In Gok we trust

Last week Gok Wan came to Harrogate to film the new series of his fashion roadshow and thanks to a bit of word of mouth via local networking group BlaH (Business Ladies Around Harrogate), I managed to wangle an invite. No sooner did I get the nod from production company Endemol, I was very excited about being in the presence of Gok – who doesn’t love this man!?
Along with my fellow Gokettes Katie and Lisa, I was taking part in the Bodyshape Boutique, the part of the programme where Gok dispenses invaluable advice on how to dress to make the most of your body shape, followed by a rather frenetic clothes swap.
Prior to this, we had duly hung up our five items of unwanted clothing on rails dotted about the room in eager anticipation of the swap. At one point Gok did a brief survey of the rails looking for interesting pieces to use in his forthcoming makeover section. I saw him pick up a cute checked vintage-style shirt and no sooner had I muttered to my friends, “ooh I like that” he twirled around to size up the garment against me.
True to form, Gok is every bit as warm and funny as he appears on screen, with his trademark combination of sarky wit and almost maternal fondness for women of all shapes and sizes.
“Welcome to telly-land,” said Gok as we groaned slightly at the prospect of having to film yet again a sequence of us all filing into the Royal Hall auditorium, but once things got underway the Harrogate ladies conquered their stage-fright and stepped up with their fashion dilemmas: “I can’t wear dresses”, “I always wear black” and “How can I be a glamorous grandmother?”.
After a little bit more standing around (you do a lot of that by the way, but lovely Gok keeps you entertained with his flagrant language and ruthless mickey-taking of the director), the bodyshape surgery is over and several runners start hunting around the room, seeking out the brave women who put up their hands to ask a question, in order to be whisked back stage to be re-styled according to the fairy Gokmother.
And then it happens. Gok is holding the aforementioned checked shirt and pointing to me. A runner smiles and escorts me backstage with the others, where rows of flesh coloured underwear and a myriad of fashion accessories are waiting to transform us. It’s all slightly surreal as Gok joins us and we start changing into items he’s picked out for us. “You don’t mind if I do this do you?” he asks as he rearranges someone’s decolletage, “you know I’m very gay.”
The lovely fashion girls run around at Gok’s instructions: “Can we have some navy blue tights please”, “I think this needs a belt and size 6 shoes while you’re at it.” Meanwhile Andy the seamstress pops in to see if any quick pinning and tailoring is required to complete the look.
Then it’s back out in front of the cameras to film ‘before and after’ sequences as Gok works his magic on each of us and a seriously impressed audience.
Was I slightly unnerved to be stood on a box next to Gok with a camera crew in my face? Just a bit. Did I love being made over by the master? Yes! Was it a fantastic, once in a lifetime opportunity? Most definitely.

Katie and Lisa registering


Katie and I with our bags of second-hand booty


What shall now be known as my Gok shirt


The lovely Gok!

The new series of Gok’s show will be aired in January!


Geek chic

I’ve been in the market for a pair of brogues for some time now and was about to buy some from the high street when I happened upon this pair of beauties in my local charity shop.

Now I know they’re the kind of shoes that might divide opinion (and technically they’re not brogues either) but I really like these and here’s why.
Firstly, they are made by traditional men’s shoemakers Loake, a family business that has been producing fine handmade footwear in Northamptonshire since 1880. Apparently Loake is most famous for its Goodyear Welted Footwear, a construction process that involves 130 skilled craftspeople, up to 75 shoe parts and approximately 200 different operations.
Secondly, I’m not sure how old these shoes are but I don’t think they’re from Loake’s current collection that’s for sure. In fact I imagine they have been languishing at the back of someone’s wardrobe for a number of years and therefore, in my book, they are definitely vintage!
Thirdly, they are in mint condition, in my size (quite unusual considering they’re men’s shoes) and they cost just £4!!!!! I might add that I already recognised the Loake brand name as I used to edit a magazine on footwear so I knew they were worth far more. In fact a pair of new Loake shoes will set you back nearly £200.
So, yes, I am channelling my inner geek, proudly sporting my new shoes (with Argyll socks of course) safe in the knowledge that I have bagged a serious bargain!


Colourful cashmere

As you probably know, I love a good window display and one retailer that’s definitely caught my eye of late is Brora.
Brora has become renowned for its fine Scottish cashmere and vintage-inspired clothing, and its recent window designs have simply yet effectively conveyed these brand values.  
For example, anyone with a love of retro fashion and design couldn’t help but notice this screen, decorated with vintage sewing patterns. It certainly made me go inside to get a closer look and isn’t that what good window design is all about?
Another lovely prop I saw is this old suitcase, which is a great alternative used to merchandise smaller separates to create a colourful, eye-catching display. It also reminds me of one my dad used to own when he was a boy!

More recently Brora has introduced another simple but inventive scheme which showcases the brand’s colourful Scottish cashmere. Straight from the mill, the yarn has been wrapped around cardboard cones and hand strung like cashmere bead curtains across the window, creating an eye catching and bold display.  What a clever and beautiful way to say, “We’re all about colourful cashmere.”


