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Meet: Helene Marie Thian

Helene Thian

Helene Marie Thian. Photo by Carla Hernandez, Tokyo

Helene Marie Thian studied MA History & Culture of Fashion, at London College of Fashion, graduating in 2012. After losing all her possessions during Hurricane Katrina, Helene came to London to pursue her dream to specialise in David Bowie and Japonism, after meeting her idol in the 70s. Read more about Helene’s journey… 

I always knew that I wanted to focus on David Bowie’s style and become a fashion historian. It all began in New Orleans, Louisiana, my hometown, from where I drove as a teenager for nine hours all the way to Memphis (Bowie-authored, Mott the Hoople song reference intended) to see him in concert for the Isolar tour in 1976.

Two years later, in 1978, I met David Bowie when I was 19. I was an undergraduate at university. My then-boyfriend asked me to go to a concert with him, but I had no idea that he had reserved special seats for us to see Bowie as he worked for a major rock concert promoter.  After the show in Baton Rouge and on the way home to New Orleans, he told me to stop the car at a bar and disco called Del Lago’s. We went in, and David and his band were all sitting there with no one else in the bar! My boyfriend had arranged the private gathering. We ended up dancing, talking and drinking all night.  Bowie then said in the wee hours that he knew I had a Mercedes parked outside (How he knew, I didn’t ask!), and asked if I could give him a lift back to his hotel. It was just Bowie, his bodyguard, my boyfriend and I in my burgundy Benz. Unforgettable, to say the least.

David Bowie is

From the early 1980s, I began living in Japan for many years. I studied for two years on a Monbushō scholarship from the Japanese government after becoming qualified as a lawyer in Louisiana. I connected with Kansai Yamamoto, who just happened to be the Japanese designer responsible for the Ziggy Stardust look.  He was my husband’s boss for nearly 30 years so I had the opportunity to socialise with Kansai–he even took us out boating in Tokyo Bay—and helped him with his Paris Collection fashion show on site in 1990.

In 2005, I lost all of my life possessions because of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had been shipped back from Japan and included my Bowie memorabilia, books, jewellery, photos, heirlooms and vintage clothing collection. In 2007, I began doing Japan-related legal work in the Washington, DC area, which I absolutely abhorred.  So I decided in 2010, whilst working in San Francisco, to do what I had always wanted and become a fashion historian. I had collected books on fashion history since childhood. My mother loved clothes and fine design and had inculcated a love of music, fashion, art and beauty in me. It seemed a natural progression. I serendipitously found London College of Fashion, after actually having been accepted to the Royal College of Art, and promptly applied. My supervisor, Dr Shaun Cole, really was and is the most brilliant mentor for whom one could wish. At the time, he had just been appointed interim director of the LCF Master’s course in the History & Culture of Fashion, having been the former Head of Contemporary Programming at the Victoria & Albert Museum, when I contacted him about enrolling.

In my first week of studies, I remember standing in the V&A on a class field trip, and Shaun asked me if I still wanted to specialise in the research on Bowie and Japonism. He informed me with a twinkle in his eye that as it turned out the V&A would in the near future curate a massive exhibition on Bowie on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, and that I could likely work with the curatorial team. His prediction came true for I shared my research and got credit for it in the Acknowledgements in the eponymous, accompanying book David Bowie is… by Co-Curators Geoff Marsh and Victoria Broackes. I gave a talk during the Bowie Weekender during the run of the show in a Q & A format with style icon and LCF graduate and Lecturer Amber Butchart as moderator.

