Picture by Bronia Stewart
Bad Denim is a denim-only boutique in Clapton, East London, stocking a carefully selected edit of the best women’s jeans from around the world.
Interviewed in London, March 2017
Erin: “I opened my shop, Bad Denim based on my background. I’m a denim specialist from a development, design and product point of view and that’s what you get when you visit the shop; the benefit of that expertise and experience with nothing else added on. I really do buy with my heart and look at each jean closely.
I grew up in a suburb near Detroit and moved to London soon after graduating University in Michigan, then ended up staying. I can’t explain exactly why I moved here, it was just an idea that seemed to work out. I started my career at Penfield, who make men’s down jackets. Then I went to MiH jeans, managing production, working closely with the designer as well as on pricing, delivery schedule and quality control which was an amazing experience. Chloe Lonsdale, the founder and owner was a great boss, started the company in her 20s, and her approach to management was to let everyone get on with their work so it was a great company to work for. I travelled a lot and was very hands-on at factories in places like Turkey and Italy.
Then I was head-hunted by Victoria Beckham. I was hired as production manager, but soon after, the head of design and the developer both left so I took over the whole denim project, working on development and design. I stayed for four years. My role included research, fabric selection and getting the jeans right. Victoria Beckham is extremely determined and knows exactly what she wants – all lessons I was able to observe while there.
The initial idea for Bad Denim started around the same time I left MiH. The idea of having a shop was cooking in my head for four years, I just had to work out exactly how to execute it. I also used that time to save up; the shop is 100% owned by me with no outside investment. I had a very specific idea what I wanted the shop to be; not so much what it would look like but I’d travelled loads and been to so many shops all over the world that sold denim, usually men-specific with a really masculine shop fit and I thought; where is the place for women who care about jeans? Somewhere with amazing hardwearing jeans and a focus on fit and fabric and expert service who knows every cut intimately.
Initially, I lacked retail knowledge, in fact I had no frickin’ idea! I was totally obsessed with product but hadn’t worked in retail since I was 16 at the mall. I threw myself into research – how to write a business plan, how to run a retail business, how to do your first year’s cash flow – a lot of financial stuff. When it’s your own savings, it’s precious so you don’t want to waste any.
I was fortunate when it came to suppliers. It can be quite hard for new retailers to convince the best brands to come on board, as people don’t want to risk their reputation on a new stockist in case it turns out to be a bit crap. My advantage was the contacts I’d built up in my career; designers, merchandisers, and all my suppliers were very supportive, enthusiastic and excited to be in there from the first season.
Picture by Bronia Stewart
I would say for any business owner, every bill is scary! The stock costs were huge; the shop-fit costs were substantial. I had to completely gut the place – it was uninhabitable when I got there. I took a massive risk with the premises, mainly on intuition, feeling strongly that the area was getting cooler. In December 2014 when I signed the lease, Kate Sheridan was signing her lease as well as well as the Vans shop and at the time – luckily it paid off and Lower Clapton Road has gone up in the world. We lived nearby at the time and I had a really good feeling about Clapton. It had the right vibes.
When I first told people I was opening a shop, everyone was supportive. There’s a very obvious advantage to selling jeans in a shop; you need to try them on! The online shop is good to have and I ship worldwide, mainly to my non-London UK customers as well as a lot in the USA. Online-only wasn’t right for me, as I’d heard about the high rate of returns. Now I’d say that our business is about 80% in-store to 20% online. The business has grown year on year because people in the area are really responding to the edit, personal service and also the empowering vibes and message of a women-only shop to find amazing jeans in. We also do events showcasing pop-up capsule collections with our brands and will alter any pair to fit your shape. The idea is it’s a one-stop denim shop filled with gorgeous fabrics, cuts and indigo shades.
I painstakingly calculated my business forecast/sales targets but my actual sales figures were lower in the beginning. Retail is hard, it’s been a full three years to find our feet financially. The counterpoint to that is, I still work for other people. I was working with Paul Smith for a while, I’ve worked with Whistles and I did Alexa Chung’s first season. For the first year I was working seven days a week non-stop to get everything done, freelance and everything for the shop.
I’ve more or less done everything my way and haven’t compromised. We’ve got some rad embroidered bandanas from Japanese denim brand Kapital at the moment but apart from that we don’t do any non-denim product. I don’t really do small items at a £5 price point because I don’t want to dilute the denim. There are many shops that do a little bit of everything but I felt that people would come for the jeans and everything else is a distraction. Having said that, I’ve worked hard on the price architecture – from Levis red tab for under £100 right up to Rachel Comey which is £400 for a playsuit. Our marketing is through newsletters, Instagram and word of mouth. Hackney, Stoke Newington and Islington is our core customer base.
We also stock a few vintage pairs, which is important to me because old 501’s are such a classic, and especially because we get them in smaller sizes. It’s labour intensive to source them, you can’t just phone up and place your order with vintage suppliers, you have to go and root through piles, but I feel what they bring to our edit makes the effort worthwhile.
I could call myself managing director or CEO; It’s a one woman show. I have one other employee at the moment, Sorcha, my store manager and assistant. She’s got great style and an eye – she’s from a design background and really embodies the Bad Denim vibe and passion for fabric and cuts. Additionally she’s super on a sewing machine and does all our alterations and special projects. Until I found her I would say that recruitment and being a manager was the most stressful part of the job.
Its difficult to say that denim is an ethical area of fashion because the way it’s made in terms of water usage and chemicals are problematic, although people are trying to remedy that. However, the jeans we sell will last for years, it’s not a throwaway or fast fashion thing.
I would tell other people wanting to open a shop to get as much experience as you can – practical experience can help you decide whether it’s for you as well as building your skill set and network of contacts. Get a really clear idea of your identity. Once you’re sure about that, all other decisions will be easy. Finally, take time with it – I literally took four years to think about it, dream, plan, research.
The difference between an entrepreneur and an employee is that hunger to do something themselves. Maybe a crazy sickening self-belief – you have to be very resilient because there are a lot of knock backs along the way which can be tough. I had a vision that I wanted to carry out. When you’re working for someone else its always to a brief and to their taste which isn’t the same.
Some of the highlights include amazing press coverage, it was thrilling to be in Vogue. It sounds so lame and cheesey but when people come into the shop and say ‘this is best pair of jeans I’ve ever had’ or we’ve opened their eyes to a brand makes it worthwhile. Getting the denim onto a woman!
I’m having a baby this summer and I’m not entirely sure how I’m going manage maternity leave yet. Even though I’m pregnant I still have to lift heavy boxes when there’s no one else to do it. I still wear jeans every single day (even now, I’ve just switched to low rise and gone up a size) – day and night – and I don’t get bored of it, there’s always something new anyway and so many ways to rock them.”