Buzzing designs

For as long as I can remember I have always loved honey and had a fascination with beekeeping. I eat copious amounts of honey, usually on toast and to sweeten my tea, but if a food has the added ingredient of honey I can’t resist and the same goes for toiletries.
I also have a deepseated fondness for bees themselves, and having attended a bee-keeping course and read widely around the subject, I have a genuine respect for them; beautiful, intelligent, diligent and mysterious as they are. So, when the image of a bee is used in some way, whether traditional or cute, I am naturally drawn to it. Not surprisingly I have the (now iconic) bee necklace by Alex Monroe and a few other bee-related pieces of bric-a-brac around the house but I thought I’d share with you some nice cards I managed to pick up the other day in Paperchase. Not sure if I’ll send them or keep them to myself!
Illustration by Carolyn Gavin
Hand printed by the Archivist Letterpress
Paperchase design
Pango productions


Laura Tenison, founder, Jo Jo Maman Bebe

I used to edit a magazine called Childrenswear Buyer, covering the fashion and gift market for kids and babies. As a mum of two young children, I also have a vested interest in this area of retail, so when I heard that Laura Tenison, the founder of Jo Jo Maman Bebe was visiting Harrogate to give a talk, I just had to go along.
Laura was passionate and enthusiastic about her business as well as refreshingly candid about its slightly chaotic beginnings – all of which was hugely inspirational to the mainly female audience of business owners and budding entrepreneurs. Here’s what she had to say:
Laura Tenison
Eighteen years ago I was an idealistic entrepreneur and wanted to make fashionable clothes for mothers and babies. I wanted it to be a middle-market, global brand and I had £50,000 to invest in it, which I had made from my first business. But my business plan was all wrong and my bank manager told me to go away and come back with some reasonable financial predictions as I had been rather over enthusiastic. Looking back I think that young naivety was an advantage in some ways. I was starting out and I had nowhere to fall from. I was unmarried with no children. I wonder if I would be so brave now. But I have always had huge amounts of energy and a determination never to accept no for an answer.
In those early years things were quite disorganised. The sales were building and demand began to outstrip supply. Needless to say I had to start fielding calls from people asking where their stuff was and I was still the only employee. I can remember trying to give the impression that we had several staff and transferring people to another ‘department’ then picking up the call myself and pretending to be someone else. It was great that sales were going through the roof but it was a horrible time because we just didn’t have enough stock. I hadn’t kept an eye on the financials and eventually the VAT man paid us a visit and ended up staying two weeks sorting out our chaotic (but honest) system. Finally he said, “I don’t know how you’ve done it but I owe you £50.”
Then the stock market crashed and the business became insolvent and I had to remortgage the house.  We had been going for four years with plenty of trade but we hadn’t been making any money. I had also spent a lot of money on off-shoots and the time had come to have a major re-think and look at the parts of the business that were making money and focus on them. It’s a good lesson: stick to what you know and don’t get distracted.
Today we still own the company, we’re self-financed, we’re profitable and we take few risks. There are no Porsches or villas in Spain because every time my husband suggests it I say, “but I could open another store instead”. It’s an expensive habit of mine but we’re growing the business safely and we open around ten stores a year. We want to stay niche, we’re not another Mothercare.
My mantra is good values equals good business. I’m no saint but I subscribe to good ethical business practices and a non-hierarchical management style. I think that the person who starts work first gets to park next to the front door – there are no reserved spaces for directors in our car park. Everyone eats communally in the staff canteen and I like to walk around the warehouse at 7am and talk to people because it’s the best way to find out what’s going on in your business.
Eighteen years down the line, there’s not that much difference between that business start-up and our business today. But there are some things I’ve learned that you need if you want to succeed.
Firstly, you need Innovation.
You don’t have to have the one and only of something but you just have to do it better. Take the example of one of our all-time bestsellers: the pocket highchair. This idea came to me when I used to go to cafes with my child and there wasn’t a high chair so I used a scarf to tie my baby to the chair. There are lots of other versions of this product but ours is a simple idea that works.
Secondly, you need to have Inspiration.
It’s not just about inspiring your customers or even the press but you’ve got to inspire your teams. How many sales assistants know and understand the finance of the business or even the store they work in? We encourage our teams to take on extra training such as NVQs. It’s really important to stretch people’s imaginations and I strongly believe in promotion from within especially through re-training.
It’s also about giving people new ideas and experiences and trying to encourage staff to do different things.
Thirdly, you need to have Imagination.
It’s really difficult to keep coming up with new ideas so I give different creative people a term to look at the design of the catalogue, the look of the windows, the marketing strategy etc and it really helps to have a fresh pair of eyes. I even get the managers to step back sometimes and let juniors take a turn to use their ideas. Putting people out of their comfort zone sparks inspiration. 20% of our customers buy from us more than ten times a year because we keep them fired up. There’s always something new and fresh coming up.