Interview by JD Douglas
It’s not often that I interview somebody for whom I have great admiration but know nothing about. On the wall I see a picture of the Queen receiving my subject but first let me introduce her.
My name is Clariscia Gill
Tell me what you do exactly and what’s your profession?
I’m a couturier. I make fashion clothing. A couturier is what I call myself. It’s a bit different in setup to that of a fashion designer but it covers that as well.
In other words, couturier is a posh way of saying a fashion designer.
Not really, they are two very different ways of working. A couturier makes the clothing dealing directly with and for an individual client and you actually get to see the end result on them. However a fashion designer makes clothing which is purchased by a trade buyer and doesn’t get to see the end user, namely the customer; [the designs] would be bought for a boutique or a department store via the trade buyer. That’s the closest the fashion designer gets to interact with the end user or customer but I actually get to have an initial and very close rapport with my clients, from the moment they step into my atelier for a one to one consultation.
Okay, thanks for the clarification. Now first of all can you tell us how you started?
Well it was a process of growth. The thing that enlightened me was watching my Mum sewing when I was very young, probably about six years old. It was one of my earliest fashion memories. I remember watching her and I would be sat down beside her copying the movements that she made on my special sewing machine which was an up-turned shoe box! She would look down and smile at me. A few weeks later, I remember her buying me a black hand-cranked sewing machine with Singer inscribed on it in gold lettering.
So that’s how you started?
Pretty much, making dolls’ clothes.
Making dolls’ clothes. Now did you have to learn on the job or did you have to study later?
Yes, I decided early on that it was going to be my career. So from school I had to get into needle work and I enrolled in the Arts and Creative subjects. The rest was an easy growth as it helped to have a needlework teacher, Mr Ron Leah, who also worked at The London College of Fashion as a tailor. He felt that I had a set of skills that should be developed further and encouraged me to apply for and gain a place at the Fashion School he worked at. He was a really great encouragement to me.
Okay, so what was your first job, do you remember your very first job in the industry?
My first job was as an apprentice, as a couture seamstress. It was quite a fascinating job, I worked for a company that made couture clothing for the film, TV and theatrical industry; so I made clothing for TV. I can remember helping make a yellow leather suit for the Benny Hill Show and also one of my first ever jobs was as a junior hand helping out on a major feature film. I was quite excited to be asked to sew some crystals and do the finishing on a cape being made for Christopher Reeve who played Superman in the first ever Superman film.
So you had a very good first job?
It was hard work and it was peanuts in pay but because I had come from a good background in training, it put me ahead of the other trainees and I was given a rise in my earnings. I really enjoyed the work especially the variety and the different disciplines of working on garments for television, theatre or film. I learnt quite a lot there.
Now you have got your own company, can you tell us the name of your company?
I run my own company and the name is Clariscia Gill Couture.
How do your clients find you?
You can contact me via my social media which is pretty much the way to go now. I’m a bit of a Social Media Queen. I’m on just about everything. You can find me on Pinterest, Facebook, instagram and Twitter. I guess the easiest one would be Facebook where I have a Clariscia Gill Couture Facebook page and the Clariscia Gill Bridal page. About half of my business is designing and making wedding dresses. I also have a website www.clarisciagill.com and instagram Clariscia_cg.
Now there is wonderful large photograph of a meeting with Queen Elizabeth of England. Can you tell us about that particular occasion?
Well that was something that came out of the blue. I was not expecting it at all. I was so surprised to the point where I initially thought it was someone pulling my leg. I didn’t know who sent it but, I received an invitation to a Commonwealth reception held at Buckingham Palace. I was invited as an entrepreneur. It was quite an experience to be inside the Palace and to meet guests from the High Commissions and the Embassies from all around the Commonwealth. I met a whole variety of people many of them assumed I had come from one of the Embassies. The following day I learned I had been invited and approved as one of the four guests from the High Commissioner of Jamaica. It was so kind of her.
Do you remember the exact High Commissioner who approved you?
It was the charming and most considerate, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba .
