If you’re a massive Vogue fan like me who had the famous ‘supermodel’ cover on her bedroom wall at 16 years old, then an opportunity to work and learn at the very heart of the nation’s (nay, the world’s) fashion bible is something to jump at - to jump ridiculously high and excitedly at. So when, last December, I got word back from Conde Nast College that, at 43 years old, I had been admitted to their Vogue Intensive summer intake, I was beaming.
Why did I want to go back to school and be at the bottom end of the chain when I had reached relatively great heights back here at home?
Well, to continue formal learning at any age has a disruptor effect. One is forced to rethink how things are done and to use the time for introspection to discover a better way. I had an overwhelming desire to learn more, to experience new kinds of creativity and to mix with exciting people full of fresh ideas and global influences.
For a few reasons, childcare being the most important one, I kept my summer plans quite low key and told only 4-5 people until about May, when I had accommodation and travel arrangements all sorted for myself and my five year old daughter Valentina, who I had planned to bring along with me for the ride. Being a single mum is not easy. Being a single mum and having to go home every night to do bathtime and prep packed lunches for camp the next day, then spend the evening on a laptop catching up on the day job when your twentysomething colleagues hit London town is, I found out, really quite hard. I come from a large family and like feeling part of a pack, so I suffered big doses of FOMO.
Practicalities out of the way, I then planned my wardrobe. Of course! I needed to streamline packing but choose clothes which were interesting enough yet practical for the summer heatwave and the rain which followed, plus allthe walking required in London meant that my usual Jimmy Choo Anouks just weren’t going to cut it over there.
I actually kept a photo diary of some things that my colleagues were wearing for the first three weeks and I cant wait to look back on that in weeks and months ahead to see what we all wore with the benefit of perspective. One colleague, Ari Peralta, wins my fashion award. He dressed en pointe each and every day.
On arrival I met with colleagues from over 20 nationalities and we discovered that our common passion ensured that the flames of fashion were well and truly ignited. After a fun initiation day (which included a fashion pub quiz - an idea for FASHIONWEEK maybe?) we got stuck in and learnt about fashion history from Suzanne Lussier, then fashion futures from Katie Friedlander, among others.
Among my favourite characters while there were Vogue editor-at-large Fiona Golfar who was funny and fascinating in equal measure; and John the doorman at Vogue House, who seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing where every one of the 750 Conde Nast staff were at any given time. In fact, there were quite a few interesting characters it has to be said.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see Edward Enninful, the incoming editor, who hit the news recently with his alleged ‘purge of the posh’ after former editor Alexandra Schulman’s departure, but I did enjoy an insightful carrot juice with one incoming editor from back home who was welcoming and warm in equal measure.
Day to day, we were mostly learning, but also working on practical projects and even pitched October edition ideas for critique, which was scary - and that’s saying something considering I’ve been public speaking for almost two decades - doing my TED talk in 2015 was less nerve-wracking!
During my time there I shot a still life for Manolo Blahnik, and although I did a team shoot with a grey fur boot, I had personally fallen in love with a green, egg-shaped clutch bag with a Swarovski handle at the brief. On seeing it, I immediately thought of a greedy magpie, who would steal the sparkle for her nest. So the night before I set about collecting branches, feathers and twigs in nearby Battersea Park and then built a nest from scratch, twisting and binding the wood and blades of hay together, then spray painting it white to show off the bag’s colour and to give a Christmassy appeal. If we had time, I would shoot it as well as our group shot. Thankfully, we did, and I was able to use a magpie feather borrowed from milliner and friend Grainne Maher on a trip home placing it nonchalantly beside the nest when shooting it. Our photographer loved it. I was delighted to get fab feedback afterwards, for both my own extra shot and our team shoot, but the biggest pleasure came when I opened the September edition of Vogue a few weeks later and saw the bag in the Manolo ad campaign, with a magpie silhouette beside it. Not bad, eh? I was on the same track as the brand team. Beaming again!
As well as the still life shoot, I worked with an American-Swiss-Irish-Australian group of fab ladies on a portfolio fashion classics shoot including a biker jacket and a body suit which was a really fun project. I sourced a red skirt from Belfast designer Gordon Donaldson and picked up a sexy red swimsuit in TopShop to style it up. The team paired the look with my colleague Sofia’s Balenciaga boots and another colleague Scarlett’s Moschino bag as well as some earrings I’d bought but not yet worn. We had so much fun directing our beautiful model Gardelina to run and jump in front of the lens.
My least favourite part was using photoshop and InDesign. I felt really out of my comfort zone as I had previously always outsourced all elements of design, however having identified this as a weakness, I have now invested in these programmes and aim to practice more so I can produce my own artwork or blog content when I want to.
When Valentina wasn’t around (she didn’t stay the full four weeks), I managed to visit the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A, the Tate Modern, The Saatchi Gallery (Self Expression to Selfie is a fantastic exhibition), the Fashion & Textiles Museum, the amazing Grayson Perry exhibition at the Serpentine and many more artistic experiences. I lounged on the rooftop pool at the Ned, ate in Sushi Samba, SoHo House, the Soho Hotel, J Sheeky’s, Bob Bob Ricard’s, The Ivy, Sketch, Bluebird and quite a few other awesome eateries. I watched Jez Butterworth’s amazing play The Ferryman (and took Valentina to see School of Rock also) then I sank a couple of cosmos at Dean Street Townhouse with my former BBC colleague Ceire Deery, who produced the BRITs for 15 years and is about to produce the MTV EMAs in London in November. I also caught up with Michaela Weir, now super senior in House of Fraser as well as many other NI alumni doing great things in London at Little House and Morton’s in Mayfair and joined the Christmas press launches for Selfridges, Debenhams and House of Fraser, among others.
The city is as vibrant and inspiring as ever and, despite a jam-packed schedule, the experience of spending a month there has left me refreshed, re-energised and ready to tackle the next few months (years) with gusto. My colleagues - young and old - taught me as much as the training team did - I learnt from them in so many ways, and made some nice friendships along the way, in spite of my initial FOMO.
This feature first appeared in Northern Woman magazine, September 2017.