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Fashion your future: top 10 tips for getting a career in fashion

Fashion may be your lifeblood, but how do you make a living from the passion in your veins?

That’s what I aimed to find out at Fashion your Future, a free Bath in Fashion event last weekend.

Fashion your future panel at Bath in Fashion

Fashion your Future was hosted by Louise Pickles, Head of Fashion at Bath Spa University and Creative Director of Bath in Fashion, with a panel comprising fashion professionals from a variety of roles in the industry from design to fashion writing. The experts were:

  • Seren Colley, Menswear Design, Tom Ford
  • Emma Askew-Miller, Senior Lecturer in Pattern Cutting, Bath Spa University
  • Marie Baluti, Product Developer Knitwear, Ben Sherman
  • Meera Stannard, Assistant Buyer, Liberty
  • Naomi Smart, Fashion Features Assistant, Vogue
  • Chloe Jones, Bath Spa University Graduate and winner of the Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2012

Informative and perhaps a reality check, the discussion gave me a greater insight into the processes and job roles involved.  I was surprised at the limited amount of time allocated for pure design – although, Seren Colley from Tom Ford, travels to get inspiration for the collections, she only has three weeks to transform her concepts into garment designs, with the rest of the time more about refining and product development.

So, do you want a dream job in fashion? I’ve tried to distil the panel discussion into top 10 tips.

1. Passion

With the fast-pace of the industry, long hours, and hundreds of competitors ready to knock you off your stilettos, you really need to be sustained by fashion.

2. Teamwork

As with many cultural industries, the myth of the sole artist or star designer may be overplayed. The panel illustrated the need for teamwork in the ‘fashion family’, for instance the collaboration between the designer and pattern cutter. Divas need not apply.

3. Internship

From listening to the panel, it sounds as if an internship is an essential step in securing a fashion industry post. Louise Pickles admitted that it may not be right, but often working for free was expected. Unpaid internships certainly can exclude those who are economically disadvantaged, and in the current competitive job market, this trend will surely grow unless there is legislation or incentives to pay interns. Of course, this is not just in fashion but in a variety of sectors, particularly the arts. In fashion, it also seems to be the catch-22 of agencies not working for you until you have some experience…

4. Be a sponge

… but all this means you need to maximise any opportunities work experience or un/paid internships bring. Each member of the panel reiterated this, and urged soaking up all you can like a sponge. Pattern cutting expert, Emma Askew-Miller challenged everyone to learn something new every day.

5. Connections

It’s a cliché, but the connections you make are vital for your career, and from your first placement or job onward you should be building relationships which can help you in the future. Pretty much everyone had got a job from knowing a man or woman who knows a man or woman…

6. Don’t be defined by your role

Even if you are looking to get into a particular function or area, don’t be too confined by this and take opportunities when they arise. Seren, although trained in menswear, took a first position in women’s fashion, whilst Naomi too tested out different skills at Vogue. For Chloe, a recent graduate, she found that each of her internships had been completely different, helping her gather skills in different parts of the industry from mass-market to higher-end.

7. Expand your skillset

Whether budgeting or desk top publishing and CAD, it is important to develop other skills to improve your chances. For Meera in a buying role, she felt that keeping abreast with digital was vital, and also for fashion writing with Naomi noting that Vogue iPad sales were doubling month by month.

8. Get creative with your CV

This is not a euphemism for lying, but rather to get creative with how you deliver your resumé. Louise Pickles mentioned that Matthew Williamson had sent out his scarves as a calling card, which got him noticed. Seren Colley also suggested going old school and printing and snail-mailing CVs, which could actually be more effective than trying to sneak into someone’s cluttered inbox. In fact, it may even be advantageous to head to the company that you’re interested in working for.

9. Grasp your chance

After sending out hundreds of letters and emails with little response, you also need persistence to keep going. But when you get that chance of a face-to-face interview you need to make it count. Marie Baluti’s story was inspiring, as without a background in fashion, she got an opportunity at Celine – knowing it was her best shot, she was honest saying that she would work hard to learn everything with them. Meera from Liberty mentioned their three-minute Best of British Open Call where every second counts to pitch your designs.

