Angela Clarke’s ‘Confessions of a Fashionista’
Angela Clarke’s book Confessions of a Fashionista is another book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been for Pam McIlroy, who runs the Broadway Book Club. Once again, her eye for a good read did not let me down.
The cover leads you to believe this is an undemanding read. It is, because Angela’s writing style is both witty and honest and it is the combination of the two that works so well to paint a fascinating picture of life in the fashion industry, from the viewpoint of someone working in an agency. If you thought the girls who deal with the nightmare logistics of photo shoots were airheads, think again. They deal with a daily catalogue of problems and personalities that would have any sane person running for the hills within minutes. By the time I had finished reading the book I found myself enthralled by the relationships, as well as the drama. I couldn’t help thinking that if this had been written for an academic audience, it would had made the most engaging ethnography I had read yet.
Tell me about the process leading up to writing your book.
I graduated from university shortly after a bad relationship breakup, which set a series of events into motion. I started by getting a place on the graduate scheme at Harrods. When I was there, I worked on a photo shoot for the first time. It was for Harrods’ Christmas catalogue, and it opened my eyes to a different world. I could see a way to contribute to something creative in a practical way. From there I wanted to get into photographic production in fashion.
After several attempts, I finally got into the fashion industry. Then I worked my way up until I was head of a department at an agency, looking after hair and make-up artists, stylists and photographers. I managed the artists’ diaries, sorted out any problems they had leading up to and on the day of a shoot, and created portfolios of their work. After a decade of working in and around the fashion industry I left, and decided to write a book about my experience.
When you wrote the book, did you just stop working and concentrate on writing the book?
Initially I stopped work full time. After about eight months I hadn’t really produced a lot, so I got a part time job, two days a week, with an artist I used to represent. I did the PR, marketing and the admin for the make up and hair school she ran. This gave me the structure I needed for the other 3 to 5 days a week.
Looking back on it, I think it was too much of a shock going from an office environment into a completely freelance, self managed, working from home environment. I was trying to do something very different.
So what you would recommend if somebody is in the same situation?
Unless they’re extremely disciplined, or they’ve had experience of working for themselves already, it’s difficult. If you are self-employed and you’re used to controlling your own time on a day-to-day basis, you could do it. I certainly found I needed some fixed points throughout my week, in the form of deadlines or commitments, around which I could create a routine. Working in that way gave me the focus I needed to get things done.
You had so many experiences while you were working in the fashion industry, how did you initially start to do anything with it?
The initial thing I tried working on was a fiction book, set in the fashion industry. I spent about two years writing that book. How I got myself started on that was by just sitting down and starting to write. I rewrote and rewrote the first 2,000 words over a three-month period, before I was happy with them. I now recognise I was trying to find my character’s voice. Rather naïvely, because I’d been ‘good at writing’ at school (many moons before), I’d assumed I could sit down and pick up where I left off. But too many years had passed where I hadn’t written anything creative. I needed to re-learn. I joined creative writing classes. Not only did they give me a focus and deadlines, but they also gave me new tools to get my writing back on track. I look upon those two years of writing the fiction book, as me spending two years learning how to write a book.
How did joining a writing group provide you with the tools you needed?
It was a very free-form writing group. It wasn’t the kind where you do exercises and have to write a short story by the next week. We didn’t spend lessons looking at the first person point of view etc. It was a group of people who were all working on large projects, like books, who came in, read, and were critiqued by the rest of the group.
I’d initially planned to take a year off work to write my book. That was what I’d agreed and financially planned for with my husband. In the end it took longer than that, but when I started taking creative writing classes, I had in the back of my mind I only had a year. I didn’t want to be ‘wasting’ my year writing small pieces, when I wanted to write a book. In the same way as reading has taught me an awful lot about writing, I found listening to other’s pieces being read allowed me to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Combined with the teacher’s critique, this taught me what I needed to know.
I can’t think of any one glaring thing I was doing wrong when I was writing. Obviously there were lots of different things that didn’t quite work, and again I think the process of reading out loud is important to identify those. I still do that. I read the final proof of the book out loud, cover to cover, in one go. I had no voice left by the end of it, but I did it because I can hear when something doesn’t sound right. You can hear if you’ve lost the pace a bit, or if the punctuation’s not right. Read your work aloud. It works!
When you say you know something feels right, is it rhythm?
