New website to watch: Sarah O’Keefe Shop
Locked-down in the middle of a pandemic may not seem like the best time to start a new business but Sarah O’Keefe, 54, is a perennial optimist. Furloughed from one of her day jobs and working from home part-time for the other, she had the idea for an online store selling a small edit of clothes and accessories made locally in Somerset. ‘ I’d met so many amazing, creative women in the vicinity – and now they were all forced to stay at home – I love collaborating with people, working on new projects.’
An entrepreneur at heart, Sarah co-founded The Cross, one of London’s first lifestyle boutiques, in 1996. The bohemian store in Notting Hill attracted a cool crowd and built up a global reputation but after 13 years in partnership with Sam Robinson, Sarah decided it was time to go. Having always found inspiration through travel and meeting people ( Sarah was born in Australia but moved to London with her mother, aged four), she left London in a Mini piled high with her favourite belongings and drove all the way to Andalusia. Over the next four years, if she wasn’t in Tarifa, over-wintering in Goa or working on freelance projects in Jaipur, she was visiting her terminally ill father in Melbourne.
‘ It was a tricky time, I had gone through my savings, menopause kicked in and I was feeling slightly unhinged,’ she says of returning to the UK and settling in Somerset, ‘ An old friend lived down here and said come and regroup.’ Working part-time in a local art gallery and managing the office for an events catering company, Sarah was figuring out her future when outside the vet’s surgery on a dark winter’s evening she bumped into an old male friend from her teenage years. ‘We went walking every weekend for six months, we were getting to know each other again – though at times I did wonder if Rob and I were just good friends. Now we live together and have a lovely relationship, comforting and reassuring. It’s pretty heavenly. If I’d dialled up and asked for something, this would pretty much be it.’
This serendipitous encounter together with a phone call out of the blue, set Sarah back on her creative path, ‘ I was feeling irrelevant, creatively lost when another old friend contacted me to ask if I’d like to co-curate a designers and makers event in the local village hall. I love wading in, getting involved, developing ideas with people and get such a buzz supporting them and love it when they sell! I really enjoyed the process of working with other creative women. And that was it, suddenly I was off. My confidence came back and I was in my stride.’
During lockdown, Sarah’s mum was diagnosed with early stage bowel cancer, ‘ It was a really tough time. Mum had chemo plus, radiotherapy sessions at the incredible Royal Marsden Hospital (NHS super stars). I called her everyday. Then during the middle of the treatment she went into hospital for pain management and skin treatment; I was so thankful for the hospital to take her in for a few weeks. I don’t have brothers or sisters and I felt very drained and emotionally stretched. Mum was amazingly stoical – we are like that with each other – it’s the Aussie ‘no drama’ policy. I can’t tell you the relief I felt in November when she was given the all clear, we still need to celebrate it!’
Regardless of the economic uncertainty associated with the pandemic, and encouraged by her mum, the Sarah O’Keefe Shop took shape. ‘The Cross launched during a recession. It was that era of black nylon Prada bags, I can remember a friend popping in, looking at all the decorative merchandise from around the world and saying, “What on earth are you doing?!”‘ But in 2020, Sarah was on a roll, ‘The new adventure helped us both. I am happy working with creatives, the more under the hedgerow the better! I’d got my mojo back, we were both enjoying the process and it just felt like the time was right.’
This one-woman business is a work in progress; the number of carefully selected products and collaborations gradually growing. ‘ It’s just me, Sarah, front of house, back of house, taking the photos… I’m feeling my way.’ Sarah wants her new online shop to be focused and accessible. She currently sells silk velvet scarves and accessories, the O’Keefe Coat is a kimono-inspired shape in limited edition Indian fabrics ( as seen on Sarah and third photo), the Spargrove Shirt (above) is an easy-to-wear, loose shape in beautiful Indian cotton, both are made locally to order and take about seven to 10 days. ‘ I’m not elitist, I want it to be approachable and affordable. It’s a small edit – I’m interested in simple silhouettes and lovely fabrics, beautiful colours – once you get the shape right then you can make it in different fabrics and prints. I’m not into calendar restrictions or fashion seasons. I do think that’s what people wear now. What’s key is to find the shape that suits you and invest in it because it’s going to work.’
The Sarah O’Keefe Shop is definitely a website to watch.
If everything goes to plan there will be another Badgers Velvet Underground designers and makers event in Somerset on 11 & 12 November 2021 . More details to follow.