1st April, 2015 at 6:30pm
Two's Company: Building Retail Brands with Oliver Bonas & THE-ACEY
| YCN Shop & Library — £12 / £8 YCN Members

On the 1st of April, we welcomed Oliver Tress, founder of Oliver Bonas, and Holly Allenby, founder of ethical retail platform, THE-ACEY, to share their perspectives on building retail brands.

As part of our You Can Now Shop series, on April 1st we picked the brains of two pioneers in retail; Holly Allenby, of THE-ACEY – a newly launched ethical online boutique – and founder and director of Oliver Bonas, Oliver Tress. Drawing on their different retail perspectives, both speakers shared sharp insights and personal learnings aplenty. The evening was moderated by YCN's Jennie Webber; with input from our audience - invited to join the conversation with their own questions, references and observations.

Six things we learned:

1. Have ambition
Oliver opened his first Oliver Bonas store in 1993 without any prior retail or business training -  just burning ambition and perhaps a touch of naivety. Since he started, Oliver has continued to learn by doing and his experience has enabled the business to grow. Now there are 45 Oliver Bonas stores across the UK along with burgeoning online sales. Ambition, it seems, pays off. Holly recounted the experience of processing her first non-solicited sale (a customer that wasn't a friend or family member) and spoke of the pure joy she felt when she realised that THE-ACEY was a viable business. Oliver compared this with the story of his first Saturday trading, when he made around £1000 and drove home punching the air in elation, believing that his idea might just work.

THE-ACEY's Holly Allenby

The audience in the YCN Library

2. Have an opinion
It's important to know where you stand. Within ethical retail there are a whole host of different issues to be addressed; sustainability, considering your carbon footprint, environmentally conscious production, not to mention recycled and biodegradable materials. It's almost impossible to encompass all of these traits when sourcing products to sell, so Holly curates her collection based on innovation and integrity. THE-ACEY carries brands such as Mat & Nat, who create vegan leather accessories, and Veja, whose footwear designs are made only from sustainable rubber plants in Brazil. 

3. Get the right people on board
Both Holly and Oliver stressed that working with people with the right skills has been invaluable to their businesses. Collaborating with designers and web developers and hiring the right operational staff has enabled them to achieve more than they could ever do alone.

Oliver Tress, founder of Oliver Bonas

4. Get on Instagram
Out of all social media channels it seems as though Instagram, if used successfully, can be an integral tool to generate sales. Both referenced & Other Stories as a leading pioneer in creating aspirational lifestyle images with a sense of style and personality. Though without huge styling budgets, this can pose a problem for smaller businesses. Oliver referenced an image of a vintage-style drinks trolley that they really "got right" and after sharing via Instagram, the item sold out in all stores.

5. Know your customer
Before launching, Holly had a crystal clear idea of her customer, who she affectionately calls 'THE-ACEY woman'. Through in-depth research and feedback, she was able to profile her customer right down to the smallest details, like where she shopped for her groceries and the other websites that might be bookmarked on her browser. This information has lead Holly to make the right decisions to best place THE-ACEY in her customer's line of vision. Orders have come in from all around the world (12 countries and counting) proving that this level of analysis is essential to building a business.

6. Focus
Holly mentioned that since launching, there have been many temptations to branch out into physical spaces or open a pop-up. Her advice was to not lose sight of your goal and always keep a steady focus on the core of your business, which for THE-ACEY is online retail. Oliver's long-term ambition was to develop the Oliver Bonas brand and so his aim was to continue to introduce more and more Oliver Bonas branded products into their collections. This change started slowly, by adapting existing products that could be easily altered – like jewellery: "We'd like that in gold, but shorten the chain by 4 inches." Then by recruiting more designers, the Oliver Bonas brand grew and developed it's own aesthetic. Now the 15 strong design team produces furniture, clothing, jewellery and a range of homewares. Oliver likes to think of his loyal customers as joining them on their "design journey."

We'd like to say a huge thank you to both Oliver and Holly for sharing their experiences with us.

Note takers

Oliver Tress


Oliver Tress

Oliver Bonas began with its founder, Oliver Tress, seeking out interesting gifts to bring back for his friends and family from his travels all over the world. This developed his eclectic taste and his eye for the unusual — then in 1993, aged just 26, Oliver opened his first store. The name Oliver Bonas came about in a slightly ad-hoc way; he was given a tight deadline by his bank to get a manual credit card imprinter and didn't fancy using his own surname, quickly borrowing his then girlfriend's — Bonas. The name stuck and now the business has 44 stores in the UK, selling furniture, gifts, fashion and homewares. The homegrown brand continues to flourish, with their current focus on growing their online retail offering.

Holly Allenby

THE-ACEY is an online boutique stocking 'consciously created' fashion, footwear and accessories brands — beautiful and functional garments, created ethically. Holly set up THE-ACEY in 2014, following stints at Temperley London and ethical lifestyle brand TOMS. Much of her inspiration came from her time at TOMS, a global social enterprise working on the one-for-one model: for every product purchased, TOMS will donate an equivalent to those in need. Holly began to source ethical and environmentally conscious brands that showed both integrity and innovation, two words that embody the business, without compromising on style. THE-ACEY.com launched last Winter and is fast gaining a strong following across the world and through social media, with plans to launch six new ethical brands this year.


Event Details
  • Location:
    72 Rivington Street,
    London, EC2A 3AY,
    United Kingdom
  • Start:
    1st April, 2015 at 6:30pm
  • End:
    1st April, 2015 at 8:30pm

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