INTERVIEW | Merryn Leslie's 69B Boutique


Interviewing Merryn Leslie as she takes us around her store, 69b
Firstly, I must say that this interview was meant to be published since last year, which means the items in the shop may not all be there. Secondly, regardless of how long ago this interview was (could not find the recording of the interview to save my life, until now), it is still relevant to what we need to know about the sustainable fashion gem that is 69b in our beloved Hackney, and the mastermind behind it. 

If you have not visited 69b or even heard of it (or even ventured into Hackney for that matter), its time you did. I first heard about 69b from ethical luxury handbag designer Selina Cheong during my interview with her, so upon her recommendation I had to see for myself. Opened in March 2011, 69b carries some of the leading sustainable womenswear fashion brands which stays true to the effervescent cool of the Hackney streets--the perfect juxtaposition of conscious fashion and the culture of the area in which the store is located. Before you walk into the store, you are greeted by the antediluvian sign of what the building was before. As you walk in, you can't escape the feeling of being glad that you're there. Your eyes are taken to all directions, as you immediately want to know the stories behind all the items, and of course walk away with loads. 
As I was taken down to the second floor to begin my interview with Merryn Leslie, I couldn't help but  stroke some of the rich fabrics of the clothing. Turning to Emma J, our photographer for the day, I gushed (unprofessionally) like a school girl with a crush at one of the Riyka Dresses, which I then made Emma J model (style post to follow). Finally, we were introduced to Merryn, whose presence, and passion were undeniable, and who was ready to fill us in on how she came up with 69b, her life before, and where she sees the future of sustainability and her role in taking it forward.

TCC: Tell us about where you are from Merryn.
Merryn Leslie: I grew up in America and France. My parents are Welsh, so I'm British, but I also grew in Australia and came over when I was 18...for university. 

TCC: Reading your resume is quite impressive. You've worked with powerful ethical designers like Katharine Hamnet, and heavy weights in the publishing world, like Vogue Italia and UK, i-D Magazine, and US Harpers Bazaar. Can you tell us a bit more about your impressive repertoire of experiences?
ML: I've worked in all areas to be honest. I even had a market stall selling vintage clothing. In 1997 I got a job at i-D Magazine under the Fashion Director then the Founder, and ended up staying there for six years. I eventually became a Fashion Editor, but thought that I would go into styling, which at the time I was eager to do, so I freelanced and worked for publications like Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, and EXIT Magazine. I also styled for designer shows and campaigns. Some of the designers included Isabel Marant, Byblos, Kenzo, Levi's and Byblos. [The list goes onto Merryn having worked for musicians like Natasha Bedingfield and Diana Ross, as well as brands like Fanta, Adidas and Mitsubishi. She has also taught Fashion Styling at the London Istituto Marangoni and has also worked at the Istituto in Milan]

TCC: You now have your own line AND AGAIN. How did to that come about?
ML: I think as a stylist, when I was working for magazines...TV commercials and music videos, I had ended up having a huge archive; I have always collected cloths, accessories, funny props and things like that, and I always had a studio space. Since I left home, I have always had a space for kind of collecting. When I decided I kinda wasn’t interested in styling any more, I was left with this huge archive collection of vintage clothing--it was also around the time vintage was in vogue--and actually found it all a bit too retro.  So I thought about how I could take some elements of vintage and make it contemporary. I started cutting everything up, which I have always done really--the whole DIY kind of ethic--and came up with a concept for the brand AND AGAIN

TCC: Usually, people build a brand first then open a shop or have a shop then decide to start their own brand. You did both around the same time. How did that come about?
ML: Well, my friend owns this building, (well he was my partner's colleague). I was at a party one night and we were chatting. He said he had been living here, squatting here almost, he owned it, but was kinda living in a squatting situation. He had a renegade art gallery. It was a pretty much a building site, quite derelict. He said  that he finally got planning permission, and was going to convert it into a house flat above, and turn this [the space below] back into a shop space. And I had goosebumps, I just said listen Tom, keep me in mind, I'm working on this brand. I don’t know maybe a little shop. 
That was the start really. It was the little opportunity being presented. I never really thought I wanted a shop. I was much more interested in having my own brand, and working sustainably. He also had loads of offers but he was attracted by someone doing something sustainable. So I got the shop. 

