Flemings in the UK: Alex Vanthournout on blogging and Brexit
In the fifth and final instalment of our series on Flemish people living in and working in the United Kingdom, we talk to Alex Vanthournout, a sportswear retailer treading uncharted waters in the wake of the Brexit referendum
She moved to London from Kortrijk aged 18 to study journalism, “fell into” a series of fashion internships, then set up as a freelance writer, launching a blog to get her work read and keep herself entertained. At the time, blogging was relatively new, and she became one of the few to have made it profitable.
“I’m lucky to have been part of that first wave of people who managed to turn blogging into a career,” she says. “It was an exciting time. I travelled the world, met people I would never have met in any other circumstances. But coming up to turning 30, I thought, ‘this isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life’.”
The first steps into business were born from what she calls her personal fitness journey. “I’m quite short and curvy, but I worked in the fashion world, so that was an interesting dynamic,” she says. “I started running and began writing about it in what I hoped was a refreshing way: You know, this isn’t great fun, but here are some nice things you can wear while you do it!”
It struck a chord among her readers and led to her setting up a second blog, Fashercise, dedicated to healthy living. A Belgian friend in London, working in retail, asked her where she wanted to take it, and her inspiration was the new generation of young sportswear designers offering an alternative to mainstream brands. The blog developed into an online store under the same name, which the two friends launched in 2014.
“People take fashion very seriously, but with our site, even the name itself is meant to be jokey,” Vanthournout explains. “We refuse to be hardcore about either fashion or exercise. Our office ethos is ‘let’s work out, but then let’s have a glass of wine after’.”
Our plan was to start expanding into Europe, and of course all that has to be shelved now. Frankly, we don’t know what’s going to happen
She thinks that applies, she says, “to 90% of women, and that’s who I want to speak to. But if anyone had told me a couple of years ago that I’d be selling Lycra for a living, I’d have laughed at them.”
The brands Fashercise sells aren’t cheap, but the hook is the combination of fashion and function. “If I’m going to spend lots of money on clothes, I want to be able to wear them more than once a week to go to zumba, so a lot of what we sell can be transferred to your normal wardrobe," says Vanthournout. "I wear sportswear to the office every day, even if I don’t work out. But when I have it on, there’s a much higher likelihood that I will work out.”
The two friends still run the business alone, though they’ve taken on a couple of interns and have been looking for investments and considering a mentor. Given the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, what happens next is out of their hands.
“Our plan was to start expanding into Europe, and of course all that has to be shelved now. Frankly, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re dreading what effect it will have in the long term,” she says. “In just one day after the vote, with the pound crashing, everything became a lot more expensive for us. We’ve taken a big hit. With a small business, you don’t have the buffers for if things go downhill.”
Sense of panic
She lives in Islington, a mixed London borough that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. “I can’t begin to explain what the atmosphere here is like,” she says. “I know we’re in a bubble in London, and everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but it’s a very strange place. There’s a sense of panic and uncertainty.”
Much of the uncertainty relates to people’s individual futures. People like Vanthournout, who have lived in the country all their adult lives, say they now feel excluded.
“Among my friends, I’ve never thought of my friends as anything other than Londoners,” she says, “but a lot of them are international, and the sentiment that I’ve heard over the past few days suggests that for the first time there’s a sense of a ‘them’ and an ‘us’, and I feel suddenly I’m no longer part of this city that’s been home for so long.”
From a professional point of view, she says, the Leave campaign’s rhetoric about immigrants taking jobs is particularly upsetting. “I’ve created a business here, and I’ve been able to do that because of the EU. I find it hard that people can’t understand that. From a personal point of view, I find it heart-breaking. And I’ve never talked so much about politics in my life.”
Photo courtesy Alex Vanthournout