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Dream Job: Fashion Designer

Love fashion? Interested in setting up a creative enterprise? Fashion designer Emma Cunnane shares the story of building her own label.

There are many facets to running your own business and this applies to pretty much any industry – whether it’s a fashion label, a café or something else. Of course there’s the product, or your service, but it’s just as important to understand the inner workings of how you can produce and promote that, and how you’re able to establish a unique and sustainable space within the market for yourself.

Back in April 2010 – after returning from a four month trip travelling around Fiji, New Zealand and Australia – I was knee deep in job applications for the big fashion houses. Time was divided between job hunting and thinking about designing, pattern cutting and sewing. After exploring options and chatting with friends and family, I took the leap and set up my own label, Emma Louise London, establishing myself as a designer in my own right.

For the first couple of seasons, I handled every part of the creative process – it came naturally. It was the business side of things such as the strategy and planning where I found there was the most to learn, and I think that is often the case. You can design or write or produce, but you don’t know the basics of how to run a business. Getting the right plan in place and speaking with the right advisers will impact on your early years, set the pattern for how you operate, and lay the foundations for longevity. It’s so important.

PR and sales is another key area. I was a bit unsure what I was doing and so investigated what available masterclass courses there were – there’s a class in pretty much anything these days! It was here where I gained a thorough understanding. In the end, I brought a PR team on board as so often there just isn’t the time to do everything, and a lot of it is about contacts and relationships. The point is, being informed and having a grasp on all aspects of your business, whether or not you end up handling that specific part yourself or not, is key.

A role as an assistant is a gift and you will be introduced to so many different elements of a job. Hands-on training is where you will learn some of the biggest lessons, and make some of your biggest mistakes. Following graduation I started working at Olivia Rubin. Back then her label was only a few years old and it was thriving just from the work of a small team. I jumped at the chance to witness a real life fashion designer at work, especially on prints as this was a passion of mine. My time there, helping an up and coming designer grow across all aspects of a new label, gave me invaluable insight and helped prepare me for building my own.

It’s all about spotting an opportunity, too. Whilst at Future Classics, the designer kept her cards close to her chest, so instead I spent more time pattern cutting, which was great practice. In doing this I was recognised for being really organised, which in turn led to me heading up all the business accounts. It was a job that no one else was interested in, but I saw it as a great chance to handle the paperwork and get a solid understanding of this part of the business that nobody else cared about. Now, I use the skills I built up there every day.

It’s really important to soak up everything from your surroundings. Alexander McQueen was another world. I joined a team of like-minded individuals in production for the main line label. I worked with some excellent pattern cutters and machinists, and the designers were so inspirational. It was a fast paced, surreal and exciting environment, witnessing such success at work in all its glory.

I’m not afraid to admit that one of my biggest challenges throughout the last four years has been selling my work. I knew that I would struggle before I started, but I also knew there was a lot I could learn. It turns out the masterclasses can help you learn the numbers but they can’t teach you the rest. Deep down, sales, securing new stockists and building relationships like that will never be a strength of mine, but don’t be scared by your weaknesses. Take them as pointers of what work you need to do and how you need to grow.

Getting my work in front of the right audience has taken time, but I went from show to show investigating which would be the right one for me. I discovered Scoop International, a boutique womenswear tradeshow showcasing emerging and established directional fashion designers. As a direct result of that, we have seen an increase in sales and stockists and I feel much more confident in this area now.

From a personal point of view, it’s very useful to have some people who will instantly understand how tough running your own business can be. I’m very lucky that my parents and siblings all run their own businesses, so they just get it, and I don’t think I’d be as equipped to deal with some of the things that get thrown my way if I didn’t have that network of support.

I have three pieces of advice for anyone interested in becoming a fashion designer (in fact, these apply to any industry):

  1. Get some experience. It’s vital in any industry and a great way to really determine whether it’s the right career path for you.
  2. Stay true to yourself. It’s a cutthroat world out there and everyone has different views/tastes. If one person doesn’t like your work, rest assured someone else will.
  3. Know where to go for support. Whether you’re starting a new business or working for someone else, make yourself aware of the business support that’s available to you.
Written by:

Emma studied fashion design at De Montfort University where she kickstarted her career by opening the University's first show at Graduate Fashion Week in 2008 with her creative print collection. Following this, Emma went on to work at Olivia Rubin, Alexander McQueen and Future Classics before launching her own label, Emma Louise London, in 2010.

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