Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'Works For Me' - with Cox & Baloney

'Works for Me'
A series of interviews with people who are managing to make money out of the things they love doing.

It's been months since I had the privilege of chatting with Joney Lyons, one half of the dynamic duo behind 'Cox & Baloney' - a vintage boutique, tea room and all-round genuine jewel on the Cheltenham Road in Bristol, UK.

I contacted Cox & Baloney hoping to glean a behind-the-scenes look at owning a vintage boutique and make notes as part of my research for an on-going writing project. What I ended up with was pages and pages of pure passion. Our conversation gave me so much food for thought that I've been slow to put it down in words, wanting to pick through the wisdom and distill exactly what was so enjoyable about our time together. At the risk of over-simplifying, I've whittled it down to three things:

1. Innovation

Cox & Baloney is the brain child of two best friends, Joney Lyons and Amy Cox, with a shared background in the TV and film industry. When the long, stressful days of their original careers began to lose their luster, they took the initiative channeling their creativity into the clothing venture that began as a rail in artisan markets and evolved into the treasure-trove boutique open today.

New facets of their adventure are being added all the time: from collaborations with a dressmaker, a bookshop owner and most recently, a furniture restorer, they've paired up with people whose skills complement their vintage vision, creating a space that celebrates craftsmanship across multiple platforms. The addition of a tea room, both quaint and glamorous in equal parts, has been an ace in their hands, allowing them to host popular events such as hen parties and baby showers in a haven of wonderful aesthetics. 

Nothing is accidental. Everything from the decor and visual merchandising, to the shop's contents and its capacity to stylishly cater for special occasions, is the result of meticulous and on-going planning, market research, investment and evolution.

2. Education

The most humbling and uncomfortable aspects of our discussion held a mirror up to my own behaviour and made me reconsider some of my buying expectations. 

Joney talked about the difficulty faced by retailers wanting to offer something of value to consumers who are used to clothes coming cheap. We are often unwilling to recognise that higher prices reflect the fact that garments sourced in great condition from by-gone eras are inherently worth more because of their history, their quality and their uniqueness. Similarly, she described the pricing dilemmas facing British designers and artisans looking to make a living in competition with imported mass-produced products that imitate their labour-intensive handmade techniques. 

Against this backdrop, Cox & Baloney is constantly defining its own niche: like all businesses the boutique needs to make money, but its outspoken stance in support of the wider independent fashion industry is a credit to its owners' own integrity and strength of feeling.
Perhaps better still is the way each potential customer is invited to contribute to this alternative retail scene. During my customer experiences in Cox & Baloney, I've inwardly marvelled at the freedom to browse, to engage with the stock, to be advised on how to maximise the fun and flattering nature of vintage clothes - all without any overriding pressure to make a purchase. The experience is a world away from jostling on the high street to buy the same things as every second person. It's a rewarding way to shop and I recommend the re-think.      
3. Inspiration

Although I doubt she realised it, talking with Joney was inspiring. It's not everyday you meet someone who will tell you, adamantly and repeatedly, that you must "follow your dreams". Joney seemed sincerely happy to help forward my writing pipe-dream, and sitting with her in the tea room of a beautiful boutique willed into reality by two determined friends, the productive force of sheer belief suddenly seemed as tangible as the tea cups in our hands.

See for yourself:

   Opening Hours   
Tuesday-Friday 11am-6pm
Saturdays 10am-6pm
Sundays 12pm-4pm
Contact Cox & Baloney
182-184 Cheltenham road Cotham Bristol BS6 5RB
 0117 9443100
Twitter:  @coxandbaloney

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Integrity of Kathleen Kelly

I've had the strongest urge to watch "You've Got Mail" this week. I've been making my way through tissue after tissue to emerge on the other side of a cold, and I think its brought to mind the scene where Meg Ryan's character - Kathleen Kelly - is ill at home after losing her business.

I love this film. It's romantic, it's smart, it's becoming more and more old-school as technology moves forward (I get nostalgic at the little dial-up noises their computers make - so quaint!). But most of all I love the fabulous, fictional Kathleen Kelly. We watch her weave her way around so many levels of uncertainty as she experiences isolation in her relationship and opposition in her work. She goes through a break-up, enters the uncharted realm of unemployment, has the aforementioned bout of sickness and struggles with the haunting ache of being bereaved of her mother. And yet there's something I find so uplifting in her handling of it all. I think it's her honesty.

Here is a character who feels things keenly. She is passionate in her likes and her dislikes. She is open with her knowledge and expertise, comfortable with her strengths and realistic about her shortcomings. Which makes her one of the most whole and real people I've ever spent a couple of hours with, despite the fact that she doesn't exist. Throughout the film, she is entirely herself: mean, lovely, vulnerable, strong - her complexity provoking both loathing and love in Tom Hanks' character, Joe Fox.

In some aspects of my life I have authenticity down to a fine art. It took an illness of a slightly more seriousness nature than a cold a few years ago for me to get into the habit of ruthless honesty with myself about my physical limitations. As a result, I'm better at resting, better at saying 'no', better at recognising that I can't give anything of worth to the world if I don't prioritise taking care of myself and there's no shame or selfishness in that.

