Interview with Tracey Stainer
Creative Design Director at Karen Millen and previously Head of Design at FCUK. Tracey has also designed clothes for Topshop, Nicole Farhi, Antonio Baradi amongst others.
“It is quite important to have access to information that makes you feel it’s not a difficult thing. It’s not impossible at all, it’s just having the right information and having someone to guide you where you want to go.”
Can I ask you about your background?
I left school, did A levels and then went on to a foundation course – which is fairly standard and what people do. Then I went on to University to do a fashion degree in fashion textiles. I did think about doing an MA but decided that I just wanted to get straight in. So that’s it in terms of education. I started off when I left college and it was really quite a difficult time. Fashion is one of those industries which is quite difficult to get into. It is very competitive with a lot of people applying for very few jobs, or at least more high-profile jobs maybe. So I was very idealistic when I left college and I wanted to go and work for a big designer or at least a more avant-garde designer. I took the opportunity when I was at college to do a placement.
When I left college the situation was so different to get any students placed in jobs, I took the opportunity to actually take a placement after I left college. So, as soon as I left college I went over to Paris and I went to work for a designer called Martine Sitbon who is probably someone who I still aspire to in terms of that’s the type of look I like, if I were to do my own label. I think if I were to have told you my dream job that would have been it when I was at college, so I was very lucky.
I went to do a placement with her and she actually offered me a position afterwards. I was only there for about a year and a half and it was my first job. It was very overwhelming in some respects and it was very different to what I do now. This is much more real and that was much more working for a designer’s big ego. So it was a different world. It was catwalk shows: the six-week period before the show collection meant working until 12 o’clock at night every night; you were expected to give lots of blood, sweat and tears. But it was a good opportunity and it was perfect for me to do at that time. That’s what I always wanted to do so I almost got it out of my system in a way, but the high fashion thing doesn’t really suit me as a person. I think I am too down to earth in a sense.
Does it not suit earthy people?
To stay within the Paris fashion scene working for a big designer you have to be really talented, but it also depends what sort of person you are. The reason why I like working with French Connection is because I can identify with the people who buy French Connection. For example when I worked at Martine’s on a jacket it may have cost £400-£500, so it’s a different thing. This is my mentality and the ideal job for me; it’s the type of person I am and the type of people I mix with. I think it’s still aspirational but it’s not high fashion in a sense that it’s actually elitist. So even though that was what I wanted to do when I left college I think my career has progressed in a way that suits me better.
I then went and did a totally different job, went to live in Hong Kong for a little while and worked for a big American company that I hated. It was the total extreme of what I had been doing; I had left college, gone into high fashion and then to Hong Kong to work in the real rag trade so I found that very difficult. I was designing for an American market which I knew nothing about. They were quite often oversized clothes, which I didn’t really relate to and it was a product that was predominately for a Hispanic American customer. It was quite a difficult thing for me to get my head round. It just didn’t work for me so I came back to the UK and then my career changed.
I went to Top Shop and worked there, which I found frustrating because it was so led by catwalk trends. What’s perfect for me at French Connection is that we are still design led but we don’t follow trends on the catwalk because we design so much further ahead. We are more of a design-led company rather than a buyer-led company – as opposed to someone like Topshop.
It is becoming more design led but when I was there it was very buyer led. So that’s why I think French Connection is a great place for me. I can be someone who has a strong design presence, because we don’t necessarily do the same thing everybody else on the high street is doing. It’s more aspirational in that respect. I have been at French Connection now for seven years so I have moved around quite a bit; I was never anywhere more than two years before I came here so I feel that it was a good move for me.
When did you want to work in fashion?
A friend of mine at home remembers me saying at quite a young age ‘I want to be a fashion designer’, so probably say my early teens. I was a child who played with dolls and dressed them up and made clothes for my dolls so it was something I was interested in at a young age.
How important do you think education is to get into fashion?
Really important, especially now. There are people who if they have a really strong talent will manage to get in some way, but I think the general route is to do a degree now. I think especially within buying and merchandising most people have a fashion-related degree. It is quite important to have. You can also do foundation courses and HNDs too. It depends what type of job you go into. If you are going to go into a job that’s less design led it’s probably more important to have a degree than if you are going into a design-led job.
The way I employ somebody is not by looking at their qualifications – I look at their portfolio. So if someone has a fantastic portfolio but doesn’t have a degree I would still probably take them on. I think it’s much more about someone’s fashion awareness; they need to be clued up, to know what is going on and have a really nice fashion sense. That’s much more important – someone can have a really impressive CV but if you see their portfolio and there is something missing it doesn’t work. The longer someone gets into their career the less their qualifications matter in a design sense.
