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How to discover a new way of storytelling by using agile and innovative ideas

5 March 2021

Storytelling can come in many different forms and in times of crisis it is all about thinking out of the box to capture your audience’s attention.

Shoes Have Names is the brainchild of Jo Cope, a conceptual fashion designer from Leicester. She approached Hattie Lamb, our Community Shop Manager at Shelter’s boutique in King’s Cross with the idea to mix craft, fashion, design and shopping into a shoe art exhibition to tell stories of homelessness visually through the shoes. It was a tall ask, but working with Hattie and Jo, we thought it was possible.

The audience at the heart of the idea

The aim of the project was to celebrate the positive change Shelter has helped make to people struggling with bad housing and homelessness through our frontline services. We aimed to tell these stories through individual shoe designs and raise awareness of the thousands of people tackling evictions, poor housing conditions, landlord issues and homelessness.

Every shoe in the exhibition told a story and each piece brought together people who had faced homelessness with designers from across the world. Each pairing worked closely in order to reflect the individual stories in the shoes and artwork. Our target market was people in London, interested in craft, fashion conscious and believe in a sustainable lifestyle. Our priority was to attract new audiences and introduce them to the Shelter Boutiques and the work this supports.

Embracing an agile approach

My role at Shelter is to market our thriving network of charity shops across the UK. These include your traditional charity shop, furniture shops and boutiques. Even without Covid-19 this comes with many challenges.

You need to attract people into the shop, use the space to amplify your cause and build loyalty with the local community. The issue for charity shop teams is that most people are more interested in the shopping and are focussed on those one off finds or vintage bargains. So, it’s how you make people stop and take notice.

In a charity’s annual marketing plans, you don’t normally see ‘Skunkworks Project’. I’m pretty new to the term myself, only stumbling across it when I was up to my neck in one. Shoes Have Names became our Skunkworks Project and it was driven by three people, given the freedom to be creative and try something new. We felt the pandemic allowed us the perfect time to be innovative, using a more agile approach to test and learn.

The project was exciting, while being risky. No one knew where it would go, and it certainly was very different. The retail team at Shelter were brave enough to let us explore the idea and we entered the exhibition at our flagship Shelter Boutique shop in Coal Drops Yard to be part of London Craft Week in October 2020.

Every shoe tells a story

Each shoe or pair of shoes created by the designers was named after the person who has been supported by Shelter. The designers created unique designs reflecting the stories of those individuals using various materials, from stunning shoes made out of an old sofa, to the use of the latest CAD software and 3D printing, and clogs featuring X-rays of broken bones to a pair of cyanotype prints of shoes on being both homeless and homed.

One pairing really blossomed and not only did the artist create a fantastic piece of a candle boot reflecting on homelessness, but the person who the shoe was inspired by, also wrote and performed a poem ‘Life in My Shoes’.

The exhibition showed the power of creativity, collaboration and how stories can be amplified in a positive and unique way through artwork within a shop. You can explore the journey of the art development and the show on the blog shoeshavenames.com and Instagram.

How did people respond?

We were really blown away by the response from visitors – it captured the attention of people and generated powerful conversations. To allow for social distancing we gave individual tours around the exhibition. For each shoe, we spoke about the craft, the back story and what inspired the design.

The exhibition was very eye opening for many people and they were genuinely engaged with what they saw and heard. One visitor spent two hours at the exhibition – talking, listening and asking questions!

Quotes from the visitor book included:

“Emotional and inspiring work! First physical exhibition out since March 2020!”

“Amazing exhibition! Well done to all the talented designers and service users for bringing together your craft and stories to create a lovely installation.”

It also showed how a retail space could amplify a charity’s message and communicate in a new way. We found that the personal tours added an extra dimension for the visitor and people wanted to know more. While some traditional galleries can be quiet, this was buzzing with conversation and social sharing.

Our measures for success were subjective, as all the stock was red, so quite niche and we didn’t have a budget to promote the campaign online. It certainly wasn’t a normal KPI, but the shop was busy, and a number of people were so moved and engaged they started to cry. Next time we’re looking at how we can move people along the supporter journey via supporting a petition or similar action.

Making the most of digital

During the project, digital became even more important to reach our audiences and allow another method of communication aside from face to face. When we began the project, we wanted to track the progress of designers to feed and build our Instagram account.

A fun digital feature that we developed for the show was an Instagram face filter. People can use the filter to see whether they are everything from a gladiator sandal, ‘defending the right to a safe home’, to a slipper ‘relaxing in a safe place you call home.’ The filter was very popular, with over 1,000 people opening it up and around 700 taking part. In September and October 2020 there were over 1,000 visits to the site. The filter was a brilliant way to connect fashion and the exhibition to our cause – plus encourage a bit of activism – well unless you had the slipper!

This approach became valuable for visitors who couldn’t attend due to the pandemic. These stories will continue to be told as we will share the ‘how-to’ stories on the blog when the show tours different venues.

Our plan going forward is to display the shoes at other shops – we’ve had an offer from a gallery, an exhibition planned during Graduate Fashion Week and we have a meeting to discuss plans for 2022!

Banner Image: Hunter Newton on Unsplash

Richard Hudson

Senior Marketing Manager, Shelter

Richard Hudson is Senior Marketing Manager for Shelter Retail. Richard worked for many years as a copywriter within advertising and digital agencies. For the last ten years he has worked for charities, building teams and leading marketing and communications campaigns.