Helen Johnson, Verity Plum - 'It's a rare woman who is 100% happy with herself, whatever her size'
PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 June 2014
How does a slender former marketing professional become the owner of Knutsford's Verity Plum, now one of the North-West's most successful plus size boutiques?
Big knickers and a good tailor are the secret to clothes looking fabulous,’ explains Helen Johnson, the no-nonsense owner of Verity Plum, a foxy plus-size fashion boutique in Knutsford.
The business idea was conceived by a once disgruntled, plump, ex-blue chip marketeer who required an alternative childcare solution. But Helen is now slim and a marathon runner. I’m intrigued...
‘I used to be a size 16/18’ Helen, aged 43, reveals. ‘I know what it’s like to be judged because of your shape and unable to dress age-appropriately because of the limited choice available. I was 33 years old and breastfeeding my first child, Louis. I needed an evening dress for a black tie do so I scoured Manchester for something that would look good on me, versus on my grandma.’ Johnston’s tone turns dour. ‘I won’t name the shop but the assistant laughed at my size 18 breastfeeding body. So I walked out and ended up buying something from Debenhams.’
Many of us might have turned to Chantilly cream cakes for solace but not Helen, who decided to change the course of her life. ‘The inappropriate shop drama ended up becoming my light bulb moment.’
Helen, who now lives in Stockton Heath, had been travelling the globe as a senior marketeer in London for British Airways and then working within a Preston-based travel company reporting to the board. She began to feel she was overdoing it.’ I was running a big life: I was married, managing a home, holding down a heavyweight job, and dropping my son off at nursery for 11-hour days. He was sleeping 12 hours of the day which left my time with him, totalling an hour per day.’
She continues: ‘I wasn’t happy with not seeing the most important part of my life: the child I’d produced. It was after that terrible shop experience I decided things needed to change. I started to consider what I could do differently. My “wouldn’t it be nice if”...switched to “how can I make it happen”.’
Her answer was on her doorstep. Helen’s mum, Jean Cross, 68, had owned a successful Tetbury plus-size fashion business, Extra Special for 10 years. ‘In 2005 we were living in Lymm and I decided to use my Mum’s business as my blueprint, combining it with my marketing experience and Dad’s (Alan) years as a financial director. In fact my brother works in IT and designed my website.’
It was a family affair and Knutsford stood out as a potential location.
‘I was spending all my money on other people looking after Louis and with Lotte on the way I wanted to fit my work around them. Knutsford is close to Lymm and I wanted an affluent consumer in an area with a good footfall. The other shops felt and looked right, it was a boutique town and it felt right.’
Johnson signed the lease on her premises in December 2004 and embarked on a three-month refurbishment project, opening Verity Plum in March 2005.
Helen favours European brands. ‘They accept plus size and curvy fashion as the norm.’ Scanning the rails I spot Doris Streich, a German contemporary daywear designer, Viviana by Dynasty who is famed for mother of the bride apparel and Kirsten Krog, a Danish brand known for elegant evening wear. ‘There’s an expectation that plus size fashion is frumpy. It’s not and all my staff have been in our customer’s position so we aim to be the perfect place for them to shop - somewhere that plus size women feel comfortable.’
I overhear a heartfelt conversation with a customer who appears exasperated: ‘I just want to feel young and look pretty. This will be the fourth outfit I’ve selected from all different shops for my daughter’s wedding.’
Helen tells me: ‘It’s a rare woman who is 100% happy with herself, whatever her size. A 22-24 is our most popular dress size and our personal service means customers are offered a selection of fashion to flatter. I’m very clear what my regulars want to wear and will go to my suppliers with a picture of what they’ll like and are looking for in my head.’
Helen offers some style tips: ‘Longer lines are the most flattering silhouettes with extra space around the bust. But never wear clothes too big or too tight and great underwear is key.’
So why is this slim plus size retailer now a mere shadow of her former self?
‘It’s not a size specific issue. In between 2009 and 2011 I lost three dress sizes because my kids were both at school and I had more ‘me time’. I also got divorced. I have hypothyroidism and decided to take up running and challenged myself to do a 5k Race for Life.’ She admits she was unfit and started building up her fitness with short canalside jogs. In 2011 she ran her first marathon.
I wonder how Helen defines success, something that so many of us question when we become parents or consider our work/life balance. Helen tells me: ‘I consider myself very successful. I achieved my objectives of looking after my children while working at doing something fulfilling.’ A refreshing sentiment indeed.