Life in Fashion (an honest look at how I got here in a roundabout way)
4th July 2018
It’s got to that time of the year again, where prom dresses and stressed out students abound, and I’ve started getting requests for summer work experience and questions about how to get ‘into fashion’.
I realised that despite giving a few talks over the years to classes at various colleges and universities, I’ve never actually written my story down before. One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to start making use of the blog section on my website and (until now) I have failed miserably, so here’s the first entry of (hopefully) many, the second of which I have already planned out and just need to get into gear and write up!
I thought I’d start with a little about me, which isn’t already included on the site. I’ll give you a rundown of the questions I get asked when I tell people what I do, as well as a little insight into the daily (not-so-) glamorous life of a fashion designer. Pre-warning: this post gets much more personal than the rest of the website, and is rather a long one!
So, as you may know already, my name is Katie. I’m 27 and I live and work in St Helens, a town in the northwest of England, about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. The brand name (Katherine Davidson) is taken from my full maiden name, so yes, I will answer to Katherine or Katie! I live with my long-suffering and very supportive husband and Husky fur baby, Lena, working from my home studio, which has at the time of writing taken over most of the downstairs area of the house. As much as I’d like to, I don’t take on work experience for that exact reason – there’s just not enough space! I love music of many styles, and in my spare time I also play saxophone, clarinet and flute with the Northern Rhythm Big Band, and I also teach some local sewing classes at Crafty Fingers, St Helens.
I’m self-employed, and my main focus is on the Katherine Davidson brand, however I do also do occasional freelance work for other creatives. I also provide full alteration services for anyone living in the Northwest (or willing to travel for little old me!) as well as custom/bespoke work (usually bridesmaids and prom, but other occasions too). I’m a sole trader, so every bit of manufacture, packaging and communications are done under one roof, by one person – nothing is outsourced.
I get a lot of young people asking me how I got into fashion, and what route is best to take. I can’t really answer the second question- all I can do is tell you how I got to where I am.
I sort of fell into fashion as a discipline, from the world of art. I’d always been somewhat of a creative child, always drawing or colouring in (which ironically is now my least favourite part of my job!). My mum taught me to sew when I was around 10 (certainly before I went to high school) and I used to make clothes for my Barbie dolls and Beanie Babies (remember those!?). At high school I was very academic, but struggled with creative subjects. Despite falling in love with music, textiles and art, I struggled to keep my grades up, particularly in art – which remains the only subject that I got less than an A in at GCSE. As much as I do enjoy trying and learning new things, I also hate showing anything to anyone unless I deem it as damn near perfect as I can possibly make it. When it comes to my work I am a perfectionist. It goes against the grain for me to show sketchbook work, and work in progress, which is my place to make mistakes! I genuinely hated school. I was one of those emo kids that sat quietly in class, covered in black eyeliner and listening to My Chemical Romance. I never really spoke in class, unless I was specifically asked a question by a teacher. I was bullied for being a goth/emo/geggar, as well as dubbed a swat because I got good grades. I do think that a certain degree of my affinity for creative subjects was because they challenged me, and satisfied my competitive nature because I was never top of the class. By the time I left school, I had decided that I wanted to be one of two things – either an interior designer, or a fashion designer. For those, I would need creative subjects, so I went to Winstanley College (an art college around 20 minutes from my home). Despite an awkward interview with the then-principle of the college on enrolment day (he was very curious as to why I would want to study not one, but two art subjects, given that that had been by far my worst grade at GCSE) I enrolled to study AS levels in Art: Textiles, Art: 3D design, Spanish and Music. I dropped music at the end of my first year, and went on to get respectable A level grades in the other three subjects. Through my two years studying A levels, I had spent the majority of my free periods and lunch times in the art department or the library, learning what I could and teaching myself pattern cutting and sewing techniques from books when I wasn’t in class. I decided around halfway through my first year that I wanted to study fashion at university, and to do that I would need to study an Art Foundation course – an extra year at Winstanley. During my time there I went on two extracurricular trips with the art department – the first to China and the second to Morocco. I learned a broad range of skills and made friends who were just as passionate and creative as I was, and I learned that grading from this level upwards was much less prescriptive, and more individualised, which suited my style much better. I loved my Art Foundation year, even more than the previous two years because it was the first time that I could completely focus on creativity, with no other subjects and homework to contend with.
Halfway through my Art Foundation year, I started having interviews for university. I had already decided that I would be staying relatively local for uni – which limited my choice to 5 courses in the Northwest – Manchester Metropolitan, UCLan, Huddersfield, Liverpool John Moores and Salford. I had decided that I would be going to one of the Manchester based universities – I could commute from St Helens. I had interviews at all 5 universities, but got rejected by the two that I wanted to attend. That was crushing. I had worked really hard on my portfolio, and it was the first time that I had been rejected for something I was really proud of. I got offers from the other 3 universities, and settled on LJMU. Another major benefit of doing the Art Foundation year is that you get your results immediately after mediation, sometime around June, rather than having to wait until August like the A level students, therefore you know that your place at university is secured much earlier.
In the August of that year (2010) I moved out of home into a flat in St Helens town centre with my boyfriend (now husband). I had wanted to move out of home, but being rather antisocial and suffering with social anxiety I did not want to move into halls, so this seemed the perfect answer. I’d have my own independence, a stone’s throw away from the train station which would take me straight into Liverpool, and I’d still get to keep my little car!
