Claire Burrows is the founder of Air & Grace, a new shoe brand she conceptualised to bridge the gap between wearability and style for footwear. Claire has previously had roles at Office Shoes, Oasis, Kurt Geiger before a six year period running her own business, and then going on to join FitFlop and Aldo before setting up Air & Grace in 2013. In 2014 Claire won a competition aimed at finding the UK’s best new retail brand for which she secured £150k investment as prize money for the first ever ‘blind’ crowdfunding of a new business and she’s now poised to launch her new collection.
“..I’d been working away on the concept, probably by that stage for nearly a year and I had got it to that stage through funding it myself. Obviously I believed in it and friends and family will tell you they believe, but it was getting that affirmation from a panel of expert judges that really motivated me. It made me realise that I was on the right track…”
Please could you talk us through your career to date and what made you decide to start Air & Grace?
I studied Fashion Management at the London College of Fashion. I imagined I was going to go into clothing, then ended up answering an advert for a junior in the buying office of Office Shoes. I got that role and that was it. It changed the course of history really. It was one of those things. Everyone in the shoe industry said, once you work in shoes, that’s it. It grabs you and you don’t leave, and it’s true!
I’ve found it a really fascinating and a friendly industry to work in. I managed to work my way up to become an Assistant Buyer and then moved to Oasis. I was a buyer for their footwear and I also started dealing with accessories. I was doing handbags, small leather goods, belts, and luggage – basically whatever they could throw at me.
That was great – it honed my sourcing skills, I got to learn how to develop new product categories and gained exposure to different markets. My next move was to Kurt Geiger where I was Senior Buyer and creator of the KG range. I was involved in the repositioning of the Kurt Geiger brand making it a much more fashion focused product range.
After Kurt Geiger I had my own business for six years. I made the decision to do something on my own because what I really love is product. I wanted to make sure my career stayed product focused. If I’d have gone up the career ladder any further I’d have been removed from the hands on part of the process and that wasn’t an option for me. I was finding that at Kurt Geiger I was basically working with the suppliers to create the products and then buying them back from the suppliers, so I thought, “Well why don’t I just find myself a factory to work with and create ranges, and become a supplier myself?”
I had my business for six years and I was successfully selling into most of the high street stores. It was a private label business, so we would create a range and then brands would buy and put their own label in it. I was working with ASOS, but also Faith, Dolcis and Ravel, none of whom exist anymore. I decided the writing was on the wall at the time with the high street. I just thought it wasn’t going to be a long term viable prospect and the future was in creating a brand. I ended up selling my shares to my business partner, because we wanted to take the business in different directions.
So I thought, “What do I do next?” which is when I took the role at FitFlop as Head of Product Development and Design. That was amazing. It was a completely exciting environment to be in. It was on fire at the time.
I joined when it was just one flipflop and then built it into a range of all year round product including boots and shoes. We added men’s and kids’ as well. I also worked on all the designer collaborations. It was very busy. We stared off with just me and by the time I left a few years later, I had a product development and design team of thirteen. It was a great team and some of those people are now freelancing at Air & Grace.
Whilst at FitFlop I got an offer from Aldo and funnily enough it was to work with the person who’d given me my first job in footwear, a true shoe industry legend – Richard Wharton. He was one of the owners of Office Shoes and he was consulting for Aldo because they wanted to set up a design and development office in the UK in London, which Richard wanted me to run.
That was not really the right move for me if I’m being honest. I just didn’t enjoy it. I was on a plane all the time, back and forth to Montreal where Aldo is based, when really it should have been a London based role. I also realised that I’d fallen out of love with high street fashion. FitFlop had ignited a passion for shoes that did more, and I felt Aldo was almost like taking a step back. I didn’t want to be in a world of mass produced, ‘disposable’ shoes.
I just had a burning desire – I knew there was a gap in the market that I wanted to do something about. Whilst I was at FitFlop customers services were often saying, “We love what you do, but we’d like something a bit prettier we can wear with a skirt or a dress” So that was still there with me and I thought, “I’m not happy doing what I’m doing,” I had the experience and the contacts to be able to make this work, so I took a leap of faith, jumped off and gave it a go!
What is the premise of the Air & Grace brand?
It’s beautiful shoes for busy feet. The premise is, we are all busy, we’re all running around town and we all need shoes that we can rely on not to ruin our day. I find that many women have a wardrobe full of absolutely beautiful shoes that don’t always love us back. Mine sit in the wardrobe looking at me and I used to end up in the same pair over and over because they were the ones could run around town in.
My aim eventually is to come up with the world’s most incredibly comfortable stilettos and dress shoes as well. We started out with ballet pumps and we’ve expanded into boots and loafers, but I’m working on getting some heels in there as well, but they’re all eminently wearable!
Tender Loving Air is the patent pending, specially designed technology that is inside all of our products. That’s what gives them the feeling of wearing a running shoe wrapped up in a fashion shoe. We use the same high performance materials that top sports brands use. The system is graduated in layers, so the padding is only where it’s needed – that’s the clever bit. That’s what I’m patenting.
There’s a 17mm wedge in the heel, but there’s only 2mm at the toe, so we maintain a fashion toe shape. Our flats aren’t flat, with our ballet pumps it’s like wearing a 25mm heel. There’s little bit of lift to it so it’s better for spinal alignment. You don’t get that kind of lower back pain when you’re on your feet all day. It’s amazing for shock absorption and they look great too.
For me the brand isn’t just about one element. It’s about style, but it’s also about wearability, an aspirational, modern brand identity. All of which are equally important. We can have it all! At the moment in the marketplace there are comfort shoes and they are fashion shoes, but there’s nothing in between. I want to bridge that gap.
