Platforms and Protégés
By Yasmin Jones-Henry
“Encouragement is a powerful thing, you never know what others will create with it.”
By the time I have finished writing this article, it will be exactly a year to the day I left my job at the Financial Times. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I had learned a painful but necessary life lesson: Just because you are good at doing something, it does not mean that you should do it. The same applied to me and sales. I stumbled into all three of my first jobs after university, curious to learn as much as I could about the other aspects of publishing. I have known since the age of five that I wanted to be a writer, but I have also long harboured a desire to run my own business, and crucial to this independence is a rounded knowledge of how different aspects of the industry works. So there was some method to the madness in me accepting roles that were defined by targets, deadlines and commission as opposed to outright creativity.
There is no doubt that my experiences have toughened me up and I am grateful for it. I started out as a naive, wide eyed arts graduate. Working in sometimes volatile, hostile and competitive environments also gave me insight into the fundamental pieces of the machinery that help the industry to move along. But most importantly, recovering from the crippling experience of anorexia and bulimia it forced me to find my voice. The world of sales is no place for shrinking violets. You have to fight for your seat at the table. Every. Single. Day. To get better at my job, in order to compete I had to be well. I needed to have optimum fitness: both mental and physical. By the time I had arrived at the FT I accepted these basic facts. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. A good night’s sleep, a brisk evening walk along the Southbank from Southwark Bridge to Waterloo and weekly ballet lessons saw my weight improve and overall health return after a long three year struggle.
So I while I felt momentarily deflated as I sat on a bench contemplating my life, with my belongings placed beside me on the Southbank, I did not leave my last job with a broken heart, but one filled with gratitude. The truth is I had lingered in a role that was never meant for me. I knew that and it became glaringly obvious as the months wore on. Some advised me to consider roles in marketing. Others were adamant I would do well in PR, I enjoy meeting people and I know how to sell – so that made sense. Selling subscriptions for a database that analysed the world’s banks and their activities was never meant to be my calling. The truth is I stayed because of the people.
For the first time in my life I had found somewhere where I finally belonged. I had found my tribe. I was surrounded by people who shared a similar world view. I had finally found a work environment where my inquisitive nature was not chastised, but encouraged. Senior editors were happy to talk, offer feedback and share insights. I was challenged, nurtured and accepted. But I had begun to get comfortable day in and day out fulfilling a task that had no real correlation to the future I had envisaged for myself. For anyone who is creative by nature, complacency of any kind is a deadly sin.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. I can confirm that that saying is true. While I was filling out endless job applications for editorial and PR related roles, I noticed a motif appearing in the feedback I received: ‘great profile, but we are looking for someone with at least 2 to 3 years experience.’ The sound of firmly shut doors was deafening. But I knew that aged 24, having experimented in other roles, I had to pursue my editorial ambitions once and for all. “You have a unique voice, you must take your writing seriously” Kes Hennessy said to me when I first met her in the FT canteen at the start of 2016. I hung onto those words. They arrived at the precise moment I had begun to give up. I thought I was going to be trapped in the sales vortex forever. Sat with an inbox full of rejection letters, I used her words of encouragement to kick down a few doors. It occurred to me, that if no one would give me an opportunity, then I must create one for myself. In need of a routine and a project, I set myself the reasonable task of learning how to build @workinfashion.me.
Many of you will be familiar with my first article: ‘Functionality vs The Aesthetic’. It has become the manifesto and the cornerstone of the WorkinFashion.me ethos. Before I could engage in any dialogue about fashion, I had to pose the question: “What is fashion for?” So much of what I believe is wrapped up in that question. I am not a fashion blogger. This is not your average fashion blog. My intention from the very beginning has been to reclaim the word and return it to the masses. I say it in almost every article I write – but I’ll say it again… Taken from the Latin infinitive ‘Facere’ meaning to do or to make – fashion is literally what you make it. It is an art form like any other, and it is entirely subjective. I am interested in people’s sense of style, how they go about their daily lives. How they overcome the various obstacles in their way, and how they win. From my own experiences I knew that if I appreciated that information, my peers would too.
The strap line ‘We dress, We work, We win’ is an illustration of the fact that it is important to collaborate in our pursuit of ‘winning’ at life. The ‘We’ is crucial, because it speaks of the collective, the community of like minded individuals in support of each other in the joint quest for success. I am well aware that I am offering a different message from most publications and going against any trend can be daunting. In September 2016, when I sent the first draft of ‘Functionality vs The Aesthetic’ to my friends and seasoned FT journalists Josh Spero, Kesewa Hennessy and Courtney Fingar I was wary of what their response would be. ‘Go for it!’ was the unanimous reply. During my year at the FT I found that step by step, inch by inch, I was getting stronger. The aforementioned mentors, had no clue of the other issues I was grappling with at the time but their kindness in taking the time to nurture and encourage me throughout my time there – gave me the extra strength I needed to transform my idea into the product that stands before you now.
