Interview—Melanie Christou, ethical make-up artist

Melanie Christou is an ethical make-up artist, who regularly works on creative editorials and brand campaigns. She has assisted on shows at London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks, alongside her work with the Fashion Revolution Campaign. Melanie shares how her artistic background has influenced her work, her experience working with ethical cosmetics within the wider fashion industry, and what’s special about an individual’s relationship with make-up in our September interview.


How people do their make up speaks volumes on what they’re like: what movies they like, what clothes they don’t like to wear, what their influences are, who their role models are. I like to think of it as a small insight into what they are like, but it’s coded, and only if you know make up can you decode it.
— Melanie Christou
Editorial for  What's Your Legacy  / Photographer  Madara Freimane  / Hair & Make Up  Melanie Christou

Editorial for What's Your Legacy / Photographer Madara Freimane / Hair & Make Up Melanie Christou

You draw from your art background in your editorial makeup artist work. How does having an artistic perspective influence you when pulling together the concept for a shoot?

Having an artistic background is super important for me, I would even say, essential. Without it, I wouldn’t have the deep knowledge of colour and texture, and how to shade and illuminate in order to play with depth. Technically speaking, art helped me a lot. However, conceptually is where it’s helped me most. My background allows me to look at make up from another perspective, from outside the box. When I do editorials, I don’t view my work as make up, but as painting. This allows me to not constrain myself with what I should and shouldn’t do to a face. When I’m pulling together a concept for a shoot, I take inspiration from pretty much anything, from the colour of a fruit, a beloved painting, from documentaries, clothes, sculptures, movies etc. Inspiration is everywhere, I just need to be open minded to see it.

Is there any artist, era or style of work you reference time & again for your work?

Impressionists inspire me with their colours and texture combinations; artists like Pierre Bonnard, Pierre Boncompain, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet.

For their incredible brush strokes and line work I love studying Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

For the ethereal beauty and soft lighting I look out for Frederic Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma Tadema and John William Godward. I like to go to museums and exhibitions as much as possible, it’s my favourite pass time. 

You’ve worked at a lot of shows in Fashion Weeks in London, Milan and Paris—are there any particular special memories you have from working on the shows?

I’ll never forget when I was assisting on a Fendi men’s show in Milan. It was the first big brand show I ever worked on, and I remember when the models were doing their final walk and all of us backstage were looking at the screen and applauding them. I got emotional because I knew at that moment I was living my dream. I grew up watching Fashion TV waiting for the moment when the crew goes backstage to interview the make up artist. I lived for the moment where she or he would explain the inspiration behind the look, and show us what products they used to create it. I always knew I wanted to be there, backstage with them. I believed they had the coolest job ever! Fast forward many years and I found myself standing backstage at a Fendi show in Milan and the realisation of that made me really proud. I finished the job and went out for an ice cream and vintage shopping to congratulate myself.

Having studied hair to prosthetics, history of makeup to wigs, along with makeup artistry—have you applied any of the more unusual aspects of your course when on a shoot?

The truth is I haven’t, but I know MUAs who do. Isamaya Ffrench is a perfect example, she marries prosthetics and fashion in a really cool way. Also, Athena Paginton uses a lot of body painting techniques on the face.

What’s your experience been like using ethical makeup in your work?

I love it! I love how it’s always a conversation starter with models and colleagues. I love how well I combined my ethics with my work. I love the uniqueness of the products. I love the challenges that having a green kit comes with. It’s definitely more difficult to work with products that don’t make it easy for you to blend them out. I don’t use products with silicones thus it has a big effect on how smooth, silky and effortlessly blended everything looks. However, it’s not impossible, you can still achieve the desired effect if you master your technical skills, and that’s why I believe using natural products makes me a better artist.

Has working in ethical makeup opened you up to any opportunities that you may not have had with traditional makeup artistry?

Yes! For sure! Having a natural kit is fortunately or unfortunately a niche, so clients sometimes only want green MUAs. I had the honour to do the make up for the Fashion Revolution Campaign and that was really special for me. I’m good friends with Madara from What’s Your Legacy who always kindly introduces me to independent sustainable brands like yours, so a lot of meaningful collaborations come from this. I don’t think I could have done some of the jobs I’ve done if it wasn’t for my natural kit. At the same time, no one didn’t book me because I had natural kit, so I don’t lose jobs from it either.

Photographer  Valerie Yuwen Hsieh  / Hair & Make Up  Melanie Christou  / Model  Amelia Grace  from Premier Model Agency

Photographer Valerie Yuwen Hsieh / Hair & Make Up Melanie Christou / Model Amelia Grace from Premier Model Agency

I don’t view my work as make up, but as painting.
— Melanie Christou

What was your personal journey with makeup—when did you fall for the craft and how did you begin to develop your skills?

