“My passion for dress agencies and buying second hand clothes began when I was about 17 – the mother of my boyfriend at the time always looked amazing and very stylish wearing the most beautiful clothes but on a tight budget. I would constantly ask where she got her latest outfit and she would always say either a charity shop or a dress agency. Once she educated me about dress agencies there was no going back, I was addicted!
I had the choice of three dress agencies at the time in Aberdeen and I used them all! I was absolutely astounded by the brands and quality of the clothes for such a cheap price in comparison to buying new. And so began my love of second hand shopping!
When I was 18 I got accepted to train with Shell Oil in Aberdeen. This meant I needed to dress in a corporate way, but I was only on a trainee salary. I would go to the dress agencies and buy the most amazing designer suits for a fraction of the price. It certainly helped me look the part! I’d often get asked where my clothes were from and delighted telling people I’d bought them in dress agencies or charity shops. It’s a standard joke between my friends to this day if they ever ask where something I’m wearing is from – “don’t tell me, a charity shop or dress agency?”
When I was about 21, the owner from one of the dress agencies I used, and knowing my passion for them, offered me the business as they had decided to sell. At the time I had a mortgage and a good job, so made the decision not to do it. I always remember that being a regret, for years later I would think, why did I not just go for it then?
Life continued, and I found myself leaving the oil industry and moving to the Cayman Islands where I had lived with my parents when I was younger. The oil industry and the cold NE wind had lost their shine and I was desperate for a new adventure. Throughout all the various paths I took I always talked about how much I would like to have my own dress agency one day. Life in Cayman was wonderful but after meeting someone over there I ended up agreeing to move back to Tunbridge Wells. I remember landing at Gatwick, driving through Forest Row, Hartfield and onto to Groombridge and thinking it was one of the most beautiful places I ever been. I fell in love with the history, architecture and landscape straight away.
I was thrilled to discover at the time Tunbridge Wells had a wonderful dress agency called Panache. I absolutely loved visiting there and became a regular customer. Eventually there were three agencies in town but unfortunately, they have all gone now.
After some time, I ended up moving to London, I then lived in Sevenoaks, Westerham and then back to London again! I worked in the music industry, television, and in events. I enjoyed all of the jobs I did during that time, but the dress agency dream was always in the background and I often talked about it.
After having my son Elliot, I decided to stop commuting to London and try being freelance locally. I was lucky to land a job at Wadhurst Castle running the events there and I also picked up some corporate clients too. Once my son went to school I gave up weekend events at the Castle and continued to support my other clients working mostly from home. All the while I was still talking about having my own dress agency to my husband and friends who continually encouraged me to just go for it!
After a couple of years last summer, I started to search for the nearest dress agency as all the agencies in Tunbridge Wells had closed. It turned out there was one in Cranbrook only 25 minutes away. Strangely I had never heard of it and was surprised not to have visited before. I headed over there one Wednesday and parked on the main High Street. I was amazed how many wonderful independent shops I discovered there and how beautiful Cranbrook was with its very own windmill!
I found myself in the Hospice charity shop on Stone Street while I was looking for the dress agency. As I had volunteered in the Wadhurst shop I loved to support them, and they often have amazing finds as a note! As I was standing at the till waiting to buy yet another toy for Elliot, the lady in front of me turned around to comment on my perfume and how much she liked it. That conversation ended up being the start of me becoming the owner of my very own dress agency.
It turns out she was the owner of the dress agency I was there to visit, and when I finally arrived at the shop I explained her shop was the reason I was in Cranbrook that day. I remember I was there for almost 2 hours chatting and sharing our love of dress agencies and charity shops. Fast forward another month and another lengthy visit and she offered me the business. It was exactly what had happened with the other dress agency owner all those years earlier in Aberdeen when I was 21.
I drove home that day full of excitement with the thought I could finally realise the dream I had thought about for over 20 years. The opportunity had come out of no-where but if you believe in serendipity then this felt like one of those moments! I bought the business and ended up taking over on 1st November 2019. After doing a full refurb and rebrand Claire Elliot Dress Agency opened for business on the 25th January 2020.
I have been lucky to see return customers and we are also gathering new customers every day, which has been fantastic. I hope to take us online this year too, so we can reach an ever wider clientele.
There is so much potential with the business and I really hope I can get the message far and wide how wonderful buying from dress agencies really is. Don’t get me wrong the expensive designers certainly have their place, I just appreciate them way more second time around as do my lucky customers finding amazing pieces for a fraction of the original price!”
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