Ben Holgate finds her links with the community reap dividends in small business world

Britain’s Royal Family and celebrities – although often it’s difficult to tell the difference – continue to hold a huge influence over hat styles, according to Wallingford milliner Louise Walton.

Kate Middleton, the celebrity otherwise known as the Duchess of Cambridge, has not only prompted a resurgence in pill boxes, but also enticed a younger generation to think about fashion above the neckline.

Mrs Walton said: “She has encouraged the younger people, the 20-year-olds, to wear hats.”

Victoria Beckman, she added, has ensured an ongoing fascination with fascinators.

But it takes more than trends set by fashion icons to run a successful millinery. A key to Mrs Walton’s longevity as owner of Louise Claire Millinery for the past 12 years has been her business’s involvement with other small businesses in Wallingford, such as a dry cleaner, a fashion boutique, a wedding boutique, shoe shops, and cafes or restaurants for when her clients want a drink or bite to eat.

“We work very closely with other businesses in town,” said Mrs Walton, 44, who uses her middle name, Claire, in her brand.

The link with other local small businesses was one of the reasons Louise Claire Millinery was selected as one of only two Oxfordshire-based entities for the Small Biz 100 list, which is a feature of the UK-wide Small Business Saturday campaign. The list was compiled from more than 1,000 applications around the country.

Michelle Ovens, national campaign director for Small Business Saturday, said of the millinery: “It’s got a fantastic engagement with the local community. They do a huge amount with other businesses in the area.”

The other local organisation to make the list is the not-for-profit social enterprise Help Me I’m A Medic, which is based in Oxford and provides support and information for young students interested in a medical or health-related career.

Mrs Ovens, who lives in North Moreton, said: “We loved their story and thought their business was really interesting.”

Small Business Saturday, which will be held on December 5, is now in its third year. The director said the campaign, which was officially launched in London in July, “is about promoting and supporting small businesses, specifically on the day, but also changing behaviour”.

In other words, the aim is to get shoppers interested in small businesses and in the habit of buying from them again and again.

Mrs Ovens said the Small Biz 100 list was constructed to represent “great businesses with great stories to tell, a geographical spread, and a business model mix”. Mrs Walton, 44, who runs her milliner shop with husband Craig, 57, said she applied to be on the list because the Small Business Saturday campaign helped promote participating small businesses on its website, through Twitter and Facebook, and by a broader media strategy.

The milliner said: “It makes people more aware of who you are and what you do.”

Each participating small business gets its own special day for individual promotion. Louise Claire Milliner’s turn comes on Tuesday, September 22, when the store will offer 20 per cent discounts.

The shop stocks more than 1,200 hats, which includes those from other milliners. Most of the hats that Mrs Walton makes are bespoke items specifically designed as one-offs for individual customers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Prices range from about £150 for fascinators and pill boxes, or from £200 to £500-plus for bespoke hats.

She said her customers were mostly local, but also come from far as London or Brighton. She also has some clients from overseas – such as Hong Kong, New York and Australia – who fly in for special events like a wedding or the Royal Ascot race meet and have seen her hat range online.

Another feature of Small Business Saturday is the bus tour, which will go all over the UK during the month of November and involve 27 stops.

The bus will stop in Oxford on November 19, and on that day both Louise Claire Millinery and Help Me I’m A Medic will be present.

Dr Hinnah Rafique, the director of medicine and surgery at Help Me I’m A Medic, said she applied to Small Business Saturday for “national recognition of the work we’re doing”.

She added: “I was a little apprehensive that they might not want to get involved with social enterprises but it was the opposite.”

Dr Rafique, who is in her twenties and completed her medical foundation training at the University of Oxford, set up the organisation last year with a small group of other doctors.

Help Me I’m A Medic is holding the National Aspiring Doctors Conference on November 21 and 22 at the University of Oxford.