The Victoria Quarter was - some would say still is - probably the main reason why for so many years Leeds has managed to get away with calling itself the ‘Knightsbridge of the North’.
Just about every TV programme about the city includes copious footage of its elegant Victorian interior, which many fashion boutiques see as an essential backdrop to highlight the quality of their wares. Small wonder that Harvey Nichols chose to latch onto the Victoria Quarter to open its first store outside London in 1994.
But Harvey Nicks, of course, isn’t Leeds-born and bred, and if you take a closer look at some of the Victoria Quarter’s other current tenants you’ll see they aren’t either. Take Brora, for example – from Scotland. Ted Baker? Hardly. And Vivienne Westwood – a barometer for all that’s chic and hip, but still emanating very much from London.
Is there any shop in here, you might begin to wonder, that can genuinely be said to be successfully showcasing Leeds and Yorkshire talent? Well since 2006, yes there is. Walk down to the end of the gallery nearest to Harvey Nichols, just opposite All Saints (another London import) and you’ll find Aqua Couture.
It’s a boutique that, after ten years on the scene, not all of those years in the Victoria Quarter, is already well known and liked among the fashion cognoscenti and nightclubbing crowd in Leeds and its environs.
And now it’s beginning to attract attention from London and abroad. Managing director Julie Lingard says the store’s mens and womenswear has been quietly selling on ASOS - the fashion website that’s a must for all designers, particularly those cutting-edge names clamouring to make their name - for the past two seasons.
This season, the label is about to be given an increased push on the website after the singer Alesha Dixon chose to wear an Aqua dress on the front cover of Company magazine, bringing the brand the sort of all-important celebrity endorsement that can make a fashion label. “Getting Alesha in that dress was huge,” says Julie. “They put that magazine out, and ASOS sold out within two days.” Aqua is currently looking for a site to open a new branch in London, and there is an agent down there ‘itching’ to take the label on, says Lingard. Then there are the designers who have come out of the shop to make their own name. These include James Steward, twice Yorkshire bridal designer of the year, and Natalie Incarnita.
“Natalie came to me as an independent six years ago,” says Lingard. “We started doing a little range of her pieces, and now she sells to Los Angeles, New York, Australia, with 35 shops all over the country. She has a fantastic brand. She designs Natalie Incarnita for Top Shop and ASOS.” Lingard has come a long way for someone who originally started out running a successful hair and beauty business in Grimsby – hardly, it has to be said, the style capital of the world.
In the mid 1990s she decided to sell up and move to Australia, where she worked for three years. “When I was there I really got into the fashion retail business in Sydney,” she says. “I loved the business. But then in 1999 I came back to the UK for my sister’s wedding.
At the reception, one of her friends told me that she was selling her clothes shop, and I bought it that night.” The shop in question - which she bought for £10,000 from an inheritance – was in Savile Street in Hull; a step up, fashion-wise, from Grimsby, but still nothing particularly startling.
But right from the start she knew that this had to be a boutique with a difference. “It was a new concept in that, rather than buying designs from people, we wanted to get designers to design for us,” she says.
“So we started supporting independent designers in the North. Our first one was James Steward. We started supporting them through manufacturing and so on, because all these designers in the North aren’t really in the key locations to attract the backers they need.” The reputation of the shop, which still exists today, quickly grew.
“Within three years, we had got ourselves known as independent designers you could buy one-off pieces from,” says Lingard. “We started getting girls who were at college saying we should open in Leeds. So we came to the Corn Exchange. From the day we opened in 2002, the business just boomed. James Steward had girls queuing outside the door to have dresses made for them. There was still very much a focus on the store being a collective, rather than a shop with a traditional hierarchy.”
Lingard says she had good reason for this, and was willing to risk seeing designers she had supported move on to bigger things. “Most independent designers want their own business, but can’t afford it,” she says. “Initially, I was funding them, but now they are earning fees themselves.
It’s definitely a business where everyone flourishes. It’s not one where people are thinking: ‘The boss has done really well’, and then they aren’t happy. If you stifle talent they move on anyway.” As for the shop, by now a lot of young men were coming in with their girlfriends and asking why she didn’t stock menswear.
That, she says, was a major turning point. Few of the people she worked with had done menswear before, and she certainly hadn’t, but the time had come. She also noticed something else.
“We realised that we were starting to be a brand,” she says. “People were coming in looking specifically for Aqua pieces. For instance, after we launched menswear, we started getting the Aquaboys coming in. We were getting a cult following. Our drop-crotch men’s jeans have become staple pieces in Leeds.
“We’ve sold thousands of them.” Launching a label clearly requires considerably more back-up than just retailing, and Lingard is proud to assert that Aqua is a brand that is created almost entirely in the UK. She found a site for a design room in Bridge Street in Leeds and opened a small factory in Bradford.
Keen to carry on supporting local design talent, most of the designers Lingard has used over the years have come from Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford.
