The Keep Boutique: Dedicated to longevity and connection
Kate Richards opened her brick and mortar store to fill a very big need for more accessible ethical and sustainable fashion in London
Living in a city like London means you are spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping—all but every brand will have a storefront for you to visit, and will be very much vying for your attention too. It was somewhat serendipitous that I stumbled upon The Keep’s store in Brixton Village in London’s south. I experienced firsthand the most calming shopping environment I’ve felt in a long time. Kate Richards has created a beautiful oasis with a curated selection of ethical clothing and accessories—for keeps—and will happily tell you the story and details behind each and every item.
Kate is an admirable advocate for a more transparent industry, regularly hosting events, and driving a connection between garment, maker and wearer. It was only fitting that we let you all know about The Keep and the wonderful woman behind it.
What inspired you to open The Keep? Tell us a little bit about your personal journey and what lead you to start your own business.
It seems so long ago now, but it was a combination of feeling lost in my city job, being disillusioned with the pace and homogenous nature of the high street shops and stumbling across Brixton Village, which five years ago felt like a secret enclave of creativity and independents. It was at the same time that I came across the Ethical Fashion Forum and something about hearing the stories of people making clothes more mindfully just really struck a chord with me. I found it very hard to think about anything else but starting my own shop which was entirely dedicated to stocking sustainable fashion.
Why was Brixton Village the right location for The Keep?
For what must have been my 27th Birthday, I’d booked a table at Cornercopia inside Brixton Village. My birthday’s in February, it was a freezing night, none of my family had been to Brixton, and we had this incredible dinner beside a wood burning stove wrapped in blankets, eating the most delicious food and feeling like we were in someone’s log cabin in the woods. As we left it was snowing and I remember taking one last glance back into this magical space that just seemed to radiate with so much soul and thinking I want to be a part of that. Shop’s can be soulless spaces, but The Keep is all about human connection, and there is nowhere else in London more geared towards supporting community and localism than Brixton. It was the perfect fit, and I was hugely lucky to get a space—I essentially harassed the management with packets of chocolate biscuits on a daily basis until they offered me a space!
How do you decide what labels to stock and how has this shaped the store over the last few years for you?
When I started I predominantly found labels through a couple of London based agents that supported sustainable brands and helped them find stockists. However, as I’ve got to know my customers I’ve began to seek out a wider variety of brands which inevitably means extending out the search and travelling to European trade shows where the array of sustainable brands is greater. Because the shop isn’t huge, and nor is my buying budget, I do have to keep the selection quite tight which can be hard—and thanks to the reach that social media now provides, I get contacted a lot by brands from all over the world. To narrow down the selection, I therefore not only go on the brands sustainability credentials (certifications etc), but also on my intuition and how deeply the brands story resonates with my own values. Having said that, the aesthetic of the brand and the commerciality of the product is also essential.
I’ve had to become a lot more business focused than I was at the beginning. The Keep has to be able to sustain itself and in the retail world that’s no easy task! As a result, I now do a lot of analysis of past sales to see what styles perform the best, what the average price my customers are willing to spend, the sell-through rate of each brand etc. This informs my product and brand selection hugely, far more than when I first set up and just bought all the things I would love to wear myself! Although, I still find it hard not to do that as well!
You’ve hosted events in Brixton to inspire and educate others on ethical manufacturing. How do you feel the response is within your local community to ethical fashion and the like?
Since I began, I definitely feel as though there is far more awareness about the damaging environmental, social and economic impact of fast fashion. Not only at the point of production, but also on the customers themselves. We’re buying far more than we ever used to, and although it may be cheaper, the volume at which we’re consuming only means we’re less likely to save up for the things we actually need. As a result, the response to what I offer is increasingly positive, and I find people make dedicated trips to the shop because of their desire to shop more sustainably.
In the same vein, the response to events that I do, such as hosting a screening of The True Cost movie and the supper clubs that we run outside the shop to discuss topics such as sustainability and organic production, have been hugely positive. But it’s very difficult to turn this response into actual behaviour change when a) we’re being actively targeted by the multinationals with their vast marketing budgets, b) we’re so removed from the making and manufacturing of the things we buy, and c) the alternative is both a bit more expensive and not as easily accessible. But that only spurs me on to do more, host more events, open more shops, make it more accessible and find product that is more affordable so that there’s no excuse!