10. It’s only fashion…

When asked what was the best piece of advice she’d ever received, I loved Marie Baluti’s comment that “It’s only fashion, you’re not saving lives”. She said that at times she has even cried when things have gone awry at work, but this quote helps her get perspective.

The panel at Fashion your Future answered the audience's questions afterwards

I was particularly impressed with the way in which the panel took time to answer audience questions after the event in the Komedia cafe, and I’m sure those wanting to get their foot in fashion’s door, or strengthen their emerging career, left the event with renewed determination. I met designer Jan Knibbs at the event, who had studied her MA at Bath Spa. She told me:

“I found the forum really useful and it gave me much more of an insight into how a fashion house is run. It also made me realise that as a designer with my own small label I am trying to fulfil all the different roles (designing, product developing, pattern cutting, making, marketing and PR) myself so it’s no wonder that it’s so difficult, especially when you’re not based in London. It was great to speak to Naomi Smart from Vogue, and I’m going to send her a piece of my statement jewellery which hopefully she will use in a shoot.”

From a careers seminar to Vogue, that certainly would be nice work! You can find more fashion careers tips on the Guardian website. Would you still like a career in fashion? Do you have any additional advice for people wanting to get into the fashion industry?  I’d love to hear your tips and experiences.

Dior wins Dress of the Year at Bath in Fashion

The 50th Dress of the Year frees the ballgown. Raf Simons’ winning dress for Dior embodies all the glamour of couture, but updates it, replacing a restrictive full skirt with elegant ease.

The winner, chosen by Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor for the Financial Times, was revealed during Bath in Fashion Week. Each year Bath Fashion Museum asks an expert to pick a dress that exemplifies the time’s fashion mood or tone, and that’s why this Dior piece is such an appropriate choice. Raf Simons’ debut couture collection for the House of Dior was so hotly anticipated, and this dress manages to pay tribute to the status of this fashion house behemoth without compromising on the Belgian designer’s fresh, modern vision. Indeed the flared hip silhouette of the dress has been taken from an original pattern in the Dior archives, but cut off and worn with slim pants.

Dress of the Year

Dress of the Year at the Fashion Museum. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

As Vanessa Friedman states:

“This dress, or rather (this) evolution of the dress, from Raf Simons’ first collection show for Christian Dior, represents not just a generational shift in fashion – the moment when a new designer took over at the intimate couture house – but also an aesthetic new direction. It signals a move away from the most escapist, extreme garments of the fin de siècle and forward to a new 21st Century post-recession balance that blends functionality with fantasy…”

Detailed shot of the embroidered embellishment on the Dress of the Year © Come Step Back in Time

Detailed shot of the embellishment of the dress. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

The ballgown may be cut short, but glamour abounds, and the intricate design of the bustier is complemented by the simplicity of its line and slim pants.  Pale blue and pink flowers are appliquéd and embroidered onto fine tulle which covers the silk dress, more than nodding to Christian Dior’s love of flowers, “where designs for dresses played second fiddle to the studies of flowers that inspired them.” (see Impressionist CouturierAll hand-sewn, the embroidery is covered with gemstones, pearls, tiny petals, and metallic thread. 

The heavy dress is corseted inside, and there’s a mini silk tulle petticoat, which you can see in the picture above. For the exhibition, the Dress of the Year is accessorised with a net veil by famous milliner Steven Jones and kitten heels. It is a look that is easily transferable to a vintage-lover’s wardrobe by shortening an evening gown and pairing with trousers.

For this small, but fashion-packed museum in Bath, it is a coup to display this piece, and it was wonderful to see the dress up close as part of visit to Bath Fashion Museum during Bath in Fashion. Raf Simons said:

“It is a great honour to have one of my debut Christian Dior Haute Couture collection’s looks chosen as Dress of the Year… The way the Museum’s collection is such a distinct document of, not just fashion, but history in general makes me proud that my clothes can feature amongst those looks and say something about today.”

Raf Simons’ debut show for Dior did not disappoint back in July last year. Take time out for a stylish reminder of his collection, referencing New Look silhouettes, parading down the floral-covered catwalk in the video below.

