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La Vida Boutique in Horsham

Donna Camera, owner of La Vida Boutique

Published 1st November 2019

Internet shopping is regularly cited as a key reason for the decline of household names on the nation’s High Streets. Yet for one Horsham independent, embracing the full potential of the online market may well have saved it. 

La Vida Boutique celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Throughout that time, the leading women’s fashion outlet has been in the town centre. Yet today, its reach extends considerably further; one customer regularly shops via video link from her home in Melbourne.For Donna Camera, owner of La Vida, it’s an age of opportunity.

“Some retailers fear the damage the internet can do to a business; but we use it to our advantage. We create a weekly video which is posted on Instagram and Facebook and continue to post photos of our latest clothes on social media throughout the week. “I have a wonderful team at the shop and we all have different body sizes. So, we can demonstrate how to mix-and-match and which designs suit certain shapes. We’re very proactive, so if it’s quiet in the shop, we try on some clothes, have fun and post photos online. I also research fashion trends and follow a lot of bloggers online. I can be quite obsessive about it, but it’s just working towards having something new all the time to keep the shop interesting for our customers and to keep fashion fun.”

“Fashion should always be fun. Everyone has dark days when life is difficult, but putting a face on and wearing nice clothes makes you feel confident and happy. So, we like to show people that you can be creative with fashion.”

Adapting to Modern Life

Whilst La Vida Boutique exploits social media to promote its lines, there’s more to the business than Instagram snaps. Donna has created a retail experience that she believes will be standard practice in years to come.

Inspired by the customer service offered in other trades - from restaurants to hair salons - La Vida adapts to the needs of clients, conducting business via video link, chatting about clothes over a coffee at nearby Restaurant Tristan and even hosting one-to-one sessions outside of the shop’s normal hours.

“People buy clothes in a different way now and retail must adapt if it’s to survive,” says Donna. “For example, Prom Night has become a big event for school leavers and it’s not enough to just sell dresses off-the-shelf. So, girls book an appointment with us and come in on an evening or even a Sunday. We lock up, pull the rails back to make use of the mirrors, and have a one-to-one styling session. It’s special for them.”

“We also stage fashion shows at local schools and talk to pupils about different styles and body shapes. Teenagers are under a lot of pressure and increasingly exposed to things like anorexia and anxiety, which concerns parents too. So, there’s a strong focus on body confidence here as well.“Recently, we were invited to attend TV presenter Gok Wan’s fashion roadshow in Brighton, taking outfits for a catwalk parade. Afterwards, Gok hosted an inspiring talk on body confidence. He has a similar ethos to us, in that people shouldn’t ever dress to please anyone else. Fashion is about wearing what makes you happy as an individual.”

The ‘Wow’ Factor

Donna is careful to select brands to suit her customer base, with many designers offering area exclusivity to La Vida. Brands include Postcards from Brighton, which is designed and manufactured in the UK, as well as Derhy, Religion Clothing, Onjenu, One Hundred Stars and Danish fashion house Black Colour.

Donna said: “A lot of our clothes have the ‘wow factor’ so most are unique. When you make a special purchase, you don't want to see everybody else wearing it too. A lot of our customers are over 30, but fashion is about attitude, not age.” 

“They will often buy their essential clothing items from major online retailers, but for those special outfits, they want a special experience. That’s what we provide. Customers often tall me that they’ve been complimented on their outfits by friends and even people in the street. However, some make the mistake of thinking that this is a high-end fashion outlet, but it’s not. People don’t come here to spend £200 on a jumper. Ours are in the £30 - £50 range, so customers come in regularly to refresh their look. I wouldn't want a shop where you only see people once a season. We love seeing customers and playing around with styles. That’s why we like fast, quirky fashion!”

Regroup and Refocus

La Vida has enjoyed a rollercoaster ride during its two decades. The shop opened in the Carfax in 1999, in a small unit now occupied by Exclusiv, another fashion outlet. After a few years, Donna moved into a bigger unit in Piries Place, expanding into bridal wear to exploit the lack of availability in the town.

La Vida Boutique became renowned for its selection of evening dresses, but a declining frequency of charity balls and business parties led to a change of direction. When the precinct closed for redevelopment (including the creation of Everyman Cinema, Premier Inn, Carter & Miller Steakhouse Restaurant and a new car park) Donna was offered a temporary unit in Swan Walk. Whilst this led to increased footfall, the shopping centre location didn’t suit La Vida’s bespoke service.

Now, Donna is happy to be on Stan’s Way in a quiet alleyway linking East Street to the re-energised Piries Place. 
“I am a mother of two children and I make no secret of that,” she said. “At this time in my life, I need a shop I can close two days a week without having the stress of high rates and staff costs, where we can focus on creating a personal experience for all of our customers.”

“I have a wonderful team around me. We are all in the same boat in that we have families we love - but we love fashion too. Since downsizing, I can focus on what’s important. I am older, wiser, and realised that I needed to get back to basics, which means making every customer important, either in the shop or online. We get to know them and that is key to success in any business.”  

La Vida Boutique, 5 The Courtyard, Stans Way, Horsham, RH12 1HU

Tel: (01403) 259222