Do you choose what goes in your portfolio?
Yes. You start university and then the further you get into university you probably don’t show that work anymore because it actually starts to look very immature. So you build on the work you do at different jobs and your personal work as well. For example, if I was to leave French Connection now I would probably spend a considerable amount of time working on my portfolio before I went out into the job market to find a position. Obviously the more experienced you become the less your portfolio matters, because if you have run a design team for six or seven years you must be doing something right. Your portfolio is probably really important at the middle stage of your career.
Are HNDs as respected when hiring?
I think so yes. I always remember when I worked at Topshop for example it was pretty much read that the girls come in at a very low level and learn the ropes. The buying and merchandising people always had a degree, whereas I think in the design world that’s not as important because it’s what your ability is. I would say a lot of designers are useless at maths, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s quite true. But it’s not something you are going to find a real struggle within a design job, so it’s not a problem like it is in other jobs which require certain minimal qualifications.
Are there preferred places to study?
There is a bit of an elitist attitude to it – I would say there are places with cachet. I am out of touch in some respects of where the current place to go is. The Royal College of Art is always a big thing for an MA but in terms of BAs St Martins is always a key place. When I was at college Middlesex was quite a good place but I don’t know anymore. There are usually about five or six places that people want to go to. When I was on my foundation course and I was applying to university the tutor there said I should think about going to Middlesex or Liverpool because they were very creative courses and I wanted to do a creative course. Whereas someone else for example may really want to do fashion marketing or fashion journalism, so then they would be guided towards the best course for them.
So I think it depends. St Martins is a course that’s well known because it’s creative so you might go that way, but it really depends on what direction you want to go in. It’s important that you think of that – people I know that go to the wrong colleges end up going to the wrong one because they don’t know more about it. For example, if they had gone to Newcastle, fashion journalism is actually a part of the course, so it’s really good to have all that info and look into it quite deeply.
Do you have cases when you have taken someone on just based on their book when they haven’t had any great qualifications?
Usually what happens is I get lots of CVs through the post. I get a lot of things from people who just left college but I can’t see everybody. It is quite difficult for people to get seen and that is quite a problem. Most people will send me their CV and some examples of their work so it is a visual thing. If I think what they sent is great, then I might say I am going to see that person, but I don’t usually see people if I am not looking to fill a position because I just don’t have time.
We also go through agencies. Most people when they leave college go and register with an agency, and then the agency will decide whether their work is strong enough to take them onto their books. Or some people tout themselves. I did it when I left college – I tried to get a placement in various places and you just have to bombard people to a certain degree. Be quite persistent but I think the best way is the visual thing; just because you went to St Martins doesn’t mean you can tell the calibre of a person from their CV.
They might have worked with some great people for three years so they are obviously good. I would probably think I would see that person. It’s difficult if you haven’t got experience to get your foot in the door. It’s the agency thing and sending your examples of work to people. We keep CVs on file and if we are looking for someone we then go back to them. We take placement people all the time.
What does a designer do?
No one day is ever the same. We have four seasons a year and each season is around three months long. From the start of a season you have to produce a collection. We start off by researching; we go out to markets, galleries and libraries, and vintage clothes shopping is a big part. It’s actually a small amount of time that we have to research so it’s a focused amount of research and we then all bring our ideas back. We do look at magazines and things like that, and vintage websites. There are lots of areas to pull information from. It is also a lot to do with instinct about what you think the next season should be about. You’ve left one season behind to go onto a new season. So you bring all ideas together and we collate all the research to look at.
Then we then decide what the prints are going to be for the season and the embroidery. We select fabrics; part of the season may be going to visit fabric fairs which means going to Paris or Italy to look at fabrics. They are short intense periods of two to three days. Then we select fabric prints and do all of that type of thing.
We then start putting our ideas into work; it’s not just designing clothes the whole time, it’s thinking about prints, colouring – it’s the whole process before you come to the finished product. You may not have the fabrics that you want so you might have to develop specific fabrics, develop colours – and you have to put a colour palette together which is quite a big thing to do every season. Then you start designing into all the elements that you have got, so you use your inspiration, colours, garments and things you have picked up and then start designing the collection.
