I am Julie Lingard, and I am the founder of AQAQ.
From a young age, I always knew that fashion was my lifetime calling and I have spent the last 30 years building AQ/AQ into a global brand from its humble beginnings as a small shop in the North of England.
The brand has had some incredible highs at one point two big flagship stores in Soho, to becoming a huge international seller in the US market, becoming a international brand worn by Rhianna, Jlo, Lady Gaga and others, we have also had some difficult struggles, a huge warehouse flood that took out our entire stock, getting the brand (which sells mainly event wear) through covid and a constantly evolving market, today I am pleased to say that, AQ/AQ is stronger than it has ever been and we are currently working on relaunching the new AQAQ collection later this year.This is the story of how it all started, and how we got to where we are today.In 1999 I set up a small independent shop in the iconic Corn Exchange in Leeds.
Leeds at the time was giving birth to an incredible dance music scene and the iconic corn exchange was at the heart of it all.Full of independent clothing stores and a record shop called "Play Music" where most of the Leeds DJ's would hang out, it was ridiculously hip way before the term "hipster" even existed. The Corn Exchange during that time was a real scene, setting the trends for the new and evolving northern party scene. Leeds was also quickly becoming the gay capital of the North, it was progressive, with music and fashion being the epicentre of it all. During that time iconic club nights such as Back to Basics, Speed Queen and Federations were born.
Our shop was dressing most of the women who were out on that scene. AQUA (as we were known then) quickly established its reputation up north for the go to shop for party wear.The original AQ/AQ was called AQUA COUTURE, and I set it up with a fashion designer called James Steward. James Steward had a little design room in the back of the shop where he would be making on the spot couture for woman wanting unique, quirky and something different to wear that no one else had. We also stocked independent labels, and we were always on the lookout for new "off the wall" designers.
In the first few weeks of opening up AQ/AQ, I met Caroline Towning, who is now 23 years later our new creative director of the brand, whilst also becoming my life long best friend.
Caroline was working as a Saturday girl at one of the neighbouring shops and when we first met we instantly connected with this magical soulmate type vibe, I knew that she was someone who would be in my life and business for a long time. 23 years later she has come on board as my creative director and we have nicked name each oththrouger "spiritual business partners"When I first met Caroline she was only 19 years old but her energy & intelligence shone out of her eyes like an old soul.
I asked her to jump ship and she came to work for me.
AQ/AQ was born from friends, design, love and a passion for music and partying. We had our talented designer James Steward reworking denim in a cupboard under the stairs. We would have the DJ's from Playmusic come and hang out in the store, the girls working for me would all be party girls that soon became the best of friends with each other, everyone loved and wore the clothes and Saturdays in the shop just used to feel like one huge pre-party before hitting the clubs on a Saturday night. Saturday nights at the clubs in Leeds was full of girls wearing AQ/AQ, but because we made so much bespoke pieces, no look was ever the same. Customers who came in to buy used to just want to hang out in the shop because it was so fun, the music was banging, the girls were funny and engaging, and we still laugh about or ‘Special Saturdays’ which remains to this day a secret amongst the AQ/AQ girls.
The Corn exchange in Leeds during that time was one big happy family, and I could see that this small shop in Leeds had created magic that eventually snowballed into a global brand. I always had a love for retail, and even though I technically was the boss, you would always find me in the back helping a customer in the changing room, now when I look back, I could see that I was so passionate about making women feel great in the clothes I could make for them. I loved styling, and being around interesting incredible women. We always had a stream of amazing customers coming through our doors going to different events, and we could always cater for them- we delivered elevated styles for all occasions.The original shop was quirky, it was ran in a quirky way and full of quirky people. After a few years and 3 shops up North we decided to go big and take our northern spirt to the big smoke, as London was calling.We opened up our flagship store just off Carnaby street and our business just exploded, with a second London store and also being stocked in Harrods. Our Soho store because the port of call for stylists and celebrities and very quickly we became unstoppable.
AQ/AQ just grew from strength to strength and it started to take over the American market. We became the biggest-selling brand in Bloomingdales. However this soon backfired as they sued us for being called AQUA as they had theory own in house brand named the same and 250k later we had to rename to AQ/AQ.But this wouldn't be a journey without some hardship and trials along the way.
Disaster struck on Boxing day 2016 the river Aire burst its banks and flooded our warehouse with up to 5 ft, the damage was irreparable. The name AQ/AQ derived from the original name Aqua so it’s ironic the water made us lose almost everything.
We had to canoe to the warehouse, it took over 30 people 10 days clear up and salvage once the water had finally receded.
I was so proud of our team who fought with determination to stay afloat during this time (excuse the pun).
We had to start the business again which meant pulling our focus from retail stores to focus solely on our online platform.
After getting back on our feet to a semblance of normality the pandemic hit, and we faced our biggest challenge yet. COVID
Sadly we had to liquidate the business.
I felt we had failed our customers and my colleagues, I was determined to put things right.
Thankfully our government stuck by me and allowed me as a director to restart my business once this process was completed.
As I'm sure you know a lot of businesses small and large went under at this time it was something none of us were prepared for.
A Lot of these brands wiped the slate clean with a new company number when they liquidated leaving customers without products and without refunds , I couldn't stand for this nor was it something I was willing to do to our customer base.
We decided as a business to honour all sales and refunds from the previous company.
But in my naivety I didn't understand the knock- on effect this would have on the new business and our processing times, its caused delays that we are not proud of as we hate letting our customers down.
Our team also took a hit, we went from a force 47 strong to a now very small passionate team.
I understand that this delay and our short staffing caused us some damage in the long run, but we are focused on rectify this and getting back to our previous standards, this whole experience taught me a lot regarding business and in hindsight, I still would honour all sales and refunds as I value every single customer who has stood by us over the last 22 years.Covid was a hard time for us as it was for so many other brands.
We nearly lost the business, we have always been a party and event wear brand then when we went in out of nearly 2 years of lockdowns it was the toughest time for us in the brand's history.We are female founded and female run, our strength is in our commitment to each other and above all our commitment to you, I would like to thank you for your continued support.
Caroline Towning and I always remained close, the last few years she has done all the brand's photography for us. As a spiritual business partner to me, and from being there from pretty much day one, she understands the brand more than anyone.2023 is an exciting new chapter, Caroline has come on as creative director and we are working on a new collection of both clothing and jewellery. She jokes about now being an ageing party girl, but she still loves going out, dancing and music, "once a raver always a raver", Caroline's plans to bring the brand back to its original roots of sleek feminine designs, whists also pushing a new contemporary concept for the future.Know after 22 years of running a AQ/AQ this brand only exists because of you all.
We as a brand are venturing into new territory with our beauty collection and our commitments to sustainable practices within our clothing line.
We are no longer the large scale company we use to be but our dedication to quality and our passion is still the same.
“Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end”
Growth can be and has been uncomfortable at times for AQ/AQ, but I love who we are as a brand and where we are going truly excites me.
Follow us on our journey @aqaq