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For my Q&A in this month’s Love Sewing magazine I interviewed Helen Self to find out more about the real nitty gritty of working in the UK high street fashion industry.
I know Helen from my time in industry – she was my boss in my first industry job that I started in 1998. I won her round with my excellent tea-making skills and she gave me a brilliant grounding in how to apply the skills I was learning at university to real-world work.
Here’s the full unedited interview with Helen:
Dressmaking is a great way to get unique clothes that are exactly what you want, that fit you well and without the worry of seeing everyone else wearing the same thing. We all know that it’s also an enjoyable and productive way to spend our time, that’s why we’re all reading Love Sewing, right?! Dressmaking also provides the perfect outlet to express your creativity and inner fashionista, but what about if you start thinking about doing it for a job?
The world of fashion appears from the outside to be full of glamour, excitement, travel and creativity and can be a tempting career direction for young people just starting out in the world of work as well as frustrated creatives trapped in offices looking for a career change.
The fashion industry is an important part of the UK’s economy; providing jobs and representing £26bn to the UK economy in 2014 (source: https://www.fashionunited.co.uk/facts-and-figures-in-the-uk-fashion-industry). It’s a hugely diverse industry employing creative, technical, business, marketing and logistical skills and creating everything from beautifully crafted couture garments to school uniforms and everything in between. Fashion training in the UK has one of the best reputations in the world and we have produced internationally successful designers such as Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, not to mention the renowned work that goes on in Savile Row.
To get a behind the scenes peep at just one part of this vast industry I approached Helen Self; a designer who has spent almost 30 years in the industry designing for a wide range of companies to find out how she got started, how she works and what a typical working day is like for her.
Wendy: What’s your current job title?
Helen: I am the design manager at Blues Clothing Ltd with a team of 13! It’s quite a task at times but very rewarding – I have some amazing designers that I work with. We’re a manufacturer of licensed products and our biggest are Peppa Pig, Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine! We’ve got around 49 licenses and we create and supply kids’, adults’ and baby clothing using the licensed branding. I have been with the company 5 years and we manufacture out of China, India , Sri Lanka and Turkey. We supply all of the supermarkets and most of the high street.
W: How long have you worked in the fashion industry?
H: I have been in the industry for 29 years – I started before I had left college as a permanent work placement 3 days a week for a manufacturer called Scruffs. They used to have a concession in Top Shop. This was unheard of on my course as it was only a 2 year course and work experience was 2 weeks. I must have done a good job on my placement as they extended my stay and I was paid and given free clothes, which was all pretty amazing for me as a student.
W: What was your first job in industry?
H: My first job after leaving college in 1988 was as a design room assistant for an underwear manufacturer called Clintextiles. I spent most of my time making tea, cutting out samples and tracing patterns for factories. This industry is so small; a friend I made at this job is now the course leader at my old college!
W: Where and what did you study?
H: I studied a BTEC certificate in fashion for 2 years at Cleveland college of art after leaving school then a 2 year Higher Diploma in Fashion at Medway College of Design Rochester (which is now part of UCA – The University for the Creative Arts). I don’t have a degree – experience was valued much more back in the day! I trained as a designer and pattern cutter. Pattern cutting was taught the manual way of flat pattern cutting on paper and French modelling on stands, very different to the electronic systems now used in industry training.
W: Can you remember when you were first interested in clothes?
H: My mum would say since I was a toddler. I’ve always been interested in clothes for as long as I can remember.
W: Where have you worked during your career?
H: Oh my goodness I’ve worked all over! I started in London in the ‘rag trade’ – fast fashion produced in Europe and the UK. I worked for various companies around the west end of London for 10 years before working for an M& S supplier. I then moved to the midlands and worked for retailer Adams Children’s wear for 5 years. After this I took a temp job in Hong Kong for Next sourcing as a product developer; this was a bit of a change of direction but proved to be an amazing experience. I frequently went to China to the factory to work with the sample unit and visited suppliers’ show rooms in Hong Kong to develop garments, denim washes and effects.
