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Making It: Fashion Design

Everybody wants to be their own boss, so how do you make the dream happen?

As part of our ‘Making it’ series, last week we invited a panel of industry experts consisting of Upender Mehra, Owner of Liberty Freedom, Steven Cheema, Creative Director of 48HRS and Leesa Bertram, Managing Director of Pretty Disturbia to share their experiences and advise the audience on how to create and maintain a successful fashion label.

How did you start out in the industry?

(LB) I focused my A-levels on art and textiles, followed by an art foundation course and degree at MMU in fashion design and Technology which included a year placement in Industry which was extremely valuable. I worked voluntarily through summer holidays in Marks and Spencer’s design room and have had various jobs in the Industry from designing Snowboarding/ fashion ranges for Nokia to working as PR & Marketing Manager for Beck & Hersey.

(SC) I’m fortunate that my family come from the rag trade. They’ve been in this business for over 30 years so I’ve been involved in this industry since a very early age…. I got a general assistant job when I left school with a fashion sales agency in Manchester that dealt with some major UK and international brands which was an incredible experience. I got to see how the major brands worked internally and was fortunate to deal with national and independent retailers as we sold forward and stock collections.

(UM) I went to Art College and then onto the Fashion design degree course at Manchester Polytechnic. While in my 2nd year I started working with a Shirt designer — for virtually nothing — at weekends and holidays, and this helped me learn about the business, he would take me to the Shows in Paris and London, so I learned a lot before I graduated.

What is the secret to where you are now?

(LB) Hard work, determination and the support of family and friends; I work around 12 hours a day and live and breathe my business.

(SC) I took a corporate route working for a solicitors practise as a Marketing Manager which was a good experience, working in a more formal environment was good for my development. You have to be very organised and thorough in that field and I dealt with a wide variety of issues which has helped the business I’m in now. Since then I’ve been working with some UK and international brands producing under license, and on our own brand 48hrs which has been breaking into the retail market as an exciting urban fashion label.

(UM) Fate!! I was working on a Luxury brand collection for Royal Ascot; this led to me discovering the undercover and wonderfully secret world of Country Clothing, and all the luxury it can involve! The Royal Ascot project fell through, and I was literally looking for the next step. Whilst based in an Old Mill in Bolton, I walked upstairs to a company called ‘BEAVER of BOLTON’ and said to the MD “I can make your clothing loads better, better design, better quality….. Give me a job” and he did!! Two years later I became MD of the company because external circumstances sometimes dictate the next step. I was fortunate it was the right step for me.

What advice can you give to those looking to launch their own label?

(LB) Always be yourself, be hard working, open minded and don’t give up. Also, be under no illusion, fashion is not only hard work, it’s expensive. Whatever you think you’re going to spend on your business, times in by 10. Set up costs can be high and you always need to re-invest in the business and staff to make it grow further down the line.

(SC) Work in retail. Working in a retail environment gives you an understanding of your customer, what they want from their product, how they want it delivered to them and in what way. Understanding how the customer is communicated to is key to anyone progressing in this industry in any area. I think listening to those with more experience is crucial to people’s development. You have to try and soak everything in and be open to ideas and suggestions at all times. Working as an intern is also a great way to gain experience.

(UM) Learn and make contacts, it’s a good grounding for your whole future, whatever you want to go on to achieve. Be passionate about what you do, do it well, most of all believe in yourself; belief and real passion is always admired by those around you.

What do you think are the ingredients for building a successful business in fashion?

(LB) You need a good range of skills; I am involved with every aspect of my business from web design/development, to Pr & Marketing, to styling. You also need to work long and hard hours, cultivate good business contacts, spend carefully and get your brand out there as much as possible.

(SC) Understanding your customer and how they want to be communicated to is important to any business, the packaging, the product and the delivery is the difference between having a mediocre or strong offering. You have to have the passion for this game and for your product. It’s competitive and you have to remain strong, committed and focused on what you’re doing.

(UM) Integrity and a good product are so so important, success is measured in different ways. From my point of view just because M&S make millions every year does not mean they are successful. If they influenced their customers in any way to be “alive” then they are successful; but they sell “product” like lots of retailers, with no soul, no statement, no passion — it is just a product as far as they are concerned — the product is secondary to the profit. Is that success?

There is a huge difference between working in ‘clothing’ and ‘working in fashion’. I do not see mainstream as “fashion” it is just clothing. The design element of a product, be it clothing bags hats or footwear, is what makes it fashion / anti-fashion. The rest is just clothing, like soap or toilet roll - essential everyday but no-one really notices what you are wearing.

Successful FASHION is about standing up and being passionate about your design, and the success can be measured when just one product that you design is admired by another human being. That connection, when somebody else appreciates and enjoys your design, is worth more than any money margin. Be true to what you believe and keep on developing your ideals, because the rest is just like selling Double Glazing!

Interview by Natalie Shaw

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