Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 4, Better Fashion Week 2012

Today I managed to dislodge myself from the bed, and I thought today would be a great day to stay out of the tempest outside, drink copious amounts of tea, and work on my business plan. But a curiosity inspired me to dress and step out into the cold and rain for ReDress' Better Fashion Week lunchtime presentation by Ruth Griffin on "The Lost Fashion History of South William Street." I fortified myself with coffee and a breakfast roll from Munchies, and headed over.

I'm so glad I went, but Ruth's presentation really was hardly a dent in her copious research on the area, and I'd have happily sat there and listened to her stories of the area's fashion industry all afternoon. She shared with us a short film from one of my favourite websites, Storymap, featuring Paddy, who worked at Richard and Alan on South William Street:

If this research were turned into a book, I'd definitely get myself a copy. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on Day 3, Better Fashion Week 2012

I hadn't planned my first post to be about this (or anything in particular, really), but I suppose it can always be deleted later, so here goes.

Arriving for the day's first event for Re-Dress's Better Fashion Week 2012, I was in a fantastic mood, despite the wind, rain, and traffic. I ran in just as Emma Gleeson's thesis presentation on "Fast Fashion and its effects" was beginning. Even before I decided to go into clothing manufacturing, I started thinking about textile waste streams, if for no other reason than to notice that most of what I've ever bought at cheap-o retailers has become oddly misshapen, pilled, or just plain fallen apart. We talk about it a lot these days, but I remember talking about it with my sister while shopping in the mall circa 1985. However I really like that Emma mentioned the positives of fast fashion, ie if you see an expensive look on the runway, chances are pretty good you can have it for your very own for next to nothing.

There was something else that I was thinking about during the discussion, going back to the '80s. One thing that was great about the punk influence is that it was very cool to manufacture your own looks. So you could show up in school (sorry, I grew up in North America and didn't wear a school uniform) in a t-shirt you'd cut up or written on with magic marker (or later, painted on with fabric paint), a skirt of your grandmother's, and some chains you bought at the local hardware store, and you felt like you were god's gift, and you were! Because to get certain looks, you literally had to create them. Now, pretty much anything you can conceive of seems to be available. There's no need for most people to be inventive. Of course they can be, and many do, but trends are so thoroughly mined that you really don't need to. I try not to get nostalgic for anything, but frankenstein fashion is something I wish kids would try more.

Anyhoo - let me take this opportunity to explain who I am and what I'm trying to do. I have lived in Dublin for nearly three and a half years, and will be living here indefinitely. I try not to define myself by my vocation, but what I'm trying to do *lately* is start a clothing manufacturing business. And I'll even tell you my idea because I'm not precious about it: I want to make clothes for women who:

  • are median age of 35, but as young as 25
  • live in Ireland, a climate that is cold, wet, and humid, but almost never hot
  • are active, and often commute on foot or bicycle
  • care about where their clothes come from
  • care about what their clothes are made of
  • want to be comfortable, but not frumpy

I don't want to derail the post too much by talking about my label, but basically it's in its infancy. I did go to school for Fashion Design (late in life), and have a small bit of exposure to the industry, but essentially I'm starting this business because it's the only way I'm going to get employment. I am not one of those designers who went in thinking, "I'm going to have my own label!" I went in thinking, maybe one day I can have a job that I'm excited to go to. Then when I got out of school, I was sort of forced by circumstance to go back to my previous academic life, where I remained until moving to Ireland. When I got here, I realized that a job in fashion wasn't going to happen. I couldn't even get a teaching job, and I had a Master's degree and ten years experience doing that! In fact, competition was pretty stiff even for unpaid fashion internships, which were difficult to find without a university connection.

One very kind, very cool local designer took me on part time for a couple of months. Then I really lucked out and scored a part time FAS Community Employment scheme position at a non-profit eco-fashion label, where I worked for a year. In that year, I was able to plan what I wanted to do next. And as positive as the experience was, I was also able to suss out what I didn't want to do. After a lot of research, I realized that there are actually a lot of resources available to people like me. I took a Dublin City Enterprise Board "Start your own business course" and have basically tried to go to every relevant seminar, lecture, one-day course, etc possible since then. I discovered that I can transition to the Back to Work Enterprise scheme, which means I can keep receiving financial assistance from the state while I give it a go. Because obviously I'm not going to be turning a profit for a while.