What are your top tips for people wishing to shop more consciously?
My top tip would be look for the emotional connection. Set yourself the challenge of looking at your wardrobe and picking out the things you really love and thinking about why that is. Is it because there’s a story? Your grandmother knitted it; you’re mother wore it; you wear it on key occasions because it makes you feel confident. I’m pretty sure that all of the things that turn out to be ‘loved’ are the ones that cost more, are made with more premium quality fabrics, and made by a skilled garment maker. And then look at the things in your wardrobe that disappoint you—the things that have let you down after wearing them once. I’d hazard a guess that these are the things you bought when you ran in, saw it on sale and grabbed it because you needed something to quickly change into. I’d also imagine that you’ve never worn it since.
Once you’ve done that, remind yourself of this process when you’re next tempted to buy that quick fix, and instead mentally put that extra £19.99 into a pot. Give yourself three weeks and you’ve probably saved yourself £60. That’s got to be one of the best feelings in the world—and then you can put it towards something you know you love, will make you feel a million dollars and will last a lot longer than those three things you were about to buy for £19.99. Even better, put it in your savings account and keep a monthly tab of how much you’ve gained from not buying into an industry that has zero concern for your bank balance.
My second piece of advice is to be strict on yourself. Not easy, but look yourself in the eye when you’re in the changing room and ask yourself how many times you think you’ll wear it. If you can’t see it making more than five occasions, take it off, put it back on the hanger and get out. If you can honestly see yourself getting at least 15-20 wears, with the knowledge that it will wash well and you’re not buying it just because it’s on sale, then you’re on firm ground towards generating a wardrobe more swayed towards loved pieces.
Who do you look to for inspiration and mentorship when considering how to successfully run a small business?
I find the stories of other start-ups incredibly inspirational, for the main reason that it’s rarely ever a linear process and often fraught with moments of extreme highs and frightening lows. I recently got introduced to the How I Built This podcast, which is brilliant fuel for the fire! I also look at many of my friends and peers who are running their own thing and doing brilliantly. And up on the pedestal for building a truly sustainable business based on very strong values and a respect towards the natural world is Patagonia.
For mentoring, I’m incredibly lucky to have the guidance of someone who I respect hugely and whose knowledge of the retail industry is second to none. He also slightly terrifies me, which is no bad thing as it’s all too easy when you run your own business that you avoid doing the boring tasks, or the things that challenge you most but make you grow as a result.
What are some of your go-to resources to keep up to speed with what’s happening around the globe?
Social media in its various forms is my go to. Twitter for news, Instagram for discovering new brands, and Facebook for events. I’m an avid follower of the Ethical Fashion Forum as they’re an amazing source of industry based information. Livia Firth is also an excellent person to follow.
There’s definitely a balance to be struck, because the resources out there are hugely beneficial, but from my own experience they can also paralyse you. The desire to feel up to speed all the time can be dangerous as you only focus only on what’s out there and ahead of you, and inevitably you come face to face with the things you’re not doing, or don’t know about, or should be doing but haven’t quite got round to it yet.
I’ve always wanted The Keep to be somewhere people can escape to for peace and quiet amidst the crazy pace of life—somewhere they come away from (whatever channel they may be engaging with us on), feeling stronger rather than diminished. And therefore I think switching off, doing something totally mindless and escapist for myself, can at times, be monumentally more valuable for my business than if I attempted to know about every sustainable event, brand or future fabric out there.
What’s next for The Keep?
To build the brand, on all channels. To really make it more than just a series of independent shops, but a presence that exists which people can connect to in a number of ways. With many more events and talks spanning all areas of sustainability, not just clothing, so people can engage with us in more ways than just the traditional retailer model. I’m passionate about supporting people, whether that be in ensuring better working conditions for garment workers; helping producer groups get their product to market; sharing the story of a London-based craftsperson; raising awareness about LGBT issues in the fashion industry; championing womens equality in the workplace; helping displaced and vulnerable people gain employment—these are the issues that drive me and I want to use The Keep as a force for good in more ways than just selling sustainable fashion.
You can visit The Keep Boutique at 32-33 Brixton Village, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PR Tuesday-Sunday or shop online 24/7 at thekeepboutique.com. Be sure to also follow Kate’s beautiful Instagram @thekeepboutique, where she shares valuable insights and information around a slow-living lifestyle and the brands she chooses to stock.