As Heart Aflutter Bridal Boutique launches in Hackney; founder Cecilia Di Vita invites us in to talk shop
There are more “places to be seen” in London than almost any other city in the world. Ok, so thanks to Sex and The City New York may always be regarded as the chicest, most fashionable destination on the planet, but London surely comes a close second, and currently it is Hackney’s turn to bask in the glory of being the place wives drag their complaining husbands to for their weekly shopping fixes, and the place hipsters are populating and popularising, by, well, being hipsters and making outrageous and influential fashion statements.
From a fashion perspective, it’s the perfect marriage of the rich and the cool, and what does every great marriage need? A wedding dress of course. I meet Cecilia Di Vita, Italian, an ex-translator, 3 years married and now the Director of her own boutique Wedding Dress and Wedding accessories shop at Netil House, next to London Fields park, and just round the corner from the ever popular and trendy Broadway Market.
Last week was New York International Bridal Week, and Cecilia has been keeping a close eye on the latest trends in the wedding dress market. She needn’t have bothered, she reveals, as she is already bombarded with emails and messages from designers hoping to be included in her range of dresses, which currently includes dresses from the likes of Claire La Faye, Nadia Manzato, and Elizabeth Dye, amongst others.
Cecilia is happy to admit that the best part of running the business is picking the dresses, and the ones that adorn the walls of her small but perfectly formed showroom are a testament to her ability to find amazing designs at the right price for her customers, between £800-3,000, with the majority priced between £1-1.5k.
All of her dresses are hand made by independent designers, all of whom are no doubt grateful that Cecilia has decided to act as their sales representative and brand ambassador in London. She has no problem being a trendsetter, she explains, and happy to share the responsibility of choosing, with the bride to be, probably the most expensive and the most beautiful garment they will ever wear. Running a bridal boutique, not only do you need great taste, you have to be practical too; it’s the wedding party that can afford to get carried away, not the dress supplier. Cecilia is the voice of reason, but you can tell she loves the business that she is in.
3 years ago it was a very different story, however. Having taken redundancy from her job as Italian editor for a translation company, Cecilia moved to a software Company where she found the product, and one or two of the people, impossible to work with. “I was having panic attacks, anxiety”, she comments, “one day I woke up and decided I couldn’t do it anymore. Fortunately, I had a very supportive husband.”
This time she tried another Company, Sony, and everything fell into place. “They are a great company and they give you time to think”, explains Cecilia, it gave me the flexibility I needed to be able to set up Heart Aflutter.”
“I never fully appreciated the level of thought you have to put into every single decision you make until I started my own business”, says Cecilia, who succeeded in raising enough funds via James Caan’s Start-Up Loans project, topped up with a smaller loan from peer to peer lending site Ratesetter, to pay for her first collection of dresses. She had to jump through a lot of hoops, and meet and persuade many different people, before she could get even to this stage, but her views on business are refreshingly uncomplicated. Cecilia understands that as well as selling beautiful, well-chosen dresses, from mainly US designers, she is selling herself as master of ceremonies, and must fight off stiff competition first to get brides to be to come to her shop, and second to make sales.
“I had a group from Manchester down at the weekend”, she says, “the bride and her 4 bridesmaids, it was a fantastic experience, they loved it, and so did I!” Because Cecilia sources most of her dresses from the US (Oregon is particularly good for wedding dress design, she tells me), she attracts people from all over the country, desperate to get hold of the latest cool and bohemian dresses but not prepared to order online direct from the maker in case of a bad fit, or a no returns policy.
It is also a great experience simply being in the shop; Cecilia spent months looking for the right premises and finally settled on Netil House. “They have been great; they have their own newsletter which they send out, they look after all the facilities well and they are very supportive”, says Cecilia.
Her next door neighbour at Netil House sells Tweed suits, and has recently been featured on the TV series “Don’t tell the bride”, as part of a special episode featuring the show’s first gay wedding. It will do no harm to the area’s reputation as a fashion hub, and even gives husbands-to-be somewhere to hang out while their fiancées ogle dresses.
Cecilia’s mantra is very much to keep it simple. She finds the dresses, has them delivered, and finds the perfect outfit for her customers. She knows how much mark-up is standard practice in the industry and also knows that if a dress doesn’t sell, it will still have value as sample material for other designers. She has secured the funding she needs but didn’t especially enjoy the pressure of having to justify her fledgling business at every turn. She just wanted to sell dresses. “I went into it because this is what I wanted to do”, she says, “I never wanted to be a businesswoman as such, but when I realised what my responsibilities would have to be I said fine, I’ll run a business then!”
But it is clear the more I talk to Cecilia that she knows a lot more about how to grow a business than she sometimes lets on. She has a lot of praise for a 26 year old mentor he has been provided with by the Start-up Loan Company, “she runs 3 businesses herself as well as helping others”, and she has worked with other strategy and research firms too, including Research Axis. She has a sophisticated understanding of social media and is a big fan of Pinterest, Instagram and analytics, but like many businesspeople, is demanding more clarity from the likes of Facebook concerning reach and audience. Her Facebook marketing is excellent; colourful and enticing without being obtrusive or annoying.
When I open my Pinterest account the first place I will be looking at is Netil House and Hearts Aflutter Bridal. I’ll close by reminding you of another fine American Comedy, Bridesmaids. In the unlikely event that those girls had found themselves in London and made an informed decision about where they would take Lillian to get her dress, my guess is they would end up at Hearts Aflutter!