Fashion Designer – Aimee Matthew-John

I’ve said before that I’ve been lucky enough to know some wonderfully talented ladies and today’s interviewee is definitely no exception. Twenty-five year old Aimee Matthew-John has worked for Vivienne Westwood and is now on her way to establishing her own clothing line Johanan.

What first motivated you to get into fashion?

It probably sounds clichéd, but I have always loved dressing up since I was able to rummage through my mum’s collection of peep-toe heels and full-length, high-waisted, pleated skirts. I loved to get lost in it all, wrapping myself in colourful fabrics. These materials had magical qualities, their promise of narratives and cultural identities, in my box of borrowed scarves and embroidered sari fabrics. I pursued fashion with a small dream of one day being able to make amazing clothes for my family, friends and myself (which in hindsight, is not the best pitch for going to fashion school).

 Would you say that going to University is essential?

I think it depends on what you want to do within fashion. Going to fashion college is only one route of learning, and can leave you with prescribed ideas of creativity and success. I have a friend who never studied fashion, but managed to start her own label called Shorji all by herself! She makes women’s sportswear and streetwear based in Gibraltar. We were lucky enough to meet at Fashion Clash in Holland last year and instantly connected. I have such admiration for the way she’s taught herself everything and built up her brand, all whilst maintaining a solid set of values. It’s pretty cool. Her site is currently under construction but you can see more of her whereabouts on the blog: http://www.shorji.com/blog. She had a real hunger to make the things she wanted to see in the world. That’s an inspiration to me! Doing it on your own terms, using your drive to pursue something outside of your current capabilities and learn the lessons as you go.

I personally first studied a foundation course at London College of Fashion, which was an amazing year of ideas, drawing and visiting as many galleries and museums as possible. Then I went on to study womenswear at Central Saint Martins. Here I learned how to research and expand my ideas, working independently. The real luxury of going there was being exposed to so many creative people and alternative ways of working, I was always challenging my own approach, trying to find what worked for me and what I needed to say. There was a lot of confusion along the way.

 How would you describe your style?

My mum once told me I look like a bag lady, I’m not sure what that meant but I haven’t forgotten it. Since then it’s become more minimal. I wear easy things; white shirts in varying fabrics, either the trousers I’ve made or jeans, easy dresses I can throw on. I like pieces which have a simple kind of beauty and which I don’t feel restricted by in any way. 

 What is your favourite fashion era?

I actually find the collaged look of fashion over the last few years most interesting, though not necessarily most pleasing to look at. The feeling of past decades deconstructed, references to a mish-mash of cultures; it feels chaotic and confused. Right now I think designers are processing what has come before through a collage of details and questioning what ‘today’ should look like. Or if we should aim for ‘new’ at all. I remember my tutor told us it is “impossible to create anything new- everything has been done before.” But even with that in mind, I think the way we remix the past to find something relevant is still interesting.

Where would you say you draw your influences from?

Clothing offers an opportunity to explore contemporary values. Dressing ourselves every day encourages us to ask questions about the meaning our clothing carries. My main interest is gender in dress; how rooted ideas of gender suggest ways of dressing or appearing in public. I’m fascinated by how these ideas influence the ways in which we present ourselves. I like to explore why something is masculine, debunking my own ideas of femininity, where do these ideas come from? What does it mean to wear certain things and how does it change my own behaviour?

Who do you most admire?

I have my role models close-by. Being surrounded by hard-working, honest people is what drives me to make things. My family, of course, and friends. As I said before, I have always wanted to make things for the people who matter to me. Career-wise, it changes. Currently I’m inspired by many small businesses/makers who champion craft and a slower pace of production in favour of high quality, lasting goods. Not necessarily within the fashion industry. I look at what they’ve done and I feel it is possible to carve my own place and message. People like Noble Denim, Hedley & Bennett, Amy Revier, the founders of Mjölk in Canada and of Labour and Wait in London.

Do you find that your family’s cultural backgrounds influence your work?

Definitely the family work ethic and sense of never-ending guilt!

What does success mean to you?

I think my ideas of success have done a 180 over the last few years. When I first flicked through Vogue (another cliché) some 10 years ago, I was totally overcome by the glamour of high-fashion. So for a few years that’s what I thought I should aim for- that was the height of success in my eyes. Some stressful catwalks later… I understood it wasn’t the right place for me, and in fact, I much preferred the escapism of pouring through pages, enjoying the details in my own space where I could admire from a distance. No limits for imagination and no reality to spoil it.

Now, it is having the courage to build something myself, piece by piece, questioning at every stage and ensuring that minimal damage is caused along the way. And not giving up on it when I don’t know how to do something or get somewhere. It is a bit nerve-wracking to talk about because I’m working towards it, I’m not there yet. Success will be moving past these difficult stages and creating a sustainable business with a solid product that people believe in. And of course living a happy life with lots of friends and family!

What was it like working for Vivienne Westwood? What led to you working there?

