A few weeks ago I tubed south to Brixton Village to check out gorgeous sustainable and organic fashion boutique The Keep and meet inspiring owner Kate to find out all about how she got started, the brands she stocks, the ethos behind the shop and, of course, to photograph the beautiful space…
I first met Kate at a Trouva event (The Keep is one of Trouva’s independents) and then at a workshop I gave on Instagram Stories – Kate’s are quite wonderful btw, do check them out! – and was delighted when Kate invited me down to Brixton for a coffee, a chat and to check out the boutique.
A really inviting shop space with a mix of sustainable fashion brands I already knew (Beaumont Organic, Lowie, Daisy Knights, Desmond & Dempsey & Wolf & Moon) and ones I didn’t but fell immediately in love with like Komodo and Thinking Mu! But most definitely the place to check out if you’re in search of refreshing brands, organic fabrics and ethical manufacturing. Enjoy the interview!
Tell me how The Keep Boutique got started & what were your main aims?
It was a combination of doing a job that didn’t suit my personality, watching the True Cost documentary about the state of the fashion industry and feeling totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff on sale in high street stores… that all came to a head around September time of 2012. That was also the same time I stumbled across an exhibition by the Ethical Fashion Forum that was showcasing ethical and sustainable brands from around the world. It was the first time I’d even thought to consider where our clothes come from and a sort of lightbulb moment for me in terms of wanting to support what these brands were doing. At the time, I couldn’t find any other shops in London offering sustainable fashion and had also discovered Brixton Village; so the idea to open my own shop, with the aim of seeking out and promoting fashion brands with true integrity, whilst at the same time ensuring style comes first, kind of stuck.
“Social media has also played a big role in this changing landscape. Brands with a sustainable story to tell can now do this in a much more engaging way…”
How different is shopping for sustainable & ethical fashion compared to 10 years ago? Where do/did you shop for your clothes?
I’d say in the past six years it’s changed beyond recognition. When I started, most people associated sustainable fashion with either hemp or hessian… sludge greens/browns or hippy tie-die with the word ‘ethical’ making people think ‘ethnic’. Before I opened the shop, I was doing a lot of vintage shopping and where I couldn’t fill the gap, would inevitably end up back on the high street. Sadly, the challenge of retail means that it’s incredibly hard for a brick and mortar sustainable shop to survive, so there aren’t a huge number of us, but there are definitely more and more online platforms offering a great selection of sustainable brands. Social media has also played a big role in this changing landscape. Brands with a sustainable story to tell can now do this in a much more engaging way, whilst it also means the customer has greater power in terms of calling brands to account and choosing to support brands that align with their own values.
What criteria do the brands you stock have to meet? How do you choose who to stock?
My selection of brands centres on four key tenets:
Organic (the use of organic and natural fibres is essential);
Re-made (brands should be committed to the idea of minimal waste, meaning they both aim to recycle and upcycle materials as often as possible);
Local (designers should have an appreciation for their local communities and economies); and
Fair (respect for the people making the products)
Because it’s a relatively small shop, and for me personal connection is key, the relationship with the brand is just as vital as the aesthetic of their collections. I very often go on a gut feeling… and that comes from a combination of value alignment, aesthetic of collection, and price point.
The Keep is very beautiful – what do you enjoy about the styling side of things?
Thank you so much! I had an incredibly talented interior designer friend help me and it’s thanks to him that The Keep is such a unique environment. Before opening, I never thought of myself as hugely creative, particularly as I’m naturally very disorganised and quite chaotic. But I find something incredibly satisfying about creating a sense of order through the merchandising process. I also love getting up really early to trawl through antiques markets for eclectic shop-fit or going to Covent Garden Flower market to find inspiration for our shop windows
“I love the process of capturing a sense of visual order in the image itself. It’s the same satisfaction as the writing process… whittling down words until they make a structured sentence to express something intangible…”
What role does Instagram play in your business & connecting with customers? Do you enjoy creating content for the ‘gram?
