Star 100, the network for Ghanaian professionals in London, hosted their first fashion careers event last week, a break from their usual traditional industry events with law or finance professionals. Not knowing too much about the business of fashion, they turned to us to moderate a discussion between Beatrice Korlekie Newman, the owner and creative director of the luxury womenswear brand Korlekie, and Lee Marsh, owner of the Savile Row bespoke menswear lifestyle collection Lee Marsh Bespoke at the Conde Nast College of Fashion & Design.
Here are some universal truths they shared to inspire your journey whatever your industry.
1. If you're going to go off the beaten path, Get Grandma on Side
When Beatrice first told her dad she wanted to become a fashion designer, he said “ehn, accountant?” followed by “oh...you mean retail manager?”. Like a lot of African dads who have a ‘safety first’ attitude, Beatrice’s dad wanted her to become an accountant like him. But after spending her childhood sketching the dresses she saw in her favourite fairy tales, Beatrice was determined to draw out her own rags to riches story. She knew he wouldn’t listen to her so she appealed to the woman she knew he would listen to- his mum. Today her dad is her number one fan, encouraging her to keep going when her motivation is low. For Lee, it was his Grandma who taught him how to make his first jacket that got him his first apprenticeship. Even if your grandma isn’t as cool as these ones, the lesson here is that sometimes your parents won’t get it, but there may be someone in your family who does so get them on side to lobby on your behalf for your less traditional career path.
2. THE IMPORTANCE OF GRIT
It may have taken three applications, but once Beatrice was accepted to do an entrepreneurship course at the London Business School through a seed fund, she beat out the school’s MBA students with a pitch about her business to win the £5000 grant prize and a business mentor from Deutsche Bank.
When Lee approached his first store on Savile Row for work experience, Huntsman, he was told they weren’t interested. Lee kept going and went into nearly every store on the Row before eventually scoring an apprenticeship at Henry Poole and Co doing alterations and the ‘donkey work’. His reputation and expertise grew further while working at Gieves and Hawkes and eventually did end up working for Huntsman. Today Lee Marsh Bespoke garments have been worn by HRH Prince William of Wales, Madonna, Colin Firth, Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow and he has just launched his first ready-to-wear collection in collaboration with the historic British textiles mill Hainsworth.
Imagine if they had quit?
3. IF YOU DON'T FIT IN, LEVERAGE STANDING OUT
Beatrice says her Ghanaian heritage is very important to her, but admits that on her first visit to Ghana they didn't see her as African enough for her to pitch herself in the African fashion circuit. Yet the London fashion set didn’t see her as quite British enough to be a British designer despite having been born and raised here, which is why she calls herself ‘Afro-British’"
“Rather than seeing it as a weakness, I view it as an opportunity to stand out and make my brand stronger.” - Beatrice
Lee didn’t fit in on Savile Row either to start with. “It’s not the most welcoming environment. They gave me a look that said ‘what are you doing here?’, and I thought to myself- I don’t know!” However being one of few black men on the row means that he automatically stands out and argues that “everyone needs a few haters” to drive you.
4. HArness your haters
It's inevitable that people will put you down, but how you respond is up to you. When Beatrice applied to Central Saint Martins, the infamous Louise Wilson reportedly told her that black people don’t make good designers and should stick to being stylists. When asked by an audience member how she deals with such rejection, Beatrice said “rejection is a blessing in disguise, just don't stay down.” Needless to say she didn't get into Central Saint Martins, but she did get into the London College of Fashion where the dean recommended she study the BA in Digital Fashion in which she excelled. Her graduate collection was based on a 3D mapping of her face and influenced by the intricate weaving of the Ghanaian kente cloth her mother and step-mother used to wear. Her work has since been featured in publications such as Vogue and ELLE, and Beatrice is now a subject leader on the MA Fashion course at Ravensbourne University.
5. nurture Your Network
For Lee, the key to overcoming the haters is to surround yourself with the right people to help support your growth whether that’s peers or mentors. He’s built up a set of friends in the industry who can barter favours amongst each other, such as his photographer friend who made a short film about his brand in exchange for a tailor made suit when he wants it. Despite being a self proclaimed introvert, not liking the nightlife networking the fashion industry is famous for, Beatrice has found ways that suit her best to reach out to people in the industry successfully scoring celebrity clients such as Rita Ora, Alesha Dixon, Anna Friel and Ellie Goulding.
6. Reach for Remarkable
“One of the things that really helped me when I was approaching the stores was that I already had samples of things that I had made. Granted they were mediocre but I wanted to show what I could do. Lots of people just had CVs so it helped me stand out.”, Lee told the crowd. Similarly Beatrice believes she won the LBS pitch because she out prepared her competitors and impressed the judges with her researched statistics and understanding of her market. The fact that she was talking about products she was already testing with customers and not just an idea also gave her an edge.
We've tried and tested all of the advice in our 2 years building Styled By Africa so whether you're working your way up a firm, or setting out on your own don't forget that success is a journey and it starts with self belief.
Author: Kiran Yoliswa, Co-Founder SBA