I was always interested in make up, since as long as I can remember. On afternoons when I didn’t have lessons, I played with my mum’s make up for hours; I remember it was so fun!

Then, when I was a bit older and I could go out, I loved doing my make up and experimenting with colours. I still remember the first time I bought my own make up. It was from MAC and I bought a green, a blue, and a brown eyeshadow and some brushes. I still have them. My most vivid memories though are when I was coming back from the club and instead of taking off my make up and going to sleep, I would spend hours experimenting on top of the make up I was already wearing. Since I knew I would take it off anyway, I let myself loose and did crazy make up at 3 in the morning! It was so fun! I think that was when I learned to do my own make up. I would also do my friend’s make up before going out, so that was cool to experience as well, as it is completely different doing it on another person.

When I turned 18 I left Cyprus for the UK and, within months, I got severe acne, and that’s when I got really serious with make up. I was obsessed with making my base look like I’m not wearing any foundation whilst at the same time covering my acne and acne scars. It required time, practice and good colour knowledge and that’s where my passion with skin began. If it wasn’t for my acne, maybe I would have never considered seriously becoming an MUA, so I’m incredibly thankful for what it taught me.

How did you get into ethical, natural and organic makeup?

It was very sudden. First of all I had no idea natural make up existed other than the not-so-exciting things you could find in Whole Foods. Nothing was as exciting as the conventional ones. Then, one day, I came across an interview of Khandiz, a green MUA, by What’s Your Legacy. She opened up this new world for me that I didn’t even know existed. I emailed her, asking for advice on how to learn more about this industry, and she directed me to Content Beauty & Wellbeing, a sustainable shop in London. I went in with my CV already printed and asked for a part time job as their in-house MUA, which they eventually accepted. I read Imelda Burke’s book The Nature of Beauty and that fired me up even more. Since then, I’m constantly trying to learn as much as possible on the subject, experiment with new modern formulations, and show to the world that you don’t have to sacrifice quality for natural make up. You can have both.


Editorial for  Cake Magazine  / Production Evelyn Tsekoura / Photographer  Christos Markou  / MUA  Melanie Christou  / Hair Rom Sartipi / Model Lois C from BMA agency / Collage  Melanie Christou

Editorial for Cake Magazine / Production Evelyn Tsekoura / Photographer Christos Markou / MUA Melanie Christou / Hair Rom Sartipi / Model Lois C from BMA agency / Collage Melanie Christou

Inspiration is everywhere, I just need to be open minded to see it.
— Melanie Christou

Is there anyone whose style has struck you and influenced your work? Either within the industry or people that you’ve seen in everyday life?

Oh my god yes! Where do I begin? If you are asking about “style” of working then I’ll start with MUA’s. My favourite make up artist is Lisa Eldridge, I feel like we share the same aesthetics, and her technique is beyond perfect. She’s one of a kind. 

I have a huge respect for make up artists who tour with singers and have to do their make up at concerts. The best example is Beyonce’s MUA, Sir John. Just stop for a second and think what skills and technique you need to have to be able to keep Beyonce looking flawless throughout the Homecoming Coachella concert. If you haven’t watched it yet, go watch it now, and concentrate on her make up. It’s flawless. It’s pretty much a miracle that she looks so good after 2 hours of intense dancing, singing, costume changing, sweat, and bright lights…

Other than make up artists, generally I admire authenticity and uniqueness. Being unapologetically you is what I call “style”. Throughout history, a few people stood out for their bold or distinctive make up and fashion choices, and of course one of the most important figures is David Bowie. He was a make up genius. Can we go back to an era where boys wearing make up is cool? Freddie Mercury, Adam Ants, Prince, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Manson, KISS, Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!!!

When we talked before the interview, you mentioned: “I’m happiest when I sit opposite someone doing their make-up on the tube, I love observing how other people do their makeup.” Can you tell us a little about what makes these moments special for you? 

I wish I knew why I find those moments so special, maybe it’s because if you think about it, they are really not special, they are the opposite of special; they represent the mundane ordinary dull routines women do. If they were special moments they would probably be done at home. I guess what fascinates me isn’t the rarity, but how much make up is incorporated in a 21st century women’s life. It’s their routine, and whatever becomes someone’s routine must have their touch on it. How people do their make up speaks volumes on what they’re like: what movies they like, what clothes they don’t like to wear, what their influences are, who their role models are. I like to think of it as a small insight into what they are like, but it’s coded, and only if you know make up can you decode it.

