Julia Jaconelli’s eye for unique product and knowledge of her customers has led premium womenswear independent Courtyard to 20 years of success – and the award for Best Womenswear Independent at last year’s Drapers Independents Awards.
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Venture through an archway and down a cobbled road just off Guildford High Street and you will find the elegant glass front of Courtyard. This narrow street has been the home of the premium womenswear independent for more than 20 years. Under the stewardship of owner Julia Jaconelli, who opened the store in 1994, the boutique has won a fiercely loyal customer base who return time and time again for Courtyard’s carefully curated product and dedicated customer service.
Last September, Courtyard took home the award for Best Womenswear Independent at the Drapers Independents Awards.
Judges labelled the business a “very impressive indie”, and praised its commitment to customers, close attention to merchandising and unique product selection. This focus on service and product is paying off for Courtyard in more than just awards. Both turnover and profits have steadily increased over the past three years and, although Jaconelli will not reveal figures, she says takings have also been up by 10% since winning the award.
Jaconelli has spent the last three decades working in fashion, but says she did not initially see herself getting into the industry. In fact, she worked as a primary school teacher for seven years at the start of her career, specialising in music and drama for children aged from five to 11.
After moving to Surrey, her lifelong interest in fashion led her to become involved with sourcing clothes for local fashion shows, and she alighted on the idea of having her own shop.
Jaconelli might not have envisaged herself working in the fashion industry, but she was always determined to create something of her own: “Funnily enough, I do remember going to some kind of health resort shortly before I opened the business. We had to write down what we wanted to do with our lives. At the time, I was married to a very successful businessman and I didn’t like being in his shadow, so I thought: ‘I’m going to have my own business and have something that’s independent.’ That’s what started me off.”
Jaconelli’s first shop was a sports and dancewear independent in Cheam, Surrey, called Bounce. She took it over from a friend who decided to move overseas in 1986, and remained at Bounce until 1994. Another friend was running a women’s sportswear independent in what was to become Courtyard’s Guildford home, but was struggling. Jaconelli took over the store, and changed the focus from sports to fashion. In 1996, the shop next door became available. Jaconelli knocked the two stores into one 1,100 sq ft space and rebranded as Courtyard. She closed Bounce the same year.
Part of Courtyard’s success lies in its approach to customer service. The store employs five staff members, and two of the team – manager Susie Smith and assistant manager Pam Hutchins – have been at Courtyard for more than 20 years. As a result, they have fostered close relationships with customers, who trust their eye and opinion.
As with any longstanding business, there have been some bumps in the road. Jaconelli has opened additional branches over the years. In 2006, she opened a store in Petworth, East Sussex, where she was living at the time, but exercised a break clause five years later when she moved back to Surrey.
In 2008, Jaconelli opened a store in Reigate in Surrey. However, after 18 months she decided to sell the lease to another fashion retailer in the area.
“Reigate was my most beautiful store, but it just wasn’t the right area for the proposition, because at the time I was selling top-level brands, such as Lanvin and Missoni, and the customer didn’t get it,” Jaconelli explains. “We’ve found that over the years, it has been better with just one store to focus all our energies on.”
Julia is not afraid to take risks and always looks at the collection with a fresh eye
Lucy Wernick, 360 Cashmere
The brand mix at the Guildford store has also changed as shoppers’ economic circumstances have fluctuated. This ability to remain flexible and to adapt to the market has been key to Courtyard’s success and has allowed it to prevail in Guildford where other premium retailers have failed. Denim boutique Donna Ida opened in the town in 2011, but closed its store a few years later. When Courtyard started, it sold brands such as Diane von Furstenberg and Missoni, and Jaconelli recalls adding customers to a waiting list for Chloé’s cult Paddington handbag in 2004.
Courtyard changed direction after the economic crisis hit in 2008. Today, customers will find premium, rather than luxury, brands. Among them are 360 Cashmere, Marc Aurel and Luisa Cerano. Sharon Jones, UK country manager for Luisa Cerano, describes Courtyard’s curation as “thoughtful and inspirational”, and other agents echo the sentiment.
