There are some changes afoot at Dollydagger. As we approach the end of our 12th year we have decided to take a break but before we do that we wanted to explain a few things, talk about our plans for the future and reminisce a little on the past.
We’ve worked with Suzy Prince for many years – Suzy was the founder and editor of arts and culture magazine Nude, which featured Dollydagger regularly. And we thought that a nice way to talk about what’s been happening, and what’s coming up, would be for Dolly’s doyenne Emma Ayres to sit down with Suzy and have a chat.
Suzy: So much to say; where shall we start?
Emma: Well, I think now would be a good time to mention that after 12 years of trading I have decided to close Dollydagger; not permanently but for the foreseeable future, while I take stock and get some well-earned rest!
When we closed our Brighton shop it was the end of a chapter and the beginning of an extremely difficult period during which I have battled to keep things going and I know I haven’t done an especially good job!
Suzy: For people who are new to Dollydagger, plus as a reminder to long term devotees, let’s talk about where it all started and the history.
Emma: I often find myself feeling the need to explain to people that we’ve been around for a long time and we really were the first boutique of its kind. We were pre-Modcloth and at the time there were very few lifestyle stores or retro brands around and certainly nobody that looked like we did. This was of course, great for us and meant we got lots of press coverage and a really loyal customer base.
I set Dollydagger up because I wanted to find things that suited me and were to my taste, that were still good quality but just had that alternative twist.
Suzy: When you started out, were you personally craving a career change? Was there some kind of lightbulb moment? This was an unusual path to take back in those days.
Emma: At the time I started Dollydagger, I had just left a senior management position in a global IT company and was doing very well for myself. Dollydagger happened naturally in the sense that it was almost an accident. I’d been in the same company, for about nine years. We’d been through so many reorganisations that I was just tired of it. I knew that I needed a change, so I took a year off and went travelling.
As part of that, my friend and I did a road trip from San Francisco down the West Coast and we went to the Coachella Festival. While I was there I realised I’d lost the corporate drive that I once used to have, where I was able to work 18 hour days and then get up for a breakfast meeting at 7.00 am. I think my days of wearing a suit were just… over, and I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it anymore. In California we kept seeing all of these cool brands – one called Cardboard Robot stood out at the time – they were great. And I bought one of their T-shirts and I loved it and thought, ‘why can’t I get this stuff at home?’ And then, that was it, my lightbulb went off and I started writing down every time I saw a brand that I liked.
I just thought: I can do this. I can combine music and clothes: introduce people to new music as well as clothes, and work with smaller brands.
Suzy: The thing I’ve always loved about Dollydagger is the quality of the products that you sell, and your keen eye when it comes to selecting what you sell. It’s always been a gloriously eclectic site…
Emma: From the outset it was about finding quality clothes and products and accessories. I’m most interested in good design and while I know we’re well-known right now for doing retro, we haven’t always been like that; we just streamlined during the recession for what people wanted, whereas now ultimately I want to return to how it began. I think you can take good design from every decade.
Suzy: Did you find that it took off quite quickly when you launched it?
Emma: I started it in 2005; we hadn’t built a site then, but just to get things going I did some graphics, set up a MySpace page, wrote a description of what it was going to look like… I had some brands in mind that I knew we were going to stock so we used some of their imagery.
We just spammed the hell out of people, you could still get away with that back then! And it went really rapidly from 0 to about 30,000 MySpace fans. Obviously about half of them were porn stars, but half of them weren’t and it was brilliant.
We were on Myspace for at least nine months before the site launched. We launched for actual trading on the 6 May 2006. And we didn’t get an order on the first day and I was gutted. And then on the second day I got an order. And then I got another order, and suddenly we got lots of orders and every day I had to go down to the post office with three big bags full of parcels. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. We were able to spend the money on really good customer service and coming up with cool new ideas.
We didn’t have any particular full on plan at first, but creativity is a rolling stone: you have to give it a push and then once it gets going it quickly speeds up, and the more you do. So we started off with lots of ideas and then when it got going I was like ‘we can do this’ and ‘we can do that’. And we just did so many different things: it was great.
Suzy: The shopping categories were always great fun too. When you started out almost no other sites seemed to do that.