Enchanting David Bowie

During my studies I was fortunate enough to receive a rarely awarded MA travel grant from the Pasold Research Fund. So I took the opportunity to travel to Japan and interface with Kansai and do extensive research at the Bunka Gakuen fashion college library in Tokyo. In 2012, I presented at the first ever David Bowie symposium in Limerick, Ireland. I saw the advert soliciting presentations, and although there was lots of competition and I ended up applying just past the deadline for submission, I managed to get a spot.  I have also presented at the Costume Society in London at their “Music, Fashion and Fantasy:  from Masquerade to Lady Gaga” Study Day.  I have seen my research work published in the form of chapters for two books on Bowie, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives ( Routledge 2015), a collection of papers from the Bowie Symposium, and also Enchanting David Bowie (Bloomsbury, 2015) as organised by Deakin University.  I was granted permission by famed photographer Masayoshi Sukita to use a photo of his featuring Bowie and designer Kansai from the early 1970s for my book chapter for the former publication. Sukita is of course the photographer with whom Bowie collaborated for 40 years and who snapped the iconic “Heroes” album cover image. In an odd bit of synchronicity, the latter book was highly praised after review by a professor at Loyola University, New Orleans (I just so happen to be a graduate of that university’s law school), and his appraisal appeared on the Bloomsbury Publishing website. Dr Chris Schaberg told me my chapter analysing a jacket self-customised by Bowie in the 1960s for his shows with The Riot Squad band was his favourite in the book. I had during my studies been able to travel to Bromley near London to examine the jacket at the Bromley Museum, now sadly closed, and said jacket ended up being part of the David Bowie is… exhibition.

I also intuited (as part of my MA at LCF) after seeing Lindsay Kemp in a BBC documentary about Bowie, that this performance artist of renown, Bowie’s dance and mime teacher in the mid-1960s, might just be the person who had actually introduced the rock icon to Japanese culture, theatre, music and movement. I was fortunate to find a way to contact Lindsay, interview him and speak with him a few times, and to discover the factual basis for the contention that he had indeed been a mentor for Bowie on all things Japanese. In fact, Lindsay loaned me an extremely special photo for my book chapter on Bowie and Japonism in the publication David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015). It was an image of his sister Norma as a child dressed in kimono.  Their father had been a merchant sailor who had travelled to Japan, bringing back mementos for his children. Lindsay even graciously made some beautiful drawings for me in appreciation for my work on his contributions to Bowie’s Japan-inspired art! This story with Lindsay illustrates the joy of being a fashion historian and finding, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes, the cause and effect in dress history. And it illustrates how studying at LCF opened doors for me to encounter people who have shaped our world in monumental ways.

Just this week, a librarian at London College of Fashion who helped me greatly during studies—here’s a toast to the LCF librarians who are so critical to student success!—Peter Winning, told me that he’d ordered copies of the two books in which I have chapters. So things have come full circle with my research and studies now being made a part of the LCF library.

I have also seen my work analysing the framing by different photographers of the designs of Kansai Yamamoto published in the academic journal Dresstudy, a publication of the august Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. Shaun jokingly said that I, his student, had trumped him by getting published first by KCI.

Following David Bowie’s death recently, which was quite a sad event for me, I was contacted by members of the press in the US and abroad to discuss the rock god’s connection with Japan. I was interviewed by the very respected radio journalist Marco Werman of Public Radio International’s The World programme, which was broadcast nationally in the US.  I was also interviewed by the BBC Singapore for a lengthy online article.

Henri Bendel

Henri Bendel portrait

As an aside to the tale of Bowie and me, in 2014 I presented a talk at the Science Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana for the Center for Louisiana Studies on fashion designer/retailer Henri Bendel, founder of Bendel’s department store in New York City in the early 20th century. Bendel is a native of that city but catapulted to New York and ended up revolutionising the fashion industry, introducing designers such as Schiaparelli, Molyneux, Vionnet and Chanel to the US. I was responsible for uncovering a long hidden oil portrait of Bendel under a bed in the Alexandre Mouton House, Lafayette Museum. The portrait was discovered right before I gave my talk so Henri, no doubt, was desirous of coming out from under the bed!

And the frosting on the cake is that I have now learned in 2016 from Bebe Buell (iconic model/rock star muse/singer and Friend on Facebook), that she introduced Bowie to Bendel’s, her favourite store, when she was living in NYC in the early 70s. So I guess that all roads lead to Bowie in my life in the most inexplicable and amazing ways!

I plan on returning to Japan this year to reside and hope to organise an exhibition some day at the Kobe Fashion Museum featuring British and Japanese magasine images of Japanese fashion and culture in London from the 1970s, which I uncovered during extensive research in Japan and the UK for my studies.  There are so many other topics in Japanese dress history to investigate, too. Thanks to my time at LCF, I have been on a journey of my heart’s desire, the very best thing imaginable.

