CREATING MY OWN BRAND HAS MADE BROUGHT ME UTTER JOY
Cynthia’s found an outlet for her talent, launching her own bespoke bridal boutique at 52.
When I first began sewing at the age of 14, I realised that making beautiful dresses was exactly what I wanted to do. It began with redesigning my school uniform which led to me being suspended from school, and led to creating dresses for women three times my size with bustlines that I couldn’t even get my arms around. My style back then was baddass power shouldered trouser suits with revolutionary epaulettes – think Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” – checks and stripes and any fabric that was unusual enough to make the wearer stand out from the crowd.
My first job with a men’s tailor in Digbeth, Birmingham. By month six, I felt I had learned enough and couldn’t face one more pair of fusty men’s trouser’s so I quit. I moved to London aged 18 and got my first job working with a bespoke men’s shirt maker. After a few months, at my boss’s recommendation, I applied to the London College of Fashion.
But life at LCF couldn’t have been any harder. My leech-like landlord would open my mail and my first grant cheque mysteriously went missing, which meant that I had to find work to pay my rent and fund my books and materials. Monday to Friday I worked at Burger King in the evenings until 10pm, and I worked as a chamber maid on Saturday and Sundays. I often started my assignments at midnight, working until the early hours, or would work all night before jumping back on a train and heading to college.
“The lecturers labelled me cocky and warned me to toe the line.”
I could already sew and knew the techniques that other students were learning for the first time, so I would often complete my tasks way ahead of the class. Of course, I frustrated the lecturers who would not accommodate or recognise my level of skill. Because it was a tailoring course, the materials were typical sturdy tailoring cloths which I would often replace with more challenging materials. My thinking was that I could learn the set task but at a higher level achieving more skills and techniques for my work.
The lecturers found me cocky and warned me to toe the line. But one, a former Dior pattern cutter and Couturier, saw something in me and patiently offered advice and guidance so that I could acquire the knowledge that I needed. He was a stickler for perfection and would insist that I unpick every stitch and prick hole and start again. His high standards have not only governed my work over the years but have instilled in me patience and appreciation of the art of perfection – the skill of the couturier.
When the course ended, I truly believed that I would go on to work for one of the big names in the industry but I was never offered the chance. The lecturers used their connections with leading design houses and designers to place their favourite students and I was not one of them. It was disheartening to be told my only option was to go work for a production company. So much for the promising career.
But I didn’t follow their advice and over the course of 17 years I worked with a multitude of independent designers, from Alexander McQueen to Roland Mouret, Victoria Beckham to Nicole Farhi and many more. This meant long hours, sleepless nights and a personal life on hold but I learned bucketloads.
“I truly believed that I would go on to work for one of the big names”
I have never lacked confidence in who I was nor in my ability. I just happened to work in an industry that chose to ignore it. It’s galling to see certain designers catapulted into the spotlight because of who they know; and who would have failed had it not been for individuals like me with the knowhow and skills to make it happen. I have had to learn to be proud and confident of who I am just to still be here to this day, doing what I love best.
My goal was to be among the best and prove my worth in the industry but after many years, I began to realise that I was pigeon holed. As the industry changed to accommodate fast fashion production, designers were cutting costs. Because I had a mortgage to pay and a child to raise, I would assume whichever role was needed.
Working in fashion can be extremely demanding with multiple deadlines to meet and increasing pressure on sample rooms to produce high quality garments in a short space of time. In 1996 when my daughter was only ten years old, I suffered a terrible injury at work using an electric cutting tool that I was not trained to use and without protective clothing. I lost the tip of my index finger and 18 months to traumatic stress disorder and discoid lupus. It was a full three years before I had the courage to use a sewing machine again.
But I was sick of the glass ceiling, where no matter what you did it nor who you had helped to achieve their dream there was never any longstanding appreciation of the skill involved. I lost count of the number of my dresses that appeared on the red carpet, borne out of sleepless nights, without credit and in some cases pay.
“I got my mo jo back – that same fire in my belly”
At 52 I found the confidence to walk away from the industry and launch my bespoke bridal boutique, creating high end wedding dresses. It has been the biggest risk I have ever taken but I with it, I got my mo jo back – that same fire in my belly that I had when I first started out. Studying for an MA in Business allowed me the space and environment to learn from my mistakes and gain a stronger understanding of the modern business climate.
There is nothing more rewarding than a happy customer. Though we have only had a brief relationship, many of my brides have become friends. I go all out to make the experience a truly special one – from dream sketch to perfection. But the greatest reward is helping them overcome their body hang-ups so that they leave feeling gorgeous, elegant and brimming with confidence.
I have had the pleasure of stepping inside my customers’ personal space and really getting to know just how a woman feels by the way she embraces or hides certain aspects of who she is. I have observed that our shared problem is universal but also subjective; and that we all share a common goal of wishing that our bodies were different. Some women will share their hang ups within five mins of meeting me and I often respond by recommending a minute bra adjustment resulting in a visible difference to the way her dress fits and the way that she then stands with her head held high.
It has been a long journey from not being able to get a job in the industry, to having the perfect job that makes use of my multiple skills, where I am never bored or stuck performing repeats for profit. So I feel totally at ease with myself and where I am right now. There is still the odd day when I feel overwhelmed and struggle to find balance between life and work as a designer, shop owner, stylist and bespoke maker. But I get so much pleasure from providing a service for women who deserve to look and feel their absolute best on the most important day of their lives without compromising their style and taste.
Images: Oui Madam
Words: Cynthia Holt at Oui Madam