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Ian Stuart Shares the Secrets of His Blewcoat Boutique

Ian Stuart chats to Bridal Buyer about his iconic bridal boutique, Blewcoat and his impending TV show that will be set there

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Bridalwear designer Ian Stuart at work
Bridalwear designer Ian Stuart at work

We’re all so excited about the Channel 4 TV show that will follow bridalwear designer Ian Stuart and his team at his Blewcoat boutique. Bridal Buyer caught up with him to find out more about what we can expect!

When did you move into the Mother of the Bride/Mother of the Groom arena?

We decided to create our first MOB collection in 2006. At that time, MOB styles were frumpy, pale blue chiffon, shoulder pads, dowdy and old fashioned. Mothers of my brides were asking if I could make something for them, too. That’s where it all started and I realised that mums don’t want to look like grandma – they deserve the right to look fabulous, too. My Bellville Sassoon training came into play, and I sketched out a rough collection, using the Ian Stuart signature style. My first collection was evening wear inspired but, in all honesty, I was a novice in the sector. Feedback from stockists was so appreciated and so helpful; we changed our patterns and created a MOB size chart (which is very different from bridal – with the years shoulders shrink, boobs drop, backs get wider). Feedback is a gift from God…you can’t do it all in season one!

When did you move into retail and why?

I never wanted, or intended, to move into retail. However, I am fully aware that markets and the industry changes. I have always been a proud ambassador as a UK designer, showing at international trade events. However, my price point, although not ’couture’, is ‘bridge’, and when sales dwindled at those shows (because buyers didn’t have the conviction to buy my price point) we decided that we needed to create an ’Ian Stuart’ environment in London, to cater to those overseas brides who wanted it. Interestingly, most of my bridal clients at Blewcoat are not English… and include numerous flight attendants from Lufthansa and KLM airlines.

How long did it take to get Blewcoat off the ground?

Like most new businesses, three years seems to be the magic number! It was so scary at first, not only because of the huge spend we took on for refurbishment, but also because we were entering into a new arena, after being in wholesale for so many years. We made mistakes... lots of them! I’m a perfectionist and wanted to create a beautiful environment – probably too beautiful. We spent heavily in year one on scented candles, Champagne and chocolates, which were inevitably gobbled up by time wasters.

Ian Stuart styling models at his boutique
Ian Stuart styling models at his boutique

Was the plan to focus on MOBs right at the start?

We wanted to show a variety of Ian Stuart – bridal, evening, cocktail, hats, bags, shoes, jewellery. We didn’t know, at the beginning, how the shop would morph. As it turned out, four years on, our niche seems to be plus size brides who want a custom
dress and have a budget of £3,000-£5,000. There are lots of beautiful big girls out there, with good jobs and good salaries, and they are being treated really badly because of their size. When it comes to MOBs and MOGs it is all about custom changes, matching hats, meeting the designer, and a few glasses of Champagne... it’s a winner! I’m also loving my clients who are neither bride nor mum, they just want a beautiful dress for a special occasion. I find many people don’t like to be pigeonholed into a certain category; two of my favourite customers were Marty and Julie, from Florida. Both widowed, they met at a high school reunion after 40 years and decided to get married! They were staying at the St Ermine hotel near our store, and wandered in, seriously jet lagged. We had a few drinks, and the deal was done. She purchased a blush pink outfit and hat, to which I added some spot tulle to create a face veil. My long-suffering husband Pete made Marty a matching tie and hankie from the same fabric as her dress.

Are mums more or less demanding than their daughters?

I love both brides and mums. Mums are easier: they don’t do the rounds, they don’t haggle on price, and if they had a nice experience, and you found them a great dress that fits, with a beautiful matching hat, you’ve got the sale. Mums have had more life experiences; they tend not to take the shopping thing seriously. They are more into having a good time – the dress is great, the hat is great, I’ve had a nice appointment, here’s my credit card!

And now you are a star of the screen, too. How did it come about?
Oh darling! Don’t make my head swell! An independent production company came to visit us and wanted to see what we do in the store, both upstairs on the shop floor and downstairs in the sewing room.

Big decision, or did you jump to it?

I love my job, I love my colleagues and what we have created. I am also
not stupid, and not that desperate to be on TV that I would jeopardise everything I’ve worked so hard for over the years.

Can you talk us through the structure of the new TV series?

It follows the everyday life of a high-end occasionwear and bridal boutique in Central
London – the dilemmas, the situations and the resolutions.

Have you been able to influence the end product?

Yes! Through this show, my main goal is to raise the elegance factor of our industry; to show the viewer that they are not buying a T-shirt from Sainsbury’s but rather an ultimate shopping experience. The series was always going to be completely different from any other wedding show.

The ‘customers’ you are filmed with – are they the real thing or models brought in by the production house?

They are always real brides, mothers of brides and mothers of grooms.

Do you get to see and have the last word on each installment of the programme?

We don’t get final say, because the TV channel does not allow it.

How many stockists do you have for Ian Stuart London? Is it difficult to promote them when you have your own-name flagship store?

There is 50 stockists for Ian Stuart London. I am not competing with them by having my flagship store in London – I do designer days and trunk shows with them, and more so this season than ever before! I think it has made us closer because they know that we understand what they have to deal with. We compare notes, and quite often, I have called a certain stockist and said: "I have a situation, what would you do?" They love the fact that I cherish their reply. And of course I have ladies coming to London to get the ’Ian Stuart Experience’, knowing full well that they will buy the actual dress elsewhere. And that’s okay – we are all here to help one another. My stockists don’t see me as a threat, they see me as a friend!

How much have mums changed over the years? And do they want to be the star of the wedding?

There is a huge difference, mums have changed so much. They are not old ladies anymore, they are my age, in their 50s and they used to go out clubbing at the Hacienda in Manchester. They have Botox, they have long hair, fab legs and just want to look amazing.
Our look is hot, it’s cool and it’s fabulous! That’s why the mums love Ian Stuart!

Tell us, what do you hope to achieve from being part of the TV series?

My vision is to change the price point of bridal and occasionwear and make it
more expensive and exclusive. The programme has given me a wonderful opportunity to instigate change, which is what I think this industry really needs right now. I sincerely hope that my contribution, via the TV show, will help to educate the viewer to see that this is an elegant, service-orientated boutique sector, and realise that the experience and the journey really is just as important as the final garment.

See more of this interview with Ian Stuart in the latest copy of Bridal Buyer magazine.

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