Interview with DK: Fashion Designer/Artist
“If you have it in you to start your own business, it’s a great feeling. It’s not easy to build a business but don’t give up on your idea.”
DK started his fashion label, Young Fox, in 2009. At times, he has dealt with an overwhelming amount of start-up scheme bureaucracy, until finally navigating a path to achieve a successful, creative business. Finding appropriate, affordable space for his team is a constant concern – if you find it, how long do you have it for?
How do you define yourself in terms of your practice?
I’m a fashion designer-slash-artist. I think there’s a craft/art to being a designer. Lots of people think that it’s not as difficult as it is, but for me, designing is like art-making.
Describe your current workspace and the spaces you have occupied.
My studio/office space is based in Croydon. Then I also have suppliers that sell my stuff elsewhere. At the moment, there’s a shop in Birmingham, one in Leeds and in Manchester stocking my garments. I also sell through online websites: DKDarlington.com, youngfox.com, and kimikim.com.
I have to find a new studio space very soon. The problem is, to find space that is reasonably priced and somewhere that I can stay. It’s a problem for all artists, especially those who have a lot of equipment. I work with a team of people and we need space big enough to fit three people plus four sewing machines, a big cutting table, and an area to display garments – quite a bit of space. The space I have currently is massive but it isn’t ideal because it’s like an office building – more for businesses with people on computers. Very few creative types. But it has worked ok for what I’ve been doing until now.
In the fashion design world, we’re designing for four seasons. So we have so much stuff and you have to turn work around quickly. You’re working to produce garments a year in advance, plus still working in the current season, and keeping up with what is going on in fashion.
I would love to open my own boutique in central London, but the business rates are more than the rent and the rent is like a good £2k-£3k for a couple of months…£17/£18k. There’s no way you’re going to make £17/£18k profit in a month, to pay the rent. Inside the heart of London is expensive. If you want a good space, you can’t afford anywhere in zone 1, 2 and 3. So you have to look at zone 4 and so on. That’s why my main office space is in Croydon. Some weeks back, I received notification from the building management, to say they’re mashing the space down to put up a new building. I don’t know what will replace the one I’m in. But they’re kicking everyone out of a 9-floor building and there are at least 500 businesses inside. So what are these 500 businesses going to do?
The longest time I had in a space was two and a half years, in a very tiny office space in Kennington. It was not the best place to be, because I was surrounded by a lot of other people trying to get involved in my business – they were trying to get more scheme funding and so forth. A lot of charity organisations use artists to do this. They build you into their social enterprise plan. But it is really just about making money from you. It is not about helping the artist or young business person who is trying to come up and succeed in their field. They spot a person’s story and see this person is struggling then try to use that person to get money from all these other organisations. Every organisation does it, but at the end of the day, is it right? No.
To find space, I surf websites or go to a real estate agent. Previously, I went though a charity organisation. But I felt, they wanted too much of my cash-flow and endless information. If you didn’t give them what they wanted, they would threaten to kick you out of the building, saying you’re stopping them form getting funding and whatever else. But you’re not stopping them from doing anything – you’re trying to run a business and you can’t stop every other minute to fill out more paperwork etc. It wasn’t free space – it was discounted, and in the same building there were other businesses that didn’t pay rent at all. Because their business ideas weren’t working, they didn’t pay. But as soon as your business idea is working and you start making a little money, they won’t help you – support isn’t there. I found this to be very common, even with the big organisations.
How suitable is your local area for artists?
Croydon is the concrete suburb of London. There’s a lot of vacant space, so a lot of artists, fashion people, designers and pop-up exhibitions are happening there. Lots of artists are moving into the area. Croydon has a lot of office buildings and warehouses as well, but the problem is, once you find a space there, you need to be able to keep it for at least three to four years. I think, new businesses need that long to try and grow without having to move. So, the issue is finding somewhere that isn’t going to get mashed down in a couple of months or somewhere secure that doesn’t move you on in a couple of weeks.
Croydon may have a problem, as the layout of Croydon becomes changed and this includes putting in a humungous Westfield shopping centre, due by 2018. That will either be something great for the area or it’s going to be something that will make the area become overpriced and too expensive.
What kind of community-engaged, creative work are you involved with?
When my company first started, we went into profit in the first year and I decided I wanted to give something back to the community, so we set up NoStumblingBlocks to work with young people. I’ve worked with youth clubs, hospitals, Teenage Cancer Trust, and Great Ormond Street. We work with the local community running fashion workshops, doing things like customising T-Shirts, illustration classes and jewellery making. Everything is based around art and fashion. I will have to cut back on how much I do but I will continue this work. We need funding help, but from charities that won’t expect us to fill out loads of paperwork to gain EU funding. It’s a big circle. But it will work somehow. NoStumblingBlocks is a great thing and it can function in any area.