I think so. I think rhythm is a really important part of writing. I recognise that I write in the same persona that I would adopt if I were at a party. There’s a level of pace and rhythm that comes with that and, because of that; I can hear when it’s not right. I can hear when it jars or it isn’t working.
Do you think you might, over a period of time, experiment and start to change your rhythm and the way you write or are you comfortable with how you are?
I’m very comfortable with my voice, for columns or memoir, but I would like to move into fiction. I can’t really write a fiction character in my voice, because it’s my voice. So I’m working that.
Is the fiction book something you wrote, but hasn’t been published?
It’s something that I wrote, but it hasn’t been published. I sent it to Diana, who is now my agent. She was terribly polite about it, but said she couldn’t sell it. It was women’s commercial fiction, and the concept wasn’t strong enough to sell in a competitive market. She was aware of the column that I was writing for the Daily Mail, and asked if I could expand on that. I’d spent years verbally recounting stories to my friends about the crazy things that happened in the fashion industry, so, of course, I said yes.
So you’re always looking for a niche, when you’re writing a book?
Yes. You have to look at a book as a commodity. That sounds really tacky, but it’s the truth.
It’s the same with my columns. I have to find a way of writing about something other people haven’t, but in a way they can relate to. Columns or books that are about ideas that seem blindingly obvious, but nobody’s ever written about them before, are always the most successful.
There must have been an ethical dilemma with the book, because you couldn’t name people in it and you have to be careful how they were identified. So how did you decide to write it in the way you did?
Yes, you’re right there was an ethical dilemma. There is a lot of silliness in the fashion industry that needs a light shone on it, but there’s also a lot of lovely, wonderful people who I didn’t want to belittle. I also didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I recognise that just because someone did something daft once, it doesn’t mean they are a wholly daft person. You need to be respectful toward other people, and other people’s lives. By disguising who people were, giving them funny names, or reducing them to elements of caricature, I sought to turn them into characters in my story. I didn’t betray their identity, or try and tell their story. Their story belongs to them; let them tell it if they wish. My book is about me and what happens to me.
The structure of the book is interesting, because the last chapter brings you round to the first chapter in a full circle. Did you do that because of editorial advice you’d been given?
No, that was my decision. I do think life is cyclical, in the sense that you revisit things, or have patterns of behaviour in your own life. It’s how it really happened, and it neatly showed it’s not the end of the story. It can’t be, because I’m still alive. It’s not a nice neat narrative, with all the loose ends tied up. This was a snapshot of my life and hopefully it gave the idea that I still have more to do.
Your degree was in English and European literature. How much does that help or conflict with the style of writing you currently have?
It’s very helpful to have the degree, in the sense that I have a background of breaking books down into themes, narrative, overall ideas and why the author does certain things. This is useful when you write, because you are able to think about a project in terms of plot, themes and things that all fit together. You are able to think of all the elements that make up a great story.
I only found a conflict in the sense that I would absolutely adore to write a proper literary novel – using the word ‘proper’ tells you everything – but it isn’t my style. I don’t know if I’m capable of doing it. It’s the kind of thing I keep saying I’ll do when I’m older, when I’ve lived more and learned more. That’s probably the literary snob in me, wanting to write a wonderful masterpiece. But though I’ve read a lot of ‘classics’, I’ve also read a lot of really fantastic, fun genre books that have picked me up when I’ve been down, given me a hit when I’ve needed it and made my holidays. There’s room for both.
How did you end up writing a column for ‘The Wharf’ a local newspaper based in Canary Wharf.
I got the job writing for ‘The Wharf’ right when I began working in the fashion industry itself. It may have even been, although I don’t know for sure, at my leaving do from my old job. I’d been out drinking with my colleagues and there were other people who knew the people I was with. We moved on to a curry house in Brick Lane, and I ended up sitting next to this ridiculously tall guy, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m the editor of a newspaper called ‘The Wharf’. I happened to be living in Canary Wharf at the time, so I said, drunkenly, ‘I know your paper. It’s great. But it doesn’t have any female voices in it and there are more and more women coming into The Wharf, because there are more and more women working in the corporate world, and you need to reflect that.’ I then proceeded to lecture him about it. I woke up the next morning and found his card in my handbag and on the back was written, ‘500 words by Monday.’
That does make it sound rather easy, but it was more transitional than that. I’d never written a column before. There were a few months of going backwards and forwards, where I wrote things and he would reject it saying, ‘No. More like when you were drunk. More passionate.’ He made me alter it until I got it right.