Again, when I started, Instagram wasn’t really a thing, and I never imagined it would become such a central component of the business. It was only a few years in did I start to appreciate how powerful it could be, specifically for a sustainable business such as The Keep, where we have so many stories to share with the customer. But also, when done well, you can really generate a community of engaged followers by including them in the process rather than operating as something inaccessible. So, it’s a really exciting tool, exhausting but instrumental.
In terms of creating content for the ‘gram, it’s again similar to the merchandising process. I dread the process, particularly because it generates so much chaos. I often pair the clothes with food that I’ve cooked myself and greenery to make the images more engaging, and then take the shots on my bed. So inevitably, there’s a huge amount of behind the scenes mess… but I love the process of capturing a sense of visual order in the image itself. It’s the same satisfaction as the writing process… whittling down words until they make a structured sentence to express something intangible. I imagine all content creators share the same feeling!
Do you find people are beginning to shop exclusively sustainably & ethically?
I think like most things, it’s a balance. And that’s really important to stress because otherwise it feels incredibly overwhelming and then we go the other way and don’t engage at all. I’d say most of our customers are looking for quality, but convenience and price are hugely important considering the pace of modern life and where we’re also spending our money. So many of them are choosing to buy less and invest a bit more in certain things, but at the same time mixing ethical and non-ethical into their wardrobe to fill the gaps.
For me, the most important thing is that we’re all curious about what we’re buying and demanding more information from the brands we choose to support. I think we underestimate how powerful we are as consumers, but with social media changing the way we all shop, the customer has never had more power to affect change and so much positive change can come of that.
What summer pieces are you loving right now? And what are your best-sellers?
I love buying for summer, it feels a lot more fun and there’s more scope to introduce pieces that are a bit more playful into the shop. This season we brought in a new Barcelona brand called Thinking Mu, there’s a sense of humour about them that really appeals to me, so I’m particularly loving their super easy Face print jumpsuit which is insanely comfortable, and their Vertical Lines skirt for something cool now the weathers finally improved.
Tell me a little about the other brands you stock?
Sure. Another summer brand that we love is ‘cor’ which is run by London-based designer Jaz Hunt. This is our second season with her, and both collection’s draw inspiration from abstract artists of the 20th Century. As a result, the prints are really unique – which are all hand painted by Jaz herself, and then each piece is handmade in a certified factory in India using organic fabrics. I have the octopus print shirt which is just amazing!
I’m also a big fan of CUS who design, source, and manufacture their clothes with the aim of maximising benefits for the people they work with whilst minimizing the impact on the environment. Production is entirely done in Barcelona and the aesthetic of the brand is quite Scandinavian in terms of cut, whilst also being bold with print and colour. I’m just waiting to get some tan on my legs before diving into the geometric shorts.
As well as clothes you stock accessories and homewares – can you tell me why you’ve chosen the brands you have?
Matt & Nat are one of our main accessory brands, they’re a vegan brand from Montreal that we’ve stocked ever since we opened and who’ve been incredibly popular with our customers for the fact they don’t use leather and also use recycled plastic bottles for the lining of their bags and wallets. If we weren’t down to the last of their amazing Kiara backpacks I’d definitely be snapping that up (Ed’s note: already gone!).
Our jewellery brands also do great things in terms of supporting the artisans they work with. Based in Swaziland, Quazi Design employ innovative techniques to change our perception of recycled materials, creating a diverse range of responsible and thoughtful products. Central to their ethos is the view that craftsmanship and ethical production could prove to be a vital economic sector for Africa, something which I also feel incredibly strongly about. And each item is hand made by local women, employed on a full-time basis, giving job security and a living wage.
Whilst Just Trade work with eight groups of artisans in Peru, Ecuador, India and Vietnam; combining traditional craft skills and materials with contemporary design to create distinctive pieces from locally-sourced and ethical materials where possible.
I could go on and on, but perhaps I’ll leave it there for now!
Thankyou so much Kate!
Do visit @thekeepboutique on Instagram
And IRL at 32/33 Brixton Village, Coldharbour Lane
London SW9 8PR
All photography by myself on Olympus Pen with 17mm lens