“I did a lot with the Leeds local media,” she says, “because everyone thought they had to move to London to make their name, but I have showed them that they could make a success here.” She says, however, that people often ask her why she doesn’t move south.
“My boyfriend lives in London, and I’m going to open a shop down there, so it’s natural they would ask,” she says. “But I love Leeds. Okay, you haven’t got 15 theatres, but you still have gorgeous restaurants and lovely parks. I’m really into hiking and walking and I can drive for 10 minutes and be in the Dales. I love the diversity here - being in the city and still being so close to the country.” Recently, she has even enticed a northern designer who had moved to London to come back and work for her again.
She also says that even now there is a difference in what people wear – and therefore in what fashion designers get them to wear – between London and Leeds. “When you’re in London the fashion is all ‘too cool for school’,” she says. “It’s all dress down.
All the Londoners are walking around in flat heels and casual tailored pieces, whereas in Leeds the girls still love getting dressed up in high heels and sexy dresses.” The designs Aqua produces are certainly cutting edge, and probably not the kind of thing you could reasonably leave to the foreman of a factory in Cambodia to get on with.
Aqua womenswear includes much use of high-tech materials and funky, asymmetric silhouettes, while the menswear range also reflects this idea and introduces designs that are probably entirely new to most men’s wardrobes – such as tops with cowl necks.
Lingard laughs at the mention of them because, she says, even All Saints, which thinks itself pretty cutting edge, was taken aback when they appeared.
“The guys from All Saints were up in Leeds visiting their store and having lunch in Antony’s Patisserie next door when they saw them in the window. They really bought it. They were thinking, ‘Wow! Aqua is a year ahead of us!’” She says that much of the edginess in the collections she sells is down to her menswear designer, Ryan Holliday Stevens.
“Yes, it is way out,” she says, “but Ryan is really into the Leeds gay scene, and that’s really edgy. We weren’t sure at first, but we thought we would run with it, and gay guys have got such a great dress sense. What has happened from that is that now a lot of the other guys feel they want to dress like that too. I suppose it’s the metrosexual market that we’re after.” Cutting edge is probably where Aqua is going to stay.
Lingard says that, unlike All Saints, which she says plans to move out of the Victoria Quarter and into one of Leeds’ main shopping streets as it establishes itself as a mass market brand, she wants Aqua to remain in a niche market.
“I’m not saying everybody gets our fashion, but we like to lead fashion rather than follow it,” she says. Lingard has been approached by an investor, but for the time being she isn’t interested.
“I definitely want to keep it in-house,” she says. “I’m opening with Ryan as a partnership in London and I want to continue to work with people I have worked with for ten years. It sounds a cliché, but we aren’t just business partners, we’re all best friends. We all work so hard together. As long as we get what we all want, no one’ll leave. Ryan could move to London, but he doesn’t want to do that.”
She has a business plan: in five years, she wants to see Aqua Stores in four more cities – London and Manchester (where they are already looking), followed by Liverpool and Newcastle.
“All Saints have 57 stores now,” she says. “They’re in Ibiza, and well done to them, but we don’t ever want to saturate our market. As independent designers, I don’t think we could. We always want to stay as a concept store.” But this is a concept store that has done well enough to move out of the Corn Exchange into three floors in the Victoria Quarter – two for retailing, one for the agency side of the business.
Since Aqua moved in here, of course, the Corn Exchange has been transformed, with many of the small fashion businesses that Lingard would have been close to forced out. She regrets that happened, but she understands why the Corn Exchange had to change.
“It started having this big Gothic scene,” she says, “and they were all hanging around outside on Saturdays. It became really not very nice. So of course the owners decided to close it all down, spend £2m on it, revamp it all and put air conditioning in.
They’ve reopened it now and it’s a beautiful building. Antony’s is on the main floor, but they will still have fashion on the top floor.
“It’s a shame for lots of the small independents who were here and disappeared as a result of the changes. The Corn Exchange did showcase them because loads of people could open a shop for £16,000 a year rent and make a good little business from that.
“I was lucky to get out of The Corn Exchange early and I didn’t lose my business. I know many of my friends did. But we wanted to expand anyway, and we spoke to the Corn Exchange owners about expanding in there and they told us what they were doing, so we were lucky in that we were a year or so ahead of all the rest.” Even then, the initial move into the Victoria Quarter wasn’t easy.
She says the business ‘troughed’ in 2007, five years after the initial euphoria, though it is booming now. And is she satisfied still? After all, this is a woman who spent a year of her time in Australia working as a diving instructor on the Whitsunday Islands.
Sitting even in the elegant surroundings of the Victoria Quarter on a cold and soggy morning, doesn’t she regret coming back? Not at all, she says. “When I was abroad I missed English people and English humour. Australian people are lovely, but they don’t have that humour. I was in Australia for three years and came away with two English friends.” And so it seems, in the hectic world of fashion, humour always helps, and having fun in Leeds is this brand’s winning formula.