So that's what brought me, for the second year, to Better Fashion Week. I am smack in the middle of writing my business plan, which I need to enroll in the Back to Work Enterprise scheme, to get studio space in the community-based enterprise project in my neighborhood, and to get any other funding that I might be eligible for. And it needs to happen, like, now. Earlier today, I made an appointment to talk to someone at Inner City Enterprise for assistance with my business plan, and I was feeling pretty excited and chuffed with myself for moving this thing along. I ate lunch and continued to read this fantastic book about clothing manufacturing (by the author of the Fashion Incubator, which I also recommend), feeling like a million bucks. I was so eager for the next BFW happening, I actually showed up thirty minutes early and felt like an idiot and left with my tail between my legs. In fact, I have felt extremely awkward all week because I'm mostly on my own, and while I'm a very outgoing, and even gregarious, person with my friends and family, and I'll happily talk when spoken to, I'm terrible at "networking." One of my goals over the past few months has been to try to talk to people more. So far, I haven't made much progress. I'll go into a shop with the aim of talking with them about their buying, what they look for, what their customers are looking for, etc, and I always walk out having failed, with a polite "Thank you!" It's a shame because whenever I do get to talking with someone in Dublin fashion, it's always a positive experience and I walk away feeling good, even though half the time I forget to introduce myself or get their contact details. But whatever, I'm trying to improve! I was born awkward, what can I say?

The first Panel, "The Future of Fashion," facilitated by Constance Harris (Fashion editor of the Sunday Independent), featured Simon Ferrigno, an organic/sustainable farm system expert; Tamsin Lejeune from the Ethical Fashion Forum; and Nick Ryan, who works at a company called "Worn Again" who makes products on a "closed loop" production process. I like that Worn Again takes the re-use or upcycling idea a step further to say that a company can not only use waste as source material, but that all of the products are essentially designed for that, as opposed to using waste from point A and upcycling it at point B. So the company is using its own waste, creating a loop. Since I'm primarily concerned with natural fibres, I had a hard time applying that concept to my own work, but it's a cool thing to think about for the (however distant) future.

Simon Ferrigno had a challenging job of breaking down years and years of research into ten minutes. He also outlined some of the classifications (IFOAM, Fair trade, BCI, CmiA), which was helpful. Honestly there's so much to think about when it comes to cotton, and that's just the fibre, not the textile!

Having been to the Ethical Fashion Forum website many times, I was pleased to hear what Tamsin Lejeune had to say. She reminded me that probably some of the market research I have been looking for for my business plan can be found on the EFF site! Whoops! I find the site confusing, and so I was happy that she gave a rundown of its features, and explained a bit of what the pay section of the site does. Not sure I have the funds for that yet, but I will try to put it in the budget!

I admit that I had a question, but never got a chance to ask it. It was regarding the sourcing section. They list a lot of textile suppliers from all over the world, with their various certifications. I find it to be extremely overwhelming. How am I supposed to know which ones will work with small businesses? There are so many, you'd be forever contacting them. Some of them have websites and you realize they work with these massive designer labels, and probably don't deal with the little guys. Or they specialize in one certain thing. If you got samples from everyone, you'd go broke, so how do you narrow it down? It's impossible to tell by a listing what company might suit. I've recently ordered samples from a UK company that sells organic fabric, but I don't know if I should order from the first company I came across that had a decent website, you know?

Primiere Vision seems to be the answer to this question. But that's not until September, and entails going to Paris. Though from what I've read, it's worth the trip, so I'll probably go, despite the fact that I'll have just returned from two weeks in the US and was planning on going to Italy in October. (This makes me sound like a jet setter, which I certainly am not!) But by September I was kind of hoping to have my designs and patterns made, which, really you're not supposed to do before you pick your fabrics. At least, in a perfect world. Then again, I've no first hand experience with this, so who's to say?

