Caroline Van Luthje was at the top of her game and in demand as the head of Scandinavia's second largest production company when she moved to London to work as a freelance TV producer.
She remembers her London TV years as some of the funniest and best of her life until the industry changed and filming budgets were drastically cut.
Time to try something different she thought and between her love of clothes and beautiful things and the appalling service she received on the UK high street she decided to open a couture boutique in Notting Hill with best friend and fashion designer Ann Wiberg called Trash Couture.
Pretty gutsy, since Caroline had no background in retail and had no idea of what she was doing, she just thought it would be fantastic. “I naively thought having a shop was a nice little cosy thing to do and I wanted to make a shop that I liked because I couldn’t find anything I liked and didn’t buy anything other than when I went home to Denmark, so I thought there must be other people like me.”
Caroline got the shock of her life opening a massive shop on Westbourne Grove because even though they had the fashion design side of the business well and truly covered these stylish Danish friends struggled at times because couture is not something people pop in to buy three pieces of every day. “I just thought you got a little shop, you put some nice things in it, people came in, you sold it, they went home, we’re all happy and that was really it."
After a while when this formula proved faulty Caroline and Anne decided to shut up shop. Anne moved to Paris and they continued to wholesale for a while but eventually they decided it wasn’t worth it. All was not lost for Trash Couture, Anne now lives in Denmark and designs the collections using leftover fabrics from the large couture houses in cities like Paris. With a design and ethical profile emphasising sustainability and recycling the label is loved by royalty and cutting edge celebrity within the Film and Music business.
One of the great things for Caroline is that her years in the Notting Hill shop taught her a lot about what to do but more specifically what not to do in retail so after while she felt ready to explore a gap in the UK market for Scandinavian fashion. She noticed that people already liked the quality and simplicity of furniture from shops like Skandium and was sure they’d feel the same way about an offer of quality clothes with a twist, affordable luxury that you could wear season after season that the Danes are well known for.
In 2002 she opened Wild Swans in Chiswick, the first boutique in the UK to sell now much loved brands like Malene Birger and Day. She took her time testing different brands to find all the right ones and in the beginning 40 percent of her brands were Scandinavian. “It might be the best selling brand in Denmark but it doesn't mean it will translate to London so it’s taken years to get it right.” And get it right she did, a year later she opened a new branch in Islington and now 90% of the store is filled with Scandinavian fashion.
Wild Swans is for the independent lady who knows exactly what she likes, is looking for impeccable quality, excellent service and likes buying something that not everyone else has. And get this.... Caroline serves champagne in store every Saturday from 1 o'clock!! It’s all about feeling special whilst finding something special. She knows her customers well enough that if they see something on the Wild Swans website they might call up and ask her advice. If it’s not quite right for whatever reason (shape, colour, sizing) she is always honest and along with her staff will try her best to recommend something better suited but equally fabulous. Some of her staff have been with her for six years from the very beginning, they respect each other and all give something of themselves to the company.
Caroline has lived all over North London in the past 16 years including Belsize Park, Primrose Hill and Camden. She admits she only moved to Islington because of her husband and would avoid it at all costs before she met him thinking of it as the odd one out in comparison to its other more stylish North London cousins. A lot has changed since those days and she now loves it.
“It has everything and there is just no need to go outside the boundaries. “Anything you can’t get on Upper Street, you can get on Essex Road. We have the best fishmonger in London, Steve Hatt on Essex Road, he supplies all the restaurants. You’ve got places to eat like Ottolenghi and Highbury Park is beautiful with nice cafes. I like that you have the area up near Angel that is very high street and then further down it gets individual, the restaurants aren’t all chains. You have people with enormous amounts of wealth and then some council areas which is like 3rd or 4th generation which is actually what gives its charm.”
Caroline’s woes as an independent retailer are the same as everyone else's, “the rents are excruciating and the business rates each month crippling" and believes independents need to get together and do something collectively. She tries to collaborate with her neighbours in an around Cross Street. She’s known Yottam from Ottolenghi on Upper Street since her Notting Hill days, her first shop Trash Couture was next to his in West London. They’re old friends and when he first moved to Upper Street she did her best to help him get up to speed as quickly as possible with the local council.
"It doesn't even matter if you do the same thing, a very good friend of mine owns Petit Bateau and Pretty Pregnant and we get together over coffee to talk business and throw ideas around together. I never understand why people are scared of sharing; if you are a decent person there are certain codes you abide by. If someone else has a brand you don’t go after it, that’s just good manners but that doesn't mean you can’t be there for each other, sometimes it s nice to know you aren’t alone.”
When she’s not dashing between the shops in Chiswick and Islington you’ll find her painting and pottering at her summer house or as she calls it her shagpile of wood by the sea in Denmark, a much needed retreat only a three and a half hour plane ride away from London.
If you don’t have your own shagpile of wood near the sea click here to Caroline’s ideal weekend away in Denmark.