When Life Gives You Lemons: graduating in 2020
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
What is the most valuable thing you have learnt at university?
To love what you do.
Shockingly after 19 years in education including 4 years studying in fashion, I have come to realise you've really got to love it to stick at it, y'know? Most of those reading will be here because they love fashion, but it's more than just a love for us. It's a lifestyle. I live and breathe it, cliche as it sounds. There is an identity and comfort which can be found in what we create, from a designer making pieces, a photographer making imagery to a person creating their outfit for the day. It's a sense of escapism. My love of fashion taught me that. But university taught me how to hone that in, brand it and sell it. And not hate yourself whilst doing that! It taught me I can turn what I love, in to what I do.
(Pink Power: photoshoot from my first year at NUA)
Studying Fashion Communication and Promotion at Norwich University of the Arts has been an eclectic mix of disciplines. I went in wanting to be a fashion photographer, adamant that was my calling. I've come out loving styling, creative direction, blog writing, social commerce, marketing and branding strategies, illustration and photography. Much more, it seems, than I'd bargained for. Both a blessing and a curse is it to love something so dearly that you want to do everything in it. But Fashion Comms taught me that; it taught me what you put your mind to you can do and then you can brand that as well and do that too. It taught me I'm a perfectionist, and a control freak and driven, and ambitious. It taught me I hate team work, but actually I just needed to find the right team. It's taught me how to do my makeup and coordinate an outfit for a 9am lecture in 10 minutes. How to be fashionably late, look good doing it, and that actually being fashionably late gets you no where in the industry. It's taught me to grow up, to become a professional. University was a life lesson as much as it was a taught one.
What was the starting point of inspiration for your final project?
I am a content creator with an affinity for femininity. I adore the female form, what symbolism comes from being a womxn and the empowerment which exudes this identity. My photography celebrates this, with my images playing on character and beauty - which I strongly feel is both limitless and deeply personal.
My final project was an epitome of all this. I'd found I'd spent so much of my education making things for other people, fitting a brief; now it finally felt time to create for myself. I struggled, initially to understand which path to take - do I choose photographer? Or stylist? Creative director? Or writer? I felt torn between all the things I loved about the industry, and also all the things I felt I was good at. It was only from my tutor Alex, guiding me like the wise baboon from the Lion King (Rafiki by the way, but way more stylish) she showed me the way.
I decided I wanted to launch myself as a content creator, doing everything I loved without sacrificing anything. This included launching a website, creating a portfolio of my photography & styling, cleaning socials and writing blogs. It included branding myself. And let me tell you, no one tells you how hard it is to brand yourself. Give me a branding project on Vivienne Westwood, Gucci or H&M and I've got you covered - I know those brands like the back of my hand. Ask me about myself? The onslaught of an inner crisis begins. Is my personality blush pink? Or powdered peony? How do you categorise your identity in a Pantone colour wheel?
Answering the question: Who are you? Was the biggest creative problem I've had to solve in my degree. I had to answer questions about myself I didn't have the answer to yet. It made me grow. Developing myself in such a short space of time I became more sure of myself in 6 months than I had done in 23 years. So what was my final project again? Well I guess... a self addressed love letter. It was about myself. Finding my photography, my style, my craft and curating that to the wider world. In black and white, it was to prepare myself for the industry ... But it felt like so much more.
What form will it take (garments, editorial images, magazine, event, etc)?
Well there's a website, an instagram, a whole google drive full to the brim of shoots and don't even get me started on that hard-drive I'll have to clear after this! I guess images. Lots of beautiful, quirky images.
For a photographer it's so different yet so similar to making a collection as a fashion designer, you curate the concept and build the work. Each garment is a bit like a photo or a series of images which speaks volumes about a subject or mirrors the creator. We pour ourselves into every stitch, every shot. I am both an amalgamation of my mistakes and my successes, much like a toile that goes wrong, I've had awful shoots. I've had styling not fit, models not turn up, locations fall through. But does the outcome still need to happen? Yes. Does that garment still need to be made? Yes. So does that shoot. And it's the drive, perseverance and undeniable resolute attitude of the fashion industry to keep on going when the going gets tough, that I adore.
All of these elements have gone in to my work, each crap shot, each great shot has shaped my outcomes in this project. I've collected and gathered these images like a magpie picking out shiny objects. Curated photos to flaunt on my website and socials like a proud magpie nest. And god am I proud. I have developed a LinkedIn, Dot profile, joined the GirlGaze team, entered competitions, won competitions. My work is currently on a billboard in East London somewhere, flashing by every 60 seconds for the @_freshmeet campaign. I've squeezed every drop of my being in to this project like a ringed out lemon.