I understand that you were in the Caribbean recently, can you tell us why you were there?
I recently had a fantastic work commission, doing my thing displaying my collection at a fashion show; ‘Hot Couture’ which took place on the Island of St Lucia during celebrations for the 25th Anniversary of their Jazz Festival. It was organized fantastically. The show’s co-ordinating stylist was the reality TV celebrity Dwight Eubanks from The Housewives of Atlanta. It was hot – not just the temperature, the show was hot. I was one of a group of designers selected from varied parts of the globe who took part in the event and that was quite an experience to be invited. It was nice to be working in my home country and being amongst the people of the beautiful home Island of my parents.
Now I saw on Facebook you were surrounded by some young people from a school, could you tell us what that’s all about?
It came about from somebody I know in the fashion business here in the UK who’d moved back to St Lucia and took a job teaching fashion and textiles. She reached out asking if I had time to speak to her students. Of course, I made time because I think it’s very important to pass on what we learn and share the knowledge as I can’t keep it with me. When I went to meet the wonderful students, they were so keen, especially to find out how I got into the business. Some of them wanted to be designers. It was a nice experience for them to see and talk to a person in the industry who looks like them.
For somebody like myself who knows nothing about the industry please paint us a picture of what happens on a day to day basis in the business so a young person will have a rough idea of how it works?
It’s not as cut and dried as that because it’s so very varied. There are so many aspects related to running a business to take care of too. From sketching the designs to sourcing of the fabrics and haberdashery to consultations and fittings with the clients, attending trade fairs and the nitty-gritty administration plus the all important marketing and book-keeping. I also run a not for profit training programme, Atelier Academy and via this, fashion students in the second year of Fashion School can come to do voluntary work placements with me. It gives them the opportunity to see how things really work; they see everything from meeting the client to seeing the clothing being made. It’s a long process between that and all the other things like attending business meetings to drawing illustrations and the designs being marketed and promoted. All these things have to be done so there is never really a set typical day.
Now we are actually in the heart of London, just off Oxford Street. How long have you been in this particular location?
Next month in June will be my 16th year in this New Bond Street Mayfair location.
That’s right, 16 years and how time flies!
You must have seen a lot of changes.
Oh a vast amount of changes especially in the beginning when I first came, it was very quiet almost dead in this little 17th century courtyard in Mayfair. It’s become a thriving hub and the last five years have seen big changes in the places around me. We have now a lot of development coming in because of the cross rail project where trains will be coming right into the heart of London. That will bring more business to the area. I have also noticed a lot more old buildings in the area around New Bond Street become residential.
Now, when you started with regards to technology and everything else, how has the fashion industry changed?
It’s quite interesting because it’s predicted to be going full cycle with focus back on couture following through from a technological stage. For instance, the pattern cutting can be done directly onto a computer via Cad Cam systems like Gerber. You don’t really need paper and pen for making patterns. It’s done on a screen in a blink of an eye. However, now what is happening, is that people can see that technology can only go so far but you will always need the input of hands-on skills for pattern making. It has become a nice union between technology combined with the skills of couture that come with experience.
Okay, it’s getting to the end of the interview so there are only a few more questions. Were there hiccups along the way? Were there any particular killer hurdles that you had to encounter in your life?
Any business over time will have things that happen, surprises will come. You have to be a quick adapter and able to learn on your feet. These are all part of the rich learning curve so I don’t think anything was a setback. I think you learn from your experiences and growth comes from these experiences. Sometimes you need them to push you in the right direction. If you sit back and never take any chances, you will never improve. Don’t limit your way of thinking, be bold and push the boundaries it might not work at the start but you will find your way round it, that’s where growth comes through challenges.
If Clariscia Gill had to give some advice to anybody from the business that has encountered any trouble, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask, there is help all around you from those who have experience. Be not afraid but daring don’t be the one to just follow or copy, you have to be brave enough to actually take the plunge. Be the person that people are going to be inspired by for being different … someone’s got to do it…why not you?