When I moved back to London I worked for an Indian supplier; again an amazing experience as I travelled regularly to Delhi to develop garments with factories and source fabrics and prints. I then moved on to help set up a fair trade company producing clothing from Mauritius. I think this was one of the most rewarding roles I have had. I worked with factories direct, advising and teaching them various things from pattern cutting skills that they didn’t have to better quality control to help them understand the U.K. Market. One of the most memorable factories I worked with was Craft Aid; a fair trade factory that have an amazing work ethic and empower their local community by providing training and jobs in the garment industry. This role gave me the opportunity to travel to Mauritius several times and also become involved with one of the churches out there. I was privileged to be taken to visit some of the schools that the project were working with and see for myself the difference the work made to peoples’ lives.
My current role with Blues Clothing is completely different from any job I’ve ever had and at first it felt quite odd watching kids TV in meetings and going to licensing shows and meeting the “characters”! At my first Brand Licensing Europe show I was knocked over by a banana in pyjama! It was surreal, I love it though and I am everyone’s favourite auntie for all toddlers; they get quite excited when they see picture of me with their heroes!!
W: What has been your proudest moment as a designer?
H: I’m not sure I enjoy the moment of each job at the time as each job brings different moments of feeling proud. When I worked for the M& S supplier, Desmond & Sons I felt really proud seeing my designs in store, also that was something my parents ‘got’ and they were really proud of me; my dad used to go into our local M&S and tell them what I’d designed! Working with the factories in Mauritius was amazing as I taught them valuable new skills enabled them to increase their quality control expectations.
W: Has there been a project that’s been your favourite to work on?
H: Probably working with the factories in Maurituis . It was such a different experience and I felt that I was really helping and making a difference to peoples’ lives.
W: What do you enjoy most about being a fashion designer?
H: Seeing my designs and those of my team of designers being worn by kids. It still gives me a thrill and I still point them out to whoever is with me!
W: What do you enjoy least?
H: The chopping and changing of designs to get things into price points, it’s a necessary but unfortunate side of the business
W: Tell us about a typical working day for you.
H: Each day is very different. I deal with any issues my designers have, meet with licensors (people who own the brands we work with). Attend lots of design development meetings and constantly research new ways to move on our products.
W: Do you sew?
H: No – I don’t have the patience!
W: What is the process you go through to design a new garment?
H: Myself and my team research print ideas and trends in techniques, colours and shapes. We go “development shopping” twice a year to Europe or the USA to see what’s happening look for any new ideas coming through. We also keep an eye on what’s happening through online sources. Once we have our ideas we create a mood boards and colour palettes and then we get started designing.
W: What would you like to do if you weren’t a fashion designer?
H: Own a puppy day school – it’s my retirement dream!
W: Is working in the fashion industry as glamorous as people think?
H: No it’s not. Travel sounds glamorous, but being stuck in a factory with no air con at 35 degrees heat is no fun! Even the shopping isn’t very glam as the pressure is on to find the ideas which usually involves 9 hours solid shopping, blisters and a sore back! Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily describe my work as glamorous, I am very privileged to travel and see parts of the world others wouldn’t necessarily be able to.
W: What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in the fashion industry?
- Go to college, use your initiative and get some work experience.
- Always be professional on work placements as this can lead on to your first job.
- Go for graduate roles where possible, all experience is good, remember – we can’t all be Vivienne Westwood!
- Look at the whole industry, there are opportunities world wide not just in the UK.
- Make sure you enjoy what you do; this is a hard and competitive industry, but it can be rewarding and offer lots of opportunities if you are willing to work hard.
- Finally, it’s a surprisingly small industry, everyone knows each other so always be professional and make a good impression.
A huge thank you to Helen for taking time out of her hectic schedule to allow us to have a nosey into her world.
If you’d like to find out more about the fashion industry here are some useful links to get you started:
http://www.ukft.org/index.php – the UK Fashion & Textile Association
Craft Aid – the fair trade project that Helen worked with in Mauritius: http://www.craftaid.net