How did you get your column the Daily Mail?
One of the editors from ‘The Wharf’ moved on from there to go and work on the Daily Mail online. I ended up meeting her colleague, the Femail Editor over drinks. I told her funny stories about the fashion industry, and when she went into the office the next morning she told the ex-Wharfer I was ‘walking column’.
It sounds as if, in the writing industry, it’s about networking and putting a lot of effort into the work you do.
I seem to be very lucky with people or at least relentless, especially if I’ve had a drink. I think that sort of passion comes across reasonably well and people like it. It means you’re opinionated, you have something to say and you have a voice. Also it helps to be sociable and friendly. It helps to build networks. People would much rather work with people they can have a laugh with. Away from the social side of things it’s about the not giving up, about how you keep trying to make it better. If you get an opportunity don’t waste it. If you’re told it’s not good enough, then try again. You have to keep working at it until it’s right.
Did your column with the Daily Mail mean you were constantly on the lookout for material, or did you specifically go for a particular subject? How did it work?
My Daily Mail online column came to a close in December 2012, just before the book came out. The majority of the material came from my own experience in the industry, or from people I knew in the industry. Several contacts I knew within the fashion industry were aware I was writing a column and thought the whole idea of it was hilarious. They fed me stories I could use. The column in the Daily Mail was very specific and about a niche subject matter. As long as it was an anecdote from within the fashion industry it was worth writing about.
How do you go about putting a column together?
I’ll talk about how I do ‘The Wharf’, because I’ve been doing that for longer and I’ve just written one yesterday, so it’s fresh in my mind.
I do it weekly. I think of an idea, which can come from anywhere. My process tends to be 90% in my head, and it’s only in the last 10% when the words actually appear on the page. Because I’ve been doing it for a while now, I’m a lot more practised. I tend to write straight, and this comes out at about 320 to 360 words. I redraft it until it’s done. Down to 320. The actual writing process doesn’t look like it takes very long, but it’s the thinking process that takes the time. I recognise I have the same way of working with the book, but on a different scale. I have to have everything sorted out in my mind first before it goes onto the page.
Is there a big difference between working on a column and a book?
Yes, in the sense that the voice and the focus of them are different. Obviously a column needs to be contained in a short number of words, and needs to be about something, for example an opinion or an anecdote. This is about 500 words for the Daily Mail and about 300 for ‘The Wharf’. You need to have a lot more longevity for a book, because you’re writing a story that is running throughout several hundred pages. The voice is different because in a book you’re not generally offering an opinion, you’re telling a story. It needs to have a pace and rhythm that will keep the reader interested across a greater number of words.
As well as working very hard, you have to work round your problem with EDS. How do you juggle the writing and everything else you have to do to control your condition?
I’m very lucky because writing, and working from home, make it easier to deal with my EDS. I go and see my physio twice a week, every week, at the same time. I attend a physio-led Pilates class (there’s about four of us in all). I go swimming two or three times a week. I have countless physio exercises I complete each day. I’m in charge of my own time, which means I can fit in all the activities I’ve listed, which are the things I need to do to manage my health. These are the things that keep me moving, typing and walking. Obviously I wouldn’t be able to just slot activities into my day if I were working in a more traditional office job. Sitting still for 8 hours a day would put too much pressure on my body. It’s better for me to break up my work with relevant exercises and activities.
On the flip side, writing does make my EDS flare up in certain places, for example, my legs (your hamstrings shorten when you sit for a long time) and in my neck and shoulders (from the typing). I also probably work more hours than I would do if I had a more traditional job. I work Saturdays and Sundays as well. But EDS is just one of those things, and you have to get on with it and manage it the best you can. My study’s hilarious. It has all these bits of physio equipment in it that I stop and use every half hour or so. It looks like a gym, with books.
It sounds like I spend a lot of time managing my condition, but I have to. I calculated I spend about eight hours a week attending physio and all the other things I need to do. That’s a whole day’s work. But if I don’t do it, I can’t work at all. It’s as simple as that.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a teen novel. It’s about a girl who becomes a teen fashion blogger, at the age of 14. But it’s really about how to deal with body image. Teenagers are bombarded with all these images of very beautiful women on the internet, in magazines, from advertising, in films and on television. I’m interested in how you process that as a young woman today. I’m putting some stealth feminism in there.