The design period is actually very short in a way because we have a three month period to do things in – so the design period is no more than a month long really. After the design period the sketches then go into our pattern room and are mocked up in calico, which is like a mock fabric. We then fit all those styles, look at them, change them, adjust them and then we start putting it into a range so we actually build a range. So it’s balanced.
Do you give them a brief?
For us it’s quite an organic process. Each designer has a responsibility, so I oversee everything but each designer is responsible for something – for example, knitwear, or jerseys, or printed products. We work together as a team and we are lucky because some companies are very segregated. They have one person working on dresses and skirts, one on knitwear – even though we have responsibilities within the team, everybody can have an opinion on other products. For example, if someone really wants to work on jerseys this season we will let them have a go. Some companies are very strict on what they want to achieve and they have a strict range plan so it’s like ‘it’s got to be this many jackets, this many trousers’ etc. We are much more organic. We do what we feel is right.
Then the buyers come in at the end of that process and they are the ones who streamline it and work it into categories and everything. We are quite lucky in that respect. At the end of the process we do the design process mockups and then the patterns go out to all the different countries where we produce. The designers actually then travel to those countries, so one might go to Hong Kong, India, Portugal, Turkey…So, each person will go out and follow up the work that they have put in. Travel is quite a big part of the job for the designers; it’s fantastic when you first start work but after a few years it becomes something that interferes with your social life.
It is something that everyone thinks is really exciting and glamorous but it’s actually quite intense. We travel quite a lot on our own so to go and spend ten days in Hong Kong on your own is not always that much fun. It sounds fantastic and when you first go it’s great. It’s something which is a great part of it, and that’s why I say two days are never the same because you might be travelling, fitting garments – we don’t leave it for someone else to look after. We go back and make sure the garments are fitted again, to make sure they are right for when they go into the stores.
When the designers have done the travel we come back and present the range to our buyers on models. We don’t do a catwalk show, so we do an in-house show to our buyers here and then from that they basically choose the range that goes into the stores.
Is it teamwork or people working as individuals?
Both. People need to be quite strong individuals and take on other people’s opinions because it isn’t a job for a wallflower really. You need to be quite strong about what you want to do. You have to make compromises and take on other people’s opinions as well. It is a bit of both, you have to be able to work out what you need to do and go away and do it, but then also work as a team. For example, we do the colours together so everyone should feel that the colour palette is right. I think being able to work as part of a team is very important.
What kind of person is suited to the job?
At a place like French Connection I think you have to be a versatile person. There are designers that have a very narrow viewpoint who always work for one type of company. I do think you have to be quite prolific. At French Connection you can’t be someone who can only do one type of thing because that doesn’t work; as trends change and as fashion changes you need to be able to change with it.
That’s quite an important thing; you have to be someone who can embrace new things. You need to be totally visually aware the whole time – you can’t be blinkered and you have to be aware of what’s going on around you. You have to be a strong person and be sure about what you like, what you don’t like and where you think things should go. Be dedicated and committed.
Unfortunately it’s not a nine to five job. It’s not something where you have to work late all the time but when you need to put the hours in you have to do it, so it can be quite tough – especially with travelling. You have to be strong enough to go out there and be bombarded with problems and issues when you are in a foreign country for a couple of weeks, dealing with everything on your own and make decisions on your own.
You will be presented with hundreds of options and you have to decide what it’s going to be so you have to be focused and think, ‘How is this going to work best?’ and also have a vision. You have to be quite visionary in terms of thinking ‘Well, that one may be my favourite, but I think that one is the most commercial so I am going to go for that one’ – so you have to be someone who is able to distinguish between that type of thing.
Is it an industry that is quite young?
Yes it is. I was thirty-four yesterday and I was asking myself am I going to still be doing this job when I am forty-five? I think you can still do it but I think you don’t see that many people around who are saying they are in their forties and fifties. You may see a head of design. I would probably say that as I get older I may move to an older brand. Because as you become older you identify less. For example, I don’t think I could design for the teen market, say. Actually, no I probably could because I think I can turn my hand to anything, but you have to be very in touch with things.
If you are good at designing for a market that you no longer belong to you have to make sure you are in touch with what’s going on within that market, so that’s why someone around that age would probably find it easier to tap into what that market wants – so I do think it’s a young industry. I have friends who are older than me in their forties who are now starting to say ‘I need to think about what I want to do because I can’t see myself being in this industry forever’. I think that if you are committed you can make it work for yourself by maybe moving on to where you see yourself.
Would you consider hiring someone who is thirty years old?