But I still have some way to go when it comes to having Kathleen Kelly's level of self-acceptance and integrity on an emotional level. Often, I feel like I hold back a measure of the passion I feel in my likes and my dislikes for fear of how they'll come across. I mostly operate in a kind of truce with my strengths (I know they exist and don't mind them being mentioned by others, but I don't like to dwell on them myself). And I have a capacity to be unrealistic about my shortcomings, to the extent that in times past their power to surprise and devastate me has seriously derailed me midway through my (useless) efforts to be so very nearly perfect.

Ultimately, this doesn't bother me too much. I know that through the listen-imitate-listen of my relationship with God I'm putting aside my past perfectionist obsessions and growing into the acceptance and integrity I want - just as I previously learned to be truthful with myself about how much my body could physically take on. But along the way, I like watching "You've Got Mail" and observing the multifaceted example of Kathleen Kelly. It's a fun reminder that being all of it - the good, the bad, the ugly, the success and the 'failure' - actually makes for a pretty admirable person.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Postcard from a Peaceful Place

Photo from a country walk - the way I chose to celebrate my 25th

I'm taking time this evening to banish an odd feeling that's been creeping up on me. It began with my birthday and has filtered on through other occasions when I've felt like maybe my reactions aren't quite 'right'; maybe I'm out of sync with expectations of how a 25 year old should think/feel/act. 

When I choose the quiet things, when I'm self-controlled, when I love in other-worldly, unfashionable ways and the anecdotes of my wild times are few and far between, the beginnings of a fear I haven't felt since I was a teenager resurfaces a little: am I interesting enough?

The difference between my teens and my twenties is now I know how to put the question to one side. I know how to rummage around inside of myself and find some truths to set me free

"Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life." - Galatians 6v4-5 TM (the Bible)

Regardless of how sedate the sum total of my existence may seem from the outside, I know its realities. I know the 'because' behind each experience of intense peace and soul-stillness. I know the inconsequential triggers, like learning something new, that make joy radiate through me with a kind of uncontainable delirium. I know the loves I live and die for every single day. 

When I feel passed over by other people or on the verge of being ashamed that I'm not more like someone else, I've learned to let them be them and I'll be me. 

My life is interesting enough for me. And that's enough.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Wardrobe Stories


It's coat weather again and I have a trusty faithful. Bought during the days of my H&M allegiance, this coat is entering it's fourth winter with me and still going strong. I love its huge neck - the wide collar can be buttoned right up to the chin, acting like a kind of sea-wall windbreaker, with ample space for a scarf underneath. It's a size up (and is consequently able to accommodate all the knitwear I invariably wear) but the tapered sleeves and waist tie stop it from being shapeless.

It's a good coat, but I especially like wearing it since I replaced a lost button with this little gem of a brooch - it's become a garment that's evolved with me. The coat came into my life when I was in a particularly independent phase. I was living alone in Berlin for a month before embarking on an academic year at university in Germany. Leaving all kinds of loves behind to explore a new city, language and lifestyle on my own was both lonely and exhilarating. There was something supremely satisfying about spontaneously purchasing the first coat I'd ever bought for myself in that context: choosing my own style, breaking away from the hand-me-downs I'd inherited throughout my teens. Much like that whole stage of life, it was mostly all about me.

Fast forward: two years and one lost button later I was married, unemployed and feeling in many ways like my world had shrunk without my say-so. I'd like to think if someone had told me in advance about all the tedium and tension our relocation had in store for me I would have embraced it anyway, but truthfully not knowing was a blessing. I saw the brooch in a social enterprise boutique called SHOP as the realities of joblessness were slowly beginning to dawn on me, and I found it strangely comforting. 

The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) was a World War II movement that allowed women to play an active part in the war effort, despite the more restrictive social conventions governing their lives at that time. Remembering the transformative influence these women had, from countless wartime support roles right through to shaping today's social care structures, was timely encouragement that being "just" a housewife could be a valuable occupation. Accurately or not, I imagine these women to be resilient, 'make do and mend' types. The brooch seemed to say: "yes, sometimes things aren't as you would want them to be but you can choose how you respond. Be brave. Be selfless. Be part of something bigger." Identifying with them by wearing their badge gave me added confidence that I could forge something worthwhile out of the seemingly costly choice I'd made in prioritising my new marriage over my job prospects. Housewifery was by no means the role I was looking for, but temporarily it was all that was available to me; and, so help me God, I would follow the example of the WVS and do a good job under the circumstances.

I'm somewhere on the other side of both those experiences now. I've had the privilege of being legitimately allowed to prioritise my own personal enrichment; I've been humbled in the struggle to let go of my "success" to fit in with someone else's. But it's not either/or. I realise now that real life needs a little of both. Seasons of personal progress and other-orientated sacrifice need to live side by side in a balanced life, and there's euphoria and boredom in both. That's life. 

When I forget, I only need to button up my coat.

'Wardrobe Stories' are a string of posts helping me to appreciate the clothes and accessories I own in an atmosphere where it's easy to end up taking things for granted.
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