Words: Hannah Molyneux
There is hope for the high street. With online shopping on the rise and empty retail units on every corner, Curated Makers offers a shopping experience with a difference. Championing northern makers, they are advocates for independent creative businesses, bringing handmade artisan products to the streets of the UK.
Working with retailers such as John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, and Paperchase, Curated Makers create a space for northern pop-up shops and outlets on the high street, giving shoppers the opportunity to purchase something lovingly handmade, while supporting a small business at the same time.
It’s been a whirlwind year for founder Megan Jones, with concession stands and pop-ups across Manchester, Liverpool, and Chester, as well as organising events such as Creatival – the creative business conference for makers and other small businesses. Recently, her efforts to showcase northern makers have been recognised with an award for North West Creative Industries Entrepreneur of the Year.
We caught a quiet moment with Megan to chat about her passion for bringing indie business to the high street, the realities of running a one-woman business, and her future ambitions for Curated Makers.
What was the inspiration behind Curated Makers?
I was working for large online retailers in digital marketing, selling mass-produced items that had no real meaning, and I wasn’t fulfilled whatsoever. I was always visiting local artisan markets and started to realise how much I loved the artists and makers there. I wanted to work with these people and see how I could use my skills to help small businesses. So then I started taking four or five makers to the market, trading on their behalf using a commission-based model, which normally doesn’t exist for small businesses.
After a while I started to realise that markets are unreliable, and the logistics involved even for five makers were almost impossible to manage. I saw an art gallery in the window of Debenhams in Manchester one day and thought, “I want to be in there,” so I approached Debenhams and pitched a pop-up shop to them. The window wasn’t available, but they gave me a space on the third floor between the café and the loos! I decided to give it a go and set up a market stall in there. 2 weeks turned into 3, and then finally they gave me the window spot. This was in June 2018 – it was my first taste of high street footfall and that’s when I made the decision to focus on the high street.
You’ve made the decision to focus on physical, tangible shopping rather than online selling – why is that?
There’s so much competition in this space online in terms of marketplaces, and I don’t really want to take them on. No one else is doing this pop-up model on the high street, and I’ve seen real success with it. The retailers want to stand out and the makers have the opportunity to sell their products on the high street. It’s important to me to create a personal shopping experience and tell the stories of the makers. I’m here to offer something different and to tempt shoppers away from mass-produced products made overseas in favour of local talent.
What is your relationship like with local makers? Were they on board from the beginning?
The makers have received it really well, especially because the footfall is so reliable. I just asked them to trust me and I’m so grateful that they did. I have a really personal relationship with the makers and that’s possible because they’re local. Even though I can’t work with everyone, I still want to build a community, so I’ve done two meet-ups this year with speakers, workshops to provide opportunities to connect with other creatives.
What do you find challenging about running this kind of business?
The sacrifice is real! The past year has been so full on and I’ve not been able to spend as much time with friends and family as I would like. There’s just me in the business and I’m responsible for every single aspect of it. Even the shop fixtures are designed by me and then made at home by my boyfriend who is a joiner.
People tell me I’ve achieved a lot so quickly but I’m not running Curated Makers part time or even full time – I’m running it double time at the moment! Everyone’s concerned about me burning out, so I need to look after myself and work out a way of running Curated Makers that isn’t so reliant on me. At my last two pop-ups I’ve had a rota of shop staff to help me out – they’re all makers or freelancers themselves and it’s been life-changing for me to have them about.
My next challenge will be how I could run two shops at once, then three, then four, because ideally, I’d like to be in as many cities as possible all at the same time.
And if money was no object?
There would be something like this in every city across the UK. I don’t know whether it should be pop-up or permanent – the former is more exciting but logistically heavy with the added elements of moving around and storing stock and shop fittings. I had my heart set on getting into John Lewis and Marks and Spencer and I’ve managed to achieve that. I’d love a pop up in Selfridges and if Liberty would every have me that would be the dream! It would be amazing to take northern makers to the south.
I’ve got something interesting in Curated Makers and I’m starting to get emails from interesting people who want this in more places – it’s so exciting and genuinely all my dreams are starting to come true.
What is special to you about working in the north and particularly with creative women?
There’s so much going on in the south and makers are already well-represented, so I want to shine a spotlight on northern makers. The quality is so high and I’m spoilt for choice. Northern pride is fantastic and, in all the places I’ve been so far, people are so proud of being northern and that’s why I like to focus so much on local products.
I work with a lot of women and it’s great to be able to represent them. I’m really pleased to be able to contribute to a flexible style of working that suits women and their creative businesses and family lives. To be honest, the proportion of women that I work with is so high that I’m actually looking for more men to work with to create some balance!
I’m inspired by so many of the women that I’ve come across and worked with, and lots of them are good friends now. The community aspect is so important to me and I’m becoming more involved in supporting creative women in the North through events and meet-ups. I definitely find that filling a room with other creative people helps to keep me going too!
Curated Makers announce all upcoming events on Instagram @curatedmakers