It’s curiosity as well, I’m curious what ordinary women—who don’t work in the industry and don’t care about make-up—use on themselves. What is practical, what they think is easy to use, what does the job the fastest. We live in an era where speed is everything when it comes to make up, which explains why it’s done in the tube. There were times, like in the Victorian era, where you needed a handful of servants and a couple of hours just to get dressed! Times have changed, and it’s incredibly interesting to see how society has a role in beauty. There’s a really interesting book about this actually (about the history of make up), it explores the correlation between big historical and political events throughout human history and the impact it had on beauty. It’s called Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day by Madeleine Marsh. Highly recommend it.

My most vivid memories [of make-up] are when I was coming back from the club and instead of taking off my make-up and going to sleep, I would spend hours experimenting on top of the make-up I was already wearing. Since I knew I would take it off anyway, I let myself loose and did crazy make up at 3 in the morning!
— Melanie Christou
Photographer  Julia Shaskina  / Hair & Make up  Melanie Christou  / Model  Zuzanna Majek

Photographer Julia Shaskina / Hair & Make up Melanie Christou / Model Zuzanna Majek

International Women's Day 2019

This International Women’s Day we’ve collected stories from our archives that showcase the work of extraordinary women in fields ranging from humanitarian photography to sustainable fashion, artists and entrepreneurs.

Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy, chats about her career, where it all started, and what's exciting her about the sustainable fashion movement in our February 2018 interview.


Freya Dowson works on behalf of NGOs to document communities in, often, developing contexts. On her blog, Nishaantishu, she shares these images alongside editorial and lifestyle shots of her life in London. We discussed how she began her photography career, what inspires her and how she captures the personality and warmth of her subjects.


Artist Gemma Hampton discusses how she developed her signature free-flowing style, her working life and the organic growth of her career in our October 2018 interview.


Sustainable fashion designer and Huffington Post collumnist, Eleanor O'Neill, chats about the challenges of building an ethical fashion business and shares her thoughts on the fashion industry.

Interview—Gemma Hampton, Illustrator

This October, we talked to the Cotswold-based illustrator, Gemma Hampton about how she developed her signature free-flowing style, her working life and the organic growth of her career.


I am drawn to organic forms and feel an affinity with botanical subjects. Working primarily in ink and watercolour, the freedom and fluidity of these mediums allows me to capture the essence of form through expressive line drawing and minimal mark making. 
— Gemma Hampton
Cherries by Gemma Hampton (available as a print through her  Etsy  shop)

Cherries by Gemma Hampton (available as a print through her Etsy shop)

Your work often features simple and everyday subjects—particularly botanical or still life—why do you think you’re drawn to these?

Spending time in nature is hugely important to me. I enjoy long, slow walks in the countryside, observing the beauty of the surrounding landscape and find so much inspiration on these journeys. I use this precious time to switch off and take in all the sensations, helping me to relax, meditate and boost wellbeing. Gardening is a hobby I have taken up in recent years, growing produce and becoming more self-sufficient, embracing the change in seasons. I find the process fascinating and so satisfying. I am drawn to organic forms and feel an affinity with botanical subjects. Working primarily in ink and watercolour, the freedom and fluidity of these mediums allows me to capture the essence of form through expressive line drawing and minimal mark making. 


Tell us a little about your studio space?

I work from the home I share with my husband, daughter and our ever-growing collection of houseplants. My studio space is essentially our dining room. When creating larger artworks or packing card and print orders I work at the dining table and for smaller sketches and admin tasks I sit at an antique bureau. I sometimes work outdoors too, observing subjects in their natural habitat. Bringing nature indoors creates a peaceful energy and helps me to feel inspired. 


When did you first begin drawing? Have you any stories regarding your earliest sketches?

Drawing has been a passion for as long as I can remember. I used to sketch pencil portraits of my teddy bears and paint at a little easel wearing my father's old shirts. I have a vivid early memory of winning a colouring competition and going to collect my prize which, much to my delight, was a pencil case filled with stationery. As I grew older I took a break before sketching on a regular basis. 

Syrup Bottle  by Gemma Hampton

Syrup Bottle by Gemma Hampton

How did you develop your signature restrained style of illustration?

My style has evolved over time. I have explored different mediums and used to work with lots more colour, though have always favoured still life and botanical subjects. I find my artwork reflects my personal tastes and has become more minimal as my practice has developed. I invested in a brush pen and ink a few years ago which transformed my drawing style. I used to work in much greater detail which I found wasn't particularly suited to the tool. Inspired by East Asian ink wash painting, I experimented with the use of simple sweeping lines and mark making. I am always striving to strip back the detail, which is harder than it appears. I often find I get the best results through sketching the same subject quickly and multiple times, changing the composition slightly each time. This way of working frees up my drawing practice, creating a flow of energy and a sense of balance.  

