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How I got here: Ruth Valiant

Ethical brand People Tree’s garment technologist was led by her desire to make fashion fairer

Ruth Valiant

Ruth Valiant

What does your typical week involve?

At People Tree my week changes depending on where we are in the critical path. I’m usually involved in two seasons at the same time as product development and production overlap. We work as a close-knit technical team of one pattern cutter, two technicians, one production manager and me. This week we are working on fitting, carrying out pattern amendments, sealing [confirming standard measurements for each size] new season styles, grading and sending feedback out so the graded size sets are completed. A garment is sealed when the fit, trims, fabric and construction are to the standard required. Grading takes place to ensure all sizes are to the same standard. We also decide on trims and fabrics.

At People Tree I work with fair trade artisans and producers in India, Bangladesh and Nepal on handwoven fabrics, knits and embroidery, as well as block prints. So another part of my job is finding the best way to maximise their design capabilities and local skills.

Which meeting are you most looking forward to today?

I have a meeting in London with one of our producer groups from India. It is important for them to see how People Tree operates and good for strengthening relationships. We can discuss things in much more detail as a team, work out new developments and resolve any issues.

What are three defining moments in your career?

Straight after studying my City & Guilds in Fashion & Design in 1991, I took a year out to learn Italian in Rome and gain some practical experience. I did a six-month internship at womenswear brand Glenda Cohen ready-to-wear and was then offered a position as a pattern cutter and sample machinist. I ended up staying in Italy for 10 years, during which I had the opportunity to work in ready-to-wear and then bridal couture at Peter Langner in Rome.

My next defining moment was studying Development Studies at Westminster College in 2004, two years after moving back to the UK. While writing a research paper on fair trade I met Deborah Isaacs, the general manager of People Tree. I was excited to find out about a clothing company that was dedicated to sustainable and fair trade fashion. When the position of senior garment technologist came up in 2006, I jumped at the chance.

My third defining period would be my time working at People Tree. It has been a great learning curve, working in a very different environment with a small team. There have been so many procedures to set up as there wasn’t a fair trade fashion model to follow on our scale before People Tree was founded.

What has been your career highlight?

I’ve enjoyed seeing the producers’ skills and the quality of their garments develop and improve over the years. We have taught our artisans how to make their own patterns and educated them in manual grading and construction skills, from invisible zips to lining garments. Most of the producers started in handicrafts and we had to help them improve their skills by including them in the sampling and production processes.

Who is your mentor?

People Tree founder Safia Minney. She is very driven and idealistic, and has made fair trade fashion a viable alternative. She works tirelessly to spread the message of the importance of fair trade and highlight the inequalities facing many workers. She is always looking for new initiatives to improve our environmental and social impact.

What’s the best advice she’s given you?

It is not the advice she has given me, but more that she has inspired me to realise I can make a difference. I can challenge the way things are done and find a more ethical way to do business.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Life is too short. Do not close yourself off to opportunities. Be confident and take chances to see what you like and where your skills and experiences lie, but stay focused. If you are clear about what you want to do, go ahead and follow your dream. Never underestimate yourself.

How do you see your career progressing?

It is important for me to do something where I can create value. I would like to encourage more companies to implement fair trade and ethical standards on a wider scale and ensure their supply chain is compliant. As I really enjoy training and development projects, I would find it difficult to move out of the ethical sector.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t stop asking questions and learning new skills. While studying, do a couple of internships to gain the experience and confidence needed to start your career. Try different areas and sizes of company. Do not specialise too early in your career, unless you’re really sure.

If you could work in another area of fashion, what would it be?

Through my work with People Tree, I am really passionate about the ethical and fair trade side of fashion. I could see myself in a sourcing and supply chain role or as an ethical trade manager. Otherwise I would be an artisan, maybe working in hand weaving.

CV

2006 Senior garment technologist/trainer, People Tree

2004 Development Studies Certificate & Diploma, Westminster College

2003 Pattern cutter/technologist, Eskandar, London

2002 Pattern cutter/technologist, Sybil Stanislaus, London

1998 Pattern cutter, Peter Langner, Rome

1995 Partner, Pane & Pasta design studio, Rome

September 1991 Pattern cutter/sample machinist, Glenda Cohen, Rome

1991 Fashion & Design City & Guilds, Westminster College

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