Spotlight on: Jo Johnson, founder of Form SE15, a clothing and lifestyle store in the heart of Peckham

Jo Johnson, founder of Form SE15. Image credit: Lima Charlie

In the heart of Peckham's Bellenden Road lies a much-loved clothing and lifestyle store that could sum up the style and relaxed attitude of the London borough's residents.

It's no wonder Form SE15 reflects its bohemian surroundings: it was founded in 2018 by Jo Johnson, who has lived in the area for the last 16 years.

Jo only stocks clothing and accessories from brands she feels truly passionate about, that's whether they're established or new and young makers. There's also a sustainable theme running throughout her establishment. And we love how Jo models the available clothing through the shop's popular Instragam account. We chatted to Jo to find out more about Form SE15.

Tell us more about your lovely shop, what do you sell and how did it come about?

We're a clothing and lifestyle store in the heart of Peckham. We've put together a careful edit of menswear and womenswear from European labels who place importance on ethical and sustainable production. The pieces are well made and thoughtfully designed, so you can wear them for years to come.

Folk and L.F Markey have joined us this season, which is exciting. We also sell gifts, homewares and accessories from small brands and local makers, as we want to support and promote our creative community. We’re also very proud to be the first business in Peckham to be awarded as a Plastic Free Champion by Surfers Against Sewage/Plastic Free Communities.

My background and training are in fashion design, fashion promotion and illustration. I grew up in Norfolk in a working-class family where my mum was a seamstress in a factory and had always made clothes. She bought me a tiny, battery-operated sewing machine when I was little. I started to make disco outfits for my Sindy doll, using leftover scraps. From that moment on, I couldn’t think of doing anything else!

After leaving art college, I had a variety of jobs, not just in fashion, but also as an art agent and working in art production. I was managing a clothing store part-time in Peckham and was also doing alterations and tailoring on clothing and wedding dresses, when I was made redundant in March 2018.

I had a very stressful time applying for jobs when I knew my heart wasn’t really in it. I’d already decided I wanted to have my own store. I knew I could make it work. But I had to find funding, write a business plan, find brands to work with and an empty, affordable space! It all came together very quickly, once we finally had it all in place.

My husband Paul Johnson is a graphic designer and illustrator. So he was also roped in early doors to create our branding, which saved me a lot of money. He still oversees all our web design and upkeep. I pay him now, though!

Image credit: Lima Charlie

Image credit: Lima Charlie

What works well for you in selling products?

I always wanted to offer, not just beautiful clothing for men and women, but also accessories and gifts, too. Because if you don't want to spend on large pieces, such as a jacket or a boilersuit, you can buy a smaller treat, such as Tort hair clips or a Castart wool beanie.

It’s about finding more unusual and quirky, well-made pieces. Whether your budget is £4 or £400 – I’m always looking for something that's harder to find elsewhere, and the customer will love.

What are your most popular products?

We sell a lot of candles, and we have several different options just on those. We made a candle in conjunction with homewares brand Join to support Southwark Foodbank, so all profits go to that charity.

With our clothing brands, Baum Und Pferdgarten is hugely popular in womenswear for its covetable colour and prints, plus it wears exceptionally well. L.F Markey has taken off very quickly in its first season here. It's just so easy to wear and has a real following in creative communities like ours. Folk menswear has a similar loyal customer so we're really pleased to be a stockist for them and Far Afield has brilliant layering pieces.

Jewellery, ceramics, accessories and cards pass out the door really quickly! We also made a candle in conjunction with the homewares brand Join to support Southwark Foodbank, so all profits from that product go directly to that charity and it’s proved really popular.

We’ve also seen a definite upswing in people treating themselves to what would be defined as ethical ‘self-care’ products during the current stresses of the economic and political climate...!

Image credit: Lima Charlie

Image credit: Lima Charlie

What have been the biggest lessons you've learnt?

That cash flow is EVERYTHING when you’re a small independent. It is vitally important to keep your eyes on all aspects of the business. I now outsource my bookkeeping and accounting to someone who specialises in that field, but I am entirely aware of what’s going on.

You also really need to build relationships with the amazing people you’re dealing with. Don’t treat them as faceless brands, I’ve been a small maker, and it’s hard out there.

Be prepared that you’re always going to be thinking about your business, as it’s a job that never sleeps. I went home to my family in Norfolk for three days at Christmas, caught the Norovirus, was very sick and then still had to travel back to London to set up our winter sale. So you have to be sure you love it!

We love your Instagram feed. You make it very personal. We love that. Tell us more

Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. But it is an essential tool for reaching people who wouldn’t usually see your store and showing them the delights of Peckham.

I am still doing 95% of the work that goes into Form SE15, so it’s vital to get our personality out there. I want to make it look inviting and cool, somewhere you want to visit – even to say hello and touch beautiful things!

I’m not an austere person, and neither is my shop, so I try and build on a genuine joy I have for everything we sell. Even the Instagram stories I share of myself wearing our brands are positive. I’m a woman in my 40s, not a 17-year-old model and our female customers respond to seeing a relatable image in our labels. I also have two cats called Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine who seem to muscle in on the action.

Image credit: Lima Charlie

Image credit: Lima Charlie

Are you worried about Brexit?

Yes and I think the vast majority of independent shops out there would say the same, as we rely on our local community.

I’ve done all possible preparation behind the scenes, but unfortunately, no one knows what’s going to happen!

We have a robust online presence through our website and partner platforms, but our core customer is very loyal and often comes back. We are keeping our focus on being here for them and seeing this period of uncertainty through.

I am very much a Remainer, and I feel like people were sold the idea of Brexit on a series of lies and scare tactics, sadly.

What plans do you have for 2020 as a small business owner?

We’re at a really happy place with our brands but I’m always on the lookout to improve. We’re getting to a point where we’re being approached by more labels, which is always great and shows we’re heading in the right direction!

I’m focusing on honing what we already have at Form SE15 and adding exciting discoveries when the time is right. I want the store to be set apart from the rest and be a real destination to visit when you’re in Peckham.

We’re also working harder on becoming even more sustainable and ethical. There are always things we can improve on and I think it’s vitally important to be doing this work. Independents can show the way!