Did you study art or did your career as an illustrator develop organically?

I studied art at school but did a drama degree at university. Having taken a break from drawing and painting, I began keeping a sketchbook in my early twenties. I rediscovered my passion for drawing and found it therapeutic. I continued to create and develop my practice, experimenting with different mediums. While living in Bristol I began selling greeting cards and prints at local markets and from there had some products stocked by independent retailers. My career has grown organically at a steady pace and it has been a learning curve. I now take on commissions, exhibit my work and have recently started teaching brush illustration workshops

Has becoming a mother influenced your work at all—in how you approach your day to day tasks or has it changed what you want to create?

Becoming a mother has been both wonderful and exhausting! My daughter Enid is six months old and It is incredibly challenging trying to juggle taking care of her with creative work and housework. I am lucky to have such a supportive husband.  As I am generally quite an efficient person, I have had to learn to let go and accept that I am not able to get everything done. I've found it useful to tackle a few tasks on my list per day and feel satisfied with small accomplishments. I try to do some sketching and admin when I get a little free time while Enid naps, though I have had to slow everything down lately as she is my priority. 

You live in the Cotswolds, in what ways does living there influence your work?

We moved back here earlier this year after spending seven years living in Bristol. It is a real contrast to city life, much more peaceful and has a slower pace that I like. The Cotswolds is a naturally beautiful area with many walking trails, hills and quaint towns to explore; I find it very charming. The landscapes are picturesque and walking in nature is restorative. I always come back from a walk feeling inspired, full of creative energy. 

Asparagus Fern  by Gemma Hampton

Asparagus Fern by Gemma Hampton


Gemma’s website: gemmahampton.com

Follow her on twitter: @gemhampton

Follow her on instagram: @gemhampton

Interview—Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy

Madara Freimane, co-founder of What’s Your Legacy, chats about her career, where it all started, and what’s exciting her about the sustainable fashion movement in our February interview.


Sustainability is confusing, it can be approached from so many angles. That’s why we created What’s Your Legacy.
— Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy

What did you study at London College of Fashion?

I did fashion styling and photography—I think it’s now called fashion production—it focussed on styling and producing shoots. As I was studying, I got interested in sustainability, so although it was a visual course—everyone else had very visual research—mine ended up being text-based, heavy books of paper, in which I was figuring out what’s happening in the fashion industry. The first project I did was about how we emotionally connect and disconnect to things that are happening around us. I was looking at war photography and how the photographers would absorb what was going on around them, but weren’t able to do anything about it. They just had to record it. It’s the same disconnect people feel when something really bad happens and they shut it out. We all know what’s happening in the fashion industry, but its too much to take in and you get overwhelmed. You start to realise that if you give people little things that they can accomplish, they’re more able to understand they can change things. Otherwise, you just think, “I’m not one of those big massive retailers, so I don’t have power”.

 

Did the movement towards transparency happen while you were at fashion college?

Definitely, and my first thought about it all was that I didn’t want to shop on the high street anymore, so what can I do? All I knew were the high street and luxury stores. I couldn’t afford the luxury ones and no longer wanted to shop on the high street. I’d research brands and it was confusing, one researcher might say they’re ok, but other sites would say they weren’t. I’d committed myself to shopping sustainably, so I googled it, which was actually really funny because the first things I found were paper dresses and I’m like “what even is this?!” [laughs].  I’d committed myself though, so I kept on searching and I did end up finding a lot of beautiful brands. Sustainability is confusing though, it can be approached from so many angles. That’s why we created What’s Your Legacy. It allows us to go to brands and be like, “Hey, I heard you do something sustainable, what is it?” From doing this I started to learn about all these different approaches, the fabrics and the technology side too.

 

Was there a particular event that switched you on to sustainable fashion?

I come from Latvia and grew up in nature. I did orienteering (which is basically just running through forests!) and traveled around the world doing competitions with it, so I was always in the forest rather than the city. Nature was something I was really connected to. I do remember my sister going to Sweden in her last year at high school and coming back with sustainable jeans and I said, “are they made from paper?” [laughs]

 

How things have changed!