(Instagram post of my work on @_freshmeet)
Which is funny, because it's an allegory for the pandemic that cut my project and so many others short. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade", telling us that even when things get bitter you can often still make something pretty sweet.
How has it evolved from your initial ideas and what have you learnt along the way?
Initially, I felt like the beginning of this project saw my work stay in it's comfort zone. I found I was using the same models, the same locations and staying in the safety net of the familiar.
Before this project, I was quite a reckless photographer. Before university, my friend and I would go and do shoots any which way we wanted. Once, I covered her in a mix of black paint, egg yolk and olive oil I'd whisked together in the kitchen. It was meant to look like crude oil (blame google for the recipe). We then went down the local beach, where I continued to pour this black viscous concoction on her. She was wearing nothing but a £1 Primark thong to allude to a sense of nudity and vulnerability. This probably sounds bizarre, but the shoot was meant to be a take on oil spills in the current climate and how we were destroying the planet and its creatures. The shoot was amazing, but looking back it was reckless. This project taught me about my own development as a responsible content creator, about all the boring stuff along the way like model release forms and when you can publicly go nude. But after being inhibited, I had to teach myself to reign it in and break that all back down again. Teaching myself to be daring and profound, but also a balanced, responsible professional. It's been very eye opening. It's been a bit like growing up.
(Beached: Photoshoot from my foundation year at UCA Canterbury)
Now my work is bold and uninhibited in its own ways, through thought provoking themes such as sustainability vs fast fashion. Or pushing my boundaries of the shoot narrative. Recently I shot with a horse! I kind of just said "Emily you're getting boring" and I thought "whats not boring?". A horse. And so I asked about, "hey do you know anyone that knows a horse", kind of as a joke at first, not thinking anyone would really supply me with a horse. Well I was wrong, and a week later I'm at some stables and there's THREE horses. This in itself taught me that I am the one holding myself back, and that if I really want to find a horse I can damn well find that horse. Even better, I can find three.
(Haydown: photoshoot from my final project)
What are the messages and themes behind your project that you want people to take away? Do you explore any topics like diversity, sustainability or politics in your work?
It's difficult to generalise my work in a way where I can say "yes, I do sustainability" or "I speak on social issues". My work is such a mixture, of how I'm feeling or what inspires me, of everything I do. I click on social media and I'm inspired by other creatives I follow, I have an unhealthy obsession with Pinterest, of flicking through magazines and the mass consumption of imagery we all digest daily. Then there is social unrest, politics, human rights, activism, riots and a need for change which drives my work and personal life. We cannot disconnect from our surroundings and so to say one thing inspires me just doesn't cover it. And that's what living in a creative mindset does, we take inspiration from everything. The good, the bad and the ugly. The beautiful and the inspiring.
I recently did a collaboration with a local designer @sarabi_ldn who makes the most amazing crochet pieces. I just loved her stuff. So I messaged her, asking if she'd weave me a balaclava. And it kind of just spiralled into one of my favourite shoots I've ever done. It meshed and evolved into a co-creative project between myself as a content creator, and the designer. Fusing together ideas of local handmade produce in juxtaposition to the fast and disposable consumerism of e-commerce and online retailers. Sarah ended up wearing the balaclava, adorned with about 50 hand-knitted flowers but I styled them in pieces from an online retailer. It comments on the fight between local, handmade, sustainable fashion from an independent designer against the mass production of the fast-fashion industry. This in itself talks about sustainability versus the disposable nature of fashion. It's interesting because I feel there is a place for both, but it's not balanced. I guess the image is a tentative question, mainly because I don't have the answer. I'd like to think it could provoke the answer though. Wouldn't that be wonderful? I'd like to inspire that.
(Crochet Craze: photoshoot from my final project, collaborating with designer @sarabi_ldn)
What’s an aspect of the fashion industry that you’re passionate about fixing or having a positive impact on?
Growing up watching 'Devil Wears Prada' and the cliche that the industry eats a cube of cheese for lunch washed down with 10 cups of takeout coffee a day; it probably comes as no shock that as a plus size womxn I didn't feel I fitted in. My childhood consisted of living between the pages of every Vogue I could get my hands on, I've been reared on the idea that there wasn't a place for me in the industry. I never saw big girls like me on the pages of my glossy magazines. But it didn't matter. I still spent my pocket money on the latest issue, because I loved fashion all the same and I knew I deserved to be in that world regardless of whether others think I did or not.