Helene enjoys collaborations with all sorts of individuals and institutions. She can be reached at

Meet: Zelia Vanderpuije

Zelia Vanderpuije studied BA (Hons) Womenswear Technology at London College of Fashion.  After graduating, she moved to Ghana where she set up her own label, Zelia Vanderpuije. Take a look at some of her beautiful designs, which she will be showcasing at the upcoming Ghana Fashion Week.

Zelia Vanderpuije

Zelia Vanderpuije

What made you want to study at the London College of Fashion? 

I completed my A-Levels at Priors Field School, which is what I did just before applying for a Foundation Design course at LCF. I have known about LCF for as long as I can remember. I read about the college online and I said to myself, “I have to study there”.  And so I was really grateful to be accepted on to the BA (Hons) Womenswear Technology Course. 


From Zelia's debut SS16 collection

From Zelia’s debut SS16 collection

Tell us about launching your own line 

Life after graduating was slightly daunting, because real life started. I decided to go straight into researching on self-employment and starting my own clothing line business, rather than looking for work.

I decided to set up my own label – Zelia Vanderpuije. The label focuses on ready–to-wear drapery, asymmetry and tailoring, for women of all shapes and sizes. My inspiration for my recent spring summer 2016 collection can from the movement of people and objects. I was intrigued by the captions of photographs taken in slow motion of people dancing, walking or even sitting. The excessive draping and flowing of fabrics was a symbol of movement. I also looked into cubism, and liked the abstract feel of design and technique. The colour scheme for the collection mainly came from being inspired by cubism.


I also decided to come back home to Ghana, Accra, to see what life was like here, as well as check out the fashion scene. I always thought I would come back to Africa, but I just did not know exactly when. Launching the label earlier this year in January was full of mixed emotions. There was so much involved in making sure I delivered exactly what I wanted to portray through my garments and my labels aesthetics. Organizing my own fashion show to launch my debut collection was definitely a dream come true. I was amazed by the crowd who came to support my work.

I am currently selling my clothing online at I am looking into providing some stock to already established boutiques here in Ghana and eventually in the UK. Once I have established myself further down the line, I will then look into opening a store of my own, possibly first here in Ghana.


Will you be involved in Accra fashion week?

I am currently in the process of creating my AW16 collection which will hopefully be shown at Accra Fashion Week this October 2016.  Accra Fashion Week is launching this year, so it will be the first one ever. It is opened to designers across the world, emerging and established designers.


What are you plans for the future? 

I am always thinking of the future and how I can improve as a designer as well as improving as a brand. Having my garments sold in different stores nationally and internationally, taking part in fashion weeks worldwide and having a bigger studio and showroom are just a few of my many plans. Who knows what the future holds? All I can say is, stay tuned, and keep your eyes forever peeled for Zelia Vanderpuije the label!

Meet: Sara Pignatelli

Sara Pignatelli studied MA Fashion and the Environment program at London College of Fashion, graduating in 2014. We met with Sara to find out more about her with her sustainable shoe brand, minimize damage MAXIMIZE ART, she plans to slowly tackle the damage caused to the environment by the Fashion Industry.

Sara Pignatelli

Sara Pignatelli

What made you decide to come to London and study at LCF?  And what specifically interested you about Fashion & the Environment?

I studied my undergraduate Fashion Design at the Universidade Técnica de Lisboa, in Lisbon, where I was inspired by the work of Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and Nicolas Ghesquière, who were presenting highly futuristic clothing at that time. Their work fuelled my interest in new technologies, and my creations became very conceptual and were conceived beyond wearability and commerciality.

I went on to do several short courses at Central Saint Martins, where a teacher approached me about an internship, which led me to move to London in 2008 to explore job opportunities in the fashion industry. In 2010 a Portuguese footwear company invited me to join their design team and I accepted the challenge. I had always liked shoes, but I never thought that I would one day be creating them. Entering this industry led to a tremendous shift in my thinking – I realised that innovative designs don’t always sell. My interest in the design process slowly decreased and I became passionate about manufacturing and business strategies.