Can you tell us about the £150k investment you managed to secure last year and the circumstances around this?
It was run by Worth Retail and Seedrs, with The Metro as the media partner. It was a competition searching for the UK’s best new retail brand and I ended up winning! It was advertised through the Metro Newspaper and the first stage of application was to say why your business was great. From 100o entries it was whittled down to 20. There was a telephone interview to get the 20 down to ten. I got through and had to pitch to panel, Dragon’s Den style.
It was a case of pitching like you’ve never pitched before. Luckily the panel loved it, so much so that one of the judges on the panel has also invested alongside Seedrs – Michael Acton Smith, creator of Moshi Monsters. He has been incredibly helpful mentoring me as well as investing. The whole pitch was done in the safely of one room, so I didn’t have to go on TV!
The panel cited my abilities, expertise and contacts as the main reasons why I’d won – I already had twenty years’ experience and a proven track record. I started my application form by saying that “I’d got previous” and I’d sold over 5m shoes! I thought that would grab their attention if they were reading through 1000 entries.
It was an incredible experience and it’s been a real turning point for me. The investment came through Seedrs, and it was the first ever blind crowd funded business. The people who were investing put their faith in the panel judges to pick the best of the best of the entries.
The experience has opened up a whole world of possibilities. It’s provided exposure for the brand and it’s been a great personal boost. I’d been working away on the concept, probably by that stage for nearly a year and I had got it to that stage through funding it myself. Obviously I believed in it and friends and family will tell you they believe, but it was getting that affirmation from a panel of expert judges that really motivated me. It made me realise that I was on the right track.
Retail’s not necessarily the most ‘popular’ business for investment at the moment, everybody wants to invest in tech. The competition was retail focused, which made it the right platform for me. Up until that point I had funded everything myself and I needed the investment to take it to the business to the next level – to create the brand identity, get the website set up, buy the stock, go to trade fairs. Basically to get everything up and running from concept to delivery.
What are other people’s reactions when you tell them you set up a shoe company?
People in the industry who are friends and confidantes I’d spoken to about it weren’t surprised. They said that I’d got an entrepreneurial spirit, so they expected me to do something again eventually. When I tell people I don’t know I’ve got a shoe company – the first thing they do is look at your shoes. The second thing they do is to ask, “What sort of shoes?” When I explain, they tend to say, “Show me. I want a pair!”
Sometimes I think I’m slightly mad for doing it to be totally honest. Especially when you’re lifting and shifting boxes to go to a trade fair or an exhibition or driving around in a van. It’s a long old slog. It really is hard work, but you’ve got to put the work in to make it happen.
How has your network of contacts from your corporate life helped you transition to your life as an entrepreneur?
Massively – it’s been completely invaluable. With just me in the business full time at the moment, I’ve had freelancers helping me who are all people I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve been fortunate to be able to call on the best of the best.
What is the best piece of advice you received as you were setting up?
Start social media early. A friend of mine is a Marketing Director, we went for lunch and he was really unimpressed because I wasn’t on social media. I felt it was too early, he said, “I don’t care. Start now.” He wouldn’t let me leave the table until we’d set up Air & Grace Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.
It’s all about being visible. That visibility leads to more visibility, which leads to opportunities. That’s the reason we’re talking now, because of Twitter. My advice would be to start the conversation now, start engaging and start telling people about what you’re doing in anticipation of launching.
Where can people buy your shoes?
I’m at a pop up boutique – Kith & Kin, 330 Kings Rd, Chelsea until mid March.
We will also be at events throughout the Summer. We post details of these on our website and social media.
Please can you tell us about your new pop-up shop? How has this trend helped new businesses like yours to gain a (pardon the pun) foothold in the market?
It’s actually quite a unique concept. It is five different designers, of which I am one. We’re all women, we’re all London based – some of the brands are manufactured in the UK as well. We all share the same ethos of “conscious luxury”, so it works brilliantly together. We’re an instant, pop-up, lifestyle boutique.
There’s footwear, jewellery, lingerie, loungewear and womenswear. It’s in a really lovely location in a beautiful shop in the King’s Road. It’s very much about premium quality and beautiful wearable items; we’re not into fast fashion. We believe in ethically sourced, well-made items.
We found each other through various methods – some of it was social media. I met the other shoe brand at a trade fair, who had in turn met the dress brand, it all kind of grew organically. It’s been amazing, we’re all very like-minded. It’s advantageous that we can share costs, but we also share the workload and we support each other as well. There’s no one person who’s committed to a huge rent on a shop and having to staff it because we all pitch in and do it together.
The whole pop-up thing is just phenomenal at the moment. It’s great for brands like us because we can try out bricks and mortar retail without the huge risk of signing up to a ten or twenty year contract.
What are the highlights for the next twelve months?
I’m doing a collaboration for London Fashion Week. I can’t name the designer yet as it’s not been released other than to say it’s an on-schedule designer. I’m doing the shoes for the catwalk this Autumn / Winter, which will be ready in a few weeks’ time. It’s a very directional, high end range. It’s my first ‘capsule collection’, so that’s pretty big. I’m re-releasing the ballet pumps at Easter and there’s a waiting list on those of over 150 names at the moment. We’ll be very excited to get those in.
I’m literally just about to go to the factory to pick up my Autumn / Winter 2015 range ahead of starting trade fairs this week. I’ve been seeing the samples come off the production line over the past couple of days, but we’re literally just going in to have a look at the finished articles, pack them into the boxes and put them onto the plane to go home. Then it’s off to the trade fairs tomorrow. They look really good. I’m super pleased with them.