Since growing up, I feel like the industry has grown up with me. Seeing body positivity come in all forms, from Judy Dench becoming the oldest model to grace the pages of a Vogue cover last month at 85 years old. And damn did she look mighty, beautiful, radiant and strong. Winnie Harlow's vitiligo has become sought after, in an industry which is craving uniqueness and finding beauty in our differences. Savage Fenty has been my favourite brand to appear in recent years, with Rihanna's lingerie line taking inclusivity to a new level of 'woke' - featuring models of varied sizes, ethnicities, heights, even a pregnant woman! Different bodies, and all of them beautiful in their own ways. I use the word 'woke' with the irony that it shouldn't be characterised as innovative to be representative, it's shocking that the idea is 'fresh' in itself when the actual average dress size in the UK is now a 16. But despite this it's not just about size; its height, age, people with disabilities, it's including transgender models and people of colour. Plus so many more people than there are labels. What is beautiful about beauty is our diversity. If we all looked the same, dressed the same, there would be no creativity. This in itself is just one shallow reason for why the industry needs to diversify its representation, because our uniqueness is our beauty; what makes us...US.
I want my work to reflect this, I have a long way to go and I definitely find it difficult to find people who want to model but an ongoing aim for my own works growth is to vary my models and become more representative. I would like a younger me to flick through a magazine and be able to see a realistic representation of beauty in different forms. I'd like a younger me to flick through a magazine and feel like she belongs. And we're not there yet, we're a long way off. But we're closer than we ever have been before.
Edward Enninful curating Vogue is one of my favourite things to happen recently. He's filling it with diversity and change and positively impacting so, so much. From last years 'Forces for Change' September issue which featured 15 womxn pioneering for change. The issue "championed those who are working hard to raise awareness and change minds on topics spanning climate change, mental health, gender rights, disability and many more" with Edward Enninful stating himself it's “Not A Moment, But A Movement”. I picked up this months issue of Vogue and cried. Which seems ridiculous, and quite possibly could be due to lockdown turning me into an emotional wreck. But the cover featured key workers, celebrating their strength, bravery and service during the pandemic.The respect and admiration and pride I felt to be a part of that industry that day was monumental. The acknowledgement that we can use the fashion industry to positively impact the world has vastly become the new movement, and do you know what, I like the direction it's heading. And I feel welcome there.
(Vogue July 2020 Covers featuring key workers)
What is your plan once you finish your BA?
God I wish I knew. I think we all wish we knew right now. Everything is laced with uncertainty. There is barely a plan, and what is planned always feels like it's the wrong plan. Or it changes. Or it's cancelled.
But slowly things are becoming uncancelled. And even better, being planned. New opportunities are arising out of the struggles we feel right now. People are finding their creativity, new ways to work, new passions to learn. I have seen more kindness in 4 months than I have seen in a long time. Artists helping artists; people helping people,. Yeah, I don't know when I'm gonna get a job next. Or if the economy will collapse. Or if the tickle in my throat should be a worry. But I do have hope, and kindness and creativity.
I've started taking photos again, enjoying collaborations, a wealth of ideas I want to explore. This week I've organised a collaboration with a local vintage shop @madampopoffvintage, in exchange for their amazing retro clothes I make imagery for them to use. It's meant I can access beautiful, timeless pieces rich in character and history and incorporate some really fun styling in my work. I feel like now is the time to create. When there is nothing else to do, why not grow? I asked myself how I can progress, and for me I want to build more on a portfolio I didn't necessarily get to finish during my time at uni due to the pandemic. It's been frustrating, I've been itching to create work. I've had to teach myself new ways of working, like photographing at a safe distance and getting the model to do her own makeup rather than having a large team. It's been weird but fun, relearning and adapting to a different time.
(Walpole Bay: My first photoshoot after finishing my degree in May, taken in June 2020)
Beyond that, I have developed a fierce drive to do well. Life always throws you a curve ball, its how it goes. I was speaking to my tutor the day the university was starting to shut down. I'd planned a massive shoot I was majorly excited for, I was going to work with a maturer model on a Vivienne Westwood inspired campaign. I was excited to represent an older model in my work, I was experimenting with film students at the time, working with assistants. I finally felt like I'd found my direction working with larger shoot teams. Then it got cancelled, too many people in an enclosed space. I still feel a little heartbroken about this, and at the time I felt frustrated and angry. I'm not sure who at, you can't direct your anger at a virus you can't even see. That's the frustrating thing about all of this, there is no one to blame. That's when I went to my tutor and she told me about her time graduating during the 2008 recession when job prospects were pretty much abysmal for graduates. She taught me that life always has a challenge for you, but it is your response and determination to take it on and come out fighting which makes us stronger.
(Walpole Bay: some favourite shots of my most recent work)
It's from this that I know I am in the right place, doing the right thing. A sense of belonging that feels resolute. And I am ready for tomorrow, despite the uncertainty of today.