In 2008 Sarah Wearden ‘93 and her partner Josh received a bank loan to set up a shop on Cowley Road. On the same day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. As Sarah and Josh’s shop – Indigo – approaches its tenth anniversary on 30 November, we caught up with her to chat about its ethos, her memories of Brookes and her struggle with depression.
“The business was born out of travels in India,” recalls Sarah. “I designed clothing using recycled sarees and hand spun silks. We started out selling them on a stall at Oxford’s Thursday market along with some craft items from India. We also sold them at East Oxford Farmers’ Market , which started around that time, and at festivals.”
People started asking Sarah and Josh if they had a shop, and while it wasn’t something they had considered themselves, they embraced the idea and took steps to towards this – in what was something of a leap of faith.
“I didn’t really know what we were going to sell when I took on the premises and that first year was a steep learning curve. Our naivety paid off though and over the years Indigo has become well established in the ethical world and a much loved shop in Oxford.”
A business rooted in ethics
They regarded receiving their loan on the same day as the biggest bankruptcy in history as a good omen. The ethos of Indigo – natural fabrics, fairly traded goods, sustainability and a commitment to community – is far removed from the excesses of global capitalism. Nonetheless the recession that Lehman Brothers triggered made it a hard time to open a shop.
“We came in right at the start of the recession. We had to seriously think if we were going to go forward. It was hard but starting a new business always is – and in some ways it was harder for existing shops. We had never known it any other way.”
Some of the external factors affecting Indigo have changed over the last ten years – the growth of ethical trading and shoppers’ increased awareness of the issues have been positive, while other economic and political factors have been challenging. Most exciting has been the growth of small businesses that are supplying products that are combining traditional hand craft techniques with a more contemporary design.
Walking into Indigo you are struck by the beauty of everything. They now also stock more products that are made in the UK and a growing range of zero waste products. But Indigo remains rooted in Sarah and Josh’s personal ethics – and they couldn’t change that even if they wanted to.
“In a way we don’t really want to call ourselves an ‘ethical business’. It’s just the natural way for us to do business.”
Sarah’s time at Brookes
Sarah has a close interest in other cultures. This has found expression through Indigo’s eclectic products, travels in India and working for Oxfam – but it started at Oxford Brookes.
“For my Anthropology dissertation I went out to Nigeria to study the music and dance of the Yoruba people. That was an incredible experience. And there’s a thread that follows through from that.”
However the circumstances in which she made a lifelong friend at Brookes were rather more prosaic – and really quite British.
“I’ve remained close to my friend Anita Lewis, who is a Yoga teacher and heath practitioner in Oxford, we met on our first day. She was in a queue in front of me and we got talking. I think we were both wearing dungarees,” laughs Sarah.
Overcoming deep depression
By the end of her time at Brookes, Sarah was starting to struggle with depression. She received counselling and was given extra time to complete her dissertation, for which she got a first. But after leaving Brookes she had a couple of years where the illness hit her hard.
“It really was a deep depression. There were times when I didn’t know if there would be a way out of it. I didn’t even think I could work at the local Co-op, my self-esteem was so low.
“This was a time when I couldn’t even have dreamt I would, one day, own a shop on the Cowley Road.”
It took counselling and a focus on self-healing for Sarah to overcome the depression. She trained in dance-therapy, intending to put her own experience to good use helping others, but a trip to India changed the course of things and her journey with Indigo that has truly transformed her life.
Things fall into place
“All I can say is that Indigo just wanted to happen and I followed the threads. There has always been a lot of synchronicity and things falling into place, that’s when you know you are on the right track. There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to do it. And while there have been challenges over the years, there is also a certain magic about it, that I have come to learn to trust. Everyone that has worked here feels this too.
“Mental health has a lot less stigma than it did 25 years ago but it is still something that effects a lot of us. One day I hope to have closer contact with people suffering with severe depression and just be there as an inspiration. Because if I can do what I am doing now, really anyone can.”
Confidence and hope
Sarah is looking to the future with confidence and hope. Indigo has recently had a refit and they are fully committed to staying in the wonderfully diverse community of Cowley Road. And Sarah believes that, for all the current political challenges, it is an exciting time to be running a business.
“It’s not just about me and my business. It’s about how can my business support your business, how can we grow together?. And any business that’s thinking about the good of the planet and the community – that’s what the world needs right now.”
Sarah studied Anthropology and Computing – graduating in 1993.