For the past 50 years, a fashion heavyweight has picked his or her Dress of the Year for Bath Fashion Museum, and you can relive fashion history via their list of the previous 50 winners. With wedding dress designs on the minds of many in the fashion industry and beyond in 2011, Sarah Burton’s exquisite “Ice Queen” wedding dress for Alexander McQueen was the winner last year, especially fitting as she was later revealed as the creator of the Kate Middleton’s bridal gown.


Dress of the Year – Raf Simons for Dior. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

There is more Dior at 50 Fabulous Frocks, an exhibition to celebrate the Fashion Museum’s 50th birthday, featuring an opera coat, which, though not couture, exemplifies the trademarks of this fashion house.

If asked for my Dress of the Year, I just wouldn’t know where to start… but I feel that this dress really fits. What would have been your Dress of the Year? Does this piece embody fashion’s mood in 2012? Let me know…

Look out for more blogs about my Bath in Fashion adventures coming up…

Bristol on film – Java Head and Anna May Wong

When a film or TV series is based where you live, you can’t help but look out for places you recognise. You probably have an example of it in your own town or city. For me in Bristol, it used to be Casualty and then Being Human (I walk past the house of vampires, werewolves and ghosts everyday) but it was certainly a little surprising to see Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong in 19th century Bristol in Java Head (1934, dir.  J. Walter Ruben & Thorold Dickinson). This British film from the 1930s has been on release from the BFI since 2011, and at last I’ve watched it.

Primarily my interest lay in the novelty of the Bristol setting (and mentions of Clifton Downs, St Mary Redcliffe, or Brandon Hill …) but actually it is worth watching in terms of its representation of the Orient(al) in film, and the effects of the East on the lives of those in the West (country).

West meets East

Java Head is a historical melodrama set in the port of Bristol in the 1850s with the title derived from the name of the family home of the shipping company, Ammidon and Sons. One of the sons, Gerrit is in love with Nettie, the daughter of his father’s rival, but as a family feud prevents marriage, he heads off for adventure on the high seas, where he is happiest. He returns with new wife, the ‘exotic’ Manchu Princess, Taou Yuen, played by Anna May Wong, which causes quite a stir in the conservative community. Just before her first appearance on screen, the youngest member of the family plays a discordant piano key, and then the camera follows each of the family members’ shocked faces. Gerrit’s father asks what she will be called – “Taou Yuen Ammidon? The two don’t go together”.


Java Head publicity

Wong’s character is steeped in Western representations of the East – noble, stoic and studied in Chinese philosophies, but also passive, wanting to please her husband. However for the time when ‘yellowface’ was common, it was a lead role for an Chinese actor and, at the beginning of the film, I felt that we could make a recuperative reading of the film. The town is to some extent critiqued for its hypocrisy and prejudice – we see the city gossip about the couple, but Gerrit stands up for his wife and goes against the grain of the closed-minded community.

However, ultimately the film does not allow the interracial romance to flourish. Java Head fits in with “yellow peril” discourses where the West’s desires and fears are projected onto the East, and colonial practices sanctioned. As the narrative unfolds, her husband starts to drift away from Taou Yeun, finding her ‘foreign’ characteristics repellent. In one scene he looks around their bedroom, and the camera focuses on their Chinese objects, cutting back to his disgusted expression. Gerrit tells Taou Yuen “this will never be your home… you’re so different from everything here”. Wong’s character is described as priceless and delicate, a description more suited to the cargo the Ammidons trade, and as she is a princess, her status rather than ethnicity is used at times (disingenuously) to explain their irreconcilable difference. Although Gerrit turns against Taou Yuen, the film holds him up as honourable as he regards Taou Yuen as his (Colonial) responsibility.

Nettie, the innocent, but plucky girl-next-door, is set in opposition to the more worldly, detached Taou. When Gerrit sees Taou perform a ceremony for his deceased father, he asks her to stop her ‘barbaric’ ways and questions what she is wearing. Underneath Taou’s calm exterior, the Orientalist’s essential Eastern characteristics are revealed when she tries to strangle Nettie with a mad look in her eyes. Anna May Wong’s Chinese ‘costumes’, and hair and make-up in the Peking opera style, create her as Oriental Other. In the final scene when she visits and confronts Nettie, her elaborate outfit contrasts with the English rose in a plain, pure white cotton nightdress. In the end, Taou cannot live without her husband’s love, and sacrifices herself by committing suicide so that the white couple can be together. The film acts as a warning against an unnatural mixing of cultures and reveals that although the East seems to be wise and ordered, at essence lies instability and danger.

