Over the five years that Kay Avery-Stallion has been running her store, St Leonards Modern Goods in Norman Road, she has had plenty of time to reflect on what she is doing and why. As she celebrates her fifth anniversary, ROD WEBB talks to Kay about what she set out to do, what she has achieved and what she has learned along the way. 

Kay started her online business in her basement in East Ascent in 2010: “It was all about understated luxury leather for discerning men and women,” she says. And after eight years of using Coastal Currents as a ‘shop front’ for her leather goods, Kay decided she wanted to extend the business into a lifestyle brand with men’s and women’s clothing as well as accessories.

She heard ‘on the quiet’ that a shop on Norman Road was becoming available – deep enough for her machining and sewing with sufficient retail space. But having passed a rigorous interview, the owners only agreed to let her rent it if she could raise three months’ rent in three weeks.

“I thought I was going to fail at the first hurdle,” says Kay. “I had absolutely zero cash flow. I had maxed out all my credit cards paying for leather and all the other products for running an online business.”

But after brainstorming with friends, she decided to tap into her existing customers around the world. “I was really unsure whether they’d crowdfund a shop which wasn’t even in their own country let alone in their own town,” Kay says. “How wrong I was! Within three weeks they’d managed to raise £7,500, the deposit I needed.

“Because I’d already been designing and making bags for the mens and womenswear brand, YMC they already knew me and agreed to waive their usual waiting time for my brand to develop. So St Leonards Modern Goods opened with YMC – as well as Superga plimsolls.”

After opening in 2016 Kay experienced the usual wobbles, but then Brexit loomed. “All the anxiety that fed into Brexit really, really affected footfall, not just for me but for everybody in the High Street. We didn’t expect to bounce back for at least four years… and before that even happened, we were hit by Covid.” 

Kay remembers the start of Covid as an extremely stressful time and is grateful for the first tranche of grant money from central government that “stopped us freaking out from not being able to eat at all, let alone pay our mortgages and our shop overheads.” But there were no more ‘chunks’, just a couple of ‘little drips’.

She says indie stores had to really dig deep to develop the online parts of their business. “I already had an online business, and began to work really hard doing videos on Instagram. This transformed my business. By engaging directly, doing lots of videos and personal appearances inside Instagram, people really connected with me even though the doors were shut.”

She also made the most of the shop being closed by tapping into art and design “making sure I did creative stuff just for the fun of it once a week –
and I shared that inside the @stleonardsmoderngoods Instagram.”

Now in the fifth year of her business – celebrating the fifth anniversary this month – Kay has adapted once again to be more resilient, this time to the new economic climate and the social changes created by new waves of people moving to St Leonards. She’s also started nurturing other creatives with a new arm of her business, Modern Mentoring: “Anybody interested in looking at the products I have available as a mentor for creative businesses can head over to my website www.stleonardsonline.com.

After all the ups and downs of the past few years, Kay sees a “really bright future” for indie stores like hers: “I feel that indie stores are now in a much stronger position than ever before if people continue to work from home, although, If they end up going back to offices in major cities they’ll just sleepwalk back into shopping malls and multiple retailer chains.” 

And not forgetting the fifth anniversary she says, “I’d like to offer everybody who reads the newspaper 10% off if they mention my birthday when they come in the store.”

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