Exactly! But then I came to study in London, which has so many high streets shops, and shopping became overwhelming. Back home it would be fun—you’d go and try to find something that other people didn’t have. You come here and have everything available, but nothing satisfies you. It’s too much and it’s missing something—that uniqueness. I remember going to and interning at fashion weeks (where I did street style photography) and I’d ask people “what are you wearing?” I’d imagine all these luxury brands and it was three things: H&M, Topshop and Zara. It’s boring! It made me think about what’s in my wardrobe and I was just the same. As I researched and thought about that emotional connection, I had this realisation about the the industry I was going into—I’d always known fashion was bad, but it’s really bad! That’s how it progressed, it was slow initially but when I began researching the industry I decided to change my habits.

I came to study in London, which has so many high streets shops, and shopping became overwhelming. Back home it would be fun—you’d go and try to find something that other people didn’t have. You come here and have everything available, but nothing satisfies you.
— Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy
A shot from What's Your Legacy editorial shoot,   CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF RETAIL AND THE EXPERIENCE CULTURE  .

A shot from What's Your Legacy editorial shoot, CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF RETAIL AND THE EXPERIENCE CULTURE.

I love the sense of the humour at What’s Your Legacy, was it a conscious decision to approach fashion with humour?

I often joke that I’m going to go into stand up if everything else fails! It has to be fun, especially with sustainability as it’s so serious. People want to shop because they want to look good and have a good time. Also, it’s a part of me. I always call myself an introvert extrovert, so when you get to know me I can be funny, and What's Your Legacy should reflect that.

 

What’s Your Legacy has such a strong visual style, do you have any particular influences?

We always knew that we wanted to do the visuals ourselves because there’s so much out there that we didn’t like. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be the design of a garment that we didn’t like, it was just how it was photographed. My background was photography, so we didn’t have to compromise, and we slowly fell into a visual style. We definitely looked at different brands that we liked, like Glossier and all the millennial pink! I’ve always loved art too: Matisse and Alexander Calder. It’s funny, but I think social media drove our visual style as well. We wanted to create something that would catch your eye and make you think of our brand. If you see tonnes of images all of the time, how could we make ours recognisable?

 

It must be a lot of pressure to make all the content yourself! How do you cope with that?

I try to focus myself, although it’s not always easy! I go through periods where I’m really good at making content and then I’ll make something I’m not satisfied with. I try to know that you have to move forward, instead of spending too much time on something that you’re not convinced by. When we started, I watched a video called The Gap, which is about how you’ve an idea in your head about how you want things to look, but in the beginning you can’t always achieve that. You need to push yourself to keep creating until you get there. You have to believe you’ll get there. That it’s fine in the beginning if your work doesn’t look exactly as you want it to. It’s easy to be judgemental about what you do, sometimes I’ll look back and I think, “oh ok, we really put that out there…”, but it’s fine!

You need to push yourself to keep creating until you get there. You have to believe you’ll get there. That it’s fine in the beginning if your work doesn’t look exactly as you want it to.
— Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy

As you’ve worked with so many different brands, do you have any tips for sustainable start ups?

I think that all sustainable brands should understand that being sustainable is just how you produce, and that with the designs you’re competing with every other brand out there. A customer wants to wear something that they like visually, so if you’re not the best at design you should get someone in who is. Also, you need to figure out how you’re going to reach your customer. The amazing thing that we now have is social media, which allows smaller start-up brands to get exposure, but you have to commit yourself to putting out content. I struggle with that too! You have to do it though because there’s no other way that people will find out about you. Whilst you’re a fashion brand, you’re also a media company—everyone with an online presence is! You have to understand how important it is in getting your business to grow and to actually succeed in reaching customers. So I would say think about those two things—design and marketing—and how important they are. Sustainable fashion isn’t just this magical place where people jump to buy your product because it’s sustainable! You have to create the most beautiful product out there and have it sustainably made.

From What's Your Legacy's shoot with brand   LAPIDARIUM   .

From What's Your Legacy's shoot with brand LAPIDARIUM.

Anyone who’s changed anything is a human being too. We can all do it. Change will take time, but if you put your mind to it you can do it too.
— Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy

Are there any particularly innovative companies that incorporate sustainability into their business models that you admire?

MUD Jeans are really interesting. They lease jeans, so you can rent them and when you’re done you can send them back. They’ll sell them on as vintage jeans or take them apart and recycle them. You can also buy jeans from them and when you’re finished wearing them, you can again send them back. They’ll grind them down, re-spin the fabric, take all the parts off, and it all goes into new fabrics and jeans. They use the idea of a circular economy, which I think is brilliant. I think more and more brands should think about not just how they make their products, but what happens afterwards. This idea of re-thinking ownership—that as a customer you’re just renting everything you have instead of buying it is very interesting. I’m very excited about the whole circular economy. You know how in the world you sometimes think that there are smart people that can figure everything out? But, if you get ten people who are innovative—can think outside the box and forget how things were done before—and you ask them to reinvent it all, what could they do? You could come up with some great ideas about how to change things. Anyone who’s changed anything is a human being too. We can all do it. Change will take time, but if you put your mind to it you can do it too.

