Meet Aerende, The Ethical Homeware Shop With A Story Worth Telling

For years ethical products have been niche, a category which frankly didn’t exactly cater for aspirational interior aesthetics (at least not at affordable prices) but attitudes towards ethical living and commodities are shifting into the mainstream consumer consciousness and a stand-out part of that shift is British ethical homeware shop, Aerende.

Founded by Emily Mathieson, former travel editor and lifestyle journalist for titles such as The Guardian and Conde Nast, Aerende stocks genuinely beautiful, classic – and most importantly ethical – interior homeware pieces made by people in challenging social situations. From refugees to people with learning disabilities, prisoners and the visually impaired, the aim of Aerende is to challenge stigma surrounding these makers’ skills whilst providing a platform for their craft.

Despite launching as recently as October 2016, Aerende has already won the coveted top spot in Appear Here’s Space For Ideas competition aimed at finding the retail ideas of the future and with it, landed a pop-up shop (also running multiple workshops and talks throughout its residency), at 7 Park Street, Borough Market from 24th October until November 5th.

We grabbed Emily for a quick tea (and particularly good Rise brownie) down at the pop-up to chat more about Aerende, the highs and lows of running your own business and the stories behind her makers.

Why did you start Aerende?
“I’d always had this shop fantasy in the back of my mind but I felt (and still feel) like consumerism is part of the problem. I didn’t want to just have another shop that was pushing things onto people that I felt weren’t good for the environment or that didn’t have much integrity. So I started thinking about how could I have a shop that would fulfill my stylistic fantasies but could also have a social impact and would be positive – or at least not negative – for the environment.”

How did you get to where you are now?
“So the idea was percolating for awhile but it crystallised when I went to a local craft fayre near my house. There were some guys selling these gorgeous, cheap baskets (that I now have in the shop) who said they hadn’t sold any that day and I just thought, the only reason you’re not selling these amazing baskets is because you’re not getting them in front of the right people. I thought maybe I could create a platform where I could put those products in front of a customer who would find them more desirable and they would spend more money. So that was where the idea started…

“From there I had to find other makers which would fit and had quite a long period of research trying to find people who were making to the standard that I felt was necessary. Everything that goes into the shop has to be something that I would spend my own money on or have in my home because I can’t expect people to spend their money if I wouldn’t. We started off with quite a small selection last October with about 35 products, now it’s up to about 70 products and hopefully going to keep going in that direction.”

How do you choose and find your makers?
“It’s different for each product. For some of the products I will be working with an established charity or organisation and it’s a very straightforward retail transaction, one of which is the Soap Co. in East London who employ people with visual impairments. Then at the other end, I have initiated a refugee sowing project in my town in St Albans in collaboration with the Refugee Council. With that, I bought loads of sewing machines and rent out a church hall where we meet once a week. I come up with all of the designs and buy fabric and then we talk about making aprons or cushion covers and all the various textile things you can see in the shop.

“So it’s those two extremes and everything in between. It’s a collaborative effort but increasingly I’m moving towards designing my own products because I want to have a really cohesive range and now have a good sense of what my customers want.”

Connecting your customers with the people who’ve made the products is a big part of what you do, whose story have you been particularly touched by?
“There are many but there are quite a lot of safeguarding issues around some of the people, especially with the refugees. Some of them have been travelling with their families for three or four years, so to get to this point of being able to live in a house that is safe and speak Arabic while doing a bit of sowing once a week, is just a really valuable thing. I also think Ashley is amazing; he’s the guy who makes our blankets and is a master weaver who is also in a wheelchair. He’s up in Scotland and designed all of these hand-made Scottish wool blankets specifically for us so they’re totally exclusive and because he likes to work with vintage looms he’s totally adapted them for his wheelchair.”

How do you keep yourself motivated?
“It is hard and it can be really demoralizing but I think that it’s probably like with any other business, there are peaks and troughs. For me, getting this pop-up has been a massive motivational uplift right at a time when I really needed it. Having the opportunity to bring it to life in this way is exactly what I needed and I’m getting all geed up again. Also being recognised to win the competition makes me realise that actually everyone is interested in this, it’s not just niche purchasing any more, this is a model for the future that we can all look towards moving into.”

What’s a normal day for you?
“I have two kids, so normally I’ll try and get up at least an hour or two before they get up, which ends being pretty early, just so I can think about my to-do list while responding to a few emails. Then they have breakfast and go to school, so I come back and do all of the things that people do when they work for themselves: I sit at my desk and I mess around on Facebook for an hour, then on the Guardian for awhile and then I think ‘oh I really must do some work…but I really need a coffee’. Then it gets to midday and I realise I’ve only got three hours before I need to pick the kids up, so I really knuckle down.

“Now the site is really about maintenance and keeping in touch with the makers and on top of ordering stock. I’d probably spend more time than is totally necessary on social media but I just really love it. I find that it really serves a business sense for me too, I now find I’m getting direct sales from my Instagram posts and have such a hugely positive community where people will say really lovely, nurturing things. I find that so valuable when I’m sitting in a room working on my own, you just feel like you’re not alone.

“Then I pick the kids up from school, look after them for another four or five hours and then after they go to bed is when I will wrap the orders from that day ready to post when I take them to school the next day. Then in between all of that, I also do still do some travel writing and come into London every week either to meet journalists or to get inspiration or see friends. Then I also do the refugee sewing project once and week too – so there is quite a lot going on!”

