We were lucky enough to chat with our friends at Creative Entrepreneurs about Form SE15 and our story. Creative Entrepreneurs is a members only space for like minded individuals to learn and support their peers. It was a real pleasure to talk about where we're heading to too!
Fascinated by fashion and art from a young age, Jo Johnson opened the doors to her own independent boutique in May 2018. Form SE15 is set in Bellenden Road, Peckham (the place Jo calls home) and over the last four years, has attracted a loyal following from the local community. Jo’s collections include menswear, womenswear and gifts with each unique piece carefully selected to reflect the individual and relaxed style of her customers.
In this interview, Jo shares how she went from sewing Sindy dolls’ clothing as a child to launching an ethical fashion retail business in one of the trendiest spots in South London.
What inspired you to start a fashion retail business?
In some ways, I think the idea to run a shop has been with me most of my adult life, and even some of my childhood. It flitted in and out of my mind because I always had a creative mind even back when I was using my dad’s shed to make clothes for my Sindy dolls when I first started sewing. It’s one of those things that felt out of reach but finally, I made it happen! I grew up on the coast in Norfolk and was obsessed from an early age with fashion.
My teenage years were spent sticking pages from Vogue on the inside of my wardrobe and I made a lot of my own clothes as well. I finally studied art and design, then fashion design, then fashion promotion and illustration (in Epsom at the University for Creative Arts). When I graduated I took a bit of a back seat from fashion and worked in art and photographic production, and as an art agent, among other things. Whilst working as an assistant buyer and managing a shop in my home of Peckham after a bout of ill health, I realised I might have all the tools needed for my own shop!
Made redundant, I very quickly started building on the contacts I already had and looked for funding. The space we are in on Bellenden Road now miraculously came available at that time and luckily the landlady really believed in what I was trying to do: to add back into our local community with a colourful, dopamine-inducing shopping experience with a sustainable underpinning.
Tell us about your collections – what makes them unique?
I’ve kind of hinted about that in the last question but we are absolutely a riot of colour and print at Form SE15. We sell menswear, womenswear and gifts too, and I give every part of the shop equal parts of my love and attention! Every single piece in the shop is there because I’ve personally bought it for our customers.
Also, as an independent boutique, we don’t over order, and that means you’re not going to see multiple people walking around in something you’ve bought from us: we want our customers to feel special and that we’re buying just for them. I’ve lived in Peckham for over 18 years, so I like to think I know our local returning customers well and our online customers get to get a little SE15 in their lives too! We are asking our customers to buy less, but buy better, so that we can invest in higher quality pieces from brands with traceable lines of manufacturing and production, plus people (that make the clothes) who are paid a fair wage with proper working conditions.
What challenges have you faced in setting up a fashion boutique in London?
Where do I start?! There’s a multitude of issues setting up a bricks and mortar shop at the best of times, let alone going through Covid-19 and now dealing with the cost of living increases. We are very aware of everything that affects our customers because it also affects us.
Luckily, we had our very efficient online shop to help shoulder some of the brunt of closure during 2020/2021 but it was incredibly difficult. It really came down to the fact I wholeheartedly love running Form SE15 and couldn’t think of myself doing anything else! I also have a very good relationship with my landlady, who is very community-driven and wanted to be part of keeping Bellenden Road full of independent shops because keeping the chain stores out of local areas is tough going. There’s a multitude of reasons that it’s very difficult to even get a shop started and then maintain it.
What’s your proudest accomplishment with Form SE15?
We’ve now been open four years during what must be the toughest time to ever run a business, so I would say that it has to be that we are still growing and supported by so many fantastic returning customers! Building real relationships and making many friends along the way has been the beating heart of Form SE15, so I’m very proud of that. We also had a bit of a glow up with a refit recently (shoutout to Motive Productions!) and I’m really happy with how the shop now looks so we will add that to the happiness basket as well!
How do you plan to grow your business further?
The $64 million dollar question! I would absolutely love to be able to invest more in our online shop. I’m always thinking of where I want us to go next and what the next few years hold. Watch this space is what I’m really saying!
What advice would you have for creatives wanting to open a boutique store?
The absolute vital, number one thing on your list should be to write a comprehensive business plan whether you are needing to apply for funding or not.
Being a creative type of person, the thought of writing one felt like pulling teeth but it is so important to get your facts and figures right so that the underpinning of your store will be correct! It took me around a month to really get mine nailed down and I’m really glad I did as you can always refer back to it or rewrite it for your future years.
Also, make sure that you REALLY know your customer. I was comfortable opening a shop in Peckham because I’ve lived here so long, so do your research and find out what the local community really want from a shop! I was never going to sell high-end occasion wear, for example. The good people of SE15 just like looking good from day to night with minimum fuss! But parachuting a shop into an area you don’t understand is never a good idea. Sell what you know and what you love.