Kendall Robbins, Senior Programme Manager at the British Council, works across several different areas- from curation, research, international markets and funding programmes to development, education, cultural relations and architecture, her role encompasses many areas of the fashion and design industry.
With an educational background in Fashion History and Theory, Kendall’s international responsibilities mean that she is a fountain of knowledge on the fashion industry worldwide and it’s place in a globalised culture. We caught up with Kendall to find out what it means to work with the British Council, how to navigate the international industry from North Africa to South Asia, and what a position in her niche sector could mean for a new graduate.
Firstly, what is your day to day role, and what are your responsibilities?
My job is a little complicated to explain! I’m the Senior Programme Manager in the Architecture, Design and Fashion team at the British Council. The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and education operating in 110 countries. My department delivers programmes in architecture, design and fashion which address this mission – so everything from collaborations, residencies, exchanges, labs, exhibitions, events, pop-up schools, workshops and more – and this means my role can be anything from project manager, curator, researcher, producer, commissioner to adviser. My role is to serve my colleagues overseas as an expert in these areas, and I support in matchmaking with UK partners and practitioners. I am responsible for the British Council’s fashion strategy and a portfolio of programmes, which includes Crafting Futures, Fashion Revolutionaries and our Grants to Festivals and Biennales Fund. I’m also responsible for the management of all the architecture, design and fashion programmes which happen in East Asia, and I’ve previously led our work in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well.
As Deputy to the Director, I’m responsible for supporting our department’s Director with strategy, team management, finance and line management. I spend a lot of time liaising with other departments within the British Council, whether it’s my arts colleagues overseas or working with partnerships, communications, marketing or HR. The more mundane things include budget management and contracts! I am also our team champion for Intellectual Property, Sustainability and Arts and Disability, meaning I represent our department in these corporate working groups. I get to travel a lot too!
How did you get into research, project management and consultancy?
I did a BA in Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martin’s. I was never that interested in ‘fashion’, as in the industry or retail, but rather the culture of fashion and what it says about a society, a place and people. During my degree we did a lot of live projects, including exhibitions, research and journalism. While I was a student, I also worked with a creative club night doing commissions and events. I knew through this work that I was interested in curation and bringing people together. After graduating, I got an internship with the Barbican working on a fashion exhibition called Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion. I was lucky enough to be kept on as a Curatorial Assistant, and after that through some introductions also worked as a researcher on the Power of Making at the V&A.
A former colleague suggested I apply to the British Council’s Architecture, Design and Fashion team as a Project Assistant. I hadn’t heard of the organisation at the point, but as soon as I saw what they did I knew it was just what I had been looking for. While museums and exhibitions were exciting, there was something special in working internationally and with people. I grew in up in rural Ohio in the United States, and I came to London because I wanted to meet people from different places and see some new things. Working for the British Council allowed me to create this opportunity for others through our design and fashion projects.
I was lucky enough to work on a major touring fashion exhibition called Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Fashion, which allowed me to travel to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Russia and Georgia to manage the exhibition. When the role as Fashion Programme Manager came up within our team a couple of years later, I was able to use all of this experience to secure the post. Since that time I’ve also worked as our Director Arts in Bangladesh, and now as Senior Programme Manager.
At the British Council, you work on many international projects. Would you recommend that young creatives hoping to enter the industry, look into international markets?
Absolutely! I’m very fortunate to really see the fashion industry in many different countries and understand where the UK sits in comparison to them. The UK itself is a pretty small market, and the Western fashion industry faces huge competition from Asia and emerging economies like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico. I see a lot of people in the British fashion industry assume that UK designers are really well known overseas – which isn’t necessarily the case! There aren’t a lot of initiatives to support emerging brands entering international markets though, so you’ll have to be agile and search for opportunities and build your own networks.
Beyond just selling, there is also so much to gain from building relationships overseas. There are so many interesting things happening in emerging markets overseas, whether it’s new systems of production, approaches to sustainability, new aesthetics or innovation. I really believe as well that cultural exchange can enrich so much in design practice – it’s the fundamental value of what we do at the British Council!
How do you navigate the international industry?
I guess I get to cheat a little – I have local colleagues in all of the countries where we work, so I get a lot of first introductions to key contacts like fashion weeks, universities, fashion councils and designers through them. It also means I have local guides who teach me about the way things are done locally, whether it’s the structure of the industry or just local customs. But once I’ve met someone, I make an effort to follow them on social media to keep up to date with what they’re doing, follow local fashion channels and just generally keep up with current affairs globally since they can impact what’s happening in an industry. There are great awards like the LVMH Prize or the Woolmark Prize where you can research emerging international designers, and I try to keep up to date with fashion weeks like Lagos Fashion Week, Lakme Fashion Week, Jakarta Fashion Week, Ukrainian Fashion Week and others to see what’s going on. Most are keen to work with the UK, so there are always opportunities to develop collaborations – sometimes these are things the British Council supports. For example, in the past we worked with Graduate Fashion Week to facilitate residencies for graduates in Morocco and Indonesia with local designers.
