Claire Burrows is the founder of the shoe company Air & Grace, which include boots, trainers and a vegan collection. Having worked within the shoe industry for twenty years she set up on her own to create shoes that were as comfy as they are stylish (our very own editorial director Susannah Taylor is a big fan of the vegan Cru Signature trainers which she has described as ‘Genuinely the comfiest pair of trainers I’ve ever worn’).
Here Claire talks to 35 Thousand about what it’s been like running the business throughout COVID-19, why she’s not a fan of doing her accounts, how the Worth Retail Award kickstarted her business, why she is really missing travel and why she now makes time for the gym as well as gin in her life.
Describe yourself in 3 words…
“Determined, caring, tired!”
Tell us about your work…
“I started Air & Grace 6 years ago following a 20-year career working for international footwear brands. I was over fast fashion, I wanted quality and design that would stand the test of time and wasn’t defined by seasons. But most importantly I wanted to combine that with comfort, but not the ugly kind. I wanted shoes that looked as good as they felt. So I created our patented “Tender Loving Air” footbed which Trinny Woodall says is “Like walking on butter” and launched Air & Grace.”
Do you work in the spare room, a skyscraper or other?
“Definitely other. Air & Grace is based at a design studio on Bermondsey Street near London Bridge, it’s a lovely place to be but we’ve all been working from home since the first lockdown. That’s come with some extra complications for me as we were mid-way through renovating our home. The kitchen got ripped out the night before the lockdown announcement, (there’s been a lot of BBQ’ing) and we had a huge hole in the back of the house so we had to chase foxes out most nights! It’s still not finished, but thankfully we’re warm, watertight and fox free now. I’ve started working at the studio again a few days each week, it’s nice to be back.”
What parts of your work give you energy?
“Without a doubt reading customer reviews and comments. This is everything to us. When customers say “The perfect trainer, and the perfect fit! It really is like walking on clouds” we can’t help feeling energised and uplifted.”
What parts of your work drain you?
“Accounts – ironic really being as I was nearly an accountant. I ran away to work at a bar in Tenerife for a couple of years instead and the rest is history. I’m of the opinion that some tasks are better to outsource, so I have an amazing accountant and bookkeeper. Both are thankful I ended up designing shoes.”
Most pivotal point of your career so far?
“Winning the Worth Retail Award for the ‘Brands of Tomorrow’. This was the moment that made Air & Grace a reality. I had spent every penny I had and more creating a sample collection, but I didn’t have the funds to go into production. I saw the competition in the Metro newspaper and applied. I went through a series of stages culminating in a “dragon’s den” style pitch and won first prize – an investment of £150K. This meant I could finally produce my shoes and create my website.”
Best piece of advice you received that you now pass on to others…
“It sounds simple, but don’t run out of money. Get to grips with cash flow – it really is the ‘be all and end all’. So many great ideas fail due to poor cash flow. I used to spend every Sunday morning updating a mammoth cashflow spreadsheet. It wasn’t my idea of fun, but it got me through the difficult times. I could see in advance if I was facing credit crunches and would shift outgoings accordingly to keep us afloat. Now we use an app called Float which integrates and automatically syncs with our website and accounts platforms. It’s been a revelation; I’ve got my Sundays back.”
What’s your context outside of work – do you have family, other people counting on you, pets, hobbies, external commitments?
“I’m pretty simple. I work hard, play hard. I really value my downtime as I don’t get much of it. I adore cooking and Sundays are sacred – no work! Instead, I love cooking up a feast, it relaxes me, and having people round to enjoy it is the best. I live with my long-term boyfriend Jason in a house we are renovating in Hither Green. In normal circumstances we see my mum and brother often and visit Jason’s parents in France several times a year. I also love a party night out with my girls. I can’t wait to get back to normal.”
Describe your pre-pandemic day-to-day…
“Busy! But it’s still busy. So there’s not much change. It’s never the same each day, I designate time for design, but a lot of my day to day is reacting to what’s going on. This can be anything from a surprise post of our shoes by Fearne Cotton to dealing with customs delays. It keeps me on my toes.”