But here's what I really want to talk about, since it's past 1:30am and I want to go to sleep. If you're still reading this, I thank you. Following the first panel, we were offered mentoring sessions with three industry people of our choosing (from a list). I chose two designers and a shop owner. It was mayhem, with people playing musical chairs, and I didn't realize I'd be "mentored" simultaneously with one to two other people (see above awkwardness), but I suppose that couldn't be helped in the amount of time they had to work with and all the people there! The first designer I sat down with, when asked what she'd do differently if she could do it all again, replied that she wouldn't have her business in Ireland. I was sad to hear that, since leaving Ireland is not an option for me, and won't be for a very long time. However I think that in Dublin there are more supports for new businesses and small businesses than in the rest of the country. Also, you have to really dig to find them. For example, I accidentally came across InterTrade Ireland, which offers business funding and services for Irish companies who want to export to Northern Ireland.

But before I knew it, I was sitting down with the second designer. The other person at the table was a friend of hers, so essentially I had her to myself. I briefly explained the kind of clothes I want to make. I am sure I sounded like a quack. It's very difficult to explain, and I didn't even mention anything about aesthetics. I asked whether she used a sales rep, for advice on what I should contract out and what I should do myself. What followed was essentially another sort of discouraging conversation. I have known for some time that my label is not going to be priced at the average consumer, because I'll never compete with the Zaras of the world. But she basically said that I'll never be successful manufacturing in Ireland unless I charge 600 euros for a dress and/or go into Debs dresses. That's a pill that is really hard to swallow. I don't mind charging 200, but a 600 euro dress? I don't do evening wear. I realize that there are people who will spend that much, but those are the same people I literally go out on the streets protesting on a regular basis. An anarchist going into business is ironic enough, but an anarchist who manufacturers luxury goods? It's kiiiind of against everything I believe in, deep in my heart. Besides, how can I make something I myself could never (and probably will never) afford?

The discussion that followed in the second panel also touched on this issue of luxury and heirloom goods. People seemed to think that the ONLY way forward for Irish businesses is through this sort of business model. I just really can't accept that. I mean sure, it's great for individual businesses, but must we really ALL go that way? Can we not find another avenue? I left there wondering if I have a snowball's chance in hell of breaking even, let alone paying myself or anyone else a salary. But at the same time, I can't shake this feeling that I *can* do it. I feel like with enough planning and resources, I can create the kinds of garments that people will want to buy, that stores will want to carry, and that people will pay for (but not out the nose). I may be insane. But there's a petulant child in me that's screaming, "But I don't WANT to make luxury!" I want to make clothes that feel great, will last a long time, and are well designed. Is it so impossible to do that without excluding regular people? I may spend the rest of Better Fashion Week trying to find out.

The other bit of the panel discussion that I wanted to comment on was regarding this idea that everyone wants to start a label. I agree that it's a dream of many, and it's also spoon fed to us through toys, TV shows, and even (I noticed today) on Bank brochures for business accounts, which always seem to feature a woman standing over a dress form with a measuring tape around her neck. I wanted to comment that for some of us, creating a business our only shot at the moment of having a job. And there are opportunities for funding and mentoring available, so while ideally I'd have like to get a nice job with benefits where I don't have to worry about profit and loss statements and cash flow, I see this as a viable alternative. Sure, I haven't spent years apprenticing. I'm just some schmuck whose parents wouldn't let her go to art school, so at age 32 decided to give up a perfectly good career to pursue a lifelong dream, which kiiiiinda isn't panning out seven years later. Ideally I would have liked to go down one career path, gotten tons of experience, and actually never start a label at all but be employed by some wildly successful company that treated me well. But life didn't turn out that way. So I'm going to see if I can cobble together what experience I have, along with my incredible research skills, and do this thing. If I fail, I may even try it again. Lots of the most successful people have failed, haven't they?

If anyone has comments on this, I hope you won't be timid. And if you see me at Better Fashion Week, say hello! I'll be the poor sap with the broken wrist sitting alone, smiling.