There’s the bricks and mortar landscape of London, which can be deconstructed down to postcodes and geography, and then there’s the iconic landscape, which includes places that embody the soul of the capital, and have a rich sense of legacy and spirit. Seven Dials belongs to the iconic set, known for its cobbled streets and sense of history, but also because it has always encouraged and protected independent entrepreneurs, reflected in the sheer variety and scale of its shops as you meander through.
Part of that legacy has been nurturing female businessowners, and on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to look more deeply into why so many women successfully realised their dreams here, either starting their journey as entrepreneurs, or taking their business to the next level.
Aine Donovan is the founder of They Made This, the online visual art journal and print shop, which initially started off as a contemporary photography and illustration blog. She says it was a lifelong ambition to have a store in the area, and used to spend all of her time in the 90s popping into shops such as Pop Boutique and Red or Dead to buy vintage clothes. “Seven Dials has been an enormous support to our business since we moved into the area,” she says. “They have encouraged us, negotiated the very best rates for our business, shown so much enthusiasm and love, and have done everything they possibly can to make sure our business not just survives but thrives.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Petra Barran, founder of Seven Dials Market by Kerb, who says that it gave her business of lunch markets a home, which allowed her to build on its success. It has led to one of the proudest moments in her career, she says. “We began as a little rag-tag community and we have been through so many dips and dives, but the commitment of so many people, past and present to my original vision of bringing people together in public spaces to eat, cook and enjoy the moment has been remarkable to witness. I’m proud of following through with an idea and seeing it grow into something that marches on – it’s incredible, really.”
Alex Vanthournout-Crickmore, founder of stylish activewear brand Fashercise, says that Seven Dials helped her transition from being an online store to a more permanent iteration and although she had only been in the area six months before the pandemic hit, it has been a dream to see first-hand how her business helps to empower other women.
“I’ve learned that activewear, not unlike lingerie, is a very intimate purchase for most women,” she says. “My customers often confide in me, they tell me their biggest insecurities about their bodies and what they dislike about themselves. Because I have those insecurities myself, as a curvy, short woman, I think I empathise better to those issues and that relatability means we as women are more comfortable discussing these things with a total stranger. To me, there’s just no better feeling than seeing someone come out of the changing rooms with their head held high and a sparkle in their eye because they found something that makes them feel amazing.”
All four business owners have spoken about how the pandemic has affected them and how it is exhausting, but also how they have risen to the occasion and have picked themselves back up again. “The lessons are to remember who you are and what and who you care about, and focus in on them,” says Petra. For Zoe Paskin, who owns The Barbary, the exquisite small plates restaurant, it was extremely challenging as she had just returned to work after six months of maternity leave. “I found it felt doubly jarring,” she says, “because I hadn’t quite got my feet under the table and suddenly, I was running a business without any people in it, coming to it, or working at it”.
“I think ultimately what has worked is trying to keep to a routine, trying to be quite medium term about what we would do, staying focused, thinking positively and creatively. I think there is something about the pause in all myriad of ways that has been creative as well.”
It’s inspiring stuff, especially for other women entrepreneurs feeling the tension between keeping their businesses afloat and personally living through a pandemic. In terms of who inspires them, however, there are many. Petra talks of her admiration for Sharmadean Reid, while Zoe mentioned her own group general manager Kasia Sadowska. Alex said that coming from a family of business owners helped, but that her godmother Isabelle Santens who built her own fashion business from scratch, was a strong influence. “Growing up, and seeing this women-led business grow and thrive helped me realise that this is something I too could do,” she says. Undoubtedly, these women will in turn go on to inspire future generations to start their own business, and how doing so in the right, supportive environment is so critical to not compromising on your vision and values.
To add to this nurturing environment, Seven Dials is set to welcome four new businesses to its streets ahead of International Women’s Day. These businesses are all led by female entrepreneurs who turned their passion into brands during lockdown 2020 and are ready to open to the world from Seven Dials as restrictions begin to ease.
Poorna Bell is an award-winning author and journalist and writes about women’s issues, mental health and fitness for The Times, iNews and The Telegraph.
This International Women’s Day, Seven Dials has teamed up with the Young Women’s Trust to raise awareness of their campaigning to better the lives of young women through workplace equality and much more. To find out more information and donate, please visit here.