 

It’s not just companies that can be innovative, it’s everyone.

Yeah, that’s why we hold events where people can come together and brainstorm ideas. We give them a model of how to do it and let their imaginations go wild. It’s difficult to get your mind out of how things usually happen, so at What’s Your Legacy, we try not to think about how to persuade people not to shop or to do things that restrict their lives, but about how we can make sustainability convenient. For example, recycling facilities should be easy to get to, maybe on the way to work, so you can just drop things off. People don’t know what to do with their old clothing, so instead of saying “do your research”, why don’t I give you a tool to do that? I’m a vegan and I find it’s the easiest way to eat because it keeps you healthy, by limiting all the things that are maybe not the best for you, it makes you feel good. That makes it easy. Sustainability allows me to be unique in the way I dress. High street fashion made me feel like I always needed the next thing and then, when I bought it, it fell apart. I’d grown up dreaming about wearing these beautiful brands and, when I finally could, it didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction. Sustainable fashion makes me feel better and be unique. It’s easy because of that, and that’s the key.

 

Whose responsibility do you think it is to make fashion more sustainable?

I think it’s everyones. If the government would step in and make laws then things would change, but that’s not realistic. As a consumer you should do your part, as a retailer you should do yours. Everyone needs to work together but not in the sense of being restrictive—you should think about other approaches. Brands should create beautiful garments that are more innovative or longer lasting. From the research I’ve done our generation [millennial] and the younger generation do want to be more environmentally conscious, but they don’t want to compromise on what they want, or on a good aesthetic. Brands need to understand that.

I recently watched an interview with Patrick Finnegan, a 21 year old venture capitalist who’s working with Generation Z. He said they’re environmentally conscious, but they want something in exchange like online exposure. They wouldn’t buy into it just for the sake of it, but they would if they get a good rep online [laughs]. I think that’s very interesting—I get excited about these things!  That’s something we should keep in mind, how can we make them invest, would it be a repost or mention if they purchase this environmentally friendly product? It’s very interesting from a marketing perspective.

A shot from the   DON’T BUY LESS – BUY SMART   editorial shoot on What's Your Legacy.

A shot from the DON’T BUY LESS – BUY SMART editorial shoot on What's Your Legacy.

Before the interview we were chatting about different ways of production, like block chain and circular, I wondered if you could tell us a little about these and your thoughts on them?

The thing with sustainability is that when I speak to a brand who says that their product is made sustainably, I don’t completely trust it. Especially if it’s a high street store that hasn’t worked like that before and now they suddenly do. It’s that idea of greenwashing. Block chain production would allow you to have transparency, as it could be encrypted that every step of the chain would have to be transparent. It’d also allow you to tell the story of a garment, which helps from a marketing perspective. I think in the future you’ll be able to go into a store and scan a tag and you’d have visuals of how it’s made and where it’s come from. It’ll allow people to connect with your garment. I think that’s what block chain will do. 

From the circular and sharing economy perspective, it’s about re-thinking ownership. As a customer you may barely use a garment, so rental services, (which seems like an obvious idea, but how do you make them convenient for people?) could be an alternative. I love Higher Studios. They do a subscription service because they figured out that when people rent a garment, there’s an issue of how much it’ll cost them to buy verses renting it. When you do the subscription, you maybe pay £100 a month (which might seem like a lot, but in certain cases it’s not) and you get access to garments that you can change as often as you like. It’s an alternative to fast fashion where you feel you have to have new things all the time. You can show off by wearing these crazy designs, instead of wearing black and white. You can change what you have more often, but the garment is of higher quality because it’s rented, and you get the feeling of having something new without the environmental damage. The founder, Sara Arnold, told me that when she was experimenting with it to see how people would react, there was one girl who said that each month she started to become more and more creative in how she dressed—I loved that. She didn’t need to buy the black garment because she’d have it all her life. She could wear these more creative designs instead. It also allows a designer to be more creative. Usually, as a designer, you have to think about what is sellable, but if you have a rental service where people only keep your garment for a short amount of time, you can move away from that.

For the circular economy, you think about how the garment can be altered so that, once it’s used, it can be made into the same product again or can go through more cycles. It’s not thrown out and left in a landfill somewhere. That’s another thing you need to think about as a designer when you create a product, what fabrics do you use? There’s a lot of different technologies available now and how you make recycled fabrics is improving, so it’s not the worst choice anymore. I’ve seen amazing recycled fabrics and you could never tell. I think that’s another super exciting thing.