Can you tell us more about the curation aspect of your work?
As part of my role, I’m meant to be representing the cultural side of British fashion globally. This means understanding some of the key things happening in terms of design and innovation, and also understanding who the key players are. Within my role then, I am often curating a lot of content, whether it’s for our communications channels, within programmes or for exhibitions. This would involve making a decision about why to focus on a person, approach or story and then building a narrative around this in order to communicate a specific message to a specific audience. For example, within our strategy we are focusing on how design defines us – looking at fashion futures and sustainability, craft and how design can respond to global challenges, because we feel that this best represents the innovative practices happening within the British industry right now.
How would you recommend progressing through a career in your area?
It is a bit of a niche sector, but there are still lots of pathways there. A lot of my colleagues began with experience in exhibitions, museums, curation, journalism, arts management, trend forecasting and design as well. While I’ve mostly built my career up internally at the British Council, I have colleagues who worked in corporate finance before switching to curation and arts management. People come from other areas with a great knowledge of the fashion or design sector, and through the work learn more of the project management skills or whatever they might be lacking. If you’re just starting off on your career and you know you want to work in this area, then there are all sorts of entry level jobs in arts management, such as curatorial assistants, junior researchers or project assistants. Beyond museums there are all sorts of trusts and foundations, cultural organisations, charities and other places you could start building up experience. Once you’re started, just take every opportunity you can get to grow your skills.
How can a graduate or student gain experience in the area?
There are a lot of relevant opportunities which might give you transferrable skills for fashion curation or project management. I started with an internship at the Barbican, but equally if internships aren’t an option, then working as a gallery assistant might give you an insight into how the sector works. I always worked in retail as a student as well, but focused on shops that I thought had the values I was interested in, so sustainable fashion or vintage. There’s a lot from shop work that can be transferred to project management. As a student, I also collaborated a lot with other students and found opportunities to do events, write for magazines or do other creative things. For example, you could get involved in some of Fashion Revolution’s activities, and get experience volunteering on workshops or events.
If it’s more the British Council you’re interested in, then we do offer lots of opportunities as student teachers internationally, and our Higher Education department offers some international opportunities through universities internationally. We sometimes take on internships, and we work with charities like Creative Access or Whizz Kidz to do short term placements.
Of course it’s useful as well to look at a degree in something that’s based around practical design – there are degrees in fashion curation, design curation, design history, arts management and more, which will give you more experience with project management or curation.
What do you look for when hiring a graduate?
Of course we look at things like whether there is a relevant degree or experience – either in fashion, exhibition, project management or international work. We look for people who can demonstrate they can work as part of the team, have good communication skills, are able to be agile, have good time management skills, can handle logistics or administration and who would of course be passionate about the work. The last question of our interview is always ‘Tell us about something you’ve seen in architecture, design or fashion that recently which you think is interesting and why. It can be a project, publication, exhibition or anything.’ We really want to see someone who is actively interested in the sector, and who can talk about it.
Are there any techniques or methods that you’ve used throughout your career, that have helped you?
I think one of the things that’s helped me the most is taking initiative, especially when I was in entry level positions. By that I mean identifying things that need done before being asked, ensuring I’m always keeping busy and making active suggestions about how to improve a process. I think taking accountability has been helpful as well, so asking questions when I’m not sure about something, understanding what I’m responsible for and how that would impact a wider team and making sure I know how to prioritise. The importance of work-life balance is also something I’ve learned over the years. There’s no point in burning yourself out working long hours or stressing out over things not being perfect. At the end of the day, it’s just a cultural project.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a student in admiration of your career?
Let others know what you’re passionate about and it’ll shine through! Take all the opportunities that come your way, and don’t be afraid to try out different things. While I always had an idea that I wanted to work in this kind of cultural realm of fashion, I had no idea that this job existed, and it was only through going out and meeting people, trying out some new things and taking a few risks that I ended up where I never knew I always wanted to be.
It’s clear that by taking risks and throwing yourself into projects and challenges with a drive and passion is a great way to learn and evolve, as well as figure out where you want to be. Want to learn more about the British Council’s various initiatives? Check them out here.
Are you hoping to go into curation? Let us know your plans in the comments!
Words and Interview by Annabel Waterhouse-Biggins