A little shop with a lot of history
Three generations of women now run the iconic Wanda Fashions at the heart of Dunchurch village. We interviewed manager Paula Twigger for this long read as part of our week’s celebrations of Internatio
“What ladies wear and what ladies want to wear now has drastically changed. In the 33 years that we’ve been here, ladies are wearing very different clothes and we are wearing clothes that years ago we would probably have been wearing ten years prior. We are wearing clothes that are much younger for us, on average about 10 years. Ladies want to wear clothes that are right, and when they hit 60 they don’t want to suddenly dress like they are 60.”
I interviewed Paula Twigger, second generation manager of Wanda Fashions on Love Local Day this year (14th February) to find out about the history of the iconic Dunchurch ladies’ wear shop.
It’s a story marked with sadness and dedication, brought to success with strong family ties.
Paula said: “I’ll start from the very beginning. There’s a sad element to the story.
“My mum started in business about 52 years ago, doing parties, and she became a single mum and the party business had to take over. She had these Wanda’s clothes parties and I still get people that come in and go ‘My Mum used to have Wanda’s parties and I remember her coming to my house as a little girl.’ It’s been quite amazing how many people remember them. It was like having a tupperware party.
“When I came into the business we had 500 hostesses. We built it up and did lots of children’s parties and toy parties at Christmas. It was a very large concern at one stage.
“I was in the business with Mum after I’d come out of studying business and finance. For both Mum and me, our dream was to have a shop. We hadn’t done anything about it but we had been talking about it.
“Then, unfortunately, we lost my brother in a car accident. It was something that as a family of three we’d discussed we would help run a shop - so we decided, Mum particularly, that that was it and it was time to get a shop. So that’s what happened.”
Paula said her Mum Wanda was in charge of finding a shop location and phoned Paula in the middle of one day, saying: “Now, you’ve got a choice. You can either have it on one side of the road which I think is a good property and would be ideal, but it’s a bit ugly and a bit odd-looking, but it’s got parking next to it. The other side is a much-nicer looking shop, but all our customers would have to cross a busy road to get to it.”
Paula said she opted for the ‘ugly’ shop, where their customers wouldn’t get run over by the time they reached the shop.
She said: “I came and had a look and I said, no, this is the one. The odd-looking strange one. I liked the character. It’s an old bank-house, one of the last Midland Banks that was open, and the fascia and the design and everything was purpose built. It’s one of the last-existing ones.”
That old Midland Bank building has its own dramatic history, with a hold-up by gunpoint just three years before Paula and her mother took over the shop.
“The actual building itself, because it’s in a conservation area, we’ve been very limited in what we can do. We just embraced it. We’ve embraced the fact that it’s an old bank house and that’s what it is. We’ve tried to make the most of it. And it’s a bit iconic now.”
I asked Paula what it was that kept her so dedicated to the vision of the shop. She said: “I find the people addictive! The clothes, the people, the combination of both of those. For me personally, Mum and I have grown very close because we lost my Dad the year before my brother. Even though my Mum and Dad weren’t together, they were still friends and I think we grew very close together and her dream became my dream.”
The shop now
On the day I visited, the shop was packed with all manner of colours and patterns; hats, outfits, jewellery, jackets, dresses and accessories. There was a selection of the new season’s finest choices hanging on the back of the office door to tempt shoppers to buy.
Paula said: “It’s a bit crowded here at the moment: we do tend to pack it in. We have a philosophy which Mum has always insisted on: we have ladies who come from all over to visit us and have travelled long distances, from Reading and Birmingham for example,and she always said if those ladies make the effort to come to us, then they need to find something so we need to cater for lots of different types of ladies.”
I asked about the new collections for the year, sitting waiting to be displayed in an array of sealed cardboard boxes.
“We do Adini, Viz a Viz, Penny Plain, Passa Mia, Pin’s Trousers, Joe Brown’s, Pretty Vacant - it’s a very new company to us, along with Joe Brown’s. Pretty Vacant is vintage, all based on the 1940s and 1950s styling and fabrics - very nice clothing. The Joe Brown, which lots of ladies have seen in the magazines or online, but have never seen it in the flesh. It’s really nice, because you get lots of ladies who have wanted to see what they look like but haven’t wanted to order them, so it’s been good for that. We do Mudflower and more…”
Three generations of women in the family are now involved in running Wanda Fashions.
