Julie Sum – The Confidence Journey
Written By Stella Nicholls, Photography by Eleanor Stobbart
Julie Sum is a woman who embraces life, having risen above and beyond her circumstances and with a quiet determination to succeed, all whilst helping others along their journey towards confidence.
Having got our wires crossed slightly, with me turning up at the wrong venue, and Julie, not being able to find a parking, our meeting had the potential of turning into a disaster, but it was anything but that. Half an hour later than scheduled, we met at the lovely Southernhay House (just opposite Julie’s new premises – Kensa Boudoir Photography in Southernhay) and, unperturbed by our morning rush, we were soon sipping away at our coffee.
Julie’s warmth and passion for her work were immediately evident to me. She is lovely, veroy easy to talk to and I can imagine her customers finding it extremely easy to build a level of trust and rapport with her. The makeover experience offered in the studio forms part of the process of creating the beautiful photos that Kensa Boudoir produces but, as I was to learn, it’s about so much more.
Julie grew up in Topsham near the Exe Estuary but, unfortunately, due to living through a history of domestic violence, Julie (only eleven at the time) and her mum left, seeking refuge in the safety of a woman’s home. Despite not having many financial resources, Julie’s mum made life very pleasant for her, making the most of things, finding adventure wherever possible, taking her for walks in the woods and really entertaining and nurturing her daughter.
She has pleasant memories of her childhood with her mum, who chose to be at home to raise her, rather than go out to work. The cruel tendrils of violence were difficult for Julie to completely break free from, however, and she says that she didn’t really begin gaining confidence in herself until she was about 23, after many years of counselling therapy.
Going through school without really knowing what she wanted to do and not having the best of grades, she felt that her options were limited. She started coming into her own at college- where she spent eight years – and found that she loved Business Administration and continued studying along those lines, eventually graduating with a Degree in Business Management from the University of Exeter. It was then that she realised that there was something she ‘was ok at’. At this point, I remarked at how her quiet determination and perseverance was inspirational and a true testament of her character.
After graduating and joining the Arcadia group (Topshop and Miss Selfridge) she was chosen as one of eighty people in the UK to participate in the Retail Graduate Management Training Scheme. She relocated to the West Midlands for the scheme but was so homesick that in 2006, she came home.
In 2010 Julie borrowed a camera and started experimenting, taking pictures of people, loving the feeling of joy that she brought to them through her images. Weddings were the next step and she accredited herself with the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers by shooting weddings for experience on Gumtree at very reasonable rates. Her family portraits and wedding photography kept her busy, but she always felt that there was something more on the horizon.
Then, in 2015 she heard that Kensa Boudoir was for sale and, having accumulated some savings, she bought the business and finally the ‘something more’ that she had been waiting for had arrived. Once Kensa Boudoir became hers, she made it her own, putting her own stamp onto it. Her vision was to make it a softer, more accessible place for all women to go to and she wanted to push the message that it was for all ladies, of all ages, shapes and sizes, wanting to make it an open space to talk about confidence issues. Initially, she said that some of the ladies would come in and say, “What do you lot know about life, you look about twelve!?”. But, gradually, as more and more took the journey towards confidence (Julie’s colleague has photographed over 3000 women), people began to see the depth and value in what Julie was trying to achieve.
Julie and her team have encouraged many different people from all walks of life. Some are mums, others have been through weight loss and are struggling to mentally grasp the size of their body afterwards. Some are facing terminal illness or are victims of domestic abuse, and she has also worked with men who are struggling with their gender identity. Occasionally, she gets a call from a person saying, “Oh I don’t know if you could photograph me.” but, generally, she has already experienced someone else with a similar history and so knows exactly how to work with them.
Once people realise that many have already trodden the path before them, with similar insecurities, it changes their perception. Julie has realised that, at Kensa Boudoir, their staff almost spend more time talking to people than they do taking photos of them.
A lot of people have found a new confidence being photographed in different apparel, most choosing lingerie, but women are free to wear a nice dress, even a jumper if they prefer. Many give feedback saying that since going through the process of the shoot, they are motivated to take on a new challenge. It seems to spawn other things.