Artists and creative people do loads of community stuff. It can be rewarding but it’s hard. The government has cut so much funding to youth clubs that they can’t afford to employ us to come in and run these workshops, but you have to make something. You can’t keep on volunteering and not paying the guys that help or paying them from your own pocket. I have to find ways to pay these guys and I wonder how long I can keep this going.
How important have friendships and networking been to you?
I have been to a lot of breakfast networking events and afternoon clubs. Some I found very good. Lambeth Council host a lot of early breakfast networking events. You have to pick and choose. It can mean missing out on the first half of a working day at the office and sometimes you have to fill out more paperwork – ticking off numbers. In terms of networking with fashion people at these events, they can be wary of having their ideas nicked because it’s so competitive. Myself, I’m now so confident with what I’m doing and comfortable that my product is so different from others’, that I am willing to give advice and say ‘hey, this is where you need to go…I have done this, etc.’. Some of the greatest people I know, that I keep in contact with as friends, I met at networking events. I met a handbag designer who, when she was starting up, didn’t know where to go for certain manufacturers. She didn’t know anything. I gave her my contacts. To me, it was nothing… I’m a clothes designer, she’s a handbag designer. I met another guy who was designing tracksuits, which is completely different to me… I was happy to help him too. I’m always happy to help anyone.
What are the solutions for finding London-based spaces for artists and creative people?
I sell online, and through boutiques, markets, different events, and open studios, where I invite some of my best clients down and so forth. You have to find a way of making your business idea work. If you sit back and think ‘it’s going to happen’, it won’t ever happen. You have to get up off your bum and go out there and make it work.
If we’re talking about people spending in the city, from foot-fall through the city centre, I think what the government is missing addressing, is that fashion and art worlds bring more customers than the banking sector. Also, in fashion, there are over a dozen different job pathways. There’s styling, marketing, designing… so many different parts of one business, that have to work together. In my company, I’m the designer and I’m connected to my PR and marketing person, another person who organises trade shows … a graphic designer, machinist, pattern cutter, etc,. Fashion and art businesses aren’t only employing one person or role. If we don’t employ the PR and Marketing people to promote our work….we don’t sell. Artists and designers shouldn’t have to be focussing their energy on stuff they know less about, which takes time away from creating.
I would say, we’re not out of a credit crunch yet. They might think people are spending more money, but they’re spending because they have to. Everything is more expensive…food, clothes. Politicians need to work out how to put more money into the economy because if they don’t it won’t move. In terms of space, they need to fix this big problem: London’s high streets are dying because business rates are too high. They need to think of ways to help new businesses grow. Give us better business rates for shops.
What are your thoughts on starting an art enterprise or business from scratch?
I started up my company in 2010/11. We were in the middle of a credit crunch. So there were a lot of social enterprises/organisations/charities starting to help young people that wanted to set up their own business. For example, The Prince’s Trust, List, Change Up, Oliver Ben, Cheshire… so many. They would all offer to help out, ask you to fill in this form and that paper. There’d be a lot of promises to help with this funding and that funding but it often wouldn’t turn into anything. Start-up schemes are not always a great help because when you’re starting and struggling to set up your business, you need to be out there making money. Also, often promises of money aren’t grants – they’re loans that need to be paid back. I was successful enough that I was able to pay mine back but I know too many people that have been through the same programme I did, that had issues trying to pay it back or can’t pay it back. All of a sudden, they have people chasing them down for money.
If you have it in you to start your own business, it’s a great feeling. It’s not easy to build a business but don’t give up on your idea. And when you start seeing people buying the stuff you’ve created or the good that your business might do for someone else, it’s a great feeling. It will be hard to find your customers, your target audiences, but it takes years to do this so don’t give up. If your business doesn’t turn over thousands of pounds in the first, second or third years, do not give up. Lots of people will say “give your business three years”. I would say give your business as long as it needs to succeed. Try five to six years… or longer. My business did well in the first three years and then things slowed down and now we’re about to enter a fifth year and we’re looking at my business in a completely different way. I stopped to look at my business and think: ok, my core customer has changed, the way I market myself will change. When I first started out, market places were really working well. I was doing Spittalfield Market, Brick Lane, Brixton Market, selling stuff to 30-40 people, and it would feel great. It’s not like this anymore.
At the moment, the government keeps saying we’re out of the credit crunch, but I think it’s worse now in 2014 than in 2008. In 2008, people were willing to spend £40 in the market buying a jumper from us. They would buy from market-based designers. Now, not so much. Now, they can go to Primark. People have re-evaluated how they’re spending money. We’re earning less, wages haven’t changed and so people start to think that instead of spending their money in a market place, buying a jumper for £40 that was handmade by somebody local, they would rather go and buy a one-day fashion piece for £4, that they can chuck away. A couple of weeks later, when they’re going to another event, they’ll go buy another £4 jacket and chuck it away again. Some poor person would have made that £4 garment – what are they getting?