Vintage Treasures: Q&A with Ashwell & Co.

As we advance towards a greener fashion future, more brides are choosing to wear vintage wedding dresses rather than commissioning new bridal looks. We caught up with Kate Ashwell, co-owner of Clifton-based vintage bridal shop Ashwell & Co, to discover more…

Tell us about how you came to found Ashwell & Co in 2014…
I’ve had a keen interest in alternative fashion most of my life. Initially, growing up in the Buckinghamshire suburbs, I never felt I fitted in and fashion became a way for me to express myself and my creativity. However, it wasn’t until I moved to Camden as a drama student back in the 90s that my true love of vintage was born. It blew my mind that suddenly I was surrounded by other people who wanted to look and dress differently. I definitely felt like I had found my tribe. After graduating, Will and I moved from London to Brighton and the plethora of vintage shops down there cemented my love of vintage even further.

Never in a million years did I think I’d eventually be able to make a career out of vintage, but after years of working in festival production, drama, education and the arts, in 2014 we felt that our family would benefit from a change of pace. We started hunting for a career that continued our love of creativity and working with people. We had also recently got married. I wanted to wear a vintage wedding dress or something a bit more alternative and struggled to find anywhere in Bristol. I realised I probably wasn’t the only bride who felt like this and the gem of an idea was born.

However, we also knew we wanted to create a business that allowed us to work together. We’d always had a dream to open a cafe so the idea of combining a vintage shop with a tearoom grew organically from there. Having grown up in a hotel it was perhaps inevitable that Will would find his calling in hospitality. Completely self taught, over the years Will has discovered a flair for baking, taking on all aspects of the Ashwell & Co afternoon tea offering. His scones and homemade clotted cream have now become legendary round these parts.

Above: Kate and Will Ashwell, co-owners of Ashwell & Co

With one of the largest collections of vintage bridal gowns in the UK, how do you curate the collection and where do you source your dresses?
What we do is extremely niche and, after nine years, we have built a great network of vintage suppliers who get in touch when they find a wedding dress they think I might like. I also get emails every week from individuals who have wedding dresses they wish to sell. It might be their dress or it may have belonged to a relative. To be honest, I am extremely selective about what I buy. There are thousands of wedding dresses out there, but very few of them are suitable. Either they’re too small and can’t be altered, too marked or simply not a style that a contemporary bride would want to wear.

Despite selling vintage I always keep an eye on what’s on trend for the season as I know I’ll get requests. Most fashion trends take inspiration from the past so, with nearly 100 years of wedding dress styles to choose from, I often have the original version of the trend in stock. I’m also very mindful of making sure the dresses are suitable for the modern bride in terms of styles, fabrics and fit.

Tell us about the different styles and designs you have available for brides…
We currently have dresses in stock from the 1900s – 1990s. From 1930s Hollywood era, figure hugging satin to exquisite 1950s lace and head to toe sequins from the 1980s, we have every single type and style of wedding dress spanning nearly nine decades. The beauty of vintage means you can shop for your shape and your personal style rather than being bound by what’s in fashion now. Most brides who visit us comment on how different the dresses are, how great the quality of the fabric is and sleeves, we have lots of sleeves.

Our current vintage bridal collection ranges in size, from a UK size 6 to a UK size 18, and we can usually add at least one or two sizes to most of our vintage dresses. Around 90% of our clients have their wedding dresses altered in some way. More often than not, this is to tailor the dress to fit, but they can also make larger changes if they would like to customise their wedding dress further. There is a huge amount of creative freedom in choosing to go vintage.

Tell us about the experience you offer clients at Ashwell & Co and what people can expect when they visit…
Preparation for each of our bridal appointments begins before the customer walks through the door. When a bride books an appointment we ask them to fill in a short questionnaire about when and where they are getting married. We also ask them to let us know if they have any idea of what they might be looking for, what dress size they wear, any worries they might have or any hard no’s. This allows us to pre-select a number of dresses that we think might be suitable. Brides are by no means limited by what we select, but from experience it is quite hard to know where to start when faced with a rail of vintage wedding gowns so we lend a helping hand.

We are a very relaxed, nurturing space. Our single goal is helping brides find a wedding outfit that they feel comfortable and confident in. Buying a wedding dress should be an enjoyable experience, and we aim to put our customers at ease. We will never pressurise anyone into buying a wedding dress, and we steer clear of any conversation that pushes our clients to conform to a certain standard of what they ‘should’ be. We want people to feel they can be exactly who they are.

Sustainability is clearly at the heart of Ashwell & Co – tell us about your sustainable practices…
Ashwell & Co is built on the principle of kindness. Our core aim is to be kind to people and kind to the planet. As a result, we implement sustainable practices at every level of what we do. For example, our wedding dresses and vintage fashion are handpicked and sourced exclusively within the UK. We use traditional, eco-friendly cleaning methods to avoid putting harmful chemicals into the environment and we repair or rework damaged items so nothing goes into landfill. Similarly, our afternoon tea is vegetarian as standard. This was a no brainer for us in terms of reducing our environmental impact. Additionally, if people want to visit us for afternoon tea they have to book. This means we only make what we need and therefore keep our food waste to an absolute minimum. We offer a set menu and keep our offering seasonal, which allows us to manage our supply chains more efficiently. We constantly review our practices and if we can find a more planet-friendly way of doing something then we will. It’s definitely an ongoing process but one we relish and take pride in.

Clothing production is the second most polluting industry in the world, it can take up to 9,000 litres of water to make a wedding dress and 33% of food produced globally is either lost or wasted. The earth’s resources are finite, our planet cannot survive exponential growth through mass consumerism without consequence and the time to act is now. There is a better way.

For more information about Ashwell & Co, visit:; 32 Alma Vale Road, BS8 2HY. Photographs by Ruby Walker Photography and Bristol Picture