“I have worked with Julia and Courtyard for many years,” says Lucy Wernick, UK agent for 360 Cashmere. “She has a strong and loyal customer base that she has built up over time, and which trusts her implicitly with her edit of collections each season. When she comes in to do her buy, she is not afraid to take risks and always looks at the collection with a fresh eye, seeking out the new and exciting novelty pieces from the brand.”
Fashion agent Diane Sykes, who represents Marc Aurel, agrees: “Courtyard is one of the nicest premium indies in the business. Julia’s space is very friendly and her staff are knowledgeable and welcoming. As a buyer, Julia’s taste level is excellent, and she has an exquisite eye for putting together a selection of labels that work beautifully together.”
Jaconelli, who does all of the store’s buying, combs trade shows, including London’s Scoop and Berlin’s Show & Order, to find international brands not sold elsewhere in the UK and give her customers a real point of difference.
“Another thing I focus on is finding brands that other people don’t sell in the UK,” she explains. “I think when you come to a boutique, it shouldn’t be like a department store.
“[German cashmere brand] Henry Christ, for example, does some beautiful pieces, and is my bestselling knitwear brand. Italian label Seventy has just come into the store and is stunning, as is eastern-inspired premium brand Hemant & Nandita. I like to concentrate on brands that other retailers don’t have.”
Jaconelli hopes this focus on brands that are harder to come by in the UK will help Courtyard when it unveils its transactional website this spring.
The fashion industry needs to think about how it approaches sustainability and ethical sourcing
“We’ve been working on getting the website ready for the past 12 months and decided to start selling online again, because more and more people are buying online, even for luxury brands. We had a transactional website until about 10 years ago but, again, I was selling brands such as Diane von Furstenberg, and the competition from retailers such as Matchesfashion, Farfetch and Net-a-Porter meant it wasn’t viable. The website will allow us to increase sales, and attract new customers from the UK and abroad.”
Jaconelli will also start exploring sustainable, ethically sourced brands when she begins buying for autumn 18, tapping into her growing interest in the environment and increasing awareness of how polluting the fashion industry is: “I do think the fashion industry needs to think about how it approaches sustainability and ethical sourcing. Ethical brands still aren’t easy to find, and the product hasn’t been as good as I would like at many of the ones I’ve looked at. We need to try to get the designers and the brands to be a bit more aware.”
She also argues independents can encourage customers to buy less, but to buy better: “We’ve got to try to encourage people not to buy throwaway clothing, because ethically it isn’t right. We need to make people more aware of that and urge them to really invest in their clothing.”
Linked to this sustainable focus is Courtyard’s decision to stop selling fur from spring 18 after attracting unwanted attention from animal rights activists last year. It follows a wider movement in the industry – luxury powerhouses Yoox Net-a-Porter and Gucci adopted fur-free policies last year.
“It started with nasty comments on our Facebook page from animal rights activists, and then we had people ringing up the store being horrible to our manager, Susie. It was very aggressive and I was very angry, but when I watched the videos that were being sent to me, I thought: ‘They’re right.’ I’m an animal lover – I have a dog and I love horses. So I just thought: ‘What am I doing?’ It did open my eyes.”
Independent retail is not without its challenges, particularly given today’s competitive retail landscape and ongoing pressure on consumer spending.
For Courtyard, as with many independents, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the wider industry’s approach to Sales, says Jaconelli: “The biggest challenge for us is discounting, both in Guildford and all over the UK. Black Friday is a killer. Customers wait for discounts, so takings decline in the weeks leading up to it, and then no one wants to pay full price in the run-up to Christmas.”
However, Courtyard’s emphasis on service and quality product not sold on every high street means Jaconelli feels confident about the year ahead, and the future: “I still love it. I never thought I would still be doing it all these years later, but the industry is constantly changing and there’s always something new to discover.”
Lessons from an award-winning womenswear independent