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American Dream

London’s Oxygen Boutique pulls in the fashion set with its carefully curated line-up of high-end brands

Cool-girl fashion haven Oxygen Boutique has made its name by stocking hard-to-get labels from America and around the globe. The London indie is the brainchild of mother and daughter duo Helen and Joanna Nicola who come from a well established background in fashion manufacturing and wholesale.

Since opening in 2009, the store has built itself a loyal following both on and offline – attracting attention from the most fashion forward shoppers in the city and beyond. Its success is owed to its owners, who captured the zeitgeist by bringing a unique edit of brands to the capital in a way that had never been seen before. “I was inspired by New York after living there for six months,” says Joanna. “There were amazing multi-brand stores like Scoop and Intermix, which didn’t exist in the UK back then.”

The would-be boutique owner had also noticed a trend for fashion fans travelling all the way to New York just to shop: “I just had a brainwave one day to try and bring all those brands over here,” she says.

Her parents already ran a fashion manufacturing business supplying clothing for high street stores and had an empty unit located right in the capital’s fashion wholesale quarter. The family decided to use the space to create a boutique and quickly began the process of sourcing brands from the US. “At the time it was very interesting as a lot of brands hadn’t come to the UK yet,” says Joanna. “It was a very exciting time for them and obviously all completely new to us. We had lots of figure out such as shipping, duties and taxes. But the main thing was to find the coolest and hottest brands in New York and start a relationship.”

In the beginning the duo sourced labels solely from the Big Apple, visiting the city twice each year on buying trips. Last year Joanna also added Los Angeles into the mix to offer a broader spectrum of brands: “There’s definitely a more laidback style in LA, but I think the brands we’re picking up are similar to our New York mix,” she says. “We don’t go for those global bestsellers that brands tend to pick out – we always go for pieces that reflect our own brand identity. We choose from each collection to create our own unique edit.”

As more retailers began stocking the same brands over the years, this strategy has proved vital for the store’s continued success. “We were trying to compete with bigger stores a few years ago – Net-a-Porter took some of our brands and we lost some of our visibility,” says Joanna. “But we’re in a great place again now; we know we need to offer a completely different brand and garment mix while keeping our store fresh. We’ve established such a loyal customer base that people will still come back to us no matter who else takes on our brands.”

Although with this surge in popularity hasn’t been without its advantages as many international labels now show in London, making it a lot easier for the duo to carry out their buying selections. This suits Joanna, who isn’t a fan of trade shows and instead prefers the calm mood of a showroom to make her edit decisions. “Trade shows are always such a crazy atmosphere,” she says. “You can’t always see the clothes and I prefer sitting down and going through the whole collection. I know they work for a lot of stores but personally they’re not for me.”

She does still “whizz around US trade shows” however on the hunt for new and exciting brands. But in the modern world, Joanna has found social media to be a useful buying tool for her business: “Instagram is a big one for me at the moment,” she says. “I find a lot of new brands on there. When we started out we had to rely on agencies and trade shows but now we can do our own research and scope out what we want and like ourselves.”

Oxygen Boutique currently stocks around 30 labels – mostly from the US but also now more internationally. Key brands include Bella Fraud, Frame Denim, Zimmerman for swimwear and Ganni. Sea NY is a “winner season after season” while Golden Goose trainers don’t stay in stock for “longer than five minutes.” Joanna says that the store’s diverse customers are well-versed on brands and know exactly what they’re looking for: “For the older cooler lady we’ve got Equipment shirts while very young girls will buy our cute dresses. But we might also get stylish grandmothers coming in for an Alice and Olivia dress.”

International tourists visiting the capital are also drawn to Oxygen’s rails: “We’ve seen a huge surge in tourists – we get lots of Chinese, American and Arabic customers now,” says Joanna. “They often find us online and then come especially to the store. They’re done their research.”

In SS13 the business also launched own clothing line Related. Joanna and her mother design all the pieces in the collection, splitting their time between the store and label. Since launching it has been a runaway success, offering clothing specifically designed for Oxygen’s customer base using high-end fabrics – but crucially for lower price points. “Designing is incredibly time consuming but very fun,” says Joanna. “We’re trying to create a new collection once a month now to keep our offer fresh both in the store and online.”

The collection comprises day-to-evening wear that can be dressed up and down. “We do very well with blouses and dresses – every piece is great for work and then can be worn with heels for a night out,” says Joanna. “There are many benefits to selling your own brand. We had a blouse that kept selling out again and again a few months ago, for instance, so we kept ordering in the fabric and remaking it. Obviously we can’t do that with our other brands as they work so far ahead and don’t hold stock.”

Related has proved to be one of the store’s bestsellers both in-store and online. It is sold through the store’s e-commerce site Oxygenboutique.com as well as its own Relatedapparel.com. “Our online businesses are doing amazingly well,” says the co-owner. “We’re shipping out all around the world at the moment and building our customer base everywhere.”

Both sites are managed directly from the store, with everything packaged and sent out from London. “We’ve got a great account with DHL and we’ve been working with them for years,” says Joanna. “We’ve had no issues with this side of online – the DHL driver comes in each day to take our parcels away. Then we’ve got our own separate website team that deals with the tech side.”

 

The team at Oxygen Boutique works has invested heavily in boosting its presence online. Affiliate marketing with the right international websites has helped both sites gain an international fan base, particularly in regions such as China and Japan. Social media also helps drive sales – with the store boasting 20K followers on Instagram alone: “We get lots of customers who’ve seen our posts and want to buy our pieces on the back of them – it’s great,” says Joanna.

Celebrity and online influencers have also played a vital role in growing the Related label. The brand has a celebrity PR agency based in LA, which helps put its clothing into the right hands: “We have a humungous celebrity following, which is growing every day,” says Joanna. “Our pieces have been worn by Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner and Olivia Palermo while bloggers are also getting on board. Having a mix of influencers is so important these days.”

At present the label is exclusive to the store and website, however there are plans to launch it to the wholesale market. “We wanted to make sure that we had strong brand visibility, a presence online and a celebrity following before selling the label to other stores,” says Joanna. “Now we also know the fit is just right as is the pricing structure – the next thing to look at will be wholesaling, but only to the right retailers.”

It’s an exciting time for the eight-year-old business. And despite economic uncertainty around the globe, Joanna remains optimistic about 2017: “As we buy internationally we will have to swallow currency fluctuations like the rest of the world,” she says. “Fashion is so up and down but I feel that people still want to buy our products. We’re not the high street, we’re at that higher end, and our customers will always want those standout pieces. As long as we keep our product fresh I think we will be just fine.”