As part of our Black History Month celebrations we are talking to role models from the UK BAME community in order to offer an insight into their lives as well as help advise candidates and employers on how best to represent and encourage equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“Own your uniqueness. Embrace your heritage, it is your USP, your unique asset.” Michael
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Bermuda until I graduated from Grammar School before moving to the UK to go to university. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do so I hopped around different unis and ideas until I landed at the London College of Fashion to study Fashion Journalism. I graduated and then had to do the intern thing to network, gain experience, and work unpaid! I did a lot of this in order to try and break into the industry. Eventually I secured a position at Net-a-Porter in the model studio working on the e-commerce sets in a really fast-paced role.
Was being a stylist something you’d always wanted to do?
Yes and no. I started working towards fashion and wardrobe styling the year before graduating high school. I was really lucky as one of my school’s alumni is this really important and massively successful stylist, and I had the opportunity to work with her first. This experience was what made me want to continue working in the field of fashion as a stylist. Her advice was, ‘while you’re at university keep working, keep meeting people, keep getting your work out there’.
Was it a clear path for you?
Not really. It was a zig-zag path of ‘do I work in retail?’ where there is potential for earning good money, or ‘do I work on the design side?’ where there is less. I’m still learning, as I’m entry level, but it seems you have to do both. But for me earning more money affords me the opportunity to do more, so I am aiming my trajectory more to the retail side. I have also found it more fulfilling and interesting, so it has been great to try various roles. I have found that creatives seem to fall by the wayside in the hiring process, so I have had to adapt. My advice would be to be both business and creative minded to make your career work.
As a young black man coming into the industry did this have any adverse positive or negative effects?
Totally, it’s like the biggest boon and the biggest obstacle. If you look at the coverage of fashion week, specifically in the UK, I feel there are more black style icons then there are elsewhere. When I attend events I get a lot of positive comments like, ‘you wear fantastic colours’, ‘I love the African prints’, ‘you’re painted face looks incredible’ etc. That’s the great bit. But there is a flipside. The workplace environment being one of the main factors. In many studios I have been a rare face, one example being in a team of 60 people I have been one of only four black people. I feel there is a definite race problem in fashion. It runs deep. An example I can give you was when an associate was put on a disciplinary for attempting to cast a model of colour, because it wasn’t deemed suitable for the customers market. And in my experience this is normal. It’s the limiting of mirroring customers based on narrow preconceptions. The default canvas still sits with the white model. This is also apparent with agist campaigns, which miss their target and seclude age appropriate representation.
Where do you find your strength?
I have found strength in forging communities within the industry. Being a minority you tend to gravitate towards each other. It would be nice to have a broader appeal, or hireability but there is something about carving out your own spot. Your uniqueness. You can’t just draw a line in the sand you have to carve it in stone. Embrace your heritage, it is your USP, your unique asset.
You have to grow a thick skin, throwaway comments like, ‘your skin’s too dark, we need more lights’ or ‘you’ll never sell this’ are said with no direct malice; it’s so matter of fact that you know it’s deeply ingrained in the working methodology. So all of these comments do add up and you have to be resilient. I work hard, I continue to get as much experience and take note to make the changes I would like to see so that others don’t have to go through the same things.
What advice would you give to a high school leaver looking to pursue this career?
Be prepared for the long hours working for no pay. The rewards are there in the end you just have to keep working hard and believing in your ability. I wish I had put more emphasis on my Bermudan heritage. This is the kind of thing that puts you above your colleagues. It’s taken me years to realise and hold on to this idea. I find a deeper affirmation of self having this connection with my identity. There’s something really tangible about owning and expressing your heritage. The internet is a great tool and offers a chance to connect and get your work appreciated on a global scale. I have seen more of a representation of African culture in the main fashion print media as well. This has grown over the last decade and is inspiring to see.
Are there any figures within the industry who inspire you?
Absolutely. It’s an American stylist called June Ambrose. She carved her niche in the 90s working with Missy Elliott, Jay Z and Beyoncé. In her circle she was so highly respected, but in the wider industry I don’t think she got the credit she deserved. Her influence is huge and I would love that reach and she inspires me.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
I think it’s really important. I think a lot of history has been whitewashed. I think it’s important to have the dedicated time to focus on black people and people of colour. To look at those who came before us and did something incredible. It’s really important to highlight the people alive right now who are doing great things. I think Black History Month is a really good thing.
What’s next for you?
In five years from now I’m hoping I have been able to launch my perfume line and be a successful freelance personal shopper.