The moral dangers of the East are also played out through the family business itself. The head of the Ammidon family has a heart attack when he realises that his other son, landlubber, William, has been trading opium. Nettie’s uncle, Edward Dunsack has just returned from China, and the Ammidon ship has carried his stash of opium to feed his addiction to the East. He worships Eastern culture, but Taou Yuen says, “China’s bad for men like him”. Edward is weak (“as pale as a Chinaman”) and easily tainted by the East, whereas Gerrit, a ‘real man’, ultimately resists. Edward sees in Taou, “all the beauty and culture of two thousand years of civilisation in one women. It takes knowledge to appreciate the full fascination of China”. But his love of the East is seen as unnatural, a sickness, and he is a reminder to Taou that she will never belong in the West.

Anna May Wong death scene Java Head

Java Head in context of Anna May Wong’s career

Java Head was Wong’s third film in Britain in 1934, along with Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills) and Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde). After the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act, a quota of films had to be British to counter the dominance of Hollywood films and Americanisation. With more movies being made in the UK, this provided opportunities for Anna May Wong to attain roles – and leading roles – which were not forthcoming in Hollywood. Karen Leong (2006) argues that Wong’s European cinematic performances and star persona, led to her win Hollywood parts, such as in Limehouse Blues for Paramount (Alexander Hall, 1934).

Anna May Wong PhotoPlay article about her making Limehouse Nights.

After making Tiger Bay in an interview with Doris Mackie, Anna May Wong stated:

“You see, I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece? … We are not like that… why do they never show these on screen? Why should we always scheme-rob-kill? I got so weary of it all – the scenarist’s conceptions of Chinese character, that I told myself I was done with films forever.”

Although Wong goes on to say that her character in Tiger Bay is a more accurate representation of Chinese people, from our contemporary perspective, the narrative of this film follows a similar pattern to Java Head. Western colonisation is justified through a Chinese, exotic character, who, although seems to be on the side of the British Empire, has a murderous heart and must sacrifice herself so the young, white heterosexual couple can be happy. However, Wong’s critique of Hollywood as racist suits the British feeling against American imperialism, and also helps to cover their own colonial guilt.

The Motion Picture Production (Hays’) Code in America, which began to be enforced more strongly after 1934, prevented miscegenation, so kissing between different races was forbidden. Java Head was the only film where Wong kissed a male actor (her kissing scene from Piccadilly [Ewald André Dupon,1929] was cut).  However, even at the time, one reviewer stated that Java Head “chiefly serves to introduce the most famous object in the museum, the daughter of a Chinese mandarin (Miss Anna May Wong)… making an engaging contrast with the homely Bristolware”. There is a patriotic parade during Java Head for the Queen’s birthday where Gerrit and Nettie realise that they are in love, but Taou Yuen is absent illustrating that the East cannot fit into the British home.

A natural sacrifice

For contemporary audiences, as soon as Gerrit starts flirting with Nettie, you know that it’s over for Anna May Wong. Java Head may leave a bitter taste as she sacrifices herself so that the white couple can sail happily off into the sunset, to visit new lands, but stay British.

Gerritt and Nettie in the final scene of Java Head.

Have you seen Java Head or any other Anna May Wong movies? Let me know what you thought.

Further reading:

Leong, Karen J., (2006) “Anna May Wong and the British Film Industry” in “Quarterly Review of Film and Video (23, pp 13-22)

Living without the Queen’s head (my Bristol Pound TXT2Pay Challenge)

Bristol Pound Challenge - mobile phone for TXT2Pay

How long could you live without access to credit cards, or that printed cash with the Queen’s head on? Well, recently I took up the challenge of swapping my purse for my mobile phone with Bristol Pound’s TXT2Pay system. As I made my way around Bristol on my mission, people usually asked worriedly whether I had to pay for everything this way – food, drink and entertainment. So how long would I last…?

Read more on the Bristol Pound blog.