Amelia Skinner - Phillips & Skinner
Amelia Skinner grew up in London surrounded by crazy things. She has brought her eye for the unusual and the beautiful to her shop, Phillips & Skinner, which sells an eclectic mix of stylish interior products. She speaks of her colourful childhood, her ‘Boring’ clothes range and her love of very dark chocolate.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wimbledon in London and am one of six children. When I was about three we moved out of London into the countryside in Warwickshire. My dad ran a stained glass and ecclesiastical antiques business, and he mainly bought whole churches and then sold the contents at his Portobello Road store. We were constantly surrounded by quite crazy things, and customers were often coming and going from our family home. Everything was for sale. I remember once meeting the Bee Gees wandering round the house. My dad also sold one of his shops to the band The Police, who later found an unexploded World War II bomb when they decided to convert the cellar into a recording studio. My Dad would occasionally be found slumped in a bar with Oliver Reed. I think this was the point at which we moved from London.
How did you end up in Somerset?
Well, in 2002, after my daughter was born, my husband wanted to give up his events business and move to the countryside for a less stressful life. So we decided to move out of London, and ended up buying an old mill house which needed major renovation work. At that time Bruton was a very different place to what it is now, and the High Street felt very dark and grey. We spent the next 7 years doing our house up, and it did look amazing afterwards. However, we only ended up living there for 3 weeks after it was finished, and then we sold it off. I think all that renovation work just finished us off in the end so we decided to move.
What do you love about the area?
I love the quality of the schools and the fact that many are set in the countryside, especially when I compare this to what my children would have encountered in London. I love the countryside and the walks and the community. The other day I had a phone call from a friend saying: “I’ve just seen your son on the bus with a strange lady, is that OK?” and I said “That’s fine, thats just his Grannie". I really appreciate that level of caring, and the fact that someone always seems to be there for you.
And how did you get into what you’re doing now?
I’ve always had an eye for beautiful and unusual things, and also a knack of knowing what will sell. I suppose my love for interior design, and knowing what will sell, came from my childhood and my father’s influence. Even though I’ve never dealt in stained glass products, I still know which bits are good and which ones are not worth bothering with. I suppose it’s an instinct that I’ve developed growing up in that sort of environment. I think it’s also important to know your market. Bruton’s not Bath or London, and you have to cater for the local customers as well as the outsiders. So, I’ve done a lot of experimenting with various price points. My original idea was that the shop would be for everybody, and that anybody could afford something from here.
How did Phillips & Skinner come into being?
I was working full-time as a lead tutor teaching National Vocational Qualifications while looking after two young children at home. I had to cover a huge area monitoring 30 students and other tutors. Eventually my husband noticed how I was struggling to keep up with this job and the family. One day he saw me driving like a nutter because I was late for an appointment and said “I think it’s time you changed your job”. So, while he was away in India for a month a shop came up for sale on the Bruton High Street and I bought it! It needed substantial work done to it and we spent the next 6 months renovating it. It finally opened in 2007. When I opened, places like At the Chapel didn’t exist, so it was a bit of a risk to take, but things like that don’t worry me. I’ve bought and sold houses before and it’s just the thing you have to do to get somewhere in life.
And what can be found in your shop?
I currently have three suppliers who provide me with products: we have leather sofas and chairs from Denmark; there’s a lady who used to own an antiques shop who now brings me vintage linen and china, also there’s an Art and Design teacher in Frome who supplies me with unusual pieces. I have quite an eclectic mix of stylish items for the home. I also go out regularly to markets and auctions to buy furniture. My shop’s pretty much an extension of my mind and when my brother visited the shop for the first time he said: “Oh my god you need therapy!”
What other services do you offer?
As well as selling products in the shop I source items for people, and always have a list of things to find whether it’s a medicine cabinet, a lamp or a sleigh bed. Because I’ve done a lot of house selling and buying, people often come into the shop and ask if I know of any houses for sale. I also do houses up, and provide advice for interior design projects. One project was turning an office back into a family home. My client went away for a month, and during that time I completely transformed the place and also found them a tenant.
Tell us about your new line in clothing?
I set up ‘Boring’ about four years ago. It was because I wanted a dress I couldn’t find. So I made it myself. The name Boring was meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek as I’m not primarily a dress designer and just wanted to give it a go. I suppose the name Boring also alludes to the dresses’ simple but classic designs. My original idea was to provide clothes that were made in the UK from organic materials. I had an image in my mind, a bit like when I opened the shop, and when that happens I just can’t let it go and have to carry it out! I describe the designs to a friend who creates the dress patterns. I choose the fabric and then each dress is handmade in Dorset. I’m already planning other designs and materials and would like to bring out seasonal ranges in time. Any future plans for new designs really depend on timing and investment. I’m now looking at more efficient ways of making the dresses so I can still produce them in England with the same quality, which would enable me to bring the price down, and am currently exploring having them made in Birmingham. I’m also considering private investment to extend the range and aim to sell the dresses in other shops and online.
Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
Probably my dad, because despite his difficult upbringing, he was a good man. It was very inspirational that he managed to build his business up from nothing, and whenever I’m setting up a new project or things are a bit tough I think of him.
What future plans do you have for Phillips & Skinner?
Someone once asked if I was ever going to open another shop somewhere else, but that’s a whole different ball game, and I’m not sure I’m up for that at the moment. I think I’ll do a lot more buying for people.
What’s your recipe for great interior design?
For me it’s a sense or a feeling. I don’t think you can do interior design unless you know the person you’re designing for. So before I take on a design project I have to meet that person get to know them and what they like and don’t like. And then I’d have to create something in my mind, and visualise the whole thing before I start anything. That’s the way I do it, but I'm not sure if it’s a standard recipe that would work for everyone.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Oh I don’t know, it would definitely have to be someone quite strange though! [laughs] Probably a combination of Sally Hawkins who played the leading roles in Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham and Audrey Tautou who starred in Amelie and Coco Before Chanel because they’re both quirky and determined.
What do you feel passionate about?
Education. It drives me mad that the most simple things are not taught at schools. Just fundamental things like the care of children and teaching them basic life skills.
What’s your philosophy in life?
Try to enjoy yourself while you can, and make sure you always find space when you need it, which can be quite tricky as life is often so full with things to do.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love watching films and eating very dark chocolate. I really like Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. They were together in a play once at The Old Vic and I missed it! I nearly cried. I loved Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here but unfortunately she went off the rails.
Who would you like to style?
Me, I need to go out shopping more and style myself!
What’s your dream outfit?
Anything new would be nice!
If you could go back in time what advice would you give the younger you?
To be more confident and believe in yourself. And just have a go and be brave enough to try things.
What inspires your own style?
I’m really fussy about clothes and find it hard to go shopping. When I was a teenager, I would often buy clothes and use my sewing machine to completely redesign them all so no one would have the same thing as me! I now tend to buy a mixture of second hand and new and like bringing those two worlds together. I have all my clothes and shoes on open rails at home so I can always see them, otherwise I forget what I’ve got.
You can find out more about Amelia Skinner and her services at Phillips & Skinner.