

We are there to offer any fashion or home styling advice shoppers need. But more than that, we want to make our customers feel great whether that’s by putting on a dress they feel incredible in or generally chatting and having fun. We can be there as much or as little as our customers would like. Our main aim is to make everyone who walks through the door feel better than they did before they came into the store. That is an all-round win for us. 

What are your core brands?

Our core brands are Essentiel Antwerp, Ganni, Alemais, Sea NY and Paige for fashion. For homeware, we sell our own brand of Murano Glasses extremely well as they are exclusive to us. 

What are you looking for when you bring in new brands for the store?

It is extremely important to us that our brands look after their distribution. We want our curation to feel exclusive and unique and that’s why it’s such a shame when some brands over-saturate the market. They lose the demand and that is when we tend to stop stocking them. We are looking for new exciting up and coming brands that haven’t been discovered yet. Sustainability is also hugely important to us – how things are made and where they come from is massive for us. Womenswear brand Alémais, for example, works with incredible artisans from all over the world and plants a tree for every purchase. The story behind a brand is as important to us as how it looks and feels. 

Isabella at Willow and Wolf

Where do you do your buying?

All over the world. I’m always looking for inspiration and new brands abroad when I go on our travels. Instagram is an amazing way to find unique undiscovered designers and products too. Copenhagen is super cool and a step ahead, I’d say. 

How has this grown since the beginning and how do you see this part of the business evolving?

We luckily set up our e-commerce site by chance three months before the pandemic to see how it went – and it ended up being our total saviour. We used Instagram as our main selling tool and had the time to put all our energy into this new avenue that we didn’t know much about before, which now makes up 35 per cent of our business. Our goal is to take that from 35 to 50 per cent this year. Not that we want to detract from our high street presence and in-store experience, but we’d like to be able to reach a wider audience of those who are based too far away to visit us.

What are you investing most in at the moment?

We are focusing on offering our customers incredible quality at great prices. I feel going into a recession shoppers will be more considerate about their spending, but we still want that fix. These brands are difficult to find but they are out there. We work with a fab brand called Seventy and Mochi who have a really cool story. The father owns the denim factory where all the pieces are made while his daughter is the designer. They cut out all the middlemen and their pieces are amazingly priced for the quality you get. 

What’s your favourite thing about working in retail?

It never feels like work to me. If you do what you love, you never work a day. There are of course tough times, but I couldn’t feel luckier to be investing my time in something that makes me so happy.

Isabella with her children

What challenges do you face as a small business owner?

My main challenges are rent, business rates, staff and energy costs. I feel the rates system needs to be addressed. They are killing the bricks and mortar industry. It doesn’t seem at all fair that we are charged huge rates for our high street premises when online businesses don’t have to pay a penny in rates. We should be trying to keep our high street alive and abolishing these would be a huge step in the right direction. 

Which achievements are you most proud of?

Winning Drapers Lifestyle Independent of the Year 2021 and being listed in the latest Drapers 30 under 30 edit.

How do you juggle motherhood and running a small business?

I try to divide my time and not mix the two. When I’m in shop mode I dedicate everything to the business, but when I’m with my children my phone goes away and everything is about them. I am a better mum because of my work – I think it’s so important for us to have something in life that is totally ours and for me that’s Willow and Wolf.

What is your main focus for the next 12 months?

Retail is facing a difficult time as we head into this recession. I just want to keep us afloat and do everything I can to support my staff and keep Willow and Wolf fresh and exciting throughout the year. 

And how about the long-term future?

We would love to open more stores. We are in discussions about doing this now, but we are in no rush. We don’t want that to detract from the current store in any way but if the perfect location was to come up, we would seize the opportunity.