Yes. The youngest person in the team is twenty-three and the oldest is thirty-four. It’s a broad range of people. I think it would be more difficult to hire someone in their forties because of the fact that maybe that person isn’t going to have the right handwriting for what we are doing. At the same time I wouldn’t discount someone because of age because also experience counts for a lot. If you are doing a range and you need someone to do a specific type of product such as denim then that’s quite a specialist area, so I wouldn’t discount someone for some of their age. I would look at their experience because that’s quite important.
If someone in their late twenties wanted to be a designer is that quite late in the day?
Yes. I think it’s quite difficult. You have to be very determined at that age to make it work. People will think you are in your late twenties and you haven’t had any experience. The experience you get in the early part of your career when you have left college is so informative. There is a naivety there in your first few jobs and as you move on you are more real about what you are doing. It’s not impossible but I think it would be tough to go into it at that age.
How short or long is the climb from entry level to where you are?
It can be fairly short but sometimes talented people aren’t necessarily good managers so it depends. If you are working for a small brand, or a small label you might go in and be one of two designers. Now if you go in and you make an impression within that small company and the head designer goes, sometimes the obvious thing is to say ‘Do you want to take over?’ So, within that sphere you can move up quite quickly and people gain a lot of experience in small companies. We are a very small design team; people think that we must be really big and we are not.
Until just recently we were three designers and two design assistants but that’s just womenswear. It is small but now there are about five of us and we use freelance people as well. I had my first job at twenty-three so it’s taken me ten years to get here although I do feel that because I like where I am I don’t necessarily want to go on to the next, because I think as a designer the higher you get the less design work you do. You are managing more so it depends how you see things and whether you want to be someone with a broad overview or if you still want to get your hands a bit dirty, and I still like doing that.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned since you started?
To go with your instinct. If I’m not sure the collection is going in the right direction or not sure things are coming together in the right way, I can’t ignore that feeling and try and think it will be fine. I need to address it if something comes up and you can’t procrastinate through it, especially with something like fashion where there is always a deadline. If something is going wrong you have to deal with it and address that rather than just think ‘I’ll put that at the bottom of the pile’, because it will rear its ugly head at some point.
What do you think you attribute your success to?
I think hard work and also I think there is a lot of commitment, and sometimes your priorities change at certain points of life. Commitment is a really important part of the job in being someone who tackles all things that are thrown at them, so I think that’s probably one of the reasons. I’d like to think talent has something to do with it. I also think I am quite prolific in terms of the fact that I can turn my hand to quite a lot. There are often high street people who maybe work at high-street level who are sometimes not held in as high esteem as someone who works in a fashion house in Paris.
I personally think that it’s more difficult to be someone who can do it at our level and be able to make things different and interesting and be able to turn your hand to quite a broad range of work. Sometimes, in those places like Paris, people are narrow and their level of spectrum is quite narrow and I think mine is quite broad. I can do knitwear, jersey, and coating.
If someone asked me to design a tennis range I could probably do that, so I think to be quite a prolific designer is important, especially within a role like this. I think that’s probably one of the reasons but also hard work. You can be in this type of work nine-to-five but if you do you are probably not going to find that you go up, because it can be quite tough and you have to make an impression.
Is there any specific advice you would give to people who want to go into fashion design?
I would say there’s a real difference between wanting to be a designer and just liking clothes. I think sometimes younger people think, ‘Well, I really like fashion and I like clothes and I like going out on Saturday and buying clothes so I will be good at that’. I don’t think that’s the case because it’s quite competitive and a lot of people go for very few jobs.
You have to be very determined; you have to really want to do it otherwise I think you will be disappointed. I have interviewed people that are straight out of college and you can always see someone who is really interested with loads of energy. In their spare time they go round markets looking at all the old garments, they are always looking at what’s going on, they are always sketching, they keep their old sketchbooks and they are very motivated.
They are the sorts of people that make it. People who you see who have left college and two years later are still not working and they haven’t done a portfolio in a couple of years, they are the people who you think ‘Well, maybe not’. You have to continually keep being inspired, especially at the beginning of your career, because people just want to see all the ideas you’ve got. So you have to be an ideas person and someone who’s very driven. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you like clothes and fashion you want to design. I used to make things before I went out on Saturday night – I would have safety pins up the back of tops and so on, that sort of thing.