The footwear industry is one of the driving forces of the Portuguese economy and I worked in daily contact with factories and suppliers for four years, including production management in Indian factories and attendance at several trade shows in Europe and the US. I saw with my own eyes the damage that this industry is causing and the idea of continuing working under these standards became unbearable. After the oil industry, fashion is the second most harmful, with shoes being having the highest impact on the environment.

When I came across the MA Fashion and the Environment program at London College of Fashion, I felt that it could be the paradigm shift of my career. I decided to follow my gut, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.


What was the best thing LCF taught you?  Did it help you prepare for life after?

Before the course, I only had a basic idea of what sustainable fashion could be or look like. It was in the context of this MA program that I gained a global perspective of sustainable practices and research in the fashion field.

As an MA program, students are expected to be independent and that can be either confusing or scary. Teachers are not there to tell you what to do and how to do it, but if you stay aware you will understand that LCF puts you in direct contact with pioneering resources, technologies, research centres, organisations and professionals that are actually moving towards sustainable solutions – the network opportunities are outstanding. Once you are clear about your goal, there is no place like LCF to actualise it, because you will be able to present and discuss your projects with the most brilliant and forward thinking people.

On the top of that, LCF sees each student as a single individual with a unique talent that should be motivated and pushed forward. So this is a precious opportunity to be yourself, to put your ideas out there and see what you can do with them. LCF also has a Careers department who help you improve your CV and find your place in the Fashion Industry. I met with this department at the very beginning of the course and it helped me make the most of all the opportunities within the course.


What was the best thing about living in London? What one piece of advice would you give a student moving to London?

London naturally became my second home and a place that I cannot live without. In my perspective, anyone aiming to work in fashion should come here. The city is so vibrant and there is so much information everywhere that, honestly, I feel that I am learning just from walking in the streets with my headphones on. One day I saw an advert with a picture of the Queen on it, with the writing; “we are not afraid of what is different, because being different is what makes us stronger”. To my eyes, the meaning of this sentence is the feeling I get from London. There is space for everyone to be unique, there is no judgement and people feel free and comfortable to express themselves in the most creative ways – through their style, art, music, business…

But there are downsides too – for those who come from sunny places, like me, the weather can really affect your mood… but slowly, with time, you will understand that there is also beauty in foggy days, which normally are great days to focus on your work!

The best advice I can give is to get out of your room, explore the city as much as you can, meet people, go to exhibitions, conferences, house parties, BBQs… and, if you like riding, GET A BIKE and forget the tube and buses.  London looks so beautiful when you are riding. And get your business card done asap, you will need it.


Have the relationships you formed at the University of the Arts helped you since graduating?

The chances for networking at UAL are huge. Not only did I share classes with students/professionals from around the globe, the number of conferences, symposiums and talks are infinite.  At these events you could meet anyone from Lilly Cole to your future boss/partner. Many of these contacts are also Facebook groups, where everyone shares information daily.

At the moment I am working exclusively on my footwear brand, but until few months ago I was still doing some production management services, helping other fashion brands find factories and suppliers in the Portuguese manufacturing industry. This activity kept me in contact with some of my teachers/tutors and we frequently exchange information about new materials, technologies and how to implement Portuguese materials in the UK market.

As a UAL student I was given 5000 credits to spend at Own It, which is a UAL department created to offer intellectual property (IP) advice to students and staff members. As graduates, we can continue using these credits for two years after graduation.

The Own It lawyers and advisors helped me with the whole process of registering the brand and product.  I was faced with a particular situation that I needed legal advice for, and Own It put me in contact with three other organisations/institutions that helped. Through this I ended up meeting my “business-angel”, my right-hand, who has been guiding me on the business side since then! “Sometimes, life puts you in touch with the people you need to meet to help you”… It’s destiny… it happened to me!


What have you been doing since graduating?

Through my MA research I came to a formula to reduce the environmental impact of a standard deck shoe. My ambition was to prove that is possible to start improving a standard day-to-day product and the deck shoe was the style I sold the most during the periods I had worked for other companies.

With this project I was given a Creative Enterprise Award in 2014 by UAL, and second prize in the Ernst & Young Enterprise 2015 award by NOVA School of Business and Economics. Being awarded helped me realise that my idea could be much more than just a project full of good intentions written down on paper.

