Sara Walker talks to small business entrepreneur Helen Gilbert, maker and retailer of luxury velvet cushions, about how she moved from marketing to material.
Three years ago, Helen was working in marketing recruitment and juggling the demands of work and family.
“It was fine in term time, but it got really difficult during the school holidays and I just wanted to work more flexible hours and spend more time with my family,” she says.
“My business, Luxe 39, came about as a conjunction of circumstances. I’d just finished a full house renovation and was looking for accessories, and I couldn’t find velvet cushions I liked of the right quality. I started making my own, and then friends saw they were a bit different with the double colours and asked me to make cushions for them. It was around the time I was thinking about changing jobs and I saw an opportunity.
“I’ve always loved velvet, it’s such a timeless fabric and it lasts for years. The cotton velvet I use is a natural fabric, woven in small batches. I don’t think any other fabric bounces the light quite like velvet, and colours always look really vibrant, so I knew that was the material I wanted to work with. The next step was finding it!
“There’s still a UK mill who weave their own cotton velvet, but I had a bit of a supply problem at first. They would only sell wholesale and I just didn’t have the budget or storage space to buy 50m rolls! I began to look at buying from existing stockists and hit another problem, as a number of them wouldn’t sell to a start-up. Finally, I managed to track down a supplier who would sell me the quantities I needed, and I was in business!
The mill offers a vast range of colours and my starting point was to select colours I love which work well together. I now offer over 80 colour combination choices online and can spot colour trends and have an idea of what’s going to be popular. Mustard yellow and burnt orange are currently our best selling colours, and I’ve got a gorgeous, deep gold shade of yellow which I am about to put online. We launched purple this month which is proving very popular, and sage green is in the pipeline as I think it’s going to be a big colour trend going forward.
“I change the cushions in my own house regularly as I make the new colours up as samples to photograph and live with them so that I can get an idea of what colours go together to offer advice to customers. The cushions are double sided velvet with a different colour on each side, so you’re really getting two looks for the price of one!”
Setting up your own business from scratch comes with its own challenges and Luxe 39 was no exception.
“I make my cushions to order in small batches so I had to learn how to manage my fabric stock levels efficiently,” Helen explains. “Customers are already waiting for me to make the cushions so I can’t afford any delays while I wait for fabric. Another big learning curve was around time management. In the beginning, I invested too much time trying to market on Instagram. It’s very time consuming without much return on investment. I now keep a presence on there as some customers like to use it in their buying decisions, but it’s only a small part of my marketing focus now.
“Since I launched in July 2018 sales have grown steadily and I think the situation with Covid has probably been helpful from a business point of view. People want to invest in their homes more and have extra disposable income available as they’re not going on holidays.
“Now, three years on from launching, the business is going really well and growing steadily. I have lots of repeat customers, which is lovely, and all my website reviews are five stars. I really enjoy working for myself and it’s satisfying to be making something that brings a little colour into people’s lives.”
To browse the range of nine different sizes and over 80 different colours, visit the Luxe 39 website. Helen is also happy to discuss bespoke sizes. Prices start at £35.
All images (c) 2021 Helen Gilbert/Luxe 390