How do you keep the boundary between work and your business?
“I think the fact is that most freelancers or small business owners are just working all of the time, there’s not really a boundary between life and hard work. I guess the children are my boundary, not just because it’s really hard for me to work when they’re around – I do try sometimes. They’re a kind of natural break that forces me to say ‘OK now I’m not working.’ Otherwise, I think it’s the way of the modern world. If we didn’t all have smartphones, we’d probably all switch off at 8 o clock and that would be it but now I can watch Bake Off and still be doing ‘work’, it’s just a lot more of a challenge – particularly for women, it’s actually something I’ve got worse at and I need to get better. I think carving out time for yourself is really important, my whole brand is about being considerate and working ethically and that doesn’t work if I’m, not doing that for myself, so I need to apply that.”

Who are the brands and companies you’re inspired by?
“In terms of fashion and food, I think there are a lot of people doing some really amazing work. There’s a fashion brand that I love called Stalf that do lovely organic cotton basics. I think the proliferation of small fashion brands doing that sort of thing is amazing and you can kind of see the same thing in food with places like Petersham Nurseries. They actually commissioned us to do a whole load of tea towels for their new restaurant in Covent Garden and I feel like there are brands like that, who don’t specifically market themselves in the ethical sphere they’re just brands we love because they make great fabrics or they serve great food, and I’m very inspired by that.

“In design, there’s a lot of forward movement around materials but I don’t think there are – or I can’t find – any real interiors brands that I feel have this ethos that’s totally woven into the fabric of the business that I can get behind. Ikea is doing some brilliant things, they’re doing some great refugee projects and they’re working really hard on their sustainability and I’m very impressed with what they do but I also know that when I go to IKEA and buy a spoon for a pound, I don’t really know where that’s been made or the story of that. I’d just really like to see more interiors brands launching so there’s more variety, so when I want a new sofa I can go to a brand who I know is producing it ethically. But then I suppose that’s what vintage is for…”

“In terms of my interior style, I absolutely love Remodellista. I’ve done two house renovations now and we’re at the point where we can take every picture off Remodellistia and take it into a room and see that we’ve just copied that. It’s also about celebrating handmade and natural materials.

What homeware piece of your own stands out?
“Probably something like the chopping board, something that is in use every day. In my experience, the more knackered they are and the more use you’ve got out of them, the better they look.”

What things do you khollect?
“Magazines – that’s really bad isn’t it, in the old house we had a special shelf made especially for the Monocles.I used to collect stamps when I was a little girl…but I do like a good cushion. I’m actually quite ruthless at home, we do get rid of loads of things and I try really hard not to have too much stuff but I do spend a lot of time thinking about things I could buy for the house. When you decide to buy ethically one of the good things is that you can spend all this time on Pinterest but if you can’t find an ethical version it stops you buying it.”

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection?
“From the cushion collection, it’s the cushion that we sell. About six years ago way before I started the business, my mum actually bought me one as a gift. So they’re hand embroidered in prison and take 140 hours to make it’s come with us and has been on every sofa and gets sat on every day.”

Where do you call home?
“St Albans, which a small market town outside London and you know, it’s a very lovely place… but having moved from Brixton, my heart and soul is still in Brixton. We were there for 15 years, so a really long time.”

The place you go to relax?
“Charlie’s, which is a titchy three table coffee shop. When I arrived and found Charlie’s I thought, ‘everything in St Albans is doing to be OK’, she should be available on the NHS. She remembers your order, she remembers your name, where you’ve been on holiday – she’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about, whether that’s a film you saw last night or politics. She’s also really picky about she gets her milk and her beans and pretty much everything in the shop is handmade by her wife or reclaimed. It just has bags of personality, and I feel like every time I go there I’m resetting and I can go home and carry on my day and all will be fine. I mean, if she could come to my house with her coffee cart then all of my dreams would come true.”

Best places to eat in London?
“Petersham Nurseries, I loved them even before I worked with them. I also come in and out of Kings Cross a lot and I absolutely love Caravan and everything they do but what not a lot of people know about, is a little place on the side called the Skip Garden Cafe where I had my 40th birthday. It started as part of the regeneration of Kings Cross to utilise some of the waste materials and to grow food there using local youth and community groups, and has a greenhouse and a yurt and what they call a classroom and it feels quite hippy. And as a place to host a party, it’s brilliant because it’s one of those really special places.

For cocktails, The Travelling Gin Company or First Aid Kit in Herne Hill, their cocktails are amazing. Then in Brixton, I love Cornucopia and The Lido Cafe. When they were renovating the Lido there was a big community art project where they asked local people what they thought of when they think of water and as my daughter was a water birth, I said when I think of water I think of Lola – and that was the first line as part of this massive installation were they painted the thoughts around the pool. Then also Rochelle Canteen and Salon too; I think with these places it is just that feeling of being in a place where someone really cares, it doesn’t have to be the most delicious food you’ve ever eaten or the perfect place, but somewhere that you’re buying in to something more than just what’s on your plate or what you’re purchasing.”

Now you’ve been in business for a year, what things would you do differently if you could?
“I wouldn’t have done it on my own, that’s the main thing. Not just for the practical side of sharing the tasks but in terms of decision making. Every time I find myself agonising over things because I don’t have someone to have a dialogue with and bounce off. I look at lots of successful businesses and I think there are many that thrive as one but with two, you can really see how the dynamics can really propel things forward.”

What advice would you give to somebody setting up their own business?
“I’m going to pass on my brother in law’s advice. When I was thinking about doing this, he said you just have to start and then you will just have to work everything else out. And I think that is such good advice because you can really overthink something. You can feel that you should have honed in on every detail of your business before it’s going to work but the fact is, there is always going to be a million things that you could have never predicted. So I think my advice is just to start, you have to be able to do it to be able to move onto the next step.”

What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I probably would say be braver sooner. I think it is really easy to put stuff off, I was 39 when I started this and I think there was definitely a psychological thing about 40 where I thought I can’t keep talking about stuff, I just need to do it. I think my advice would be if you can just do the things that you want to do.”

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