Quitting midwifery to run a shop selling handcrafted items might not seem the most obvious transition. However, Helen Ward’s Peckham-based store, LOIS, quickly built up a loyal following, as well as winning awards in the press.
It was atmospheric, filled with striking prints, jewellery and homeware; and nestled next to Café Viva in a welcoming enclave on Choumert Road.
Helen, who lives in Brixton, funded the store with her savings, worked six days a week for eighteen months, scooped prizes, endured floods and even hosted creative writing sessions and vintage markets in the back room of the shop.
But now, eighteen months on she’s just gone online only, so I wanted to delve into the felted depths of the craft world to learn why she’s all about the makers.
Why did you originally decide to swap babies for bags?
It was a really hard decision, but it really came down to the fact that I couldn’t see myself being a midwife for the rest of my life. It’s a career job, one that you learn and get better at with experience, and I wasn’t ready to commit to one thing like that. I also wanted to try out running my own business before I had too many financial or personal commitments, like a mortgage or child.
What did you learn from running the shop?
Alot. Hidden expenses was probably one of the bigger ones. No matter how much you try to budget for things, there will always be something that pops in sideways with a big bill, whether that’s the accountant, a larger than expected card machine bill, or damaged stock.
I also learned the hard way that doing something like running a shop or business is really tough on your own; it makes so much more sense, financially and emotionally to go into it with someone else. Those things sound quite negative, but I also realised that despite all the hard work and financial worry, it is incredibly liberating and self-affirming to do something you really enjoy and believe in.
Why set it up in Peckham?
I used to work at Cafe Viva, which is next door to where the shop was – and so I knew the landlady who owned next door. Peckham is a really creative place right now – there are artists’ studios, creative businesses and art schools in the local area so there was definitely the audience for what I was doing.
Why do you think south London has a thriving creative scene?
Perhaps the fact that it’s still vaguely cheaper than elsewhere, so people on a lower income (artists and designers included) can afford to live there. South London also has a large number of art schools, and graduates may end up living in the area where they studied. I know that a lot of the people working in creative jobs in Peckham went to Goldsmiths, LCC or Camberwell College of Art. I also think south London is a bit more chilled – it runs at a slightly slower pace to north of the river so there’s a chance to get the creative juices flowing.
What advice would you give people for setting up a business?
Take it slowly. I wish I’d spent a bit more time before I opened sorting out a marketing strategy, going to talks on business management, and working out my finances before I opened. It’s also hugely helpful to know people in the world you’re entering into – having friends who do product photography, web design and printing saved me a lot of money in the long run.
Why did you decide to go online only last month?
I wanted to free up my time to try some new things. We’re starting a summer series of workshops in June, and I’m expanding our repertoire to include artist representation. These are things I simply wouldn’t have had the time or flexibility to do when I was in the shop all day every day. I also wanted to bring my costs down, which has made a huge difference.
Do you have many south-London based artists?
Jonna Saarinen, originally from Finland, shares a studio space at Bainbridge Studios in West Norwood and works as a screen printer. She has her own range of homewares and also takes commissions, and works part-time at the Royal Academy where she trained. Also Laurie Yeomans lives in Peckham and works with copper to make minimal but really beautiful jewellery.
Whilst working with her I discovered the frustrations a lot of designer-makers face, particularly in London. They pay very high rents at home and at their studios and often have a couple of jobs as well as making their products, just to survive.There’s a level of determination that comes from that financial strain and it was one of the reasons I wanted to work with designer-makers in London.
What are your favourite places to drink?
Aneto Café in East Dulwich, the Ritzy Café in Brixton, Cafe Viva in Peckham, and The Pigeon Hole in Camberwell.
What’s next for LOIS?
First up will be Leathercraft + Craft Ale, where people can make their own leather accessories while supping locally-produced Canopy Beer. Then Japanese Book Binding + Block printing, where people can bind their own book and print a front cover. Other classes include acrylic jewellery making, copper jewellery making and letterpress printing.
Interview: Heloise Wood