It's an unlikely setting in which to find one of the country’s leading home accessories shops, but tucked away in an old warehouse behind a petrol station is the Aladdin’s Cave that is RE.
Thousands of tourists pass by every year as they explore Corbridge, but for those in the know, RE houses a cornucopia of eclectic and colourful offerings, sought after by actors, magazine editors, film directors or those who want their homes to have a spark of individuality.
RE is the brainchild of business colleagues and friends Simon Young and Jenny Vaughan, and was born of the tedium of airport delays and long car journeys.
The pair, who were then working for the Dewhirst clothing group in County Durham, whiled away the time playing a game: if you had a shop, what would you put in it? Before too long, the game was being played for real.
Young said: “At Dewhirst, we designed corporate clothing for virtually every bank and building society except Barclays.
“When you’re a designer, you need to be feeding on everything that’s happening, not just clothing. There was a shop in Milan, 10 Corso Como, which was really the first – hideous word now – lifestyle store, with books, china, the first time these products were pulled together. We loved the idea of having something like that that was a bit non-specific.
“We didn’t want to do anything with fashion as we knew the pitfalls and wanted to do something closer to home. We both loved home goods, second-hand as well as new stuff, and although we have different tastes, we knew we shared a similar aesthetic.”
Young, who is 50, has spent his life in the creative industries. Originally from Bamber Bridge in Lancashire, he left school at 16 to study jewellery design before a degree in fashion design and textiles. After graduation he went to Betty Jackson Ltd as pattern-cutting assistant for a year and then became her design assistant for the next eight years.
“It was a boom time for Betty in the 80s,” he said. “We exported worldwide, especially to the USA and Japan, did four main collections a year, as well as accessories and special collaborations and, on top of that, dressed celebrities like Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Lenny Henry.
“We did lots of outfits for Absolutely Fabulous, particularly for Patsy, played by Joanna Lumley. It was a heady period, we were one of Britain’s brightest fashion exports, a big name and much in demand.”
It was at this time that Young met and married Vicky Pepys, well-known for fashion PR in the North East, who was then at Lynne Franks PR.
Young said: “We had started to travel to Northumberland as a regular holiday destination, going via Lancashire to see my family and back via Yorkshire to see her family.
“On one of those holidays, Vicky suggested I should offer to do a talk on being a design assistant to students at the-then Newcastle Polytechnic which had, and still has, a very good reputation for its fashion courses.
“I did a talk, and on the way out of the lecture room, a member of the design staff said: ‘There’s a job going here, would you be interested in applying for it?’
“I did apply, got the job, we sold our house in Tooting Broadway within four days and we were living up here within a couple of months. That was in November 1991, and there’s been no looking back.”
Young stayed for four years, but the lure of fashion design became too strong and he took up a position at Dewhirst Ladies Tailoring in Sunderland, working exclusively on suits and tailored womenswear for Marks and Spencer. However, doing one-off designs without coherence to the rest of the merchandise did not appeal.
“I was quickly head-hunted informally by a former colleague from the early polytechnic days, Jenny Vaughan – who was to become my business partner in RE – who had gone on to be design director at Dewhirst Corporate Clothing in Peterlee. I started as design executive working on uniforms for banks, building societies and airlines.
“I was designing and developing themed collections for up to 20,000 wearers of all shapes, sizes and ages and was able to help bring in fashion collaborators like Jasper Conran and Timney Fowler.
“We won most of the innovation awards at the corporate clothing trade events, as well as regularly winning best new live projects for our industry sector.”
Dewhirst Corporate Clothing was a £25m business, autonomous from the main Dewhirst group, and after the company bought the M&S business-to-business mail order catalogue, Young and Vaughan began to get involved in this side of the industry, putting together catalogues and tackling the complexities involved in building a website.
Young said: “This job involved a lot of travelling. There were long car journeys, waits for trains and delayed flights.
“As we are both cryptic crossword fans, this wasn’t a problem unless a flight was severely delayed, and then a little game started: ‘If you had a shop what would it sell?’
“This carried on for quite a few months, getting more and more serious, and a ‘real’ shop began to form with different departments, themes and displays.
“On a trip to Paris, the little fantasy shop had a name RE, so we could build words around it for different departments – REcipe for the kitchen, RElax for the bedroom and so on. The next morning, we stopped off at a flea market and bought two large tin letters, from the remnants of a shop display, R and E – it was meant to be!
“We spent about a year coming up with the business plan, the concept, the merchandise and started to look for premises. When we found industrial-type space in the former workshop at the back of the petrol station in Corbridge, we knew it would work perfectly.
“We left Dewhirst in the June and with the help of friends and family and workmen, we opened in November 2003 without a single price ticket on anything – we had forgotten to do that bit!”
The concept behind RE is an eclectic mix of home accessories, old and new functional items all sold to be used.
“We wanted to create an amazing lifestyle emporium all under one roof ... the mass-produced, the one-off, the fairly traded, the REclaimed, the REcycled, the REscued and the REstored,” said Young.
