'The response has been mindblowing': How one corner of the fashion industry turned a crisis into a boom

Against the odds, these small, independent British businesses have seen sales boom since the lockdown. Is how we shop changing for good?

pink city prints
Holiday dresses at home from Pink City Prints

Almost two months ago, as Britain entered lockdown, designer Justine Tabak was feeling – to put it mildly – pretty bleak. Last year, two years after launching her eponymous brand of vintage-inspired dresses, she’d broken even; she assumed that the stay-home order meant she would be in for a rockier few months of trading. ‘I never thought that figures would be up for this period,’ she says. Yet up they zoomed, by some 30 per cent – enough to make her wish she’d had more of her made-in-the-UK designs on hand to sell.

In March, Vickie El-Rayyes, founder of Dilli Grey, a label that sells breezy Indian-print dresses at around £100 apiece, had just signed the lease on her first store, in west London. ‘You can imagine how I was feeling,’ she says. But, like Tabak, she has been overwhelmed by a wave of support from customers who have actively sought to champion smaller brands. Her business is up, too – by a staggering 800 per cent on sales in the same period last year.

一本道理不卡一二三区Despite profit warnings, gloomy forecasts and lingering unease about fashion marketing in a pandemic, for some designers, trade has never been brisker. Pink City Prints’ Molly Russell reports sales that are up fivefold compared to March 2019, while for Olivia von Halle, the go-to designer for luxury silk nightwear, sales are up nearly 700 per cent on the same period last year.

Vickie El-Rayyes, founder of Dilli Grey

So what unites these niche fashion brands defying the downturn and, better yet, flourishing amid the most unfavourable trading conditions since the Battle of Hastings? Nearly all are home-grown brands with established, engaged audiences, some via Instagram, others not. They have all, however, captured the attention of a home-working, locked-down population of women. These consumers might be anxious about what the future holds, but they still want to bring some joy to their lives – everyday, wearable joy.

The sense of togetherness that Covid-19 has fostered has only strengthened the community Tabak set out to create with her brand. ‘Of course it can be time-consuming emailing every one of my customers personally, but the response and shared love has been mind-blowing,’ she says. ‘When I mentioned I wouldn’t be able to do my next photo shoot, so many people sent in pictures of themselves in my dresses. And even if people couldn’t buy a dress, they wrote physical letters with words of support. It’s made me realise that the real people are heroes – not influencers after a free dress.’

Isabelle Waring, the barrister-turned-fashion-designer behind Isabelle Fox (her dolce-vita dress shapes in seersucker are standouts), remembers feeling particularly worried one day and saying as much on Instagram. ‘I’d written, “It’s a very tough time for us at the moment, I’m about to launch a new collection and I’m terrified.”

Gabby Deeming, creative director of House & Garden magazine and founder of Daydress

‘Almost immediately, a customer said she had bought an item from nearly every one of my collections and that this season would be no different. She also sent me her greatest hits of Isabelle Fox outfits. That meant a lot. I posted it and many more sent their photographs一本道理不卡一二三区 too. And customers who can’t pay in full for bespoke orders have put down a deposit for later.’

One of these brands’ most ardent supporters is Isabel Spearman, brand consultant, Stella columnist and founder of Daily Dress Edit (an Instagram account celebrating her love of dresses). As she explained in last week’s Stella, she had planned to showcase them at a pop-up shop this month. ‘I had 30 or so small brands on board, nearly all of whom were left sitting on thousands of pounds’ worth of extra stock that was to be sold exclusively through the pop-up.’ She decided to take the pop-up online instead, and launched it last week, promoting a different dress brand each day.

For all the talk of sustainability and mindful consumerism in the past year, nothing has proven a more powerful catalyst than a universal lockdown. ‘I think women buying my dresses are interested in how they’re made; they like the fact they’re hand block-printed,’ says Gabby Deeming, creative director of House & Garden一本道理不卡一二三区 magazine, who founded Daydress three years ago. ‘Consumers want to see that care and attention has gone into making a dress. They are uplifting and timeless – they brighten a stay-at-home backdrop while still feeling sensible in a domestic environment.’

Silje Vallevik founder of Valle & Vik

Deeming’s spring stock arrived in the first weekend of lockdown. Despite the gloomy consumer mood, she took £5,000 in two days, mostly from a pink sprig-stripe top. Sales have been international – a first for Deeming – coming from America, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The element of storytelling that many smaller brands offer is also a big draw. Tabak believes in highlighting the stories of the makers behind the dresses and the customers who buy them, now more than ever. ‘I focused on an artist recently, and a contemporary chef – it was another way of demonstrating the practical nature of my clothes.’

一本道理不卡一二三区Norwegian model-turned-designer Silje Vallevik launched her fashion brand Valle & Vik as an antidote to fast fashion, combining exacting eco credentials (organic cotton and certified silks) with her fine-art background (she studied the subject before modelling) and Norwegian heritage. ‘I designed all the prints and shapes,’ she says of a collection of pared-back separates that are the sort of chic, dress up/dress down items that become wardrobe staples. The current climate allows her the time and space to explain the many strands that make up her story in greater detail: her exploration of colour as well as love of old Nordic folk art.

Isabelle Waring, the barrister-turned-fashion-designer behind Isabelle Fox

一本道理不卡一二三区Another advantage for these niche fashion brands is their agility. ‘I can stop production, I can put fabric to one side, I can tweak designs at the last minute and make more of an early autumn dress instead of summer one,’ says Deeming. ‘This is technically my side-hustle, so I don’t have the overheads, business rates or staff to worry about.’


Not having to wade through layers of bureaucracy also makes it easier for small brands to give back. Many designers are using their fashion label as a platform to help others and do good. Clara Francis and Tania Hindmarch, founders of the 1970s-tinged O Pioneers一本道理不卡一二三区, are donating 15 per cent of their sales to Age UK Camden. El-Rayyes at Dilli Grey created a fund to support artisans in India hit by the lockdown, as well as their families and communities. Ten per cent of her sales during lockdown will be donated so she can share the love back.

The challenge in the next few months, reflects Tabak, concerns how brands will continue working across so many closed borders. ‘We need to think about investing more in manufacturing,’ she says. ‘There’s so much creativity in this country but many rely on sources abroad.’


Meanwhile, many of us are benefitting from the chance to re-examine how we want to live, leading us to make more mindful choices about our purchases and the items we have in our wardrobes and our homes, to better understand and appreciate the genuine pleasure we receive from elevated versions of everyday things.

‘It’s a weird contradiction. On the one hand, money has never mattered more,’ says Deeming, ‘but on the other, it seems like there are certain luxuries that you almost can’t put a price on.’

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