‘People think I’m mad,’ says the co-owner of three-store east London indie Start, but the success of her business and a burgeoning reputation as a TV stylist proves there is more method than madness
Brix Smith-Start arrives at Start, the premium east London indie she runs with husband Philip Start in Shoreditch, like a fashion hurricane, with a shock of sexy peroxide hair and fuchsia lips. “People think I’m mad,” she says in her helium-high American voice, “but I’m not, otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Smith-Start comes into the store pushing a pram with a pug dog in it, while two other pugs walk in behind her. Her dogs are an industry trademark, with one even appearing on the Mulberry catwalk last season. Smith-Start is a self-confessed eccentric. It is this flamboyant side of her personality and her natural sales skills which Smith-Start calls upon when running her boutique.
She arrives late for the interview, having attended an event the night before, at which Smith-Start recalls giving away her designer watch to a friend, after catching herself in a “generous mood”.
As she recalls her fascinating life story, which includes an acting career, being a member of 1970s post-punk band The Fall, and a relationship with classical music supremo Nigel Kennedy, she tells Drapers that everything she has done led up to one crucial moment. “I met him in the lift of [department store] Harvey Nichols. It was a kismet lining up of the planets,” she says of the first time she met her now husband Philip Start. “Smart, genius people interest me because if you ain’t got a brain you ain’t in the game,” she quips.
Philip Start founded menswear retailer Woodhouse in 1975, after learning the trade at legendary King’s Road menswear indie Village Gate.
He sold his last shareholding in Woodhouse to Speciality Retail Group (SRG) in 1998, which in turn sold Woodhouse onto brand distribution business Four Marketing. Start says: “Six months after selling up I still needed to earn a living, and I am a retailer. So Brix and I decided to start a little hobby shop but then I decided that if I was going to do this then I might as well have the best shop in the world.”
Start was founded in 2002 with a vision of injecting glamour into Shoreditch. The business has grown into three stores, all on Rivington Street. Smith-Start leads the womenswear side, buying premium brands including Sonia Rykiel, Rick Owens and Maison Martin Margiela. She thrives on striking up product collaborations with the designers she stocks and loves personally styling customers. She also raises the business’s profile via TV shows such as Gok’s Fashion Fix, on which Smith-Start appears with stylist Gok Wan.
Her husband Start, on the other hand, brings his lifelong passion for menswear to the table, leading the menswear side of the business, which allows him to tap into his “first love” for tailoring through his own label, Mr Start. He enthuses over quality product and discovering new brands. “When we both started the business we hit the ground running,” says Smith-Start. “We both worked the shop floor for two years full time,” adds Start. “We listened to people.”
As much as the pair listen to customers and take on advice, Smith-Start says she relies on instinct when it comes to the buying process. “She buys what she would wear,” says fashion designer and friend Henry Holland. “If she loves it, then she buys it for the store. It’s as simple as that.” Smith-Start admits she has made wrong decisions. She says: “Mistakes, I’ve made a couple. I bought things that were hot brands, not because I loved them. One season we had [womenswear brand] Juicy Couture. The longer it sat on the shop floor the more I hated it. I didn’t trust my instinct. I bring in new brands, but if they are not performing, out they go. I’m evil like that.”
The couple are often approached by both start-ups and established brands vying for a spot on the shop floor, and this month a young designer caught Smith-Start’s eye. “They popped out of my head,” she says, when describing her reaction to Loughborough University student Hannah Gilbert’s collection. Smith-Start bought into the student’s range exclusively.
But while both her and Start are committed to finding “surprising” product, it will not be at the expense of commerciality, especially during the current economic climate. “I don’t see masses of brand loyalty out there,” says Start. “We are always looking for interesting UK designers but we are changing our pricing strategy. We are going both up and down in price so we are spreading [the offer]. We have had record high-value transactions this year and likewise we have had people say they are very budget conscious. We are going to be buying more price-competitive brands. We have had some great dresses from [premium streetwear brand] Acne that are less than £200.”
Although the pair will not reveal financial figures, turnover is up year on year, according to Start. But a transactional website launched in 2007 has not been an immediate success. Start says the website is pitted against the likes of Asos and Net-a-Porter, and taking on the “Harrods of online retail” is not the best route for the business. Although the website is still an integral part of the operation, resources will also be directed into new marketing initiatives and growing the Mr Start label. The business is also in talks with New York and London department stores about a concessions strategy.
A positive in-store experience is also key to future growth, says Smith-Start. The Start womenswear store has glitzy wall fixtures and glamorous soft furnishings in an explosion of bright colours, with “recession grey and black” kept to a minimum. Start menswear is more sober, smacking of West End elegance with an East End swagger.
“I might be a bit eccentric, but my muse is Walt Disney,” says Smith-Start. “I want the store to take people out of the reality that is street muggings, dog pee and chip wrappers and take them to a happy, new retail reality.”
- 2007 Tailoring store Mr Start opens, along with the launch of the eponymous own label. Start website is set up
- 2004 Standalone womenswear store opens, with the original store becoming Start menswear
- 2002 Start men’s and women’s wear store opens
- 1995 Brix Smith and Philip Start first meet
When did you develop a love for fashion? It was from a really young age. At four years old I was dressing myself. My mother was a model and used to take me shopping and encouraged me to form my own identity. It [fashion] is inherent to my psychology and has been an undercurrent theme in my life.
What designers did you admire in your youth? I used to save up my per diems (money given to us for expenses like food) when I was on tour [with The Fall] until I had thousands. Then I’d shop at Fred Segal, Saks and Barneys. I was obsessed with [designers] Stephen Sprouse and Betsey Johnson - young, fun stuff.
Who are your fashion mentors? I have a few. Mary Portas is an inspiration for me. If I have a question I ask her. I also admire [Whistles chief executive] Jane Shepherdson and [Whistles founder] Lucille Lewin, and I bounce everything off [Liberty consultant] Yasmin Sewell.
What ambitions are you yet to accomplish? I’d love to do my own TV show, looking at the fashion world, how things are made and who the great movers and shakers are and why. It would be watchable and not dry.
How has the recession affected the Start customer? Most customers are self-made creative people, not rich bankers’ wives who have lost all their money. Business has changed, as has the way people shop. Our mix of clothing is interesting and different, and I try in the credit crunch to give women value for money.