“My daughter Charlotte is at university to do business and management and she has been helping me with the website. When she comes back [from university] she comes and helps - she is trying to help as much as possible and be as active as possible.
“Mum is still very much linked with the shop in lots of ways. She is at the stage where she needs to retire but she wants to be still involved and is at this moment in time still at the helm, but as of 1st April I’ll be taking over completely (although it won’t become Paula Fashions!!). But we want Mum to still be involved and she wants to still be involved, and she’ll come and do buying with me.
“Then I’m the one who does everything! I’ll do all aspects of jobs, from the paperwork and the buying to the PAYE - everything.”
There’s also a team of ladies who work with Paula, Wanda and Charlotte running the shop, most of whom have been customers over the years.
A little shop online
An online shop had never been in the picture until the pandemic hit, Paula said.
“Mum had never wanted us to be online because she wanted us to put all our effort into the shop and being in the shop and to give the shop experience to everybody who walked through the doors.”
But Rugby Borough Council offered Wanda Fashions the chance to join the ShopAppy project when the country went into the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.
“We jumped at the chance and really for us it was a great way of saying ‘we are still here’ because for us that first initial lockdown was just at the time when we had lots of stock in and we had to pay for it. It was quite devastating for us.
“ShopAppy was very very good for us, certainly in the lead up to Christmas when we got on there in November, because they had it in the pipeline. It was brilliant, but it wasn’t the same as having our own website.”
So Paula applied for and received a Warwickshire County Council grant to fund a dedicated website for the shop, designed and maintained by a local Rugby company.
Despite having a website which works as a ‘great window to us’, Paula’s message to customers is always to come to the shop itself.
“Because we have so many items in the shop we don’t humanly have enough time to put everything on there. For us as a little shop, I don’t want to stop being the shop that has lots of individual things so there’s lots on our website, but not necessarily even half of what we’ve got on offer.”
Customers’ support is everything
Paula and her family were optimistic coming out of the pandemic lockdowns and had a ‘very steady and promising summer’.
“We were really quite excited about the rest of the year.
“But come September they went and did those lovely roadworks to us and I’ve got to be honest, they absolutely hammered us and really was quite devastating to us.
“We were very lucky, we had lots of ladies who battled on through and came. I was thanking every person that walked through the door for making that effort and coming. It really was quite difficult for us.
“As a little shop we are totally reliant on our customers making that effort to come to us.”
The family has seen many suppliers come and go during the 33 years that Wanda Fashions has been running.
“It’s not necessarily just because of the pandemic. It’s been partly to do with Brexit as well, and also because people have retired - the pandemic has brought that on a little bit sooner, maybe.”
Paula also said that the cost of clothes she buys in has increased because of the pandemic and Brexit, but she tries to keep any price increases to a minimum for customers.
“We deal with lots of companies that make in the UK. So we as a little shop are very lucky in that respect, because we have bought from the UK, so our impact has been to do with general increases in bringing in fabrics. So that has had a knock-on effect, and for us, because we deal with so many different companies here, I think our prices have stayed with just a steady increase.
“One of our suppliers has increased the price of a wedding outfit by £6, so it’s gone from £139 to £145 which is relatively quite small, for a two-piece wedding outfit.
“But I have noticed that some of the other companies have increased something that would have been £20 now to £30. To me that’s too much. As a little shop we’re trying to buy savvy and buy British. That’s the way you have to be these days.”
Paula told me that the cost of bringing a container of goods into the country increased from about £3,500 to £18,000, making even just the cost of a container alone very expensive for a lot of suppliers.
“You can’t take that [cost] onto the customer.”
Looking to the future
Clothing suppliers are now starting to develop more environmentally-friendly fabrics and practices, Paula told me.
“Cotton has become very expensive and not as eco-friendly as it used to be. So [one supplier] has diversified into using wood-pulp and bamboo fabrics.
“So viscose, tencel and modal are all fabrics that are made from wood. They are breathable and they claim to use about 30 times less water to produce those fabrics than cotton.
“For us they’re investing that money into developing new fabrics that are basically the same as cotton - because so many ladies love cotton.”