 

Are there any particular brands you know that are incorporating this at the moment?

One brand I really love is Swedish Stockings. I met them a year and a half ago and they told me how they started their brand because they knew that most stockings were purposefully made to rip. They were like, “that’s crazy, why would you do that?!” The first thing they did was make stockings that’d last a long time. Now they’re trying to close the loop, so that they’re able to recycle the stockings and make new fabric. They’re not currently able to do that, so at the moment they down-cycle them (you can send any brand of stockings back to them for that). Also, their factories are solar-panelled and their production is great. It’s super exciting. When I talked to them, it felt like I was talking to a tech company. They have so much research behind what they do. It’s not just design, it’s both of those things.

 

Do you have any tips for shoppers who want to invest in more sustainable and ethical fashion?

Yeah, come to What’s Your Legacy! [laughs] There are a lot of amazing brands out there, and we want to give them exposure. I would say start slowly, because otherwise it’ll just be overwhelming. Start with one thing. The easiest things are your t-shirts and underwear, as it’s easy to find styles made sustainably with organic cotton and ethical production. Start with those things and don’t feel that you suddenly have to change everything! Don’t throw out all your high street things! I still wear some things that I bought on the high street seven years ago. I approach shopping by trying to find a sustainable alternative every time I need something new. At What’s Your Legacy we have a list of different brands that have one or another thing that’s sustainable about their products and have a unique style. It’s fun to go out in something and if people ask where it’s from, you’re able to tell them about a brand they don’t know. It gives you a good feeling. Do that, take it slowly, one thing at a time, and you’ll get there. In this world it’s easy to focus on all of the problems and to want this crazy big solution for everything, but it’s actually small steps that get you there and you just have to be patient. Do the best you can at the point that you’re at—if you’re a student then buying some of these sustainable brands may be way too expensive for you, so just figure out what you can afford. When you have more capital, do something better and go on like that!

It has to be fun, especially with sustainability as it’s so serious. People want to shop because they want to look good and have a good time.
— Madara Freimane, co-founder of What's Your Legacy

Interview—Lena Aisha, founder of NEO by Lena

Poet and founder of NEO by Lena, Lena Aisha, discusses the creative influences and processes behind her poetry, and shares how NEO came into being, in our August interview.


I have a wide range of artistic influences, but I suppose the common theme running through them all is, first and foremost, an examination of the human experience, and, secondly, a focus on individuality and self-expression.
— Lena Aisha, founder of NEO by Lena
A portrait of Lena.

A portrait of Lena.

Can you tell us a little about your collection ‘Bones of Eden’?

Bones of Eden was my first publication. In truth, it was a very hasty decision to create it—I compiled the poems in the anthology over the space of a month. For the reader it comes across, I assume, as a very mild bildungsroman in poetry form. But for me the importance of it was never the content, rather the compilation. It was the first time I’d ever collected my thoughts into one cohesive body of work, and I feel as though having done that, I’m now more prepared to create longer, more complex pieces of work, and I’m starting to realise my dream of being a published author.

 

Are there particular subjects you’re drawn to when writing?

I think I’m very drawn to the themes of love, happiness, beauty and growth. Much of my work is an examination of how these themes fit into the human existence and I tend to write stories about my own or a character’s experience navigating through life.

 

Who are your artistic influences for both your poetry and writing?

Stylistically, I’m influenced by a lot of Romantic writers—fiction writers such as Enid Blyton and JK Rowling shaped my perception of the craft when I was younger, but as my work has developed I’ve noticed that my influences have also changed. I’m now very drawn to writers who explore grandiose themes (such as love, life and nature) with a personal sensitivity and poetry—writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Rumi, de Botton and Khalil Gibran. 

In terms of the content of my writing, my influences range across multiple disciplines. I find myself echoing the ideals of theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud in one line, and in the next expressing notions that are rooted in Stoicism or other similar philosophical schools of thought. I’m interested in a lot of different topics, and I suppose that they each find a way to influence my own work.

 

Have you any literary projects in the pipeline?

Yes! I’m currently working on my debut novel, which is as daunting as it is exciting. The story is an exploration of the four main types of love that the Ancient Greeks identified (Agape, Philea, Storge and Eros). I’ve found that modern stories are very centred around the last of these, Eros, which is the passionate romantic love we see focused on far too often. With this story, I’m trying to present a more holistic view of love—one that I find encompasses all aspects of the human experience.

