Posted on September 20 2017
Today's interview is with Bethany Rowntree, founder of recently launched Studio B - a unique online platform for independent womenswear and accessories brands with a story to tell.
Having worked in luxury fashion for the last seven years, Bethany went from Buying and Merchandising for the likes of Mulberry, Matches and Anya Hindmarch to taking a complete leap of faith to work on something she wanted herself - a one-stop shop filled with incredible independent designers and makers. Here's her story:
Newnham: Can you tell us about your background? What were you like growing up and how would your friends/peers have described you?
Rowntree: I’m from Darlington, a town in the North East. I went to Uni in Manchester and studied International Fashion Marketing, I also worked part time in various hotels, restaurants, Next for about a week, and then the Mulberry store. As I was graduating, Mulberry advertised an internship at their head office in London with their Buying & Merchandising team; I interviewed and was offered the role so moved straight to London. I had no idea about London and lived on my boyfriend’s sister’s sofa for weeks. Since then I’ve always worked in fashion.
Growing up I would say people would have always described me as chatty, but as a teenager I think they would maybe say a bit naive and a bit of a party girl. I liked going out and drinking, but deep down I think I was always really worried about what people actually thought of me and wanted people to like me. Later on, in my Uni years and early twenties, I think those friends would describe me as fun, confident, determined... and generally a happy soul!
Newnham: When did you first get into fashion? Can you tell us about your career to date?
Rowntree: I’d say I always loved fashion from as far as I can remember. I used to dress up in my Nana's clothes – mostly costume jewellery and fur coats – which weirdly is kind of my style now (but faux fur)! I also used to have to go shopping to cure a stomach ache, naturally. And I strongly remember a hideous bright pink shiny puffa jacket I thought was the epitome of style when I was around nine.
After studying a fashion related degree at University in Manchester, and working part time as a sales assistant in the Mulberry store, I was offered the internship at Mulberry in their London head office. I stayed there for about four years - I loved it and made some great friends there, but then the brand changed direction, they had new management and a new ‘more luxury’ strategy which just wasn’t what the brand had been about for me. So I left and went to Matchesfashion.com for a year; I had wanted to try a multi brand, which this was a good test of, but there was just too much product. I wasn’t feeling involved and didn’t know anything about the brands or their product; I loved the website but just couldn’t actually afford anything!! At this point it got me thinking about all the smaller premium brands that offer something more unique at a more attainable price point.
I should have just done it then but was offered another job at Anya Hindmarch, pretty much instantly I knew this just wasn’t for me anymore and I was feeling pretty frustrated and disillusioned by the way all these ‘big luxury brands’ operate. I stayed for two years, which yes is a long time, but I began researching for Studio B and it took me a while to finally have the courage to leave. I finally left at Christmas and we launched just last week!
Newnham: What led to you starting Studio B and can you tell us more about it?
Rowntree: I’d been thinking (and thinking) about Studio B for years! I actually bought the domain name over two years ago… but still remained in my job at the time. Each company I’d been working at over the past few years was different but also similar and the roles began to blend into one. Even as you moved higher up I still felt I wasn’t making the most of my skills; I’d always wanted to work in fashion but just felt I still wasn’t doing what I loved. Most people who work at big brands will probably tell you it’s not always what it seems from the outside and I just began to feel a bit disillusioned and kept thinking there must be more!
I loved ‘stuff’ and finding something new or special things, but began to not really enjoy shopping (shock horror!). Especially working in luxury fashion as I couldn’t actually afford anything I was surrounded by! I kept finding smaller, more independent brands or newer brands I didn’t know so well on Instagram and started thinking wouldn’t it be amazing to put them all into one edited place that looks amazing, that tells people more about them, and is easy to shop. Where everything is at the same level of premium, but attainable, so you know what you’re expecting price wise (by attainable I mean I’ll eat tinned tuna for a week, not half the year, to buy an amazing dress!). I just kept asking myself if you didn’t want fast fashion, premium high street or super luxury, and wanted something a bit more unique, where did you go?
So Studio B is an edited online retail platform for independent, new and niche brands offering womenswear and accessories. All are premium but attainable and offer something a bit unique, whilst simultaneously can style well together. The focus of the site is on style, stories and celebrating an ethos of buy less, love more. I really want to champion craftsmanship and independent brands, bringing them together in one place to tell their stories.
Newnham: We love the idea for it – what do you hope to achieve with the platform – what’s your goal /significance of including stories?
Rowntree: Good question! I hope the platform offers people somewhere more unique and special to shop, without having to pay ridiculous prices to find special products. I really hope it grows and becomes a destination for premium, independent brands and style with a twist. We already have in the pipeline another batch of brands wanting to be involved which is fantastic, and I’d love to add more Danish and European brands too. One day we’d love to have a physical studio space to host our office and our brands. A lovely space where customers can come and try all the brands in a really relaxed environment and have a lovely shopping experience.
In terms of the stories, I always found it really interesting knowing more about a brand, who’s behind it, how they did it, how they design, where they produce etc. I think it really makes the brand resonate more with the customer and that more and more people are becoming interested in knowing where what they buy comes from - and not just in fashion.
Once I’d met with a few of the brands it turned out a lot of them use local production, knew their suppliers well or even handcraft themselves – and actually have very high cost prices, which of course impacts their selling price. To me this then became another great feature about these brands and one I thought needed to be told. Especially having worked in luxury fashion and knowing where they produce isn’t necessarily what it seems – margin is a big factor and they definitely don’t handcraft anything. I’m not saying all the brands on the site are 100% strictly ethical and sustainable, but all the brands produce a premium product and are very focused on quality.
Newnham: What are some of the hurdles/highs of working on Studio B?
Rowntree: Hmm turns out there are actually loads of hurdles, even if you think you’ve thought of everything, you haven’t! I don’t think you ever can until you get going with it however much planning you do (and I did a lot! Years of thinking about it and researching). I’d have to say the hardest things are time… and criticism.
Time, I just never have enough of to cover everything, when you’re a one-woman band there is so much to do and of course aspects that I haven’t had experience in. And then criticism, I can take external feedback fine and actually appreciate this, it’s just from those closest to me I need to take better (sorry Sam, my boyfriend of 12 years, maybe this is why we’re not married…). I think because their opinion matters so much to me. I’ve put everything into this and I really want to make it work for both me and my partner.
The highs are seeing it come to life! I left my job just before Christmas and have been full on since then, and now seeing it go live last week was insane! It seems crazy to me I’ve created something and that the brands did believe in my vision; the fact they did alone is really rewarding to me. And of course, now it’s live, seeing feedback and sales is so rewarding, I have a lovely customer called Maggie who I already have a great relationship with as she’s been following the journey and is a fabulous fan! I’m really proud that I’ve created something and that yes, I could do it.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger Bethany?
Rowntree: Ohh this is such a hard question! I think I would say just be yourself and be comfortable with who you are, don’t follow other people’s opinions or listen to negative people. I think I really became my own person once I’d left school and went to Uni.