Fast forward to October 2017 – a calendar year later, having received an invitation from Sarah Mower to view a new collection, I found myself standing in the middle of a showroom in Liberty’s of London. Located on the first floor, ‘Sarah’s List’ is a carefully curated collection of new and up and coming designers handpicked by Sarah Mower MBE, the British Fashion Council’s Ambassador for Emerging Talent. For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work as an accomplished journalist, she is also the benevolent figure behind the rise of designers such as Christopher Kane, Simone Rochas, Mary Katrantzou, Jonathan Saunders and Roksanda llincic to name a few.
Initially, I confess, my sole motive was to view the work of Richard Malone, a new Irish designer whose work is grounded in the precepts of ethical fashion. I had stumbled across Sarah’s Instagram post about his work. A remark that his clothes were woven by a women’s organisation in India caught my attention. If you have read my most recent post ‘Work In Fashion Presents…ActionAid: The Survivors Runway’ – where I speak of the need for improved working conditions, to support the female population in developing countries such as India and Bangladesh, where women are in dire need of independence and economic freedom, you would understand why I was eager to see his work up close.
‘People first, profit later’ – was the closing remark of that article as I concluded my thoughts on the direction the fashion industry ought to take. But, as I picked my way through Malone’s collection, felt the material, examined the detail, the craftsmanship visible in each individual piece, I found those words were made manifest in the clothes that hung before me. When creativity is connected with an appreciation for humanity, something genuinely beautiful is produced. Another dimension is added. The value is heightened when you know that each item is not only aesthetically pleasing to the customer, but when others are blessed by it too (in this case the working mothers in India), somehow you walk away with the feeling that this small act of creativity has helped to make the world a better place. This is what fashion is for.
Philanthropy is treated like a big word. The wealthy elite use it as a means to display an ostentatious appetite for ‘charity’ and a confirmation of their status. What it really means – if you break it down is this: philo and anthropos – which in ancient Greek translates as ‘the love of mankind’. We should all be philanthropists. It is not the preserve of billionaires, politicians or celebrities; it should be the label that is attached to every citizen. Finding ways to interweave philanthropy into our everyday lives is what I believe our creative power is for.
The times are changing. What was once permissible will be permissible no more. Ethical fashion used to be a buzzword. It used to be a badge that some wore while others ignored the call for a more moral and sustainable way of life. But look around you. The temples of consumerism and greed are crumbling. Conglomerates that are not on the right side of history will soon lose whatever comparative advantage their size or wealth had previously bought them. People will simply stop using their products and take their money elsewhere. The belief that you can exploit others without end, will ultimately be the downfall of many an Icarus in the coming months. The economic and political climate is such that people are repulsed by corruption and unimpressed with numbers. Ethics – belief – substance – humanity are all trending.
As I walked through the rest of the exhibit, examining the other designers and their respective collections, I was deeply moved not only by the quality of work, but also by the care and consideration in which their work has been displayed. Le Kilt, who many will recognise from the Material Worlds exhibit in Selfridges earlier this year, is featured in this collective. Stella Jean, Richard Quinn, and Teatum Jones were also among the up and coming designers on display and each presented a unique aesthetic, using wools, silks, bold prints and florals, all offering a different narrative.
Platforms designed to elevate and showcase new talent are a crucial part of the evolution and survival of any industry. What is missing in the corporate world today is this generosity of heart among those who already have that platform. Those who currently hold positions of power have not been conditioned to share. Many are threatened by what is new. Many are intimidated by the young. Many are too preoccupied by self interest to care. This deficit, this vacuum that exists between one generation and the next is why our society suffers from the ailments it currently has.
Sarah’s List, moved me because what I witnessed surpassed any discussion about fashion. What stands on the first floor of Liberty’s is a perfect paradigm of what needs to happen across society to safeguard the survival of our civilisation. Each new designer is allocated their own space in which key pieces from their collections are displayed. Space and Time have been given, a platform has been shared, and now this constellation of bright young stars will benefit from the exposure their works of art will receive and so the cycle will continue.
Taking the time to support, nurture and develop new talent may not win you a Nobel prize. Making the effort to encourage those around you might not bring you fiscal rewards, but it is always the right thing to do. Philanthropy should not be categorised as an extracurricular activity for the wealthy. It belongs at the very heart of corporate culture. Platforms and protégés… that was the phrase that came to mind when I tried to summarise Sarah’s List. It reminded me that ‘sustainability’ is about much more than a discussion about the materials used, it is a philosophy. Sustaining an ecosystem of new talent is tantamount to securing the future. What can you do to help? Be a resource to those around you. Encouragement is a powerful thing – you never know what others will create with it.
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