His and Vaughan’s experience of mail order at Dewhirst now stood them in good stead as six months after opening RE, they launched their first mail order catalogue.
“We invested heavily in photography and graphic design at an early stage,” said Young, “and to this day it remains one of our largest expenditures, but we have always seen it as a worthwhile investment, not just for our catalogues and the website, but also for editorial use.”
In 2005, they launched e-commerce and haven’t looked back since. “We have been lucky enough to have been well-supported by the national homes press and being based in Northumberland has been a tremendous advantage to being featured as it still seems a little mysterious and uncharted territory for the rest of the country!”
And although being headquartered in Corbridge rather than London means the firm may be missing out in terms of customer numbers, the owners have no intention of relocating.
Young said: “Anyone who comes up here thinks, ‘Bloody hell, I wish I was there as well, it’s gorgeous.’ The quality of life is so lovely here.”
The team at RE is now eight-strong, with seasonal helpers for busy periods, as well as outworkers providing embroidery, knitting and crocheting. The database has 25,000 customers from all over the world.
Young said: “After 10 years, we’re still in the same place, in what many consider is quite a hard-to-find location, but RE was always intended to be a destination shop, one which would be sought out and visited especially.
“We love customers who come in holding crumpled bits of magazines we’ve been mentioned in and say that they’ve come on holiday especially to Northumberland because they wanted to visit the shop.
“We liked it when Pedro Almodovar got an assistant to buy some of our colourful plastic bowls in special colours to feature in his new film and that Keira Knightley bought a gypsy-style cart to have in her garden.”
The business partners have garnered a host of accolades over the past decade, from being judged one of You magazine’s top 10 mail-order companies in 2004, to being placed within the best 100 shops outside London by Vogue last year.
Young and Vaughan are in the third year of an association with leading London fashion store Liberty. He said: “We were asked to do a pop-up shop which led to a more established concession which we’ve run for the past two years.
“They contacted us as the buyer liked what we do. We’re now in the Liberty warehousing system, working on exclusive range of textiles for them. We’re really excited about that and are hoping it all goes ahead with the stuff in store next month. We are both designers and we’ve never stopped designing.”
When it first launched, RE was open seven days a week; it is now open six days a week, which doesn’t leave time for many outside interests.
“Work is my hobby really,” Young said. “Both Vic and I have been avid collectors, flea markets, boot fair visitors for years, so doing it as a business is like an extension of your hobby.
“I used to be very keen on gardening, but it’s gone by the wayside. Vic keeps hens and I get involved in that, helping her with shows and that. She doesn’t show the hens, but she organises and I get roped into that.”
Short-term plans for the business include the exclusive association with Liberty, as well as product development and coming up with new designs.
Young added: “Long-term, we’re definitely going to stick in Corbridge, God willing, but who knows in terms of expansion? The intention was always to have one shop and reach a wider audience through mail order and the internet, but you just never know what’s going to come along and develop.”
When he and Vaughan first started going to trade fairs as fashion designers, every season was different, so the slower pace of the homes market took them by surprise.
Young said: “It was quite a shock – not that your home should be a fashion and change as fast as that, I think it’s nice just building a home.
“I hate the thought of someone coming in and doing a house. Things in a home should have meaning for you, no taupe or beige – who wants to live in a hotel?
“Lots of people have latched on to our style as an anti-movement for all that. We just love colour and pattern.”
What car do you drive?
Fiat Ducato van – yes, it’s white!
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Feathers at Hedley-on-the-Hill, but we’ve recently discovered the Black Bull at Frosterley.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Life and Sarah Millican.
What’s your favourite book?
My current favourite is Maddie on Things by American photographer Theron Humphrey; he puts his dog in a pose and she doesn’t budge.
What was the last album you bought?
I buy unusual stuff to add to the soundtrack for the shop, some are also added to the collection at home. The latest is Escape from the Dragon House by Dengue fever – a mix of psychedelic rock and Cambodian pop.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Anything that involves sourcing and travelling, maybe a prop buyer or stylist.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Have you got your glasses? Have you got your phone?
What’s your greatest fear?
Not being able to rush around.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Start with a pen and paper and see what you need before you start investing in systems and software; also, start with an off-the-peg ecommerce system so you can start to understand your needs and requirements before you start ordering anything bespoke.
And the worst?
That hasn’t happened ... yet!
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Scan the weekend broadsheets for any editorial but settle down with the Saturday Telegraph for the crossword and the Hexham Courant.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
75p a day for cutting a thorn hedge with secateurs at a local farm. It took two of us three weeks.
How do you keep fit?
Rushing back and forth from the store room to the till.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Talking too much.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Who would you most like to dine with?
Elsa Schiaparelli, Edward Lautner, Grayson Perry and Yinka Shonibare.
How would you like to be remembered?
Through the products and people getting pleasure from them.