Design Director at ASOS and Governor at the Fashion Retail Academy, Vanessa Spence, joins the FMA as one of our resident experts in fashion retail.
Let’s talk about the beginning of your career. How did you get started in fashion and what first ignited your passion?
I grew up on a council estate, raised by an amazing single mother. I was surrounded by Aunties that would sew at home, doing pieces of work on industrial machines in their lounges for high street brands. This was common in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The last thing my mum wanted me to do was art or fashion, she didn’t know of any Black fashion designers and was worried that I would experience racism in the industry. A friend of my mum knew I loved fashion and gave me a copy of the January 1990 edition of Vogue – the supermodels cover, featuring Naomi Campbell. That was something I wouldn’t have been able to afford normally. It was the first copy of Vogue I’d ever seen, and I read it cover to cover, over and over again. It gave me an insight into a world I hadn’t seen before and wanted to be part of.
Who inspired you when you started out in the industry and how did you open the door to get in?
I didn’t really have someone to inspire me or open doors for me. I knew I wanted to get into fashion, so I worked hard and self-taught as much as I could. My Mum has always been my inspiration; a driven, Black woman that always questions the status quo and encourages me to do the same. I would say this persistence is what helped me get into the industry, making this happen myself and not waiting for anyone to hand me opportunities.
What has been your best learning experience to date working within the industry?
My best learning experience as a Design director would be recognising that it is so important to listen and work with all levels, some of the best ideas come from the most junior members of the team. It’s important to collaborate and be inclusive and understand that it’s a joint effort and everyone has something to contribute. I’m responsible for driving the creative direction of the product. I work with lots of different people to create collections, from Buying & Merchandising to PR & Marketing.
If you could go back in time, and give some advice to your younger professional self, what would it be?
Ask even more questions and be even more curious.
Who inspires you within the industry today and why? Do you have any funny anecdotes you would like to share with us?
Every day is fun, part of the reason I love it!
What would you say were your “milestone moments” so far?
Being Design Director of a global brand. I have many more milestones that I would like to achieve!
What has driven your success?
A love for fashion and all things creative and a love for nurturing and seeing the next generation come through – success is a joint effort.
Why is intersectionality important for the future of the fashion industry e.g. ethics, sustainability, intersectional feminism?
Fashion has to be inclusive; fashion is for all and has a responsibility to represent. Whether people realise it or not; it is a part of everyone’s lives, it has a huge influence and has a big role to play in making change and establishing the norms. Fashion has a collective responsibility to make its industry more diverse and dismantle the lack of access. It can utilise its privilege and position to amplify diversity.
Speaking of challenges and change, what would you say were the main hurdles that you had to overcome working within an industry which is predominantly homogenous and how would you like to see the industry evolve?
The biggest challenge definitely is not seeing many like me, a Black woman within the industry. I have never let that stop me from pursuing my goals. That’s why it’s essential to see more diversity in the industry; I’m thrilled to be able to be part of the FMA.
Do you have any hints or tips you can share for young people within the Black and minority community wishing to work in the industry?
Learn your craft, be patient, and seek out mentors and support. You are in control of your career path, don’t be afraid to pivot from want you originally set out to do.
What are you hoping the Fashion Minority Report will achieve?
I’m hoping we will bring the fashion industry together; to make the industry more diverse and assessable to all, internally and externally. It’s a collective responsibility, that we only happen if we work together.