Choosing a name was not an easy task – A huge percentage of consumers still see sustainable fashion as “boring”, “hippie” or “green” and I wanted to go against all that. After eight months of struggling, the’ eureka’ moment happened and I came up with ‘minimize damage MAXIMIZE ART. ‘Minimize Damage (MD)’ stands for our goal to reduce the waste ending up as landfill by upcycling and recycling materials to produce some parts of our shoes. ‘Maximize Art (MA)’ stands for the exclusivity of each pair of our shoes because the materials we use are unique and finite cuts, meaning very few pairs of each design are produced.

After graduation I started meeting manufacturing companies, looking for the right partners to convert my idea into a real business. It took me precisely one year to produce my first stock, which came out by the end of November 2015. Minimize Damage – Maximize Art Ltd is based in London, while all our shoes are made in Portugal (where most companies work under ethical standards). Our eShop,, was launched on the first week of January this year.

MDMAshoes only offers limited editions and don’t plan collections one year in advance, which is a business model that goes completely against the current standards of the fashion system. I know that I will have to create new strategies to put this brand and product in the market, but I honestly believe that we cannot continue operating in the same way and it’s time to reshape the future of this industry. The pace we have been consuming fashion is generating millions of tons of rubbish per second and we have to think of what to do with it, to start looking at it as a raw material. This is only a tiny drop in the ocean, but it is already a step forward towards a more sustainable practice.


What are your plans for the future?

Our first collection was named UPcycling and converts defective clothes and textiles into shoe parts while all the soles are made from recycled rubber waste… but this is only the beginning. We are already testing new recycling solutions to present in the future but we will do it slowly because the public needs to understand what we are doing and the manufacturing companies need to accept and adapt to these changes. Collaborating with other fashion brands is also in our plans…

I never dreamed of developing a career in the footwear industry or creating my own brand – they were things that happened naturally. I found job opportunities in this sector and, suddenly, I realised that shoes became the strongest tool I had to start doing what I always really-really wanted: to work towards a better and more sustainable future.

My greatest wish for minimize damage MAXIMIZE ART is for it to belong to an emerging era of business and consumption – more conscious, positive, meaningful and ethical – in which every brand, businesses and governments will take Nature in consideration.




Meet: Sidonie Sandrine

Sidonie Sandrine hasn’t looked back since graduating with a BA (Hons) in Fashion Management from London College of Fashion in 2005. Ten years on, she has gone on to set up a successful e-commerce website Froufrou Boudoir, as well as build and grow a successful fashion and styling agency  ‘Style By Definition’. Read more about Sidonie’s journey, from realising that she had to follow her passion for fashion, to making it on her own…

Sidonie Sandrine

Sidonie Sandrine

While in my second year at the University of Westminster studying a BA in Tourism Planning and Management, I met a group of students from LCF at an event, and after that encounter I knew that I had to follow my heart in to the world of Fashion.  I applied for the BA in Fashion Management and got accepted. In 2005, after three years, I graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fashion Management with my main pathway being buying and merchandising. The rest is history. 

I had an amazing time at LCF, it was easier to be myself in the fashion environment, and I was lucky enough to meet good people with whom I forged great friendships, which are still standing. We created our own ‘Post-LCF’ family, and it is humbling to look at my friends and to see what we’ve all achieved; professionally and privately.

My highlights were without a doubt the lecturers, who were inspiring and passionate. I was lucky enough to get some very insightful advice from two of my lecturers. Even the modules that I did not enjoy ended up being exciting simply because they provided me with that real window I needed in order to start understanding how exciting and complex the fashion industry is.

One thing for sure is that my degree from LCF has helped make the process of pitching for work and appealing to new clients easier. I did not realise that until many clients and potential business collaborators pointed it out to me.  It proves that investing in your education at a renowned institution really pays off later in life.

Sidonie at work

The key after graduation is not to take a job that isn’t related to your industry, because that will push you further away to your dream.

Be yourself and attend as many interviews as possible. Channel your passion and enthusiasm into each and every opportunity you get. We only get one shot and sometimes that chance comes only once, so make sure you are always ready. Do unpaid work experience and pretend it is paid.  And take a risk; you never know who may be watching or asking who the new intern is…

I have been running my fashion and styling agency for the past five years now.  I started out as a freelance stylist but then I decided to work under my own terms.  I was only interested in promoting my styling services to the average men and women who don’t realise they can afford the services of a personal stylist without having to break their bank balance.