Alas, adult life comes with adult bills! By the time I left college and went to uni, I had already had a couple of part time jobs, including catalogue distribution, as well as working at a sweet stall. I had to get another little part time job to support myself, and started working as a seamstress in a vintage shop in Liverpool. I would go down after university once or twice a week, and work 5pm-9.30pm in the closed shop. I took my sewing machine with me in a suitcase. It was the first time that I had worked in anything close to ‘the business’ and it was an experience that helped me gain an insight into alteration work, as well as force me to become stricter with my time management.
Towards the end of my second year at university, I was struggling to do everything, and it was actually somewhat of a relief to me when the vintage shop I had been working in (I was also doing odd days, including weekends) shut down. I had started designing and making dresses at home under the name KMDdesigns, and had even persuaded some very kind family members to invest in some industrial machines for my 21st birthday. I had experienced some poor health which had landed me in hospital a few times over the first years of university, and despite my constant catch-up, I fell behind and needed an extension (mitigating circumstances) to finish my 2nd year work. I handed my second year work in mid-August, and started my third year work straight away.
By the time I had gotten to Christmas in my third year, I was burning myself out. I still felt as though I was playing catch-up due to the year before, and the thought of group evaluations set me on edge. I was suffering quite badly with my social anxiety (a problem that I still have now) and started working from home a lot of the time, only going into university when I absolutely had to. I can look back on it now and wonder why I always felt so overwhelmed by everything, but I think that at that point, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. When I got my marks for the first semester, I realised for the first time that the private hope that I could potentially get a first class honours might actually happen if I just kept my head down.
One thing that I learned about myself during my third year was how obsessive and then utterly unbothered I can be by one thing. I’ve managed to tame my creative process at least a little now, but at that time I was staying up well into the night, barely sleeping and obsessing over tiny details. We had been advised to start writing our dissertations well in advance of the January deadline for the first draft, but instead I spent the 5 days leading up to the deadline writing it from scratch, neglecting all my other work. I ended up with a near-10,000 word first draft, fully Harvard referenced. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that again, and of course subsequently did, just in time for the final deadline.
I remember thinking at some points that I was a creative genius and at others wondering what the hell I was doing. In a lot of ways it was a luxury that I could spend so much time discovering how far I could push my skills, and in others (on reflection) it was not a healthy head space to be in. When I look back on my graduate collection, I am still proud (I have actually just been asked to lend some of it out for a shoot again next month) but I can also definitely see what my tutors were worried about throughout my development – there was a lot of black fabric, and I had to be pushed into using even small amounts of colour; I set a HUGE amount of work for myself to do, and not a lot of time to do it in; I rarely went into university, so every time I did see my tutors, my ideas had changed, often drastically from the previous meeting. I think I caused them a decent amount of worry over my work, and poor Jen, who was running the print department at the time I decided to screen print 6 full bodysuits to look like full coverage tattoos, nearly collapsed when I told her my idea!
Suffice to say, I managed to finish everything. I came out of university with my first class honours degree, having shown my collection at both the LJMU graduate show and at Graduate Fashion Week 2013. I knew that I wanted to run my own business, but that was as far as I’d got: I’d been so focussed on finishing uni that I hadn’t really thought logically about the next step.
As part of GFW I had entered a competition for a business idea (which was the first stages of the Emareldi line as it is now), and had been shortlisted. I knew that I had the beginning of something, but no real idea of how to get it off the ground. I attended a business school over the summer at LJMU, but as my student loan money was fast running out, I needed to get a job!
I spent the next two and a half years working in a curtain factory. I was still making dresses under KMDdesigns when I had customers, but working 8.30-5 Monday-Friday in a factory wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I left university. I lost a lot (most) of my momentum, and struggled to motivate myself. I applied for a promotion and was politely declined. I got fed up and started planning my escape. The factory shut down production over Christmas each year. Christmas 2015 (my third at the company) was when I really sat down and told Adam (long suffering boyfriend) that I wanted out of there. He had recently started working at a job which could sustain us monetarily, and I had managed to keep some money aside, as well as knowing about a grant I could potentially get from my university. We discussed a lot of things that Christmas break, and when I went back to work in January I knew that I was handing in my resignation soon.
As well as deciding I’d give up my job, we’d also decided to get married. On the 26th February 2016, I had my last day at the factory. On the 27th, exactly 10 years after we first got together, we got married. Just a small register office wedding, with us and two witnesses. Afterwards we went for breakfast at Frankie and Benny’s. Neither of us like a fuss being made, and while it’s not everyone’s idea of perfect, and as much as I am not a romantic person, it was definitely the happiest day of my life. We did what we were comfortable with, and I loved every minute. On the 28th, we flew out to Orlando, Florida and had 2 weeks honeymoon exploring Disneyworld, Universal Studios and generally having a fantastic time, just the two of us (which, funnily enough, was one of our wedding songs).
I think that everyone’s creative process is different, and I’d be lying if I said that some of my most creative work hadn’t come from my degree, and a time that I had been sorely lacking in sleep. What I have come to realise since leaving the relative safety of university and stepping out into the ‘real’ world is that that kind of obsessive lifestyle is not sustainable.
So, if you’re a student currently worrying about your upcoming results, or just someone who may be in a similar position to me a few years ago, here’s what I have to say: life sometimes gets in the way of your hopes and dreams, and sometimes you need to take a side step to keep your head above the water, but that shouldn’t make you feel bad. Carry on with your plans, eventually they all come through with hard work and a bit of patience! In the process of a good few years of pretty bad luck, I’ve managed to come out the other side with my dream job, a happy marriage, an award winning business and some pretty amazing and talented friends (who you’ll see more of in the next post!).