Interviews

A perfect fit: Exports the key to expansion for a new British premium shoe brand

7 min read

05 October 2015

The British shoe industry is putting its best foot forward. Demand from Asia, and customers in other parts of the world looking for luxury and premium products with the Made in Britain label, means that shoe factories in the UK are experiencing growing demand.

Exports of Loake shoes now account for two-thirds of production, while long-established British brand Church is expanding its Northampton factory. 

The celebrated shoemaking county has seen the value of exports to Japan rise by 45 per cent over the last five years to around £20m a year, according to the British Footwear Association. The UK itself now exports around £1.25bn every year, it added.

Aside from the well established, large players there’s also plenty of room for younger, up-and-coming smaller shoe companies. Sarah Watkinson-Yull, the 25 year-old founder of Yull shoes, has seen an increasing demand for her ladies’ heels in Europe, America and Asia, as she prioritises quality and skill in the manufacturing of her shoes over quantity and speed of output.

Watkinson-Yull founded the business in 2011 while studying at university. “I was 21 and thought that there would be no other time in the near future where I’d have fewer overheads and as much free time,” she explained to Real Business. “I’ve always been interested in fashion and had toyed with the idea of setting up boutiques or dress companies, but I love classic designs and loved how wearing the right shoes could make me feel, so that’s where Yull started.” 

She studied at the Fashion Retail Academy for a year and did a short course at the London College of Fashion on starting a fashion business.

She also gained valuable experience through internships with companies such as Arcadia and Harrods as well as being a full time sales rep for a year. “Working for a family business put me in a fortunate position where I’ve been able to learn a variety of skills dealing with importing and exporting and also dealing with customers and suppliers,” she said.

From elegant high heel court shoes to brogues in bright colours, Yull shoes retail online and in stores at around £75 a pair. There’s also a bespoke service, in line with the demand for made-to-measure clothing and accessories at the higher end of the market. The autumn/winter 2015 collection includes the Flash shoe, a popular line with customers which is inspired by the cult followed 1980s film Flash Gordon.

Initially the company’s shoes were produced in China, and Watkinson-Yull was shocked to find there were barely any shoemakers left in the UK at that time. However, with a loan made by the Prince’s Trust in 2012, plus just over £11,000 which she saved while working for a year, she launched Yull and brought the production of the ladies’ classic stiletto back to the UK’s shoe heartland, Northampton.

Three years later and she recently moved the entire production of her Classic Collection to a factory in London. “Working with a local supplier means a small business like mine is not tied to ordering from China in large volumes or waiting for six weeks or more for delivery,” she went on to say.

She personally checks and approves the shops that can stock her shoes and she makes sure that any stockist she choses will increase the strength of the brand, rather than diminishing it. International trade shows have offered the company the opportunity to get in front of more trade buyers and retail outlets – Watkinson-Yull zips around them on a motor scooter to save time.

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Although demand is significant and growing internationally with the average overseas order worth around £2,000, persuading British companies to stock her product has not been easy.

“I still find it increasingly concerning that as a country that promotes itself on supporting small businesses, it’s almost impossible for independent footwear brands, like mine, to break into the UK market,” she said.

Yull participated in last Saturday’s [3 October] Buy British Day to help boost the appeal of British goods to domestic buyers. Ironically, the stamp Made in Britain has long been seen as a badge of quality overseas but less so at home, according to Watkinson-Yull – but she welcomes the fact that Buy British Day has been launched to try and change that. 

The company has also made it to the final of the Great British Entrepreneurship Awards, something that it hopes will help raise its profile among UK consumers and more UK retailers.

Watkinson-Yull believes it’s hugely important that smaller manufacturers and SMEs are put on the map in the UK. “It’s crucial we drive this forward by communicating with bigger brands to share our [small business] knowledge of ‘Made in Britain’ production,” she commented. 

“Creating opportunities, particularly with London Manufacturing, will generate both job and wealth creation, whilst also helping British fashion designers to work with suppliers based on skill and quality, as opposed to quantity and mass production.”

Her plans for future are simple but challenging – expansion, expansion, expansion, as she put it. “We’ve started selling a lot more overseas through new distribution channels and now sell Yull across three continents,” she added. Her heard work is not without its rewards and, as you’d expect from an upmarket fashion brand, there’s always time for a bit of glamour. “I always finish a day with champagne,” Watkinson-Yull admitted.