With high street chains and out of town shopping centers sucking the life out of shopping in England’s smaller cities and towns, The Holborn set off to meet one woman in Leicester who is determined to provide a platform for independent UK designers to launch their work. Stephanie Macdonald-Walker, owner of Watch.This.Space boutique and the creative power behind her own label, SMWalker, talks of her own journey through the fashion industry, and her desire to help others in theirs.
Despite featuring over 89 designers, the whole of Watch.This.Space reflects Steph and so I open by asking about the work she makes for her own label, SMWalker, which she sells in the boutique. She tells me that she began making couture leather pieces, particularly collars, however she has also now branched out into more commercial pieces like bags and clothes. She is quick to add ‘but not really commercial’, and she is right, they are not. Her leather bags are unlike anything I have seen. In contrast to the polished goods normally available they have an earthy charm that somehow makes them more glamorous for it. Steph tells me ‘they’re all made from leathers, 100% wools, silks. I get a lot of distressed leather, and I distress it myself with foils and things like that’.
The branch into clothes, a natural progression as she has a degree in fashion, reflects the distinctive look of the collars and bags. When I ask about her manufacturing process, it becomes clear that this process has a heavy influence on the finished products. I ask if she makes her products by hand, and she points to a sewing machine behind the boutique’s counter: ‘I make everything myself. I have a Bernina sewing machine which has a really strong motor and I sit there and make my pieces when the shop’s quiet. I don’t do patterns, I just fold fabric and cut it in different ways so it hangs differently on the body’. The freedom of this approach to her work extends as I ask where she takes inspiration from, and she surprises me by saying ‘I know it sounds daft but I don’t really get inspired by things. I get inspired by natural things, like pavements on the floor with weeds coming through the cracks, but basically when I’m sat here I just do whatever’s in my head’. This brief reference to nature is reflected throughout Watch.This.Space, from the animal skulls on the walls to the branches displaying jewellery, and so I move the conversation on to the boutique.
The natural features of the shop are offset by mismatched furniture, and Steph tells me that this was a conscious decision to try and promote a relaxed atmosphere. She explains that the furnishings of the shop were either free, or from car boot sales and charity shops; ‘I wanted it to be chic. There are so many boutiques that I myself feel intimidated going into, and I wanted to have a relaxed atmosphere in here. I don’t approach customers, I just let them do their own thing. Someone might want to come and browse the designer’s work, maybe they don’t have the money to buy but they still have the option of looking around for half an hour’.
When I ask what the original vision for the boutique was, Steph surprises me again saying ‘I never really thought I was going to have a shop!’, however the story of how she came to open Watch.This.Space is clearly one that has influenced the way she runs the boutique. Steph tells me of how a little time after finishing university she found herself, along with many others, entering her work in exhibitions and galleries and getting nothing back for it. Just as she was beginning to wonder where it would end, somebody at a networking event happened to suggest that she open a shop, and the idea stuck. After running a pop-up shop for three months as a trial, Steph opened Watch.This.Space on May 4 2012. She has a background in retail, but she describes the satisfaction she has found in having her own boutique, ‘I’m doing it for myself now. I’m not in a mundane position behind a desk all day, I’m behind my sewing table’.
Conversation moves onto the many others still in the position she was just after university, and it becomes clear that Steph has a real desire to help these people get a foothold in such a tough industry: ‘The motto for the shop is to bring the economy back. With the economy the way it is at the moment, especially with all these students working for free for mass manufacturers, there’s just no hope for anyone. There are so many designers that have so much talent and it needs to be seen and recognised. People need to know their names’. This motive means that Watch.This.Space only stocks UK based designers, however Steph stresses that she doesn’t only stock graduates: ‘I have one designer who is a guy who is retired, and there’s an 83 year old woman who makes some of the greeting cards. I just take on anyone in England who makes something that looks good, is well made and has a price that will sell’.
I ask Steph if there have been any stand out designers from those she has worked with, and she names Rouge Pony who make the feather and flower headbands sold in the shop. ‘I don’t want to say she’s my favourite, because I love all the designers in the shop, but it probably would be her’ she says. ‘For me her pieces stand out and bring life to the shop’. She tells me that Rouge Pony is now stocked by Urban Outfitters, and has been featured in numerous editorial magazines, ‘she is just a superstar of a designer. She’s going up and up and up’. She also names Outpost leather goods, from whom she stocks belts, purses, bags and satchels. ‘It’s just outstanding the way Outpost’s work is made. My leather work is very rough and ready so I have a lot of time for what he does, and the prices are so good for what they are’.
I am absolutely blown away by what Steph has achieved with Watch.This.Space in just a year, and so it seems only fitting to end the interview by asking what the future holds. Steph tells me that she is going to open an art gallery in the boutique’s upstairs, while the basement currently hosts a small studio for a company called Future Videos, with whom she plans to create a boiler room. She explains that this is a ‘live streaming of DJs from all over the world, with walls covered in TV screens of all sizes. This will be more of an invite only VIP thing, somewhere where people can come to discover underground music’. When it comes to expansion, the sense of development and experimentation the art gallery and boiler room introduce is confirmed: ‘I wouldn’t want to move to the high street, the boutique would always have to be in a back alley or something. I would like to have another boutique open up, though I think I’d want to move to cities that are up and coming, because I think that’s why the shop works in Leicester. There isn’t anything like this here at the moment’. Despite these long term ambitions, and the excitement of what she has planned for the short term future of the shop, Steph insists she only makes yearly plans. She hopes to finish this year with a celebration of the boutique’s birthday on May 4. To this she invites her designers and customers to meet and greet and to revel in the success that together they have created.
Watch.This.Space is situated in St Martin’s Square in Leicester’s town centre. If you are interested in submitting work for sale in the boutique, or art for exhibition in the gallery, contact Steph on email@example.com. Please note that all work must be hand-made, and you must reside within the UK.