Q&A: Elena Todary
The founder of The Collaborative Store on the appeal of good design, the complexity of retail ethics and the thrill of discovery
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Images: Christopher L Proctor
Have you always been involved in retail?
My career started in fashion wholesale. For seven years I worked for an agency that focused on contemporary independent brands. I was in charge of eastern Europe and Asia, but also travelled all over the UK seeing all the beautiful, independent boutiques that are out there. I came across some really great stores, concepts and people. That was my inspiration. I had a very good relationship with my boss. She was always supportive of the ideas I put forward and she was actually the one who said, “You know what—you should believe in yourself. I’ve seen your work throughout these years and you’re great, if you feel you’re ready, just go for it.”
How did you go from there to owning your own boutique?
A friend of mine, Adriana, started a womenswear brand about five years ago—AV London. She’s an architect by background, but passionate about design and clothing, so she started a line with an emphasis on architecture: structure, simple forms, how the clothes fit the body. I had the skills on the other side, in sales, so we decided to work together. I left the agency to dedicate myself to the brand. I can tell you, even with my experience in the fashion world it was very hard work to launch something new. We tried to build the brand through wholesale but after about a year and a half, we felt we didn’t have the funding to move further and faster. We were a bit stuck.
But we started doing events, mini-shows, and they were successful. That’s when I realised the direct to customer approach works best for us, which was when I began to think about branching into retail. It was never in the picture that we would open our own-brand store—it would be mission impossible. I realised in order to trial retail, we’d need some likeminded people on board—independent, slightly more established designers than we are, but in the same category. Something beautifully curated to complement not compete with each other. The first pop-up store we did as The Collaborative Store was in 2015, in Shoreditch.
Why the name?
It’s all about partnerships. We have a slightly different approach to the traditional retail model. It’s a lot more interactive: we don’t just go and see a collection, buy the collection, sell the collection and the circle continues—no. We select pieces together. We give them feedback from our customers, which helps them to understand their audience and what it is they want, even down to how an item fits, colour choices, what they feel is missing. We often design or create limited edition, special collaboration pieces.
It’s literally working together to create and offer something new.
It’s very interactive between us and the customer, too. If a customer loves a cushion, say, and says, “Do you maybe have a throw?” or, “Can I have it in a different size or fabric?” we’ll do everything we can to get it. We will go back to the brand and ask what is available. It doesn’t work all the time, it depends on the size of the brand, but often they can do what you ask. The most satisfying thing is when you do something like that and you know that people appreciate it—they get excited and it makes them happy. There’s a feel-good factor in that for everybody.
What made you set up your first bricks-and-mortar place in Marylebone?
Quite a chunk of our customer base is international, but a lot of them are west or central London-based. They would go to Shoreditch for lunch or to Columbia Road Market once a month, but it was quite a journey for them to come and see us, so we decided it made sense for us to come to them. Marylebone was always on my radar. It has a similar vibe to the Shoreditch community: independent, individualistic, stores full of charisma and charm, but in a more sophisticated, grown-up way. We also sit in a similar category to the other stores here—Mouki Mou, Trunk.
We did adapt the store a little bit, purely because of our proximity to Marylebone High Street, which is a little more conservative. We kept the design element—the fact it’s quite minimal in aesthetic, a little bit industrial, with metal chains and floating shelves, whitewashed walls—but it’s a bit more accessible. I was anxious, worrying whether locals may find the overall look a little too edgy, but soon after opening we were overwhelmed with the positive response. It was the right business decision.
How do you go about curating the collection?
We always had it in our minds that we would be a multi-category store. There are a few elements that we look for—design is always important. I believe that design should be simple, but it should be functional; you should be able to use it, not just look at it. It should also be something you can keep: it should wash well, wear well, style well, regardless of trends or what season it is. If it’s homeware, yes, it will have design features or elements or details, but it will make your experience at home better and easier.
The ethical side is also very important. When we are considering makers, brands, artists, we want to know what drives them. We love learning their stories and being able to tell them to our customers. Again, it is something that helps build a connection. Every time you look at that item, if you know the story behind it there’s more of a sense of personal attachment. You’re more likely to appreciate it, love it and value it. We are not about disposable products. We want our customers to keep things for a long time.
How do you ensure a product is ‘ethical’? In what respect?
I meet almost all of our suppliers in person. We want to know where things are made, how they are made and by whom. We have brands that are fully sustainable, which for fashion is extremely hard because it’s such a long supply chain: from the actual yarn, to weaving, making, or dying a fabric. It can be hard to trace. Some of our designers only make things from certified sustainable and organic fabrics.
A couple of our core designers incorporate this whole circular economy into their business models. People can return their unwanted items and the brand will mend them, completely clean them, then resell them as ‘pre-loved’ at a reasonable price. They give a little credit to the customer who returned the item to say, “You’ve done a good thing.” And then somebody else will buy it and continue wearing it. I’ve seen the items they mend: some of them are completely like new, there’s nothing wrong with them.
We try to engage our customers in conversations, to give them all of this information. We’re not imposing anything, we’re not saying, if you don’t follow it that’s bad, we’re just saying, bear it in mind—if for some reason you don’t want the jumper anymore you can bring it back to us and that’s what’s going to happen.
It seems surprising that ‘ethical’ brands are still the exception, not the rule. Is that improving?
It’s amazing that it’s still not the case. It’s been our ethos from the start. Back in 2015, it was even harder to engage customers on that level. It’s not necessarily that they didn’t care—they didn’t understand, they didn’t even think about it. It didn’t even cross their minds that what they wear might have an impact on someone’s life or the environment. We had a lot of conversations with customers who would say, “Oh wow, really? I’d never thought about it this way.” But even just three years on, a lot more people are aware of the impacts of mass consumption, mass production, and our disposable culture, and that’s great. It’s becoming a trend. More and more brands and designers are doing their homework and looking into certifications such as the Soil Association, which regulates organic, to give the customer confidence that, yes, they’re not just saying they’re doing it, they’re actually doing the right thing.
Where do you find everything?
Sourcing is a full-time job, so you have to love it. It’s something that I do non-stop, because we have to keep up with the times. We try to always offer something new and interesting. A big part of our identity is a promise that you will not see our things on every high street or in every cool store. Not the case. Initially we found designers through my experience and connections in the fashion business, then from that by word of mouth. These days social media is so strong, I do a lot of research on Instagram. Through accounts and hashtags, you can go to the other side of the world and find something amazing. A small portion of our relationships have started that way. Often when I travel, I see if there are any interesting concept stores or shops because I am curious, but also to look for products.
Any particularly memorable overseas finds?
Sometimes I just come across something that I think, this is bang on, it’s right up our street. I am just a sucker for good design. I was recently in Greece, on the island of Crete, and drove past these huge objects standing outside a workshop. I went to have a look and it turned out that the workshop was run by proper Greek artisans who make everything by hand, with iron. Their work is amazingly beautiful. I started talking to one of the founders and said, “I have this idea for a product.” In Greece they have these doves with little olive branches that mean good luck, peace and love. They had a lot of objects like that, but for us, it was all just too heavily decorated. I said, “If you are up for it, we would like to have this dove but forget all the décor and just make them plain silver or bronze, decorated with just the olive branch.” They said, “Sounds great, why not!” We have received the first batch and they’re looking great. And the reaction I had to these birds—a lady came in and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I need for the centrepieces at my wedding.” I melted. Moments like that I think, I am doing something good here.