Revival Retro is a vintage style clothing company, independently owned by Rowena Howie. Started as a hobby to accompany Rowena’s love of swing dance, Revival Retro is a specialist in clothes and accessories inspired by the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, stocking new garments in classic styles from a select group of global suppliers. These are available on their website as well as in their shop, located near Carnaby Street.
A huge milestone recently arrived for me when I was running a financial report. I had to keep checking it. I didn’t believe it. In one month we’d taken what my pre start-up projections had forecast we would make in one year. Thinking back to the early days of planning my business, and looking at where we are now, is very rewarding.
Getting a professionally shot ‘look-book’ out the door was a huge step forward. In the beginning I used to take photographs on my iPhone in my living room. Now we have professionally produced ‘look-books’ which are just phenomenal achievements.
It’s actually very hard to stop and celebrate though. I think, when you’re a small business owner, you have so many targets that as soon as you hit one, you’re onto the next and you’re never satisfied. However, for the first year anniversary of the shop opening we had a big party, and I decided I would have a ‘Customer of the Year’ and the best bit of that celebration was seeing the look on that person’s face when we surprised her with the award.
However, the positive reactions from customers every day are a celebration for me. When you can see the ‘wow, oh my god, amazing’ look across their face as they walk in the door. We had a customer who commented ‘it’s like the Great Gatsby in here’; others who have nostalgically said ‘my Grandma had furniture like this’ or excitedly exclaim ‘I LOVE your clothes’. Seeing that instant ‘fall in love’ moment from customers – that’s a real heart warmer and gives me the inkling that I’m doing it right.
I feel constant setbacks. For a long time there’s been just me to oversee the entire business including manning the shop (which is open seven days a week) and managing our e-commerce and website. I have a big sign up on my notice board that reminds me ‘Don’t try to do everything at once’. Ha! The hardest thing for me is managing my time and the rest of the company resources with respect to digital projects. They take so much time, the goal posts are always moving and I’m on a never-ending learning curve. I haven’t managed to achieve half my goals with the website and I feel I barely scratch the surface with social media. It’s exceptionally difficult to decide priorities when it’s hard to assign value. Should I be updating my Facebook page or filing my purchase receipts?
I realise the importance of PR and took on a PR person for eight months. I had to give it a try but still question whether I wisely invested my money. Our PR dilemma is that we have a great product and a great story but we are the antithesis of fashion’s constantly changing trends. Our customers love us for precisely that reason but it makes it very difficult for a PR person to place us – we’re something different to the high street; something unique and special that interests a lot of people, but not necessarily on that day, in that publication.
Opening a shop in the middle of a recession? Well that was a risk. Our average dress price is £180. I was really, really scared. But, I found that during a recession people value quality items and are willing to pay a little bit more for something that is going to stand the test of time. Not only are our dresses great quality but their vintage inspiration means Revival Retro dresses are timeless, they’ll come out of the wardrobe again and again and again.
I’ve built the business slowly and steadily. I’ve largely bootstrapped the finance and I’ve been there, on the shop floor, making it happen. I’ve done everything in my power to give my existing customers the very best experience rather than spend my resources trying to buy new ones. There was a chance this tactic wouldn’t work but our word of mouth referrals have been a productive and profitable source of new business. When coupled with my SEO efforts this has been the basis of our success so far.
Opening on my own was really hard; Working 75 solid days in a row is not out of the ordinary. Due to our location in Kingly court, it’s mandatory that the shop is open seven days a week, so to open the shop took sheer man and will power. I was pretty much doing a seven day week just by myself for at least a year and a half. It’s not even about multi-tasking; it’s just a way of life: I enjoy waking up in the morning and doing my hair while checking my emails but I am very glad to have recently taken on my first full time member of staff. I’d like to think that will give me a better work life balance but I know I’ll just use the time to make a second branch or our own line a reality.
It all started in 2009 when my hobby was swing dancing, a partner dance from the 1930s and ‘40s. There are specialist dance shoes you can buy to help you move around the floor better, but not only were they only available online but you had to import them from the United States. It was a frustration shared by many so I took matters into my own hands, and decided to make these swing dance shoes available in London to the new and burgeoning swing scene here. I became the go-to-person for swing dance shoes but then people started asking, ‘where do I get a dress for a 1940s ball?’. It escalated from there. I soon realised that this vintage style clothing had a much wider appeal than just swing dancers. So from a sideline to my day job, it moved to a full time position and we opened the shop in 2011.
My inspiration hasn’t come solely from a love of vintage. I do love vintage style, swing dance, black and white movies and everything else, but what really drives me is making people happy. When a customer jumps up and down and shrieks for joy because she has rediscovered she does have a waist and can look amazing in a dress, that really spurs me on.
So many people have deserted fashion and are tired of the high street but when they find our shop and dresses that make them feel happy, that means the world to me.