Tucked away in the pretty village of Buttercrambe, the Smith & Downes studio showroom has an altogether personal feel, from the French-chic table and chairs basking outside in the Yorkshire sun (when it’s out) to the small rails of vintage-inspired dresses and quirky trims lining the showroom. ‘We love being out here in Buttercrambe,’ explains Rebecca. ‘Having thought long and hard about where to have our studio, it’s turned out to be a real positive for our clients to be able come out here to the middle of nowhere, park up outside and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.’
It’s the kind of intimate setting that’s perfect for building personal relationships with clients. A large part of Smith & Downes’ business comes from bespoke, made-to-measure wedding gowns – a process that demands a great working rapport. For Rebecca and Marie, nothing compares to the moment when a bride-to-be tries on her dress and falls in love. ‘It’s a real buzz. That’s the main reason we do it: we love tears of joy. We get so many thank you cards and photographs from happy customers, and we actually just got an invitation to a client’s 30th birthday. We genuinely love what we do.’
The duo’s passion has a positive knock-on effect among makers and craftspeople around the region. Part of Smith & Downes’ ethos is to support local businesses as opposed to outsourcing everything abroad. Rebecca says, ‘For us, getting the cheapest price possible isn’t as important as tapping into the skills and resources around us. It’s a dying art form – we know so many incredibly talented dressmakers and embroiderers who are struggling for business because people are outsourcing so much. It’s such a waste. I think our clients are prepared to pay that little bit extra to know where it’s come from and to build that relationship with us. There’s definitely something to be said for that.’
Both Marie and Rebecca still lecture part-time in fashion design, as well as juggling their demanding duties as mothers. They find that their teaching heavily influences their work at Smith & Downes. ‘We’re really keen to tap into the amazing resources that surrounds us. That attitude definitely stems from our teaching practice, because we nurture so much young local talent through the degree programme and want to continue to support it in the working world. It’s an ethical thing. I think we’re coming out of the era where fast fashion is all people are interested in. Customers are a little bit more aware of the impact fast fashion culture has, on both the local economy and the world as a whole. We can tell you exactly where everything we use comes from, from our buttons to our labels.’
Using locally sourced materials and embellishments is just one part of the design process, especially when creating their off-the-peg collections. ‘We love looking at our old family photographs, which are full of original ideas. As a result, our designs tend to have a real 1950s feel.
‘Our range of kimonos, which are made from gorgeous printed cottons, are a new addition to our collection. They were created in response to client demand for something pretty to wear on their wedding morning. We started making them from our own fabric collections as one-off pieces for our clients, but they’ve just taken off. Our autumn/winter collection this year is made from Liberty London fabrics, who we’re liaising and branding with, which is incredibly exciting. It’s such a high-profile brand that’s big on British heritage, and that’s exactly the direction we see ourselves going in.’
Staying ahead of current trends comes naturally to the duo. ‘Again, our teaching influences Smith & Downes in a really positive way because we have a real grasp on current trends, as we’re always teaching trend forecasting or taking students to trade fairs in Paris and London to learn about new fabrics and colours. That definitely feeds into our collection on a subconscious level. We tried really hard when we were branding the business to not look too bridal – our website and logo is black and white, so it’s quite edgy and graphic. We wanted to look like a cool design team – which we are – not just your average bridalwear shop.’
Smith & Downes