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The bee's knees

Iconic British designer Alex Monroe sits down with Attire Accessories to talk about his 30-year jewellery journey from punk safety pins to creepy crawlies

Tell me a bit about how the label was started.
I was working as a groundsman in Suffolk but dreamed of becoming a fashion designer; as you can imagine, I had to keep that a secret from my workmates! So I tried to get on to a fashion course but failed miserably. The nearest alternative available to me was a jewellery course, which I immediately loved. My teenage obsession with punk and safety pin DIY outfits took me from the Suffolk countryside to London!
In the end though, it was my love of working with metal and learning how to make things that led me to jewellery. As a kid I spent my days making go-carts and guns from whatever I could find, and this eventually translated into making tiny flowers and insects from silver and gold. It's now 30 years on and I have a thriving business and a wonderful team - who'd have thought?!

What was the aim of the label when it was first established?
The aim was to create accessible handmade fashion jewellery for women to fall in love with and wear, that aim remains to this day. I realised pretty early on I wanted to make something for people to wear; to have that conversation, that exchange of ideas with the consumer.

How were the initial products developed, and what was the response?
When I started there wasn't really anyone doing what I was doing, which was making affordable fashion jewellery while using the kind of techniques you'd adopt for making expensive pieces: proper hand making and good materials. People responded well to it, as back then there was a gap in the market for that type of product. Researching the jewellery market made me realise that I wanted to make beautifully crafted pieces in silver and sell them at an affordable price. I knew I didn't want to be a pricey Bond Street jeweller, or an exclusive art gallery jeweller - I wanted to make fashion jewellery for people to wear.

What challenges were overcome when the company was starting out?
After I graduated from the Royal College of Art, I started making a few one-off pieces, I then went door-to-door around boutiques in Hampstead looking for someone to buy my designs - and someone did!
I was so excited that I ran back home to tell my friends, which resulted in celebratory drinks, which resulted in me spending my day's earnings. So you could say that an early problem was cash flow!

What sets you apart from your competitors?
We have a very unique selling point here at Alex Monroe and that's the 'handmade in England' factor. Each piece I carve out of silver by hand and have it cast, the process of making many starts and finishes here in England.
More specifically, our fine jewellery range is all handmade in London. As a company, we let word of mouth do the advertising for us. A lot of our competitors can be seen on the sides of buses and billboards and it's great that that approach works for them but as a brand we like to be a little bit more under the radar, like the secret you want to know.

How important is the location and history of the company to its success?
I've always lived in south east London, my first workshop was here and we still use it today. As we got bigger and looked to open the shop, it made sense to keep the story in south London, so we opened on Snowsfields in Bermondsey.
Now we've gotten bigger again and have purpose built a jewellery workshop in you guessed it, south London. The area is thriving at the moment with lots of new lovely shops and restaurants, it's an exciting place to be and develop in.

How has the product offering changed over the years and how would you describe your current collection?
We're always developing and innovating here in our workshop, while sticking to our core, which is nature-inspired pieces with British eccentricity. Having said this, we have had some great opportunities to come out of our comfort zone. Collaborations with partners such as Buckingham Palace, Nike and Coco De Mer have helped us break the mould and allowed the brand to grow and be viewed by different audiences. This season though I've gone back to my workbench and created my own specimen cabinet of beautiful butterflies and insects. Still in keeping with nature, but very different to my travel-inspired collection last season.

How often do you launch new lines?
We always have new things happening in the workshop, it feel like we're launching something new every month. In reality though, we bring out four strong collections each year, not including our exclusives and collaborations. I'll do two silver and plated ranges and two fine jewellery ranges, which we show throughout the year.

What are the current bestselling designs? Tell me about your recent campaigns.
Our Bumble Bee design is always a strong front runner and we've continued to develop it. One of the best things about hand making everything is that you can revisit and rework things. The latest instalment to our beehive are our flying bee hoops with pearls. The social media team put these on Instagram during the making process and people went nuts for them, which was really satisfying. I can see these being the next bestseller soon.

Which trade shows do you attend and which one works best for you?
The wholesale team is great and do a lot of trade shows all over the world; New York, Las Vegas, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Australia the most recent of which was a new show in Milan. We did it for the first time last season and it was super successful.

When was the website launched and how does it support the business?
We launched the site around 2005 or 2006 - it's gone through several face lifts since then, the most recent one about two years ago. It's amazing how technology changes things. I remember back in 2006 the office would jump up and down if we got one customer order a week! We didn't have any stock back then so the order would come in and our now Bespoke Manager - who was a trainee at the time - would get to work on the bench, hand making each order, then packing and posting it out herself, 12 years on and we're into the hundreds!

What have been the key milestones in the business?
This year is our 30th anniversary and we've had some really great milestones in that time. Our first big order is the one that sticks out in my mind. It was to a Japanese company called HP France - which we still sell to today. Being based in London, our first order from Liberty was really exciting. In 2011 we opened our first boutique, in 2012 my book Two Turtle Doves was released and we rounded off 2016 with the new jewellery workshop in south London.

How do you view the current market and what trends, both in product and business, do you see emerging over the coming months?
I campaigned hard to remain in the EU, so we were all shocked the morning of 26th June, however it's now time to accept it and move forward. The political landscape at the moment is very uncertain and until decisions are made it is difficult to predict how it will affect us directly.
We'll build on our success from the past few decades by continuing to make innovative and brave decisions, while also focusing closely on our accessible luxury ranges, which have seen a huge boost in 2016. To be honest we tend not to follow trends, we make it up as we go along!

What are your future plans for the business?
As far as I can see, the future is not for the faint-hearted. We'll do something. It'll be big and bold and fun. It might be a big retail investment in UK or opening an office and shop in New York. We're getting a lot of interest in China, we could invest there. Times of change always offer exciting opportunities and people are always going to need a nice piece of jewellery.

Alex Monroe
+44 (0)20 7378 6061