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Five minutes with Ashley Westall

When the pandemic took hold, a North East businesswoman responded by producing sustainable and stylish face masks.

By Jo Dunbar

Local businesswoman Ashley Westall has reacted to Covid-19 with a range of high-quality, stylish masks.

Ashley developed the Breathe+Protect facemasks alongside business partner James Rose and the pair have received a nomination for Start-Up Entrepreneur in the Great British Entrepreneur Awards for the North East region. Ashley also runs 37 Studios – an agency for accessories brands aiming to take their products to market. High Life North caught up with Ashley about responding to unprecedented events and running a fashion business from the North East.

Where did the mask concept come from?

We thought fairly early on in the pandemic that we should develop the masks – but the reason it was so early wasn’t a stroke of genius, I’m not going to claim that! It was purely that other countries were ahead of us, and when you work in product development and fashion, you are constantly looking at the world around you and taking yourself out of your own smaller space to look at what is going on in the world. That tends to give you a direction of how trends will happen. Really, it was part of that same thought process. It could just have easily been, ‘I think we’re all going to stop wearing skinny jeans and start to wear boyfriend jeans.’ You could easily say oh it’s incredible having that foresight to produce masks but, in fashion, you’re doing that all the time.

How long from the initial idea to the actual product?

Getting to market was the overriding thing we had to achieve, and it had to be quick. It was about six weeks from conception to the first batch. But it wasn’t without its hurdles. Bringing a product like that to market, there was a lot of red tape; we had to comply with government testing; there were issues that we had to deal with that took time so it took longer to get to market than we originally thought but it was still quick compared to any other product I’ve ever developed. Usually, you’d happily spend six months minimum tweaking it before you take it any further.

You’ve used organic cotton and the masks are re-usable, is sustainability important for you?

Beyond the organic cotton, I am keen to push the fact that so many people are wearing disposable masks and in the recent past we’ve been trying to get away from disposable things. It’s not about something that is worn once and chucked away. For me, it’s really important that our masks are perhaps more expensive as an initial investment but then cost per wear – which I am all about – makes them way, way cheaper, and way more sustainable and environmentally friendly on a whole different level to all the stuff we can buy for £1, then wear for four hours and bin.

Masks aside, you run an agency…

My other business is 37 Studios, based in North Shields, and we are an agency representing different brands. We are a route to market for those brands that don’t have in-house sales and marketing. What they have is the capability to design, create a brand and produce a product but ultimately a business can’t survive without being able to sell that product. An agency such as mine would come in and try to match up distribution based on where your market positioning should be, and then – having built up years of contacts – make that distribution come to fruition, thus bringing in the sales arm to their business. With every collection we would make sure it was in front of all the right buyers within the right market for that business, matching distributors to brands.

It’s great to hear a fashion and commerce success story that’s operating from the North East.

I’m proud that the masks have come out of the North East. Both my business partner and I are born and bred here and we’re proud to shout about it. I think it’s great to be able to promote the fact you can work with London-based brands but not need to be in London. I know we feel in this country that everything is so London-centric but that is a perception rather than a reality.

Clearly Covid must have hit you hard.

Until stores opened there was very little business to be done. If the stores aren’t open, there is no demand, unless they are really successful online. There was some business but, at best, 10-20% of what there had been prior to Covid. It massively impacted our wholesale business. Obviously now stores have reopened it has started to gather pace and now I am able to bring the team back off furlough, so we’ll have more feet on the ground. We are doing a lot of Zoom meetings and introducing people to collections by showing them a presentation online. Covid has meant a change for how things are done but I don’t think change is a bad thing. We have to adapt. If you can’t do things in the way you would have previously done them, you have to adapt.

To buy Breathe+Protect masks and for more information visit breatheandprotect.com

North East stockist include Bumblebee, Fenwick Newcastle and children’s masks are available at Mr Wolf in Hexham and Newcastle.

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