Recently I had the privilege of interviewing the passionate, driven and highly talented Angela Knowles, a British based fashion designer with roots in Ghana. Her beautiful blend of African print and Scandinavian design, has seen her work featured in Look magazine and on the Stylist magazine’s Emerald Street. More recently Ms Knowles’ Baruch boutique ( Baruch which means blessed in Hebrew) was short listed for the Time Out magazine’s Love London Awards.
Q: Angela this is so exciting. Your store is awesome, you work for yourself, making clothes and doing things you love. Would you say you’re living ‘the dream’?
Not at all! I didn’t set out to inspire people or to ‘live the dream’; I set out to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and to really enjoy what it is I am going to do and doing. I try not to call this work as my perceptions of the word are pretty negative. In my mind, this is not work, this is fun and anything else which comes from it is an added bonus.
Q: Tell me a bit about your journey – did you always know that you would be working in the fashion industry?
When I was eleven, I knew at that point that my career would revolve around making things. I didn’t know who, what, where, why or when. All I knew is that I wanted to have a shop and sew. Some of my earliest memories are of being a small child, with my little sewing machine and sewing scraps of material alongside my mum. I didn’t have a clue about fashion although my mum was a seamstress; I only knew as much as she sewed. I learnt more about fashion over the years.
Whilst at 6th form, I decided I wanted to attend London College of Fashion but was discouraged by one of my tutors. As a black person it was assumed I would become a seamstress or a cleaner, there was a lack of aspiration. Fortunately I had another tutor who said that I was better than that. In the end, I decided to do something ‘sensible’ and took up sciences at A Level. I liked babies so figured why not be a midwife?! I failed biology and soon realised that wasn’t going to work!
I ended up studying Business Studies at Surrey University after going through clearing. Looking back it was definitely the right decision because it gave me all the tools I needed to do what I am doing now.
Q: You have worked for a number of very established brands, what did you learn from working with them?
I have worked for brands like Fenn Wright Manson, Whistles and Jaeger all of which were great in different ways. Working at Fenn Wright Manson taught me about quality; I loved their clothing and had favourite pieces which I would share with the customers. I was so passionate about the brand and that is what helped me to sell. Jaeger was probably the best retail experience as I was tasked with turning around one of their poor performing stores and given the freedom to get on with it. It was great to work with a store that was so well established. I left to go Whistles to run a bigger store and was given a similar mission to improve one of their poorer performing stores which eventually became a store of excellence. It was a really exciting time to work with the brand because it was evolving. I loved Whistles and thrived working there; I stayed for three years.
Q: Given your successful retail management career, which you appeared to have enjoyed, why did you decide to launch the Baruch boutique?
Motherhood. I was on maternity leave and felt anxious about returning to work but suppressed it. I realised that I hadn’t got everything I needed to from the working world so went back to the same company but in a different store and managing a different team. There was a lot of work to do as they hadn’t had a manager for 6-7 months. I received very little support upon returning; the company didn’t do any ‘keep in touch’ days and I had no training to help me settle back in despite having almost a year off. I was Grade 9 – the highest level of managers and was a senior of those; I think the assumption was ‘you’re the boss get on with it’. I was still quite emotional and enjoyed being at home and doing a little bit of sewing on the side, even though it didn’t pay me. Looking back, all I needed was emotional support. I returned to work and the store quickly improved moving from 6/7th place in performance tables to to 2nd within four weeks. I maintained this up until the point I left.
I realised being a mum was the most important thing to me and needed to be in a space which would allow this to happen. I remember one busy Saturday at work and I was holding a baby for a customer, a mother trying on clothes, and it hit me; why am I holding someone else’s child? My child should come first. All I wanted was to be a happy mum. I just thought I will no longer stress myself to make someone else’s dream and bank account bigger and sacrifice my own happiness in the process. That’s when I decided to focus on Baruch full time.
Q: So you decide to start Baruch full time. How did you fund your journey?
I applied for a start up loan through the Greater London Enterprise (GLE). I didn’t know if it was the right approach but applying for the loan was the only feasible way I would be able to buy stock and afford a deposit for a space. I just had a baby, my husband wasn’t working and I was on the verge of leaving my job…it was a make or break situation and I knew I had to make it work.