Emma: When I designed the site I thought, ‘how do I want to shop that I can’t shop now? So you couldn’t shop by colour on ASOS at the time, for example, and I couldn’t see why not. I also wanted to shop by theme so I had all of these categories such as ‘Vintage Vixen’ and ‘Kawaii Cute’.
So the site didn’t look like other websites. It was very bright and quite young-looking, even though our target customer has never been age-related. It was more to do with a type of person and age is irrelevant really – if you’re into that kind of thing: you’re into it whether you’re 15 or 50.
Back then I had to import stuff because we couldn’t get what we wanted in this country. So in order for Dollydagger to look how I wanted I had to import - from the outset I would bring brands in from the US, like Cardboard Robot and Tarina Tarantino - and also eventually to have my own line.
Suzy: Was there any downside to it at first?
Emma: It was hard work, don’t get me wrong. It was hard to get things done as well then; things like getting an email coded or any changes to the website were so expensive, so I taught myself to code. We managed our own database and back end on our own server and I taught the girls who worked for me to modify the back end database as well. You waste money on things, though, because when you start a new business you try everything to see what works.
As it took off so quickly, I rapidly outgrew my flat in Belsize Park: the whole house was full of clothes. So in 2007 I moved to Brighton because I couldn’t find premises in London that were affordable. And I liked the idea of Brighton, which seemed to fit with us really well in terms of culture and attitude. I ran it from home for a bit, then took on my first employees in my house. My front room was the Dollydagger office, and upstairs were the stock rooms and then when we got to five of us, we took on a grotty industrial unit in Hove – the cheapest thing I could find. It was a couple of thousand Sq ft worth of warehouse and we painted it, and it was fine.
Suzy: It sounds like such an exciting thing to do…
Emma: Initially, getting it going was like the craziest rollercoaster that I’d ever been on. I mean, I didn’t know anything about fashion – I still don’t know anything about fashion. I don’t care anything about fashion.
Suzy: Do you think that’s part of the beauty about Dollydagger? I always have done because I don’t know anything about it either and so it really appeals to me in a way that a traditional fashion website wouldn’t?
Emma: You just know what you like and I knew what I liked and I thought other people might like it too.
It was always fun. It couldn’t not be, because we were being really creative, and trying out different things. Sometimes we did stupid things that didn’t work. But there was room then to make mistakes. The team I had working for me were fantastic. I was really lucky to have some brilliant people, all of whom are still doing great things.
They were the good times. We were doing really well.
Suzy: So what was the point where things started to tip over?
Emma: Everything was pretty much perfect, but then the recession kicked in. We actually rode it out for about two years but by 2009 we started to feel the strain, mostly because people didn’t want to buy quality any more.
Over the last 10 years the scene has evolved and there are now a million retro brands. I think the problem is that when the market becomes saturated, the people that come in later are just interested in making money. They’re not interested in being creative; they just copy what’s been before. And if during the recession everyone’s been shopping with those brands it’s left independents like us lean, so we haven’t had the money to invest in new styles and designs. So it stagnates because ultimately if you stop buying your small labels and independents they stop being able to produce great stuff for you. It’s no different to the reason why if I get a coffee, I don’t go to Starbucks: I go to my local, independent coffee shop because I’d rather they had the money.
It became very difficult to make a profit, and when you’re a small business and you don’t have lines of credit and you don’t make a profit then you can’t buy more stock. So it became very tight. And we had to cut corners on customer service: we were no longer able to wrap things in beautiful printed tissue and put lots of free gifts in. And the difference is that the big retailers have economies of scale so their postage is cheaper. The perception is ‘Ooh, £5 for postage and packing– that’s a lot” but that’s actually less than it costs us.
Also the market became saturated with copycat brands. It just became very, very difficult to maintain quality, but I was adamant that I didn’t want to do anything other than continue with the quality. Had I gone to China or changed the way we did things then maybe we’d have had more money to spend, but that just didn’t fit with what I wanted Dollydagger to be.
And then we got to a point where it was like, ‘what’s next’. It was the recession, we were ticking along. Everyone else was really struggling but we weren’t at that point, but lots of people had started to pop up who looked a bit like us.
Suzy: And that’s why you decided to push things forward and open the shop?
Emma: Not as consciously as that. I was in Brighton and I’d just spent some time with a friend and I walked up through the Lanes and I saw that a shop had come up which had Dollydagger written all over it, and I contacted the letting agent on the off-chance. I had a close look, and it was perfect.