TCC: But now your shop carries other brands.
ML: Yes, I very quickly realized that my collection would never fill the rails. I literally made about five to ten things a season. Slow fashion! [We all laugh] 

TCC: Definitely a far cry from styling then?
ML: Yea, I just realize, I used to consult designs, but you don’t actually ever get the sense of how much work goes into a collection. So much work.  And then I had my child, my second child, so it was all just doing things when I could. But then I thought, well hey ok, who else is out there who is doing interesting work in sustainability, not the kind of pioneering designers but contemporary up and coming people. 

TCC: How difficult was it to find the right brands for 69b?
ML: I started researching other brands, and was pleasantly surprised at the amount of people out there doing sustainability. An incredibly emerging market, I could open a small department store. I really believe there’s a lot going on out there internationally. I find it really hard to import American designers, but there’s a lot going on here. So very quickly I realised that there’s a store, that’s a small shop. There’s a concept there. And like everything I do in my life, I just kind of leapt in. Went for it. Raised some funds, and off I went. Still running, still learning on the job. 

TCC: How do you approach designers?
ML: In the beginning I had to do lots of research. I think that the whole stylist background helped me to edit, to have a clear idea of what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. I had a core group of people I wanted to work with and just approached them. There is also an element of trust there, and as a stylist I was able to gain that trust. Then, once you're open, it’s really easy, people just come to you. I get emails everyday, from all over the world.  It really is a proper emerging market. 
TCC: So why the sustainable route?
ML: Well, I did a course at the Center of Sustainable Fashion. Heard of those guys? It is the sustainable umbrella of London Fashion School. I was very impressed by the way they approached it. It wasn't just about ticking every single box, or something that wasn' relaxed. It was more about a creative intelligence on how to approach sustainability, and I think the main thing I took away from it was this idea of transparency and actually being able to engage with people and people engaging with the fashion they wear. 

TCC: So how do you distinguish between the people who are engaging with sustainability and those who are just using it as a unique selling point?
ML: You can very quickly tell the difference with people that are engaging with sustainability and those that aren’t. I can tell very quickly now. If I am at a fair, and I see some stuff I like, I will start asking questions. If people get a bit uncomfortable and glaze over, and start looking for team members saying Can you answer her questions? you just know they are not engaging in it.They are just saying it, and using it as their USP.     
Of course some people are more aware of that, and will maybe start talking little bit about like the fact that they get their fabric from a really good Italian supplier. But then I'm like do you know where they get it from? You can tell really quickly. For me it is important that they are engaging in it or have transparency. 

TCC: What are some of the ways designers are exciting you to invest in their pieces?
ML: I work with some designers who are really into technology. I think that’s an innovative way to being sustainable and not have waste. Lots of man-made fabrics actually have less environmental impacts than natural fibres. So they really opened up the challenges, the possibilities, the idea that its not a stepping stone, that it is an emerging kind of developing market. Therefore, engaging in it and having transparency in business is super important and quite simple.

TCC: So tell us about what you are wearing now, can we find this in your store?
ML: Everything I'm wearing can be found here. The shirt is bespoke from Lu Flux, a local London designer and the jeans are Monkee Genes. 

Merryn then takes us through alot of her favourite pieces and talks through why she invested in several of the designers. She turns our attention to the jewellery cabinet where she featured local jewellery designers, and expressed her excitement about offering the shop as a space in which to display local talent. 
We then thanked Merryn, before she retreated back to work, and we began trying on clothes. Before returning to her office, she handed us over to her very savvy assistant Alice (can't express how much she was an asset), who then talked us through the items we liked and tried on. It was great to see how passionate the people working for Merryn were about the clothes, which also made us equally excited to engage with them, the concept, and the clothing.

We look forward to working with 69b in the future, and not to mention go shopping there. So, drop in, and don't be afraid to ask questions, the shop attendants are just as knowledgeable as their boss. 

Check out 69b at 69 Broadway Market, London E8 4PH

(c) All Photos are taken by Emma J.

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