Maybe there are other areas in fashion if someone isn’t driven that they could go into like the merchandise or the buying. I think most designers have a very good eye as well, but there is a difference between having a good eye and actually designing something. You have to be able to take something and think ‘What were the best elements of that? I am going to be able to process and make something better’. There are lots of different areas, like styling, fashion editing, magazine work – lots of things you can do. There are also people who have a fantastic eye but actually couldn’t design something; they pick up great things and they may be someone who works in a different area of fashion.
So all those things you mention, are they what you look for when you are hiring?
Yes. I think things like people coming with lots of sketchbooks – they have a really exciting portfolio and they have been doing personal work. It’s not just about the job, I want to see someone say ‘This is what I really love and this is what inspires me’. Even if it’s not what you need, what they have done for jobs might be more important for you to see but the work that inspires them and motivates them is actually more interesting. Then you think ‘That person is someone who is visually aware – they are out, they are looking for things, they’re on the ball and they have a nice personal style’. So all those things are really important.
Did you ever have a mentor?
Not particularly, although I did have someone on a foundation course. There was a visiting lecturer on fashion that came in and she was from Liverpool University or Polytechnic. I think I already knew that I wanted it, but while my tutor wasn’t convinced that I should do fashion, I felt sure. Then when this visiting lecturer came in about three or four times I found her inspirational and I also found it made me think it’s definitely what I wanted to do. And she looked fantastic. She just made me feel it was possible.
Sometimes you think ‘How do I get from doing this to doing that?’, and it can feel quite daunting. She said ‘You go to college’; she made me feel I can do it. It is quite important to have access to information that makes you feel it’s not a difficult thing. It’s not impossible at all, it’s just having the right information and having someone to guide you where you want to go. They need to identify what they like about it and to have someone to help them to do that.
Is it quite common to get knock backs from jobs?
Yes, I think it is. I think you can probably count up how many high street places there are. There are people within the industry that you count as lower level and some as higher level but there is also a big supplier network and also different levels of the job. There are suppliers and designers that work with suppliers that supply high street stores as well. There are jobs out there but it’s competitive, so I do think that often it’s quite difficult. You are not only looking for someone with good work but also someone that can fit into your team and environment.
So their work is important but you might think I’m not feeling that they would fit into the environment of how we work. So all those things have got to work because I think often design teams are quite close-knit people who tend to work closely together. You have to have the right balance of people and personalities and things like that. Sometimes you get a knock back but maybe not because your work is not right. It may be that you’re not fitting in, or I need someone with a little bit more experience so there are elements that are quite niche.
What is the one life principle that you go by?
One thing is to go with your instincts, I have dismissed that before and it’s always come back to bite me. If something is telling you it’s wrong it’s probably not right. That holds true in my personal life as well. ‘Don’t regret things’ is important as well.
What’s your attitude towards what some people refer to as failure?
I think I personally find failure quite difficult. I don’t think you should always think of things as failing. You should think that you are not right for that. I have gone for jobs that I have really wanted and haven’t got. I felt very much the initial disappointment but you can turn that into some determination and think ‘Well, maybe that wasn’t right for me anyway, maybe there’s a job that’s better for me out there’.
I remember a particular job that I didn’t get that I wanted and I think the job I got afterwards was better. It was more right for me than that job would ever have been so you should try not to think of it as the end. I will say on the flip side you have to also be realistic and know your expectations have to be realistic. I know what my limitations are; I know that I couldn’t work for a certain brand because it wouldn’t suit me, so there is no point in chasing things which aren’t right for you.
If you do that you will get lots and lots of knock backs so it’s very important to actually make sure you are going for the things that are right for you – that you can really see yourself in those things. Otherwise you will get a lot of knock backs and that can be quite detrimental. Especially when as a fashion designer people look at your book, so if you are going for things that aren’t right for you then people will see that. It’s a very visual thing so it’s quite an important thing not to go for the wrong thing. Be realistic. There’s no point in going for a job in a fashion house if mostly you’re designing very simple things and you don’t have a flamboyant side.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think young people should know about fashion if they want to get into the industry?
I think it’s just that thing of just being sure that it’s what you want – rather than thinking that you like clothes and that’s why you want to go into it. I think the whole thing at the moment is people just want to be famous because people think it’s glamorous. It’s not really at all – it can be in some places but generally it’s very hard work, so you have to be very determined and confident about what you want. What’s great about it is that there is an alternative to a desk job; it’s very interesting in terms of what you can do and every job is different to a certain degree because of the nature of the job and the perspective of whom you are working for.
The last ten years have flown by due to f the fact that I am always really manic and crazy busy. I have never clock watched in this job – which is a nice thing and quite important.