Working for Westwood was a life-changer! I got the opportunity through a competition with a forward-thinking organisation called Fashion Awareness Direct. I was a finalist in their yearly competition, given the opportunity to show two outfits on a catwalk hosted by Vauxhall Fashion Scouts at London Fashion Week (I didn’t quite realise then how great a platform it was!). After the show I was approached by a designer from Westwood to start an internship with Gold Label, the couture half of the business. I remember my mum and I were buzzing all the way home with a mixture of fear and excitement- Vivienne had long been one of the reasons I pursued a life in fashion.  Being there, I met some truely inspiring people and got a taste for the extent of hard work required in the industry with its rapid, never-ending cycles and its demand for ever-more, ever-new products. I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with Laszlo, the sample cutter who taught me everything I know about treating fabrics, cutting, matching patterns, and trusting your eye. It was definitely this education that taught me to set the bar high. At the same time, it was eye-opening and I found it difficult to come to terms with the realisation that high-fashion wasn’t the right place for me. It took a long time actually, to understand that this is ok. I would definitely recommend internships as a way to learn fast, work hard and test the waters!

 What advice can you offer to anyone wanting to become a designer?

Just absorb yourself, totally dive into whatever it is that moves you. Be prepared for hard work, how can you learn the things you need to learn to get where you want to be? What do you want to say? How will your products reflect those things? Always aim to be answering these questions for yourself. I find that my perspectives change, I have to adjust and that’s ok. Care about where your materials come from and also for the wellbeing of people. Enjoy it too.  

What is the most satisfying/dissatisfying part of your job?

The best bit for me has been seeing people wear the things I’ve made especially for them. When it fits, they love the fabric, and they feel just good wearing their garment- I love that! My job varies. I also freelance doing pattern-cutting, sewing, general studio work for small businesses and work on my own projects at the same time. I like the variety it brings and having space to work on my own ideas, that is a luxury.  The worst part of my experience so far has been the chaos of backstage fashion shows! All the stress of packing, unpacking, last-minute pressing/steaming, the scrambling around to get models dressed, out onto the catwalk, then seconds later more scrambling between ankles to recover trodden garments, fixing damages, scrubbing make-up off of necklines… Sitting in audience is so much fun, but behind the scenes is something else! Aimee collection 6 Aimee collection 5 Aimee collection 3

What project is your most significant to date?

Last spring/summer after expanding my collection, it was exhibited on catwalks at several different fashion events. I ran a Kickstarter campaign to help it happen and then did 3 shows around Europe, spending the latter half of summer hand-making each of the rewards and sending them out to the amazing people who supported me. That was quite a crazy couple of months. I would like to say though that I haven’t achieved that significant accomplishment yet, I’m working towards it now.Aimee kickstarter scarf 2 Aimee kickstarter scarf 1

Are the hours demanding?

I think everyone experiences how easily time slips by, especially when you’re working on things you care about, or become obsessed with details and achieving perfection (which is not always a necessary goal).  In terms of freelancing and deadlines, that too can be demanding. Before fashion shows or shoots, we’ve worked for 24 hours straight, slept in small pockets of 1-4 hours over the course of a week to try to get things done. I remember a 2 week period where I slept only every other night, it was difficult and I was in bad shape at the end. I then read about designers like Ann Demeulemeester who finish preparation two weeks prior to her shows in order to get some down-time beforehand, and realised there is a better way! Because things always take longer than expected. Usually though, it’s not so bad if there is a team of you pulling these shifts together.

What can we expect from you in the future?

My current goal is to make garments that help people create and do what they do! I’m currently working on designing practical, comfortable work-shirts for less-than-pristine people who like to make, experiment and explore. Johanan will be a label who offers a sort of uniform for doing and making. They must be functional, lasting and beautiful shirts. I’m so inspired by the ‘maker’ attitude of those around me, and the individuals who started those businesses we talked of above, with pure and clear ideals. I feel that we have a shared impulse towards creativity and if I can make clothing that helps you in this pursuit then that will be a success!

What are your must have work related gadgets?

I have a few:

1) My pattern-master (a sort of fancy ruler with curves used for pattern-cutting)

2) A pair of sharp fabric scissors

3) A pair of sharp embroidery scissors Aimee tools 2 Aimee tools 4) A fountain pen (for some reason my handwriting looks terrible in anything else)

5) A mechanical pencil for more accurate patterns Aimee workspace 1 Aimee workspace 2

What advice can you offer anyone for building up a portfolio?

 For sketchbooks collect lots of inspiration and map out all your ideas, it doesn’t have to be immaculate. Keep a notebook on you at all times for ideas sparked on the go, you never know when you may need to use them. For portfolio I think it’s nice to bind your own book, although this doesn’t allow for much flexibility if you’re applying to a number of very different companies. In terms of projects be concise and show your best work, a bit of inspiration, a few sketches, a bit of work-in-progress and final photographs. Aimee sketchbook Aimee collage 2 Aimee collage 1

 What is your guilty pleasure?

Baking cakes late at night when I have more pressing things to do.

How do you like to unwind?

Taking time to read all the books I’ve collected for inspiration. I love researching at the minute; craft, making, the creative process, the learning process, amateurs journeys to success, start-ups, the biggest mistakes of start-ups and how to cook delicious vegan food!

What is the worst advice you’ve been given?

Eat cheese to get your calcium.  

What is your pet peeve?

Finding dairy products in almost everything! Digestive biscuits for instance, do they really need dairy to be excellent?

When do you feel the most inspired?

Late at night, somehow I feel calmer when I know everything is winding down around me.

Check out more from Aimee at  johananlondon.com or visit her website www.aimeemj.com

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