Boutique of the week: WerkHaus Margate
Clothes you can live in and shoes you can walk in. That’s the down-to-earth ethos behind WerkHaus an independent boutique based in the heart of Margate’s Old Town. And, style over fashion is something I always approve of. Founded by Rae Jones, an accessories and footwear designer and Cynthia Lawrence-John, a fashion director and costume designer, WerkHaus specialises in practical clothing for the modern gentlewoman. The duo love to play around with a combination of utilitarian basics, military garb and vintage pieces. ‘We believe that clothing should be practical and durable as well as flattering and stylish and we firmly believe in the ethos of offering menswear for women to wear,’ says Rae, ‘Our aesthetic harks back to the days when clothing was made to last and we are passionate about natural fibres and pockets.’ These are my kind of women. My kind of clothes.
With the core belief that clothing should stand the test of time, Rae and Cynthia carefully select practical items from international and local brands, to sit alongside unique vintage pieces, such as: rare dead-stock army surplus, cotton shirt dresses and French linen shirts. The pair have also developed a small own-brand collection; WerkHaus Margate t-shirts, sweatshirts and bags, are all created using organic cotton and made in the UK.
Both of these talented, multi-tasking women have freelance jobs in the creative industry as well as running WerkHaus Margate. Cynthia is a well-known fashion stylist, costume designer and creative consultant, who I’ve met many times over the years. Rae runs a popular accessories brand, teaches part-time on a fashion degree course and works as a trend forecasting consultant.
Like so many other small business owners the pair have been dealing with the effects of the global health crisis over the last few months. WerkHaus had to shut up shop during lockdown and adapt to new ways of working to keep their shoppers inspired and informed. This has included the introduction of an appointment service for customers who need to avoid crowds, and this week the launch of a fully transactional website bringing Margate to the masses (until we have chance to get down to the seaside again). I caught up with Rae and Cynthia to find out more about WerkHaus, what they’ve been up to and how they’ve adjusted during the pandemic:
TNMA: How did WerkHaus Margate begin?
WerkHaus began as a pop up store in the summer of 2017. We met at a yoga class in Margate and found we held a shared interest in vintage workwear – and pockets! The pop-up was housed in what was once a launderette and bath house, complete with vintage signs and original woodwork. It was such a success we decided to give a permanent WerkHaus store a go and we haven’t looked back since.
TNMA: How do you choose what goes in store?
The store is a reflection of things we both love, things we’d wear ourselves. From vintage French linen shirt dresses, fishermen’s smocks and obscure but wearable military pieces to selected sustainable denim brands such as Kings of Indigo and Stan Ray. We are both advocates of style over fashion, with a preference for pieces that are built to last.
Although WerkHaus has a very distinct aesthetic, we always like to throw in unexpected items as we never want the clothes to feel like a uniform. We want women to wear the clothes, not the clothes to wear the women. We’re also very passionate about pockets, we feel everything should have pockets as standard. It’s amazing how many things don’t, today…
Last year we launched our WerkHaus Margate own line (which we’re wearing in the above pic), there’s a shirt dress, boiler suit, apron dress and skirt, all designed and manufactured in Margate. The women we choose as our models have a certain strength and vibe which cannot be placed. And we love to see how different customers style themselves, the collection suits all ages and a broad range of sizes. We utilise leftover fabrics from the fashion industry, each item having a short run in a particular fabric and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
We both love being in the shop, it’s very much a part of our ethos. It’s important to us that the store feels personal and welcoming to all. Sometimes people come in solely to chat and ask us questions about Margate or want to talk in detail about the fastenings on a jacket…
TNMA: As a business how have you been impacted by the pandemic?
During the first few weeks of lockdown, we shut down both physical and online trading, the sale of clothing not being the focus for either of us. Further into the lockdown, we were able to offer limited, one to one distanced appointments. We also offered a free local delivery service, which we incorporated into our daily exercise – either cycling or jogging to make deliveries. We also launched @werkhausmargatevintage on Instagram, the aim of which is to not only sell vintage pieces but also offer styling inspiration.
TNMA: Have you been able to reopen the store now that restrictions have eased? And tell us a bit more about your new website launch…
We have reopened the physical store and it felt SO good to bring it back to life, Miss Havisham from Great Expectations springs to mind! We love having a busy store, where people feel comfortable to drop by to shop, chat and listen to good music. Though with the new distancing regulations we do need to limit the number of customers at any one time, but that will not ruin the shopping experience. The space allows customers to browse easily, keeping a distance. Plus, we are still offering an appointment service to customers who need to avoid crowds. And lockdown has given us chance to finally launch our new website! The site includes our own Werkhaus Margate line, along with the other brands we stock in-store. We want the website to feel inspiring in terms of the pieces, but also the way in which they are styled. Style over fashion is very important to us… it’s about the individual.
TNMA: What’s been getting you both through lockdown?
Being by the sea has been an absolute blessing. It has been relatively easy to take exercise in solitude. The beautiful weather has helped everyone in general. Music has also played a major role in maintaining a positive upbeat vibe- also having the time to sit and read a book. We’ve both also enjoyed volunteering for various organisations, too.
Q: How can we all help support small businesses and seaside communities right now?
Trade in seaside communities is very seasonal. The beach is of course alluring, but Margate is a good place to take a wander, there are always treasures and bargains to be found in the independent boutiques. Also, we’re not ‘made of salt’ … if it rains the seaside can still offer some surprises and a beautiful day out. We ask customers to share, share, share (through social media and good old word-of-mouth). If you’ve enjoyed your experience, discovered a store, bought something you love, please spread the word! It’s so helpful and appreciated. The best advertisement for any independent store is happy customers.
TNMA: Finally how would you both describe your style? And do you have advice for staying stylish?
Cynthia: I tend to prefer oversized pieces and love to layer. I am a magpie when it comes to dressing, I love to respectfully mix pieces from different cultures and periods. I don’t follow fashion religiously even though I’m a stylist, in fact, if something is in fashion I tend to avoid it until it’s out of fashion again.
Rae: I love mixing clothing from different eras together and I too love to layer. I’ve certainly gravitated towards comfort in recent years, living by the sea is a very relaxed place to be but I’m rarely seen without a pop of colour in the form of a necktie or lipstick. Never be afraid of mixing prints, weaves and textures they can give depth and intrigue to an outfit like nothing else.
If you’re off to the Kent coast for a few days this summer, be sure to add Werkhaus Margate, Turner Contemporary (reopening on 22 July 2020) and a trip to the Great British Pizza Company to the must-visit list.
To help support small business, I’ve decided to make ‘Boutique of the Week’ a regular feature (though it won’t be weekly, I just like the title). And don’t miss my feature on How to Make Workwear Work for You.