Leigh Unwin is the founder of The Style Attic, a family run women’s fashion boutique in Leeds offering high-quality, fresh and affordable new styles every week. With lots of free size styles, fitting from a size 8 to 22, find the perfect flattering outfit for work, a night out with the girls, or something casual for the days in between.
As the name suggests Leigh started her business in an attic, and it has since gone from strength to strength with a bricks and mortar store, a very loyal customer base and a popular website. It is very much a family business, with Leigh’s sister and mum also part of the team.
Leigh was a guest on episode 40 of my podcast Start, Scale Succeed and shares how she started and grew her lean fashion business organically, all whilst keeping its roots as a family business, and maintaining her work – life balance.
My background is as a fashion buyer, I had a great career, was travelling lots, working my way up the ladder, and everything was very exciting. Then I found out I was pregnant, and my daughter Edie arrived early at 25 weeks. She was in hospital for 6 months, and I then had 6 months of maternity leave.
When I went back to work, I realised I couldn’t juggle work and parenthood. Things are more flexible now, but at the time my company wouldn’t allow me to do a minute less than full time. Edie is deaf, (she has cochlear implants now, so she can hear now which is brilliant), she’s got cerebral palsy, so she’s now in a powered wheelchair. She had lots of appointments and I wanted to spend more time with her.
Setting up The Style Attic
I was determined to build something for Edie and myself, and that my career didn’t need to stop because I have a baby with a disability. I decided to set up a shop, but financially I couldn’t rent a space.
We were living in a terraced house at the time, and we had a loft upstairs which we weren’t using. Thankfully my partner is really laid back so I set up a shop in my attic, with rails and all. I used my work contacts to source stock from wholesalers, I’m not technical, so I wasn’t making anything myself.
Then we publicised it on Facebook, and asked friends to share the posts and spread the word that there was this new place. We tried to make it mysterious – ‘come and see what this girl is doing in her attic’.
There was a tricky transition as I was still working full time when I set The Style Attic up, as I was squirrelling away money for the shop. I wanted to shout about my new fashion business but couldn’t let my boss know what was going on. After 4 months I was able to hand my notice in, and went full time with The Style Attic.
When did you move to a brick and mortar store?
We spent a few years in the attic. We had been talking about a proper shop for a while. Then I had my son a few years after Edie, and we needed the extra bedroom at home. At the same time I realised I couldn’t run the business on my own anymore. My mum Lisa, and sister Jade came on board to help, and it became a real family business, and we wanted to create something for all of us, and that is when we got our premises in Leeds.
How have you built a loyal community of customers?
I think people like that we are a family, and that what you see is what you get. We are very honest, we can be a bit silly. We’re not trying to be a luxe lifestyle brand, we just want to sell clothes to people like us in situations like us.
We don’t necessarily follow all the social media rules that you are told like you need to be engaging, and you’ve got to post everyday. Instead we just try to be real and authentic.
Our videos have really helped build that connection – obviously with social media you can see images, and read captions, but I think seeing people on a video and how they are has worked for us. Our weekly lives on Tuesday are really popular. We get new stock every week, and got into the habit of meeting up on a Tuesday and posting a video where Jade and I dress up and try on the new clothes. It became our thing, and had given us quite a following.
When did you start selling online?
For a long time we didn’t have a website. We sold through Facebook. We posted our videos, and people were direct messaging us to buy and have things posted out. This was great but became very time consuming.
Covid was a blessing in disguise for us. We had talked for ages about setting up a website but we hadn’t had the time. We were all busy running the shop and with our families, my sister and I both had young children, and my mum has got quite a young family still. Lockdown gave us that window, and our website launched on 1st May 2020. That month was huge for us – perhaps because we had had a bit of a break, perhaps because the big shops were closed. It was crazy
We’ve now had 1 million sessions on Shopify, that’s 1 million visitors to the website in 18 months.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
The only thing is that I would have got my mum and sister onboard and working full time a lot sooner. My mum runs the shop, and customers love her. My sister is amazing in the shop, and when it comes to the website and organising things, she is the boss. I had to poach my mum from my brothers and sister, because they were still quite young, and my sister from her job.
What are the main challenges for starting and scaling a lean fashion business?
The main one is being taken seriously and having that credibility. At the time it was odd working from home, and convincing sellers that I can sell the stock, and will be able to buy more from them took time.
There is also the constant juggle of the work life balance. I tend to work very late at the beginning of the week which isn’t ideal, but then at the back end of the week I have my mum time. I try to separate out my roles.
What are your goals for the future?
I don’t want it to sound like I’m not driven, but if we are exactly where we are I would be so happy. Our customers are brilliant. I’ve got my mum, 2 sisters, cousins and aunts pitching in together and working in the business, and it runs really smoothly. I love that it is a family business, and we don’t necessarily want to grow to a size where we need to bring more people in.
We are looking at selling more units so that we can start manufacturing things ourselves. One of the challenges in competitors, so for us it is making sure that we stand out from the crowd, and can differentiate ourselves from others. If we can do this with our own ranges that would be brilliant.
What tips would you give someone starting their own business?
- Be aware that you’re going to have to work really, really hard. If you can work hard, you are halfway there.
- Tap into all the resources that you can, websites, podcasts, videos etc, and soak up everything you can. You can educate yourself on a lot of what you need to do on your laptop in your bedroom.
Leigh’s final thoughts
You do end up working more hours when you work for yourself rather than for a company but, and this sounds really cheesy, it doesn’t feel like work. The work is rewarding, as the shop is customer facing, you get that immediate feedback and interaction with what you are doing. When you are working for someone else often you don’t see any of that and can feel quite disconnected.
I get to work with my sister and my mum who are my best friends, and I get paid for it. I’m incredibly lucky
Thank you so much to Leigh for sharing her story and advice for creating a lean fashion business. You can listen to the full podcast episode here.
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