How has your daily life changed, what’s your new normal?
“Like everyone my life changed overnight. I went from working in the studio with my lovely team each day to shouting “Can you hear me?” on Zoom. I haven’t visited our manufacturing partners in Europe since January 2020 and I’d usually be there most months working closely together creating our shoes. But we’ve figured it out and got on with it. As a small business we’re pretty nimble, so we’re able to adapt.”
Has the Corona crisis impacted you personally and professionally? How?
“Immeasurably. I did not realise that I was running at a pace that was not sustainable until this happened. I’ve been running on empty to keep everything going for the past few years. I’ve now woken up and taken steps to rectify that. It’s a cliche but I really do now make time for me, carving out gym time, no excuses! As a business 2020 has been incredibly challenging, our manufacturers closed for 3 months and we’re still playing catch up, but we’ll get there. For me personally, lockdown afforded me the time to take a step back and think about what I should be doing and what I| wanted to do… It’s led to closing our wholesale channel and going back to our roots of being an online only brand. We’re feeling the positive effects from that decision already.”
What, if anything, keeps you up at night?
“My to do list!”
What have been your 2020 coping strategies? Do you have any objects, routines or tools that you found particularly uplifting? Gin or Gym?
“One of the moments I look back to with fondness is our charity collaboration with Gaby Roslin for The Prince’s Trust. This project had been in progress for over a year and all launch plans had to be cancelled due to lockdown. We switched to a virtual launch and sold out in less than 4 hours raising nearly £10K for The Prince’s Trust Charity. It was a moment of positivity in a year of challenges.
As for gym or gin? A bit of both. I have 100% found fitness during lockdown. I’ve been gym shy my entire life and now I don’t even recognise myself – I’m working out every day. I’ve finally made some time for me. But there’s always Gin time.”
What has kept you sane? And kept your family sane?
“Walking has been my big thing. I’ve always loved walking, but it’s taken on a new meaning now that it’s a safe way of meeting with friends and family. Meeting for a walk and a chat is a pleasure I have enjoyed and will continue to.”
When we are allowed to travel again will you be travel ready? Where do you want to go, with who or would you rather stay home?
“Absolutely travel ready! I can’t wait. I usually make approx 10 trips a year to visit our manufacturing partners in Portugal and Spain and I am missing it so much. I love being hands on in the sample room, working with our amazing craftspeople and sourcing materials. These trips are where the magic happens. It’s not been easy for me doing that process remotely, but I’m lucky to have brilliant partners in location who have been able to step in and bring my visions to life.”
Finish this sentence: “In my handbag you will ALWAYS find…”
“Leather swatches and most probably a few shoe components.”
What are your WFH saviours? (routines/ products/ coffee/ music?)
“I’ve found getting into a routine has really helped. In the beginning I really missed the mental transition of travelling home from work and found it difficult to switch off. To combat this, I started taking a walk after I called it a day working on the sofa. Now Winter has drawn in I’m lighting scented candles and changing into loungewear to signify the end of my working day.”
Describe your style?
“I’m either fuss-free or high octane, there’s not much in between. 2020 has definitely been a year in gym gear, but it doesn’t take much of an excuse for me to glam it up. I love design that transcends time so I invest in well cut, beautifully made pieces that will transcend seasons. My designer go to’s are Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. I have pieces that are 25 years old that I still love and wear. I’m a pounds per wear girl. It’s the same ethos I apply at Air & Grace – longevity in design.”
Name your 5 essential items of clothing
“White silk shirt, well cut blazer, biker jacket, leather leggings, leopard maxi dress.”
How do you see your business in two years from now?
“Unusually for me, I’m not forecasting so far ahead. We are building on our successes, but not being over ambitious. With so much uncertainty I feel it’s best to take a cautious approach and anything else is a welcome bonus. I’ll always be happy if we continue to make our customers happy.”
What’s your go to mantra or life motto?
“Work hard and be nice to people.”
If you loved this article, then you will love our interviews with many other inspiring women such as Whitney Bromberg-Hawkings of FLOWERBX and journalist Sarah Vine