Recently, Julie posed for a photo shoot on the beach, taken by her friend who is a professional photographer. The photos came out so beautifully that she couldn’t shake the thought that women may be interested in having a similar shoot – wearing their favourite outfit – and so will be trialling outdoor shoots shortly. In fact, the response to the beach shoot on social media has been phenomenal. The photos are very casual, very ‘lifestyle’ and very fresh. Julie showed me some of them at this point and they are truly stunning (in fact, some of them have been used for this article).
As with any business, there are mountains to climb and Julie has recently faced the challenge of her recent move from Crediton into the sought-after business district of Southernhay. Having only been there a few weeks, at the time our interview, she was still coming to terms with the new setting and the adjustments that need to be made. She has also had to catch up on her appointments, having had to close for a while, and she remarked that, even though she has a five-month waiting list, she still felt slightly vulnerable to have the studio closed for that period.
Julie is looking to branch outside of Exeter and part of her marketing strategy is to host annual pop-up stands, with the next one set for Cardiff in September. Her favourite quote ‘You can do anything that you set your mind to’, has been the mantra that Julie lives by and it was a lightbulb moment, whilst travelling by train with her colleague Karen, to put the studio in a lorry and take it to other towns. Julie has many ideas for the business and, though some of them may seem too challenging, or ‘silly’ as she puts it, she is driven to just try and do it anyway.
Part of her journey has been to stop worrying that things are going to go wrong and to try and lose the fear. She remarked, “It’s a nice place to be!” and went on to say that she wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff that she does if she was afraid of the outcome. She wishes that she could pass that onto other people, saying that she is actually quite shy. Her friends think that she is strong, but she says that this isn’t true, it’s just that she has overcome that fear which holds you back.
She is considering marketing the studio down in Cornwall next, as she has already received some interest from people there. I’m sure that with Julie’s determination and spirit that she will find a way.
Julie realises that success is not just about money and, rather, tries to measure it by the happiness of her customers. Good reviews on social media count for a lot and if people started hating their pictures she would need to rethink the process. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened and is, perhaps, best reflected by the fact that she was recently nominated and awarded as one of Grow Exeter’s 100 Most Influential Women in Exeter.
Over the past few years, she has managed to employ several people in the business from starting out with only eight bookings when she first took it over, to the thriving business that she now has. Further evidence of her determination to succeed, if it were needed.
Other high points on her journey have been being chosen as a finalist in the South West Wedding Awards and as finalists in the 2016 Venus Awards. The studio has also been involved in various magazines as part of women’s weight loss journeys, which she has found very rewarding. The single highest point for her, however, has been the diversity of the people that feel comfortable coming to the studio.
Before I asked Julie who the most influential person in her life had been, I knew the answer; her mum, who has been through so much and who suffers from various mental health issues as a result. Her past has had lasting repercussions on her present, sometimes to the point where she doesn’t want to venture out of the house at all. Julie says that her mum has inspired her to do the things that she couldn’t do. She said of her mum, “She deserves to do all of that stuff, she deserves not to be afraid; but she is afraid, so she doesn’t. So then, I will.”
Julie laughed at this point and said that her mum always had plenty of wise advice at hand to pass on. On the tough times that occur in all our lives, she said that it doesn’t do to dwell on the negative. “If you fall over, get up, dust yourself off and get on with it – get back on the horse”, were words that Julie often heard as she grew up. She says that her mum gave her the freedom to choose her career and the motivation to succeed at whatever that was.
Julie loves quotation or nonfiction books. One of her favourites is ‘Get your sh*t together’ by Sarah Knight, with a central message to stop worrying about what you should do, finish what you need to do and start doing what you want to do. Julie loves the way it’s written which is reminiscent of how her mum would say things and she loves inspirational books. She is too busy to focus on fiction or story type books and loves to ‘dip and pick’ as she puts it, as then you don’t lose your flow.
On the rest of 2018, she remarked that she would love the Exeter studio to be firmly consolidated in the city. She needs to get the message out there so that people know where they are, what they do, and how they do it, so marketing will be a priority.
As Julie and I parted ways, I couldn’t help but feel that I had just been in the presence of one of the most resilient, strong and beautiful people that I’ve met. I have no doubt that we will be seeing a lot more of Kensa Boudoir in Exeter, and around the country, in the future.