It goes without saying, starting your own label fresh out of university is easier said than done. Young designers are often discouraged from launching a brand before cutting their teeth in the industry, gaining the experience, maturity and acumen needed to survive as a business owner.
Claire Barrow, a young London designer, is an exception to the rule. Starting her career while still at university, Claire has gained a reputation for her screen prints and caricature illustrations, and now describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist. Claire has recently made it clear she refuses to conform with the traditional fashion schedule, showing her designs outside the seasonal timeline.
Below, she shares her advice with GFW contributor Sara Liberati for starting a brand out of university, diversifying your skill set for the future of the industry, and staying true to yourself.
Hi Claire! Can you tell us a bit more about your experience launching your label? How and when did it come about?
I attended the University of Westminster in 2008, moving to London from the North East of England, and there I took the option to do four years, so that I could do a year out. During that year, I tried a few internships, but I mainly wanted to start work within the industry on my own, so I started doing custom painted items for my friends, and that gradually led to creating clothes for magazines and celebrities as well.
I then did a capsule collection for the shop Joseph, and then went back and finished my final year at Westminster, all while working on a collaboration with Joseph and some other creations for celebrities. I found that vital to completing my degree and do my graduate fashion show, it helped me show a different side of me which was not just limited to custom painted items that were already made.
For my graduate collection, I created a mixture of men’s and womenswear, with lots of different garments that I had made myself. That led to being discovered by Lulu Kennedy from Fashion East, and that’s how my brand really started. After this amazing opportunity came along, I set up a studio in East London and I began with my wholesale and creating garments to show at Fashion Week. Now, my brand is a little bit different: since I decided to exit the fashion agenda about three years ago, and I finally only launch collections as they feel ready to come out.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learnt through running your brand?
During the year that I spent working before completing my degree, the majority of people would ask for a lot of things for free, and then, when I started my career, I eventually realised that I had to actually charge the right amount for things.
That was a good lesson: people try to rip you off in exchange for press coverage, but sometimes it’s not the right press anyway, and it’s not worth giving your stuff away to just anyone. I learned to make sure that the publications I was working with could really suit my vision, and that it needs to be good enough to justify an expense I was missing out on.
Was it been a natural decision for you to work across different creative categories like accessories, fine art and clothing design in your career? Why do you experiment with different mediums?
When my career had just begun, I was mainly doing clothes, I was doing fashion shows, I had a wholesale in Paris, and I was creating stuff for boutiques. It was only once I exited the schedule, I decided to become multidisciplinary. I always felt like I was missing out, not being able to just make whatever art I wanted. It’s made me a happier person, to be able to be free.
I felt like I had repressed that bit of me when I was just working on fashion in university and in my career. It really feels like a blessing to be able to do art shows in galleries, as well as doing collections. The people who really support me are happier to see me do this, because they can probably tell that it’s always me in the work, and it just offers more visual language to my world.
Right now, we all have more possibilities, and it feels like an exciting time for those who graduate as well, because it feels like there are more possibilities. Thanks to the rise of social media we are all freer to experiment with different things, and even in companies there is a rise in Art Directors, Creative Directors, and there are more options for people to not limit yourself to a certain name.
What do you think is the most important issue the fashion industry should tackle within the next few years, and how can young people help improve the industry?
The biggest problem is probably the garment production industry and how much it pollutes. Currently, it is very unethical and environmentally unfriendly, and even though there are definitely things that we could do to tackle this, they’re often overlooked by the government, like most environmental issues.
Also, the manufacture in the UK is really expensive, and companies cannot continue to exploit manufacture in other countries just because it is cheaper. We need to get to some kind of change in the system, either consumers need to start paying more for actual local production, or they should start buying second hand. Young designers have to get into the industry, too, so we need to have more reasonable costs to allow new talent to emerge.
”Be aware of your gut feelings, your emotions, and be unapologetic. If it doesn’t feel right, trust yourself.”
With sustainability has become more and more important, how can young designers create and be a part of the industry without causing more harm to the environment?
If you’re young and you’re just starting out, the only thing you can actually do is be mindful of your use of plastic, leather and fur. Be conscious of what it does, try to minimize it, but don’t beat yourself up about it at this stage. Just be super careful about your impact on the world in general. When you start to become big, and start using a lot of plastic, that’s when you should consider implementing their environmental policies, but as you’re young it’s tricky, and as far as you are still trying to just get your vision across, you should just be super careful of what you use, how you use it, and who makes your clothing.
We need to stop over producing, as well, and young people can do that for their brands too, because it helps them save money. I never produce more than what the demand is, I take the order and then create the garments, so to not spend too much on fabric and avoid waste. I hate the idea of loads of stock just lying there in my studio, that would be awful. It takes a few weeks more for the customer to have the garment, because it’s produced after the order is made and not the opposite, but it’s a small price to pay.
You are just about to launch a new collection. Can you tell us a bit more about it, explaining the inspiration behind it and introducing some of the pieces?
Yes, I have a new collection coming up on the first of May, which is called Les Sports Extrêmes, a French title. It’s my first ever sportive collection, and it’s inspired by the political and social climate of the moment in the UK with Brexit and in France with the yellow vests. It comes from the idea of fighting battles, whether it’s protesting about something, or the debate between right wing and left wing.
It’s also about mental health, and internal struggles, and another big inspiration were tv series about battles that I found myself watching quite a lot recently, like Game of Thrones and others that are related to the subject. I feel like we are on the verge of a big change as a society, and the imagery in the collection reflects that. Some of the illustrations are representing a female knight on a horse, and lots of stuff that references the French revolution. Everything is finished off with a small patch in the back that represents a little crying baby’s face, to remind us that we do have a future ahead of us and we need to start thinking “what will that future look like?”
What advice would you give to students who are thinking of starting their own brand at a young age?
My biggest advice would be to trust your instinct on things, trust your own judgment. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it might be because there is something missing from the collection, or if it’s about someone that is working for you that you don’t feel good about, it might not work out in the end. Be super aware of your own gut feelings, of your emotions, and be unapologetic. If it doesn’t feel right, trust yourself.