#BABEALERT: LIZZIE EVANS, FOUNDER OF SMUG
SMUG is a cute little lifestyle store and cafe in Camden Passage in Angel. If you haven't visited you must if you're in London. It's the perfect little spot for cool stationary, design mags and a few cool homewares bits too (and a coffee). I was well chuffed when founder Lizzie became one of my No Bull Blog School students, and we formed a little design obsessed friendship ever since. I wanted to showcase her journey running a design store as I think everyone has these fantasies about running their own interiors shop (lord knows I do) but the reality of it can be pretty tough and of course scary! Here's Lizzie telling us all about her journey and what's to come for SMUG.
Tell us about SMUG. When did you open it? Why did you decide to open a shop?
I opened my Lifestyle store SMUG back in the summer of 2009 when I was just 25! Before that I started out on my 'career journey' for want of a better term, thinking I'd like to work in interior design or styling and quickly realised that what I really wanted was a place where I could build my own aesthetic and visual 'home'. It didn't take long for me to work out that I wanted that to be a shop rather than an office. I have tried to make SMUG as much like a home as possible, where people feel excited rather than intimidated by great design.
Why the name SMUG?
Back in 1875 the definition of SMUG was to 'Smarten ones self up' and basically take pride in your appearance and home. I thought that fit pretty perfectly with what I wanted the store to be about. I also liked the fact that it was short and snappy and might make a few people stop and think to question why. Turns out it means various other things in different languages which have been a nice surprise. A couple of examples are 'pretty/cute' and 'passage' - the store is on Camden passage so that works rather well too!
Have you got a background in design?
I didn't plan on going to uni so didn't go through UCAS after doing my A-levels. I took a year out to work and decide 'what I wanted to be when I grew up'. I happened to walk past a really interesting looking design and architecture exhibition on Holloway Road one summer, not far from where I lived at the time and ended up being really excited by what I saw and asked for an interview to do the course. I had my interview very quickly after that and literally two weeks later was starting a degree in Interior Architecture.
Your shop was flooded recently. I can imagine that was pretty challenging. What are the main challenges facing your business today?
Yeah, that was a bit of a nightmare. We're still dealing with the repercussions now. It was crazy seeing all the water gushing in to the shop, which is my baby essentially. What was really nice was how all the different business owners rallied together to help and support everyone on the passage. It's a wonderful community to be part of. I'm still dealing with insurers, having to come up with all sorts of bits of information for them, filling in forms, working out numbers and soon I'll be having to close the shop to focus on managing builders and getting the refit sorted. You really have to be a jack of all trades. And be positive enough to find an up side. I think the lower ground floor is going to look amazing after the refresh so I'm excited to relaunch and show my customers the changes. (note from Sarah - its done now and looks amazing!)
The main challenges facing my business today are things like footfall but also competition from bigger brands with more investment. When I opened SMUG 8 years ago there weren't so many independent design stores. I love that there are more now but I'm always working and striving to keep SMUG original. A bigger problem is the huge companies like department stores who actually send their buyers to the shop to see what we've got and then go and buy it themselves. We're lucky to have been around long enough to have built great relationships with regular customers as well as great designers who we worked with when they were just starting out. We made a bit of a name for ourselves early on and have lots of products that are SMUG exclusives which really helps but it can be tough when huge faceless companies come in and try to do what you're doing too.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a shop or start a design business?
It is LOVELY being your own boss. I wouldn't change it for the world. But you do need to be someone who thrives on responsibility and pressure and is happy not only structuring your own time but generating work for others and managing them. I feel really lucky that the buck stops with me and every decision is mine to make. I am aware though that there are benefits to being part of a company who holds a lot of that responsibility for you. The problem is they take the freedom too. Just be honest with yourself about whether you're someone who thrives under pressure and learns new skills quickly or if you prefer being part of a large company who deal with the bigger picture stuff so you can focus on playing your part within that team.
We've seen some of your new 'Lizzie for SMUG' designs. They're awesome. What else have you got in the pipeline?
Haha! Thanks. Still getting used to the fact that after years of putting other peoples work out there and collaborating with other designers, I now have some work to call my own completely. It feels weirdly embarrassing to take compliments about it. I have more paper and fabric products coming out very soon as well as an enamel pin collection. Then the plan is a Stationery line launching for London Design Festival in September and Ceramics in November for Christmas. So much to do!
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
Everywhere. I look so hard at what's in front of me all the time. I see patterns in everything and I collect colours in my mind that I've seen on buildings, old tins and signage, my favourite clothes. Sometimes in nature too but what most excites me is the way people interact with the landscape they find themselves in. I'm thinking of scenes like pale yellow washing hung out on a wire across a pink balcony in Lisbon, pops of colour shown through the windows of Brutalist tower blocks in London, the beauty and simplicity of tonnes of Luxembourg chairs filling the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. I LOVE that stuff.
SMUG has a strong brand identity and the products you choose to sell and design fit with this aesthetic. Have you had this brand identity since the beginning or is it constantly evolving?
I think I've always had a certain look that I loved. I like stuff and I think people should surround themselves with stuff they love. To me it's all about being intentional. I like things to be placed in relation to the other things around them. Groups of items that you might not think to put together but that work because of their colours, forms or heights. I call it curating. I don't subscribe to the ideas of throwing everything away or making everything matchy-matchy. To me it's all about personality and enjoying placing those things you have and love so that they make you happy visually.
