Fashion is one big family, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld, once said.
That is certainly true for Florence Thompson.
The style-savvy young woman launched the online arm of her family’s fashion business Neilson Etoile on November 6, just one day after England was placed back in to lockdown.
The concept of the brand was created by Florence’s mum, Gillian Thompson, and her two aunties, Salli Gilbert and Helen Morris, when she was just five-years-old. Back then, in 2005, the brand was thriving from two bricks and mortar shops.
Fast forward to 2020 and the world was a very different place. Florence, who had been working as a assistant buyer for one of the stores since she was 15, realised she needed to do something to help her family’s namesake survive the troubles the pandemic brought.
She said: “We came to the realisation that moving online was the step forward due to Covid-19 closures. I was in a business meeting with my mum and my Auntie Sal and she said to me if you’re serious about this you can have online as your own business and take full control and responsibility for it and, just like that, I suddenly was in my dream world at 21.”
Launching a new website during a pandemic was not easy, of course, but Florence – who had grown up in a world of beautiful sustainable clothes that the brand prides itself on providing – was determined to succeed.
"The online market is chockablock regardless, so coming in was naturally daunting. Due to Covid-19 lots of businesses took the leap into the online world, so standing out was always a big thing and very important. I’m thinking 24/7 about my website and how I can better it and be different.”
Following the business meeting with her mother and auntie, Florence was “unbelievably excited” and went home to draw up a business plan.
She says: “I wrote down who my audience would be, how I would buy and how my website would look. I still feel the initial buzz and excitement of it now, six months post-launch.
"I didn’t feel nerves until my stock started arriving and I was uploading listings to the website, suddenly thought this is real, this is real and happening, I have a little business!”
Florence’s achievements are made all the more impressive by the skills she learned create her website.
"I had no prior website or e-commerce experience, I left school with no GCSEs or A-levels but I just thought to myself this is what I want to do and I have to make it work - so I work unbelievably hard and I make it work.”
Prior to the pandemic, the brand – which still has two physical shops in Cuckfield, West Sussex and Forest Row, East Sussex – had no online presence at all but it now boasts customers from around the globe including Scotland, Spain and America.
Florence, who not only runs the website but also the brand’s social media accounts, said: "I now have super-cool regular customers who aren’t local, I’m sending to Spain and America regularly. Without our website they couldn’t buy unless it was via mail-order which is a bit of a faff. I’m building my own customer base which is amazing.”
The pandemic has also brought additional challenges for the young and enthusiastic entrepreneur, such as not being able to shoot the images of her new collections in a proper studio – but she found a way around it.
"My younger cousin Eva is a great up and coming sports photographer – I planned to have her help me with a shoot as she has top of the range cameras, but as lockdown reared its ugly little head again I had to improvise in one of our stores with my phone, a rail and a white wall.
“I’ll be honest, it’s not perfect, it’s not exactly how I want it to look but it’s organic and it’s doing the best with the current circumstances.”
The brand is now within the top 15 per cent of those who launched on e-commerce platform Shopify in November – an achievement which Florence says makes her ‘proud’.
Looking ahead, Florence hopes to grow the brand even further online using social media and confronting one of the biggest barriers women face when shopping online – sizing.
“Social media is the way forward. A very high percentage of my website traffic comes from Instagram. That’s my immediate aim; for growth on the ‘gram.”
Shop online at neilson-online.co.uk.