In the latest of our features on independent retailers, we head towards Isles of Wonder in Montpellier Mews where owner Stewart Aldred is passionate about creating a home for British craftsmanship and design.
Work can be a drudgery but it can also fuel a passion. Having once monitored the endless mass-produced output of a Hong Kong clothing factory and latterly sat in an ordinary office in London, Stewart knew that his passion lay elsewhere.
So when he was made redundant in 2017, Stewart seized his opportunity. He returned to Harrogate and opened a shop to showcase what he describes as British craftmanship, design, artistic flair and the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit.
He says: “It was the contrast between working in a factory abroad where everything was literally run of the mill to supporting these guys [his suppliers] and their passion. We’re in parallel, I’m making this shop work and I’m proud to represent them.”
Isles of Wonder is what he calls a contemporary shop in a traditional Harrogate; an independent retailer that taps into the growing trend in the town in the same way as, for example, Barber & Mack, Baltzersen’s, Hoxton North and the growing number of bars that care about the craft beer they serve.
“Ships are safe in a harbour but that’s not what ships are for and I wanted to do something different and continue a learning pattern for myself … there are plenty of like-minded people and this is what Harrogate needs,” he states, adding: “It will fit this creative, entrepreneurial area.”
He took the name Isles of Wonder from the Danny Boyle’s unforgettable opening ceremony at the very British 2012 Olympics, the title of which was itself inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The selection of items is broad and 98% British; ales, spirits (especially gin), beauty, food, fragrances and confectionery; all beautifully presented to customers. Stewart has even set up a very small bar so customers can drink the drinks they can then buy.
He explains: “The range is very wide. Some items won’t work but it’s a learning curve until Christmas and it’s resonating with people. It’s about playing on the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.”
And while the many visitors to the town are providing much of his business, he wants to attract people who live and work in the area. He gets asked for Yorkshire-produced items and there will be more but, as he says, at the moment it’s about talking and learning what people want.
He says: “It’s going well. People are saying the right things, I’m attracting the right people. There’s more tourists than I thought there would be, and I want to tap into the local community, I want to get local people and then we’ll be flying.”
He neatly sums up his offering as a “gift concierge service” with one part of the shop being “indulgence” and the other part “wellness”.
Stewart’s plan is to grow the business slowly and keep overheads manageable. For him, it’s a question of keeping costs low, learning and then making improvements.
And he is mindful that he needs to keep looking after his demanding customers. He says: “I’m always looking for something else for next time. It can’t be the same people getting bored because they saw the same item last time.”
He may introduce furniture, more homewares or perhaps collaborate with another independent retailer. But the principle of British artisan product and design rather than overseas mass production remains the same.
Stewart is passionate and confident about the future for independent retailers in Harrogate. He says very firmly: “Retail is not dead. The resurrection is on if you get it right.” It’s appropriate to return to Shakespeare and to The Tempest, to conclude that, for Stewart, Isle of Wonders is a business “that dreams are made on”.