Behind the Brand: Claire Burrows, Founder of Air & Grace
Claire Burrows, founder of Air & Grace, talks to ParentFolk about how she built her footwear brand.
Tell us why you started Air & Grace.
Lots of women have a wardrobe full of shoes they barely wear because they look great, but they’re uncomfortable, and I was definitely one of them. I was frustrated with the idea that comfortable shoes couldn’t be great-looking shoes. So I created Air & Grace – shoes you’ll want to wear and love to wear.
What is your background?
I’ve always worked in the footwear industry – I really love it. I studied fashion management at London College of Fashion and never intended to go into footwear, but after my first job at Office shoes I was hooked.
What is your earliest fashion memory?
I’ve always been interested in fashion from a young age. When I was younger I had an obsession with drawing dresses, but not just any dresses, proper Cinderella style dresses. My mum used to make our clothes for us when we were young so she tried to teach me dressmaking – the problem was I had loads of ideas but wasn’t very good at the dressmaking part! But it didn’t stop me making crazy outfits to go clubbing in which would fall apart by the end of the night. When I finally made it to fashion college I would save up every penny I had to buy Vivienne Westwood pieces – which I still wear and own today. I really believe that style is eternal and good design transcends time.
What were the challenges in starting your own footwear brand?
Finding manufacturing partners who shared our vision was definitely the biggest challenge. Incorporating the comfort element into our shoes requires a lot of extra effort and processes that are different to the norm. As a result, it takes close to a year for us to develop each new style – we’re the opposite of fast fashion! Making the patented Tender Loving Air footbed itself is very costly and labour intensive. I had to approach numerous suppliers to find partners who were willing to work to our requirements and understood the benefits.
How has the brand evolved since you started?
Our core values of style, quality and comfort are still the same, but with an increasing focus on ethics. We’re putting a lot of work into ensuring that we make the most responsible choices in everything we do. We made a decision right from the start to only work with high grade factories in Europe to minimise carbon footprint and to ensure we knew exactly who was making our shoes. It means our shoes aren’t cheap, but our customers believe in buying fewer, but better. We feel that style transcends seasons, so we don’t reinvent designs like a traditional fast fashion model. This led to creating a “permanent collection” – a group of our most loved styles that we run from season to season and promise never to discount.
Who is the Air & Grace customer?
She is stylish and fashion conscious but never a slave to fast fashion fads. She prefers quality over quantity and cares about where and how the products she consumes are made. She leads a busy life and needs shoes that can stand the pace – she’s a fashionista on the go!
What do you think has been the key to building your business?
My industry experience has been invaluable, as have my network of contacts who have been there to offer advice and support. But there’s no substitute for hard graft, I’ve had to put a lot of hours in to get the business to the position it’s in now. Social media has been instrumental. It’s an amazing way to raise awareness and also to gather valuable insights and feedback from your audience.
You secured investment for your business – how did that impact your growth and what advice do you have for people seeking investment in their own business?
Securing investment meant that I had the funds to pivot from a direct to a consumer model. I’d spent all of my own money developing the product and branding, so I had a sample range and planned to pursue a wholesale model. But I found it tricky to get buyers to take a risk on a new, unproven brand and had to find another route to market. The barrier to entry was cash – I needed a website, a marketing budget and the biggest cost of all was stock. By chance I saw a competition in The Metro newspaper looking for the best new brands of the future. I gave it a shot and won first prize – £150,000 that had been raised via Seedrs crowdfunding!
Choosing the right investment partner is critical – you are partnered for a long time so having very clear, common goals is vital. I think crowdfunding is an excellent source of investment for start-ups. It’s a very accessible option – you just need a good idea and a strong pitch. You can even use crowdfunding to pre-sell your product to combat cashflow issues.
What’s been your Air & Grace high and low?
Winning investment early on was a major high. We’ve also won a few awards since then and getting a message from Helen Mirren saying how much she loved her Copeland trainers was a major high. It’s important to celebrate the highs as there are also many lows! We’ve had everything happen from shoes being stolen by bandits (yes, really), to being evicted from our studio.
What advice would you give to people wanting to start their own business?
Work hard, be nice to people and most importantly know your numbers. It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is, if the numbers don’t stack up the business will not work. Running out of money is the biggest threat to any start-up. I know from bitter experience – I’ve faced difficult financial situations several times and have had to find a way around it. I am now fanatical about cashflow as a result.
How to you switch off?
Starting your own business is time-consuming. I was working long hours and weekends but soon realised I needed to look after myself more. The business was running me, so I needed to get more people involved and get a bit of my life back! I really like getting out, doing exercise and love cooking. When I don’t cook enough I don’t feel like me. This way I’m able to balance work and life, and ultimately be more present at productive in both areas.
Any advice on breaking into the fashion industry?
It’s a crowded market so it’s vital to have a USP. Do lots of research to find your market niche. Holding stock makes fashion a cash hungry business. Most manufacturers will want to be paid up front so proper financing is required.
We’re a friendly lot though, and happy to offer advice. Don’t be afraid to ask. I take part in entrepreneurship days at Conde Nast Fashion college to offer advice to students. Podcasts and talks are great sources of information and inspiration. There is an abundance of easily accessible good advice out there nowadays.
What’s next for Air & Grace?
Lots! We’re adding sandals to our range this Spring and a new Vegan collection which we are very excited about. Our small but mighty team is growing and we’re working on a very exciting charity collaboration. We are definitely going to be busy.