I certainly do think though that as SMUG has developed and I've grown up, as I said, I started this when I was only 24 and now I'm 33. The opportunities I've had to work with designers I love on collaborations and the general success of what I've been doing has meant I can, for example, now create my own collection which is totally me and exactly the way I want it to be which is pretty exciting and makes what we sell even more inline with my own personal aesthetic.
There are so many online interiors shops. How do you stand out from the crowd? Do you think having a physical shop helps you do this?
For SMUG, it's all about the shop. I'm working this year on ways to allow for our website to be more curated so that the webshop is a more similar experience to the actual shop, where the way things are placed and curated and the feeling you get when you walk through the door, really does make the brand what it is. It's sometimes hard to express our unique look in 2 dimensions but platforms like Instagram have really helped. I think through my instagram feed you get a real sense of the ethos of the brand and how that aligns to my own lifestyle. There's a clear aesthetic and consistent approach. SMUG is sort of me and I'm sort of SMUG (if you know what I mean?)
You've collaborated with some fantastic designers. What advice would you give to emerging designers or business owners on how to successfully collaborate?
I think whatever you do, however you choose to live your life, relationships are key. I'm so lucky to work in a field where it's easy to meet like-minded people doing and creating beautiful things. My advice would be to be really clear from the beginning what you'd like to get out of the collaboration. I tend to approach designers with a pretty well formed idea that I propose to them as apposed to giving an open brief. That's what works for me - maybe because I'm a bit of a control freak! It's wonderful to be able to celebrate new talent and designers and to work together to create something unique that can only be bought at SMUG so sets you apart from the crowd. Do be aware though that others might approach the designer to do the exact same thing for them, in a different colour-way for example. An important thing to be aware of is that although you might be striving to be different, others might really think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That can be pretty frustrating. But to me, it's all about supporting and celebrating the designer and hopefully they'll get more work because of the collaboration and you'll have something fresh and exciting to share with your customers.
Who is your dream collaboration?
Ohhh, great question. No one's ever asked me that before. Let me think... I'm going to go with a Pattern Collection for YMC, my favourite fashion label. That would be sick!
What are your favourite three pieces for sale at the moment?
Right now I am particularly loving this print by All The Ways To Say. I want that bikini in real life and it's getting me very excited for summer!
The product I'm most proud of at the moment is my Greenhouse cushion. In fact anything in the Greenhouse print I'm really enjoying at the moment.
Zip pouches and stationery coming soon! I'm also really loving that SMUG now sells house plants. My flat has been full of house plants for years so it's a real joy to get to buy plants for our customers now too. The shop is looking like an arboretum and I love it!
What celeb / famous person would you invite to a dinner party and why?
Ray and Charles Eames. They're my design heroes. If they're not famous enough then Prince my musical hero!
You have the day off. What would you do?
Lie in - bed is my favourite place. On top of that we have just gotten a kitten called Mabel who loves to come and get into our bed and cuddle us in the mornings. It's pretty great. Then off somewhere for brunch with Daniel, my husband. Good food is a big must on days off. I like Sunday on Hemmingford Road, Granger & Co and Dishoom a lot. I recently tried Cafe Miami too which is gorgeous. Then a bit of shopping and culture. I love buying house plants and visiting galleries. The Approach Gallery is a fave and closer to home the Victoria Miro. I try to go to as many of the bigger shows at The Barbican and both Tate Museums where I can too. If it's nice whether a walk in the park is high on the list. The Design Museum followed by a walk in Holland park is a pretty happy day.
Sounds awesome to me! Have you ever had a moment of 'shitting it' about your business or career? What happened?
Well, it wasn't ideal to open in a recession, so that was a bit interesting! It took about a year to work on the building, design the brand and do the buying so by the time I opened, the state of the economy was rather different from when I started out. It was also sometimes a bit demoralising to be working so hard on something that no one could actually see yet. I had a year of 'when's the shop opening?' and 'is the shop open yet?' It felt like I was constantly having to explain myself to people who didn't get the process and expected to see an end result a lot faster than I could give it to them. I was also living at home with my parents at the time in order to make opening the shop financially viable and I needed to continue to live with them for a good few years before I could afford to move out so even though I was building this exciting brand that I could call my own and was really proud of, I wasn't yet feeling completely independent.
What has been your ultimate kick ass moment where you felt amazing?
Ah, nice question. Getting the email from the Financial Times saying that they'd like SMUG to be the Cult Shop in their How To Spend It magazine was pretty great. It was my dream piece of press when I first opened and it happened just 2 years after opening so I was really happy with that. It's always really nice to be asked to judge an award or speak at an event. When that happens, it's usually because someone has understood and valued you specifically as a creative person, not just the brand that you have created which is pretty special.
What is your best EVER piece of business advice?
Learn how to do everything that you expect someone else to do for you. Even if you can't become a complete pro at it, just try to learn the basics. You need to be making all the final decisions so need to properly understand every task that need to be done. It makes managing people as your brand develops a lot easier too because you've done whatever it is you're now asking them to do for you. Most of all though, know yourself and trust yourself. Take time to keep inspired and be kind to yourself. Being your own boss means you can end up with what feels like the weight of the world on your shoulders. But the reason to get into this industry is to have the freedom to be creative and build something beautiful that you can be proud of and call your own. To do that you HAVE to be kind to yourself and enjoy the ride. Or what's the point?
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt since running smug?
The things that you find easy and think are just basic common sense, other people find difficult. Do not take these skills for granted. They are valuable and you should treat them as such.