How a cancer battle inspired up-and-coming Sheffield fashion label

A heartwarming tale of friendship in adversity proved the unlikely inspiration for a new fashion label making waves in Sheffield.

By Robert Cumber
Saturday, 2nd November 2019, 8:21 pm
Updated Monday, 4th November 2019, 6:14 pm

When Carly Genn’s old school friend Esther Allen was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery two years ago, the 39-year-old mum-of-two from Greenhill was determined to do something to show her support.

Since she already ran a clothes shop – Arabesque on Chesterfield Road, in Woodseats, which specialises in dancing gear – she decided to put her skills to good use and make Esther a T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘strong’.

It proved a big hit not just with Esther but with other friends, who loved the design and wanted their own versions, so Carly began churning them out to raise money for good causes, including Weston Park Cancer Charity.

Carly Genn, of Love & Unique with some of her wares at the Clicks and Mortar pop-up shop in Sheffield city centre (pic: Dean Atkins)

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Soon the demand was so great that Carly decided to go into business, launching the firm Love & Unique, which continues to grow while still supporting Weston Park and other charities.

Until now she has sold entirely online, but she leapt at the opportunity to get her wares stocked on the high street, at the pop-up Clicks and Mortar store opposite the Peace Gardens, in the old Maplin shop.

She is one of dozens of online retailers testing out the waters at the new outlet, sponsored by Amazon, which was launched to help small businesses like hers make the move onto the high street.

Carly Genn (right) and her friend Esther Allen

“It all happened by accident because I wanted to do something for Esther, who has stage four melanoma but is doing well now and has no active disease,” she said.

“It’s evolved really quickly, which is lovely, and it’s great that I’ve been able to keep supporting some amazing charities by doing what I’m doing.”

Carly, who is wearing one of her own ‘Be Reyt’ tops when I meet her, began making T-shirts with empowering slogans like ‘superwoman’ but has since expanded her range to include distinctive face designs.

She has also just launched a line of Christmas tops, with £10 from every sale going to Hallam FM’s Cash for Kids Mission Christmas appeal.

Natural wine importer Vincenzo Puleo at the Clicks and Mortar pop-up shop in Sheffield (pic: Dean Atkins)

“I thought Clicks and Mortar was a great opportunity to have a space where customers can try my products on and feel the quality and see what size best fits them, because you can never be totally sure buying online,” she said.

“The feedback’s been great and I’ve got lots of new customers by being here. It’s great to be able to chat to customers face to face and build up a rapport.”

The keen tap dancer, who has run Arabesque for 16 years and loves clothes nearly as much as she does dancing, is still weighing up what the future holds for her fledgling fashion firm.

But emboldened by the appetite among Sheffield shoppers to support independent businesses and seek out something a bit different to what you find in the big chains, she is keen to explore the option of a more permanent presence on the high street.

Nicola Ogle of Kelham Print at the Clicks and Mortar pop-up shop in Sheffield (pic: Dean Atkins)

Clicks and Mortar is the brainchild of business support network Enterprise Nation, which has launched similar shops in Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and aims to give small online retailers a leg-up onto the high street, which has struggled to compete with the growth of internet shopping.

Some of the brands involved in other cities have already gone on to open their own shops, or are in the process of doing so, after successfully testing the water with Clicks and Mortar.

The companies represented at the Sheffield branch have changed over the weeks, to help showcase as wide as possible a range of businesses, and Carly is part of the last cohort of entrepreneurs whose goods are being stocked there until the shop shuts for good on Saturday, November 9, at 5pm.

Also there is Vincenzo Puleo, who claims to be the only importer of natural wine – made the traditional way without any pesticides or other chemicals – operating in Yorkshire.

The 52-year-old polymath, who is also an architect and musician, got into the wine trade after coming to Sheffield three years ago with his wife, Georgia, who works as a haematologist at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

He supplies numerous restaurants and bars in Sheffield and beyond, including Public on Surrey Street, elm on Gibraltar Street, and TABLE by Fin & Bone at Cutlery Works.

Vincenzo wanted to be part of Clicks and Mortar to help spread his appreciation of natural wines, which he says once you’ve tried you’ll never go back to the bigger brands.

“Conventional wines often taste very similar but with natural wines you can really smell and taste the different regions and the different soils where the grapes are grown,” he said.

“People are slowly becoming passionate about natural wine in Sheffield, and my being here is helping more people experience it for the first time.”

Nicola Ogle, who runs the clothing firm Kelham Prints, has been at Clicks and Mortar since it opened.

“It’s been great to meet my customers and I’ve already signed up for a couple of Christmas markets, including the Crookes one, because I’ve enjoyed the experience so much and it’s given me the confidence to sell in person,” said the 31-year-old, of Crookes.

“It’s also been really good to meet other online traders who know what you’re going through. It would be great if we could have something like this on a more permanent basis in one of the many empty units in the city centre.”

Clicks and Mortar campaign manager Ben Haydock called the public reaction ‘really positive’ and said he would be ‘happy to come back’ to Sheffield.

“From what we’ve seen, people in Sheffield really want to support small local businesses, even more so than in other cities we’ve been to, and they love finding out more about the people they’re supporting at the meet the seller events,” he said.