Every single member of staff went in and we gutted the shop ourselves because we couldn’t afford to kit it out otherwise, so it was lots of late nights, and roping in friends and family. It looked fantastic. The shop did really well and we pretty much broke even straight away.
Suzy: What happened? Why is the shop not up and running now in that case?
Emma: It became very difficult quite quickly. Footfall to the area dropped off because a lot of shops closed around us. At one point it was just us, a restaurant and a pub because all the other shops around us had closed. Business rates kept going up… It just became really, really hard and it became a drain on our resources in the end. And then it got sold to somebody who wanted the premises for himself. So ultimately I didn’t have any choice but to pack up and leave and bring the entirety of Dollydagger back to Oxfordshire, which is where I am now. It wasn’t a pleasant time and I probably should have taken some time off then to re-evaluate and decide what to do, but I still had bills to pay and I wasn’t really in a position to just stop.
Suzy: Have you found that people have been understanding?
Emma: Honestly the customers are really great. I still know the names of all of our early customers and now when they come and see me I’m ‘I know you – you’re quite old now!’ (laughs) because obviously a whole decade has passed. But now, moving back to dealing with everyone directly, instead of having someone else do it, meant that I got to talk to people again and I’d actually forgotten how much I liked that part of it, because when you’re busy doing all of the other stuff you don’t get to do that anymore.
Dollydagger is like my baby, which I know is a cliché, but it’s hard to let go; sometimes you don’t make decisions based upon what the right thing to do is as a lot of it is very emotional, so I just kept it ticking along while I worked through the grief of losing my team and the shop.
Suzy: Well, you seem to have decided pretty firmly now that you’re closing Dollydagger; is this a permanent thing?
Yes, I finally got there! As you know it’s hard to let go but the last 12 months have been so difficult and I'm not providing my customers with a good service anymore.
It’s only fairly recently that my ability to cope has more or less gone and I don’t really want a bad customer experience to be our legacy after all those years of good stuff!
I don’t plan for this to be a permanent closure but until I’ve had a rest I won’t know when we will be back. That said, I have a sketch book brimming with new designs and I have to do something with them…
If and when we do come back we will continue with well made, beautifully hand-finished garments. I’m glad I have stuck with that. To be honest, I think I really would have lost interest if I’d had to go down another road. There’s no point as far as I’m concerned. More importantly it will be fresh and new but still have that twist!
Suzy: Does this mean you want it to shift away from being primarily a vintage-inspired site again?
Emma: I would like to, but that might not happen right away. When we first started we used to stock trainers and all kinds of different brands that you wouldn’t expect to see on the site now, but they were all a great fit with the kind of person that shops with us and I’d like to start doing that again, as well as including things like homeware and art.
Suzy: What other plans do you want to share at this stage?
Emma: I’ll be using the break to work on brand new things as well as evaluate and re-work Dollydagger. So during this time I will, for example be conducting a size survey and re-working our sizing block. I think it’s good to do this periodically; customers change and their needs change, plus this is a great opportunity for us to improve; I don’t plan to waste it!
My ideal scenario for Dollydagger – and it’s annoying in that the things that we did really well, and we stopped being able to afford to do, was really nice packaging and really quick customer service. So as much as anything I want to return to that.
So, there are no timescales for a Dollydagger re-launch at this stage; just watch this space…….
In terms of the brand new I have recently started a creative sales agency. Anyone who is a Hendrix fan will know that 'Dollydagger' and 'In From The Storm' are both Jimi Hendrix song titles. Interestingly I recently discovered that the single 'Dollydagger' was released on my actual birthday; how weird is that?!
The agency will provide photography and creative content for architects, interior designers and brands. I am currently working on the website for that, so that's the first thing I plan to do on 1st December; actually the 2nd December because I might have a day off!
Suzy: For me, it’s always been about the spirit of Dollydagger: fiercely independent, innovative, creative… The people that like it have always loved it.
Emma: I think that’s the thing: it’s a site for people who get it. And I want more people that get it, to hear about it. So, just to say that we’ll be having a sleep, but we’ll be back soon!
Suzy Prince is a copywriter and editor from Manchester. She's also a great friend; check out her website!