I’ve always been a ‘publish the first draft’ kind of person (out of laziness or egotism I’m not sure), but with this story I want to tell it as well as I can, so it may take months or, more likely, years to complete. I’m in no rush.

Lena at the recent NEO showroom event in Bethnal Green.

Lena at the recent NEO showroom event in Bethnal Green.

How do you approach your writing? Do you have a vision for the piece you want to create or the story you want to tell before you begin, or is it more spontaneous?

My writing process differs from piece to piece. For stories and longer pieces I usually start with a theme or a message that I want to get across. That is the epicentre—everything else (the plot, the characters, the scenery, etc.) branches out from that. 

With the novel I’m working on, however, it began with a very clear vision of the main character in their home—I knew their name, their occupation and their story arch a year before I began writing the book. This period, from the idea’s manifestation to its actual inception, allowed an organic growth that I’ve found to be invaluable. 

My poetry, however, is very spontaneous. My poems are all very emotion rather than plot driven, and so how I’m feeling is always my starting point. I’ve never made myself write a poem, rather when I feel as though I have something to say (even though at that point I have no idea what it is), I put pen to paper and let my words do all the expression.

 

Have you found that having feet in both the literary & visual canons has influenced your work in either field? Do you find the two complimentary?

Absolutely! Like many of the Romantic writers I look up to, my work often employs visual cues, metaphors and similes (mostly from Nature). I’m also an avid (albeit very amateur) photographer, and so have a very keen eye for beauty. This constant observation of the world translates into image-heavy stories and poems, which I think is now my personal style.

Les Lares , one of the apothecary labels carried by  NEO by Lena .

Les Lares, one of the apothecary labels carried by NEO by Lena.

The philosophy of minimalism goes hand in hand with the concept of quality. When you have fewer possessions, the little you do have tends to be of greater quality.
— Lena Aisha, founder of NEO by Lena

You mentioned to me previously how Dominique Loreau’s ‘L’Art de la Simplicité' influenced your approach to consumerism. What was it about her approach to life that most struck you?

It was the idea of “decluttering” that really struck me, and how, without even noticing it, most of us are “burdened by our possessions”. We all (hopefully) go through a spring clean every year where we chuck away things we haven’t used in eons. But we still hold on to a plethora of pieces we do not need, be it for sentimental reasons or purely because we’re hoarders. 

Loreau’s book helped me realise that the clutter we accumulate can have an enormous impact on our life—one that is almost imperceptible because it is so gradual. The book details the importance of living a minimalist lifestyle and how the order it brings can counteract everyday feelings of stress and anxiety and improve our self-image and overall quality of life.

 

How do you fulfil this philosophy through NEO?

The philosophy of minimalism goes hand in hand with the concept of quality. When you have fewer possessions, the little you do have tends to be of greater quality. That is what I’ve tried to bring with NEO. I have and still am trying to create a compendium of high-quality pieces.

 

How did NEO come into being?

I think I fell into the fashion industry quite coincidentally. I was looking for ways to apply Loreau’s teachings of minimalism in a new project and at the time found myself very drawn to the sartorial world. The two combined to create what you see now.

A design by  Meraki Collections , from  NEO by Lena .

A design by Meraki Collections, from NEO by Lena.

Have you any particular influences in the visual arts, in fashion, photography or otherwise?

In the visual arts, I’m very drawn to the works of photographers Yousuf Karsh, Richard Avedon and Steve McCurry. I think it’s the way they were and are able to capture the essence of the human spirit in a single frame, with Avedon’s portrait of Ezra Pound being perhaps my favourite photograph of all time. In the more traditional world of painting I’m influenced by the works of Friedrich (whose Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog is currently my favourite painting), Erte and Goya. Their work can evoke emotions and inspire certain moods.

The films of directors Behn Zeitlin and Richard Linklater are also influential in my story-telling, as both create movies that examine the human experience with great rawness and sensitivity. Fashion-wise, my personal taste is quite eclectic and varies from season to season, but I do greatly admire the Parisian sense of style, especially Caroline de Maigret’s, and English fashion director Sarah Harris. Two fashion-houses that I’m also very drawn to are Chloé and Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafino.

As you can tell, I have a wide range of artistic influences, but I suppose the common theme running through them all is, first and foremost, an examination of the human experience, and, secondly, a focus on individuality and self-expression. These ideals are ones that I share, and find to be the foundation of every one of my endeavours.

Additionally, Chimamanda Ngozi and Tracy Reese are two artists that motivate me to be successful. Their influence comes from their reaching success not just as women, but as women of colour, and in doing so breaking down barriers in a world that is often prejudiced. They’ve inspired me to forge my own path and hopefully be the impetus for others to do the same.