August 10, 2023

Tales from the Front Lines of Indie Retail


I met Masato Jones—a Japanese-born independent designer—an hour before he opened his shop doors so we could sit down and have a chat without customers popping in. He’s had the shop for around two years now. (My immediate question was, “You opened during the pandemic?!”)

Masato’s husband, Mike, is great at planning for the future and taking charge of the numbers. It made perfect sense for Masato to leave the already slowing fashion scene in London for something different where they both could be in charge.

“I had my own studio, which allowed me to work from there and send my work to to clients. It worked, but it was a slow process. It made me realize that life revolves around bills and financial matters. It's quite reliant on external factors. Now, with the prospect of having a shop, it's a matter of weighing our options and considering the responsibility it entails. So, we thought, why not take the opportunity when things are calm and people are available? It's a good time because it's not as hectic.”

It’s teamwork. A family business. To do this alone would be a lot for one person to handle—think of anything a business owner does and add to it the day-to-day tasks of running a physical store. The duo makes it work because they know each other’s strengths.

Masato is the creative, artistic one who deals with customers, seeks unique fabrics, and creates bespoke pieces. It’s his name on the door, so the stakes are high.

“We're fortunate that people place orders even before seeing the actual garment. However, it's a matter of trust when they agree to it. They say, "Yes, let's proceed." This means I need to have faith in the product and their satisfaction with it, to the extent that they're willing to pay the price. It's a matter of believing in what I'm creating. Of course, this also brings about stress, considering the pressure of meeting these expectations.”

Over time, his clients have got to know him. Or rather, Masato has got to know what his customers like and anticipate their requests. Whenever he travels, he’ll check out local fabric shops and bring back anything with good quality and potential.

I source fabric from various places. When I was in Lisbon, Portugal, I found cotton fabric in a shop there. It's interesting because even though it's the same material, it's labelled, textured, and colored differently. It's all-natural cotton, just with distinct characteristics. It caught my attention.
So, I purchase it and then use it to create my pieces, which I then sell. Sometimes I search for the particular name of the fabric, like the renowned Portuguese cotton, but it's not easily available here. It's a nice experience to explore and obtain something uncommon or to make something unique. Our customers are quite interested in trying out distinctive fabrics, like those from Japan, so I cater to that as well.

Of course, his clients don’t need a new bespoke shirt every few weeks. But it’s the important life events—like weddings and birthdays—that often prompt them to revisit Masato’s boutique for something that’s a little different. Something more unique than what you can find in stores.

“Knowing that I can be a part of their special day or occasion… knowing that they allow me that, makes me happy,” he says.

But for a creative like Masato to have the freedom to experiment with his artistic vision and designs, having his husband’s support is invaluable. 

Artists can be notoriously bad business owners, I know that myself. It’s not a dig at all—if we could have it our way, we’d be writing, creating, designing, and leaving business admin for another day (week…month?).

Crunching numbers and making yearly projections are generally not our forte. But there’s more to it. Having someone on your side, you can trust for honest feedback can be just as important.

Well, he's my husband, so you know, he's the one who openly shares his thoughts about my work without hesitation. It's great because he doesn't have a fashion background, so his opinions align closely with our customers. If I suggest something might work, and he's unsure, I experiment with different things—–colors, styles—until I find what works. His input is valuable because sometimes my initial idea might not be quite there.

It's also nice to bounce ideas between us. I appreciate that sometimes people buy the shirts he helps choose the materials for. He takes quiet pride in it. It's like, "That's my T-shirt!"

But how do you get those clients? Running an independent business is tough. The council may not always be forthcoming. Trade fluctuates. Not least because people’s disposable income has dropped around here.

For Masato, it’s down to staying true to who you are but being flexible enough not to let your ego get in the way. You need to adapt to find people who “get you” and your brand. Be you, but also respond to what the market wants.

And to run a modern boutique today also means utilizing free tools like selling your designs online, using social media and making his brand worthy word-of-mouth referrals.

Masato and his husband are active on Twitter daily (that’s also how I found them). It’s hard work, but that’s what running an independent business is.

I admire Masato’s positive outlook, even if things can get tough at times. You gotta make it. I think many immigrants just like Masato and I can relate to this. Going back is not an option in most cases—you do what you need to do to succeed. 

Despite the hard times. And despite the days when numbers are in the red.

Because there will be a client waiting for Masato to create a bespoke piece that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Or a customer popping in to get a last-minute gift.

And whatever the future holds for the duo here, retiring in Japan doesn’t sound half bad. Great food. Four seasons. And if you pick the right location, you’re even in for much less rain than here.

I think Masato sold me on Japan just based on that.