I remember putting all the paper work together for the application process and saying to my husband, if I get it then that’s a green light. If not then I will have to save and do it over a longer period of time. The whole process took approximately three months from beginning to end. My advisor was really supportive and thought my business idea was amazing which helped.
As part of the process I attended a panel meeting similar to the BBC’s Dragon’s Den programme. In fact one of the guys who interviewed me resembled Theo Paphitis! I came really well prepared. They were very rigorous in their interview process especially when they asked me what I planned to do with the money. After the process I cried in front of them! I just thought this is it, I don’t want to go back to what I am doing.
The feedback from the panel was very positive- they liked the business idea, thought the plan was well put together and could tell I was passionate about it. They had a few things to discuss but would get back to me fairly soon.
By the time I got home from the interview the email was in my inbox! I handed in my notice on my birthday. I didn’t know how it was going to work, but it was going to work.The moment I handed in my notice, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Q: What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
I had a list of things to do which simply boiled down to; find brands I love, create stock, confirm a space and make it happen.
I went on to Gumtree to look for a shop space and didn’t find anything available in South London but was told about a possible space in East London. My husband and I went to visit the space which was at a back of a cafe. We visited six times and at different times of the day just to see what it was like. It was on a quiet street but it didn’t phase me as I was use to working in quiet areas. All I thought was if I have one customer a day who would buy something, then it will grow in its own time. You have to come to it with minimal expectations. I have since moved from the cafe into my own store, which was a huge move.
I set up the business in a short period of time, just over a year ago and the response has just blown me away. It has been non-stop. I am in my second year of business which is no small feat. I remember My GLE mentor saying don’t even expect to break even, more likely make a loss especially given the current financial climate. But do you know in my first year of business, I have never paid bills or rates late and have always had stock in. It’s growing slowly but surely. Everyday I come into work not expecting to have a customer – but they come and I am so grateful.
Q: I love your style- it’s very eclectic and fuses lots of different elements. Even your store layout oozes style. Where do you draw your inspiration from? How would you define Baruch?
In terms of the clothes it’s my wardrobe – a little bit rock chic, African, minimal and Scandinavian.
As a child I remember going to church with coordinating clothing and accessories I.e. Matching shoes and handbags which I learnt from my mum. I have incorporated this ‘coordinated’ approach into the Baruch range – ensuring I make pieces that match – which my customers appreciate. Similarly all the brands I have worked for, I have appreciated the high quality and excellence and this is something I am naturally drawn to and bring to my own range. Everything is thoughtfully considered and crafted even down to the African prints I use, it is not randomly selected; everything has a meaning and tells a story.
As well as my love of African print, I am also very inspired by Scandinavian design. I love their minimal approach. I remember going to Norway with my church as a young adult and being drawn to their style. This has since led me to coin the term Afro-Skandi; when I first shared this with my website provider – they didn’t have a clue what it meant but absolutely loved it!
Everything in here (the store) from the decor to the clothing, is what I would have in my own home. Everything I do, I have to love it, own it or want to own it.
Q: What are your future plans?
To keep doing what I love. I have no grand plans to expand but the natural progression would be to share the load with someone.
The number three keeps coming to me so maybe I will have several stores in the future- who knows? Over the summer I was commissioned to make three wedding dresses so I am looking to develop a Baruch bridal range.
Q : What’s the one piece of advice you would give to any budding entrepreneur?
Do what you love. Do it because you love it and if something comes out of it then that’s great. I am not doing it to be a millionaire or to be on the catwalks of London Fashion Week. I like sewing, I like fashion and I like mixing it together. For me, the whole point of the journey is that I have fallen in love; with the shop, with the pieces I buy, with the pieces I make… As corny as it sounds I just want to to be happy. I have worked in environments when my state of mind has been compromised. I have realised that it is so important to be healthy; if I can wake up every morning smiling and the whole world is my friend, then it’s all good.
To find out more about Baruch visit Baruchboutique.com