Annie Holt, the founder of Gerrards Cross-based Ethereal London, discusses dealing with a pandemic, going virtual and why sustainability needs to come first
What inspired you to set up Ethereal London?
After working in the fashion industry for 15 years, I wanted to build a brand around my love of silk and passion for beautiful floral prints and colour palettes. But I also wanted to create clothes that contributed to the world in a considered, positive and responsible way. Ethereal London came from my personal experiences of trying to find elegant forever pieces without wanting to compromise on the fit or quality of fabrics.
Falling in love with a dress and how it makes you feel when you try it on is a special experience; however it’s an experience that is difficult to find on the high street within the realms of fast fashion. Lots of women have spoken to me about similar experiences, where dresses only ever seem to come in one shape, length or silhouette, which of course doesn’t suit everyone. I want to create quality dresses you can fall in love with.
Why is sustainability such a key issue for you?
There are so many reasons I could give you and I could probably fill a whole article talking about it… I think fast fashion has promoted over consumption and this throw away mentality for far too long, driving volume and prices down along with quality and ethics so much so I don’t think your average fashion consumer knows how much a garment costs to make or how long each dress takes to make. There has been so much in the press over the last few years highlighting the issues and it must change. We need to go back to practising what our grandparents and their parents did, and investing what we can afford in key items and caring for them.
I am passionate about ending fast fashion and producing garments with love and care that stand the test of time. We are striving to be a more conscious brand in the way we both design, source and produce our collections. I founded Ethereal London by ethically sourcing fabrics, following sustainable practices that respect people and the environment, reducing waste, but all the while not compromising on design or attention to detail. Sustainability through timelessness is key to everything we do and we want to offer pieces to our customers that they will love forever and will stand the test of time both in terms of design and quality. I am always learning and looking at ways we can improve and are about to start the journey with b-corp. Ethereal was also recently awarded ‘one to watch’ at the Drapers Sustainability awards. No-one can be 100% sustainable, but we can all do better and do our part, and we are constantly striving to learn and do everything that we can to improve our practises.
How do you go about ensuring that your clothes are timeless?
I always aim to design beautiful clothes made to the highest standards with attention to detail especially around fabric, fit and finishing. I avoid designing to trends and only take subtle influences from them to ensure the styles are not a passing phase. I focus on designing to make women feel their best looking at figure flattering and elegant silhouettes, beautiful colours and stunning prints, ensuring they become firm favourites and stand the test of time both from a design and quality perspective.
Why have you launched a virtual store?
When I started the brand I always wanted to innovate using the latest technology and had been testing the 3D designs you will see on the website now before the pandemic with plans to move into the virtual world in a few years. However, with the impact of the pandemic and the fact I was unable to continue my plans for pop-ups, which had been a very successful part of the business previously, I made the decision to pull this part of the strategy forward and I’m so glad I did. The virtual store has had such an amazing reaction on social media and so much customer traffic, it’s been a really good way to give the brand experience you would get in a real store with visual merchandising to best showcase the collections and all of the brand personality you can’t always get across through scrolling on a standard website store. It also adds a bit of fun and the social side back into shopping as you can virtually meet friends or even your stylist in there. I’ve been hosting bespoke and styling appointments with customers myself and it has been an invaluable platform during this time when you cannot meet face to face.
How has the past year been for you?
Saying it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster might be a bit of an understatement as running your own business is that in a normal year, but the current situation has really tested my resilience to the maximum as I’m sure all business owners will agree. You fight to survive.
I must admit in the early part of the first lockdown it was really hard with returns, orders cancelled, even bespoke orders where every event from weddings to races could no longer go ahead. I had no choice but to accept the situation. Timing was thankfully on my side as I was just about to confirm orders for the spring/summer season when everything closed so I was able to pause everything. I took my time to consider the options and started moving some of the plans I had for further down the line to launch sooner, introducing Ethereal At Home and Ethereal Everyday to complement the Ethereal Event ranges. Every decision has felt like a huge risk as everything had been so uncertain, however these new collections were thankfully really well received. We also had the support of the press and celebrities championing small independent businesses so had some amazing coverage including Amanda Holden, Kimberley Walsh and Rachel Stevens.
You have also got involved with the Government Kickstarter scheme. Is this a way for you to give something back to the community?
Most definitely, when I heard about the scheme I thought it was an amazing initiative. I remember when I graduated from uni how hard it was to get into the fashion industry and I would have jumped at the chance to work for an emerging brand. I can only imagine how hard it must be for students and graduates now throughout the pandemic. This is the talent of our future and they need to be supported.
I’ve managed teams in my previous roles and always loved mentoring them and seeing them progress. I also have volunteered as a mentor for the girls’ network previously, so the Kickstarter scheme felt like a great opportunity to continue this and give someone the chance to gain hands on experience, more than they might in a larger more established company and team, and the opportunity to see their ideas come to life. We are a month in and already they are doing amazingly and I hope enjoying every minute. I’m trying to make it as interesting, educational and also challenging (in a good way) for them as possible so they will come away with the knowledge and confidence to progress their careers.