If you like wearing brooches you need to know about Audra Daws-Knowles
Small business owner and vintage brooch-seller, 55 year-old Audra Dawes-Knowles, is a woman of impeccable style. We met just before Christmas at the Canopy Market in Kings Cross, where I was in absolute awe of the volume, quality and variety of her second-hand brooch collection; and immediately taken by her super-cool outfit and sharp grey bob. After inheriting her grandmother’s brooches Audra started her own small collection, while growing up in Canada. But it was only after considering a role as a business consultant, in her late forties and living in London, that she realised her love of brooches could offer a brilliant career opportunity, too.
Turning her vintage accessories collection into a profession, Audra’s business (and brooch archive), continues to grow. She has a permanent set-up at the Canopy Market and sells her decorative pins through Etsy, and her own website, and also sources brooches for magazines, stylists and red-carpet events.
Lately, I’ve been buying more vintage jewellery and couldn’t wait to ask Audra about her brooch-tastic business, vast archive of decorative pins and expert styling tips:
Please tell us a little about your background – have you always worked in fashion and accessories?
At 15, during high school I worked part-time in a Canadian womenswear shop. I eventually became a merchandiser for the Daniel Hechter boutique and then a full-time window dresser for three years. I quit to attend university and then moved to London. I worked for various UK companies in administration, sales, marketing, and recruitment. During that time I also studied business and marketing in the city. But I did not return to the fashion industry. Then, after having a child in 2000, I moved to the USA and completed my degree.
In 2008 I returned to London, gained a PGCE from Goldsmiths (University of London) and became a Media Studies teacher at secondary school level. After eight years I quit teaching to begin my own consultancy business in order to support creative businesses owners in their struggle to be organised. Researching this new career led me to Audra’s Brooches as a way to understand and experience the unique challenges of running a small business. But, the brooches took off and I loved it more than my original idea. My mentor encouraged me to work towards one business – and the brooches won!
What is it specifically about brooches that inspires you?
I have always worn brooches as my style is quite maximalist with a classic edge. Think Pretty in Pink with tailoring. Apart from my grandmothers, I was the only brooch-wearer in my family so I inherited quite a large collection. And, I regularly visited antique and vintage fairs searching for unique accessories. One of the first “fancy” brooches that I ever purchased was a silver wreath by the Canadian silversmith, Carl Poul Petersen, an apprentice and son-in-law of George Jensen. I still have it.
Brooches are more than just an accessory. They are an ancient style of jewellery found all over the world, and while they have a function as a fastener they can also be a signifier or symbol of a person’s style, personality or interests.
How many do you own?!
I own hundreds. Eek! But if you count all the styles I presently have for sale, then there are at least one thousand.
Where do you source your brooches?
This is a very popular question. I started with my own collection and then added to it by going to vintage and antique fairs. I met dealers in the UK who were very happy to source and sell me brooches. I have travelled to France, Belgium and Canada looking for different styles. I source pieces online and also offer a consignment service selling designer pieces. There are many vintage jewellers but not many who specialise in brooches so my niche makes it easy for people to find me, if they want to buy or sell brooches. And, I’m always looking for new styles to add to my collection.
What’s it like, running a brooch business?
There is never a typical day. I am at the Canopy Market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The other days are filled with tasks related to stock, social media content, orders, finance and administration. I personally clean, photograph, research and list all of the pieces on my website. I also prepare stock to loan to magazines, stylists and fashion students for photoshoots and red carpet events; and prepare for events around London, such as the Clerkenwell Vintage Fair, Marylebone Summer Festival, and various Christmas shows. I do have a fabulous team of assistants but they are all at university so their availability depends on their schedules.
How do you stop a brooch falling off, or damaging your clothes?
All brooch-lovers are aware of the risks! Personally, I have used many different materials to support brooches on thin fabrics. In the 1980s, I used felt squares to support multiple brooches on the front of antique tuxedo shirts. Through trial and error I went from a cotton makeup pad to the silicon sponges I use now. Basically, you position the sponge behind the place where you want to pin the brooch. The sponge provides a stable foundation to take the weight of the brooch and keep it secure. It means you can also pin brooches to any fabric. The silicon material grips the pin so it cannot slide out even if the brooch pin unlocks.
What are the most unique brooches you’ve ever found? And do you have any personal favourites?
I have found antique brooches designed to hold pince-nez glasses with a retractable chain, and tube-shaped brooches for sewing needles, designed for nannies. There are brooches with pawn shop marks and precious stones replaced by rhinestones that could tell some tales. Learning about the difference between jet, gutta percha, bog oak and black glass used for mourning brooches was fascinating. My personal favourites change all the time. At the moment my favourite style is mid-century Czech Republic (glass brooches). My favourite era is the Victorian Aesthetic Movement. I love and still collect white milk glass brooches. I still miss the post-war floral brooch collection I had made of brass with cold enamel and rhinestones in pastel colours, they were lovely.
Do you have any style tips on mixing and matching brooches, and how to wear multiple styles in one outfit?
Go wild. To achieve a more contemporary look, wear brooches in unexpected places – on the collar, the cuff, the waist. Use a sponge to wear a big sparkly 1950s brooch on a modern garment. Wear a cluster of three on a jumper with jeans and boots. Sometimes I just throw them onto a coat laid on my bed and pin them where they fall. But my biggest advice is to avoid the classic over-the-heart position. It is still used as a signifier for a villain in film!
And finally, what do you like to wear? How would you describe your style?
I am a classic dresser with a quirky maximalist vibe. I like natural fabrics, especially wool. Think Edwardian Futuristic New Romantic and always with a brooch or two or three.
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And here’s a bevy of brooches:
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