Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ll no doubt have spotted a number of White Rose shops peppering Nottingham’s high streets. We caught up with Commercial Director and Co-founder Grace Walker to find out how their popular shops are changing people’s perceptions of charity shops and preloved clothing, while helping to raise funds to transform lives through Aegis Trust…
If you pop into any White Rose store, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for your regular highstreet clothes shop. However, far from the fast-fashion giants that have dominated cities around the world for years, White Rose pride themselves on providing shoppers with great quality preloved pieces, coupled with a shopping experience reminiscent of traditional fashion retailers.
While studying at Nottingham Trent University in 2008 and as part of the Aegis Students’ Society, Grace Walker, White Rose’s Commercial Director, accompanied some of her fellow students on a visit to Rwanda to learn first-hand how the 1994 genocide had a cataclysmic effect on a whole nation. A part of the visit involved meeting survivors at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which was run by the Aegis Trust. It was an experience Grace would never forget.
“A lot of the people we met there, including our tour guides and hosts, were students just like ourselves. They were the same age, but they had gone through very different experiences. When you meet people the same age as you that had lost very close members of their family in such a way, for me personally, I could barely comprehend it. It was meeting those students with similar career aspirations to us that really brought it home in a different way.”
After hearing how passionate the Rwandan students were about the work Aegis’ Kigali Memorial Centre does, which includes listening to survivors and educating the younger generations while raising awareness of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, Grace knew she had to do something.
“Hearing those students tell us not to forget what we saw, as well as the changes Aegis is making in Rwanda and realising what happened there could happen anywhere, was hugely important. However, it was also really personally challenging because you realise it was just ordinary people that committed the genocide and how fragile the human mind is.
“Coming back from that trip it was clear that we’d found a really meaningful cause,” she continues. “Together with some of my fellow students, we spoke to Aegis’ CEO, Dr James Smith, who kindly gave us £2,000 to get us started, as well as some stock to sell from Rwanda. Really, without his support none of this would be possible.”
Grace and fellow NTU student Angela Ford, who was also on that fateful trip to Rwanda, opened the first White Rose shop on Goosegate, at a site Grace lived above herself while she was a student. Today, White Rose have come a long way, but Grace explains it wasn’t always plain sailing.
“It was a slow start for the first five years. We opened that shop in 2009, then in 2011 we opened WR2 in Hockley on the corner. We faced many challenges as a young company learning to manage staff, recruit volunteers and buy stock. Then gradually the charity brought in even more support and advisors and, in 2016, we branched out into Newark. We opened a few more shops in Nottingham, including WR4, which opened in 2017 and became a warehouse and a shop.”
2019 saw Grace and her team open the Market Square site just before COVID hit. “The Market Square store was a big step for us, and really helped to increase our profile again. However, the pandemic came just as we were expanding and building momentum, which forced our hand to launch online.
“Our online store was a really big success as it allowed us to reach even more people. The site also has an AI system which lets you scan an item of clothing you’re wearing, or you’ve found online, and upload the picture to the site. It’ll then pull up everything on the site that’s similar, making it even easier to find what you’re looking for.”
The team’s White Rose Outlet store is the latest to join the ever-expanding roster, after opening last year. Featuring the charity’s lower grade highstreet items, or pieces that are suitable for upcycling, the outlet is stocked with really affordable preloved items to make sustainable shopping even more accessible for all.
They say the second-hand fashion industry is going to overtake fast fashion by 2030, and will be twice the size
There are now over thirteen White Rose stores across the country including Newark, Sheffield and Beeston, but the team have ambitions to launch more over the coming months, as well as to branch into other ventures such as kilo sales and rental programmes.
Recent years have seen the circular and slow fashion movements gain enormous traction, and Grace believes stores such as White Rose have an important part to play in that. They offer shoppers a viable and stylish alternative to fast fashion options, while giving them the opportunity to help raise funds for a very worthy cause.
“They say the second-hand fashion industry is going to overtake fast fashion by 2030, and will be twice the size. As we know, the fashion industry and its production of clothing is one of the main contributors to the climate crisis, so the need for shops like White Rose and other charity and preloved stores, are really going to be the future. And yes, people will no doubt still shop online, but I think for many, that need to feel, especially second-hand items, will never go away.”
There are many who will no doubt know of all the benefits of shopping preloved, but are unsure of where to start. Yet if inspiration is what you’re after, that’s certainly something the White Rose team provide by the bucket. You need only look at their mannequins and window displays, which feature a regular rotation of impeccably-styled preloved outfits, to see how they’re changing the game for traditional charity shopping.
“For us, it’s about bringing to life those pieces that echo what they felt like when new. We’re always thinking, ‘How can we create that same experience for people to enjoy?’ But it’s also giving people the opportunity to be more creative, rather than just buying what’s on trend and having to dress like everyone else. With shops like ours, you can buy what’s trending, and put your own spin on it.”
It'd be difficult to speak to Grace and not get swept away by her infectious passion for Aegis Trust and White Rose. “The best thing about what we do is being able to help raise funds for the Trust and its Peace Education Programme,” she tells me. “We’re working hard to one day become Aegis’ main source of funding, and it’s through the amazing support of the whole Trust that we’ve been able to be where we are today.
“But that’s not all - over the years, it’s been great to be able to give opportunities to a whole range of people too. We have a lot of our store managers and assistant managers, who originally volunteered with us, and they’ve been given the space to use their creativity for good. We’ve also been able to tap into the Kickstarter scheme launched by the Government to give opportunities to over thirty young people who were hit by the COVID crisis and faced unemployment. We provided these young adults with job opportunities and training, with many of them securing permanent positions with us.”
If you’ve been inspired to support the cause, in addition to buying clothes in store or online, there are a number of ways you can help, Grace explains. “We have lots of volunteer opportunities available, from working in stores to working on the sorting line or even helping to upload products on the online platform. We’d also love people to join our upcycling programme, particularly people that have a background in fashion.”
She continues, “In addition to donating clothes, you can also make a monetary donation over the till. Or, if you’re a company and you have excess stock, or are clearing out a warehouse with clothes, accessories, beauty products or end of line stock, then that could really help support us too.
“But, in its simplest form, just visiting our stores and keeping the Aegis message going by telling friends about the Trust and White Rose will make all the difference. For us at White Rose, we just sell clothes - unlike others, we don’t have to risk our lives to make a change, so we’re very lucky.”
White Rose stocks a wide selection of clothes for all genders and ages to raise funds for Aegis Trust. It has shops across Nottingham including WR1, on Goosegate; WR2 on Broad Street; WR6 at the Old Market Square and the recently launched White Rose Outlet on Beastmarket Hill. You can also check out White Rose’s online store
We have a favour to ask
LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?