How I built AQAQ into an International Brand from a small shop starting in The Corn Exchange in Leeds
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 London, to becoming a huge global seller especially in the US market, 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 it's 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 for 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 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 other "spiritual business partners"
When I first met Caroline she was only 19 years old but her energy and intelligence shone out of her eyes like an old soul. I asked her to jump ship and she then 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 , everyone loved and wore the clothes and Saturday's in the shop just used to feel like one huge pre-party before hitting the clubs on a Saturday night.
Saturday night's at the clubs in Leeds was full of girls wearing AQ/AQ, but because we made bespoke pieces, no one look was ever the same.
Customers who came in to shop 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 our ‘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 was 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 dress them in.
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 soon opening after and then also being stocked in Harrods. Our flagship Soho store because the port of call for stylists and celebrity cliental. We were very quickly becoming unstoppable.
AQUA just grew from strength to strength and started to take a strong hold in the American market. We learned from ASOS.com that our brand was the highest-selling brand by percentage in the USA market and we should get over there fast. The Americans loved AQUA, we started showing our wholesale collections in a showroom in New York, and then we soon became one of the biggest-selling brands in Bloomingdales. We have to give credit to our amazing sales & PR team which were based in the US a the time.
But this wouldn't be a journey without some hardship and trials along the way.
Being one of the biggest selling brands in Bloomgdales soon backfired on us. We were selling in Bloomingdales for three years before it was flagged up that Bloomingdales already had their own in-house brand called Aqua.
Bloomingdales then sued us for being called AQUA and even though we had been selling to them without the company realising this, our AQUA was on the second floor & their brand Aqua was on the third floor. They slapped a litigation suit on us. This then impacted with immediate effect our online American sales as everything was frozen until we could resolve the issue. ASOS.com who stocked our brand in the USA took all our clothing off their site which was very scary for us as they had over £1,000,000 worth of stock.
Within a week I was on a flight to New York to have a face-to-face meeting with Bloomingdale's legal team.
Three months later we re-branded to AQ/AQ a derivative of our website www.aquabyaqua.com at an expensive rebranding & trademarking cost of £250,000, ASOS.com had to recall all our styles from the USA. In my next sales appointment with ASOS I was told any brands that rebrand their name was automatically derisked by 50%, this cost us just under £1,000,000 in wholesale orders in the coming year.
The second disaster after being sued by Bloomingdale's was struck on Boxing day 2016 when the river Aire burst its banks and flooded our warehouse with up to 5ft, the damage was irrepairable.
This devastated us.
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 to 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).
All in all we lost eight hundred thousand pounds with of stock, and the insurance company only paid a fraction of that amount out back to us, 6 months later.
The only sizes which were saved, were size 6's, so for 6 months we could only cater for a tiny amount of size 6 customers ,quite literally.
But we got through it...
After the flood 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 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 and out of nearly 2 years of lockdowns it was the toughest time for us in the brand's history.
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 to be a director again 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 other 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 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.
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. Its our brand loyalty from our customer who have got us through these difficult times.
We want you to know that after 22 years of running a AQ/AQ this brand only exists because of you all.
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", and 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 our future.
We as a brand are venturing into new territory with our new collection and our commitments to sustainable practices within our clothing and jewellery 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