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What Is It Really Like To Work In The Fashion Industry?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!

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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.

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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?

H:

  • 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.thecreativeindustries.co.uk

http://creativeskillset.org

http://www.designcouncil.org.uk

http://www.ukft.org/index.php – the UK Fashion & Textile Association

http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com

Craft Aid – the fair trade project that Helen worked with in Mauritius: http://www.craftaid.net

Why Use Ethical Fabrics in Your Dressmaking?

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What are ethical fabrics?

Most of us are aware of (and probably also buy) fair trade food and several factory fires and collapses in overseas garment factories over recent years have widened awareness of ethical fashion. There are lots of brands now championing the movement; probably the most well-known being People Tree.

But what about the fabric you use in your dressmaking? One of the reasons I love to make my own clothes is that it puts me in direct control of a major part of the garment making cycle – I made my clothes, so I know that no workers were exploited or environments damaged in making them, right? Well it’s a start, but what about the fabric?

Issues of sustainability and ethical production have been an interest of mine for a long time, in fact it was the subject of my dissertation for my degree 16 years ago! Here are a few facts and figures to get us started:

  • Around the world, £40 billion is spent annually on textiles.
  • In 2009 the UK fashion industry alone spent £229 million on textiles.
  • 2007 to 2011 saw a 75% increase in the market for ethical fashion.

A not insignificant part of our economy!

To find out more about how those of us that make our own clothes can use ethical fabrics I approached Charlie Ross an ex fashion designer trained at the Royal College of Art and went on to set up Offset Warehouse to see if she would agree to an interview. I was over the moon when she agreed to share some of her knowledge with us, so here it is.

Wendy: What makes a fabric ethical?

Charlie: Ethical fabrics are those that are environmentally or socially beneficial, and preferably both. This includes fabrics that are organic, Fairtrade, made from responsibly-sourced raw materials, are recycled, and are manufactured by workers who are paid a fair wage or have a stake in the business.

Wendy: I guess if I’m going to use ethical fabric in my next project I should also consider how all the other parts are made such as threads, zips, binding, elastic, etc, is it also possible to buy ethically produced versions?

Charlie: Absolutely! We stock all sorts of ethical haberdashery: organic threads and zips, upcycled buttons, organic interfacing, bias binding and ribbons. Sourcing these smaller items can be difficult though as the range available is still quite small.

Wendy: What are the main ways that fabric production can be socially or environmentally damaging?

Charlie: Phew, this is just such a massive and complicated subject, but the two main areas we are concerned with are:

The Raw Materials and the Production Process

In many cases, the damage is done before the fabric even becomes a fabric! A prime example is cotton – a fabric we are all led to believe is natural and therefore good – which it certainly is if it’s organically produced. But commercially-grown cotton is not. Its production covers 55% of the world’s cultivated land, yet it’s responsible for the release of US$ 2 billion of chemical pesticides each year! Just under half of these chemicals are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. That’s just shocking, and not enough people are aware of it.

The Aral Sea in Central Asia is another example. In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided to divert the two rivers which fed the Aral Sea in order to irrigate the desert so they could grow cotton and other crops. The result of this was the entire sea was completely drained, and the lands left behind were turned into carcinogenic wastelands – all because of unsustainable farming.

That’s why I love sourcing and designing fabrics made with more unusual fibres, such as hemp, soy, bamboo and banana. I know what you’re thinking – common perceptions are that these more ethical fibres can be scratchy to the touch, but I source some of the softest, most beautiful, fashionable fabrics in amazing eco fibres! Hemp, for example, has a terrible reputation for being hippy and grungy, but we sell the most stunning hemp silk blends in amazing colours.

The People

Driven by today’s culture of fast consumerism, and in order to compete with increasingly low prices, the textile industry has had to cut corners. Most conventional fabrics are produced by untrained, underpaid (and sometimes not paid at all), overworked staff, in unsafe surroundings. These textiles require highly toxic chemicals to produce them, and these are often handled by workers without the proper safety equipment.

This was one of the main driving forces behind my quest for ethical fabrics – and how I eventually came to start Offset Warehouse. I couldn’t bear the thought that my sewing creations might be harming someone, and I never considered they may have been a product of slave labour.  All of our manufacturers and weavers are paid fairly for their fabrics. We also work with very small communities, who weave outside their houses and choose their own hours. They set their prices and their manufacturing timelines, and we never, ever, pressure them to decrease either.

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Wendy:  Is ethical fabric better quality?

Charlie: Like all textiles, ethical fabrics come in a range of qualities. An organic fibre will behave no differently to a non-organic one – except there are no nasty chemicals in there – so they can be woven in exactly the same way. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason that an ethical fabric should be of a lower or higher quality.

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It’s sometimes easy to mistake quality for the finish of the fabric.  We sell ethical fabrics that are machine woven, which have a much more consistent surface, and those that are woven by hand, which are more “slubby” and irregular. It’s easy to look at the slubby and irregular fabric, and think it’s a “lower” quality, but we couldn’t be more wrong. I actually prefer hand woven fabrics because of the incredible work that goes into them, their authenticity and character. Both processes produce beautiful products, and each suitable for different things.

Wendy:  Do I have to treat ethical fabric any differently to my regular fabric?

Charlie: Absolutely not! In fact, when opting for more sustainable fibres like hemp, linen and soy, you’ll find that your fabric will be a lot easier to care for.

Where can I buy ethical fabrics?

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They’re still not that widely available, but there if you look for them. Some online fabric retailers have started to add organic collections or special limited collections sourced direct from artisan groups in places like India, there are also a few specialist online retailers if you search “where to buy ethical fabrics” you should set off on the right track!

Where can I find out more?

http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org

http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com

Some of Charlie’s Top Tips:

  • If you can’t find ethically produced haberdashery – recycle and re-use! Before you get rid of old clothes take off the buttons, zips, clips, hooks and save them for future projects.
  • Did you know that the most impact from a textile comes right from our very own homes? With the amount of energy and chemicals we use just by using our washing machines, we are pumping huge amounts of pollution into our air and water on a daily basis. Washing on a quick, low-heat wash – or better yet, hand washing – can make a huge difference.

A huge thanks to Charlie for this interview and providing me with facts and figures. I interviewed Charlie for issue 21 of Love Sewing magazine (out now) and this is the full un-edited version of the interview which was a wee bit too long to fit in my pages of the magazine!

What is Offset Warehouse?

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Offset Warehouse is a social enterprise which brings together a huge range of hand-picked eco fabrics and haberdashery. All of Offset Warehouse’s products benefit either the people who make them, or the environment, and usually both. This includes products that are organic, Fairtrade and made in cooperatives.

Charlie Ross founded the company five years ago. Graduating from the Royal College of Art with a Masters in Menswear Design, she continued on to work with some of the biggest names in the fashion industry.

Charlie and her team source the most beautiful, hand-crafted and fairly-sourced fabrics, trims, threads, dyes and glues from across the globe, and sell from one to hundreds of metres at affordable but fair prices. And because of her fashion background, the website is always up to date with current and future trends, proving that you can be eco and fashionable. Most importantly, you can feel good knowing exactly where your fabric has come from, and who has made it. And that’s a good thing, for everyone.