To change someone’s mind about a misconceived idea is what excited me the most! My niche target is the average and middle-class person. I feel very privileged to share personal experiences with my clients who are from different cultures, background and professions.

I registered my limited company in April 2010, and Style By Definition, my Fashion and styling agency was born. In 2012 I added a new venture – a lingerie eCommerce site called Froufrou Boudoir. This was a project that I wanted to undertake because my husband and I were starting to talk about having a family, and I believed that an Ecommerce business would enable me to earn money while on maternity leave.  However, before my daughter was born in January 2014, I also added the wholesale market fashion sales services to my agency.  This enables me to act as brand agent in the UK to designers and companies, advise, and introduce exciting emerging and established international fashion brands not yet here in the UK.


Ioanna Kourbela Basics Collection

Ioanna Kourbela Basics Collection

I am extremely excited at the moment with the new brand I am representing IOANNA KOURBELA – BASICS. The collection consists of off duty pieces and statement and classics separates made from high quality materials.  It’s affordable and refreshingly stylish.  Sidonie will be presenting the IOANNA KOURBELA ” BASICS” AW 16-17 collection by Appointment only from her showroom the 1st of February to the 19th March 2016, and will also be showing at Pure London from 14 – 16 February 2016.

I am either a big fool or simply a huge risk taker and a born entrepreneur.  Otherwise why would anyone choose the hard way of earning money rather than working for a company with guaranteed income and all the benefits? I suppose I am a sucker for making it on my own and getting direct credit for my hard work, something that I feel extremely blessed to be able to do.


Meet: Nomoi & Tim Smart, a UAL Alumni Collaboration

Robert Burr, MA Strategic Fashion Marketing 2011 at London College of Fashion and Tim Smart, MA Illustration 2013, Camberwell College of Art met through UAL’s ShowTime website, when Rob wanted to find an illustrator to collaborate with for his menswear brand, NOMOI. A year later they have just launched a line of T-shirts, all hand printed in London, featuring Tim’s illustrations.

We met with Tim and Rob to talk about how the collaboration came about, and how it has benefitted them in ways they didn’t expect…

Rob and Tim

Rob Burr (left) and Tim Smart (right) wearing a NOMOI & Tim Smart T-Shirt

What made you both want to study at UAL?

Rob: I have always been very fond of clothing and fashion growing up, I wanted to do something that was really focussed on my own interests, so I applied to do an MA in Strategic Fashion marketing at LCF.

LCF and UAL’s brand precedes them, and I was really thrilled to be offered a place, as it was my first choice.

I really enjoyed the course. I had never studied fashion before, and so everything was new and really exciting for me. An element of the course was also in partnership with the London Business School, which was a fantastic experience. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the course, I had a great time.

The reason I did the course was because my ultimate goal was to set up my own brand, and I have been working towards the position I am in ever since I finished my undergrad.  I started the brand when I was working at Pentland Brands. I began to write a business plan and figure out what the brand stood for. I had always worked within clothing and I wanted to create something that was not necessarily focussed on trends, but was more timeless in its approach.  I wanted to produce the garments locally, with a bit of honesty and soul. All the materials are sourced from Britain and Europe.

I launched the brand with a small but concise collection in early 2014. The clothes are based on timeless classics but with a little bit of individuality. What started as 3 pieces has grown and will continue to do so.  New products are added to the collection as and when, but I currently have around 20 pieces. It’s still small but growing steadily with everything currently sold through the NOMOI website.

Stargazing White

‘Stargazing’ T-Shirt, part of the NOMOI & Tim Smart collection

Tim: I spent a year after my BA in Illustration not really knowing what to do, and so I don’t feel like it was a conscious decision to apply, it was more something on my mind that I wanted to do at some point in the future. But I remember meeting Jan Woolley, the course director at the open day and instantly knowing I was doing the right thing.

I did the course part time over two years while I was working full time, which was quite difficult. But it was absolutely the right way to do it for me. I had the benefit of meeting two entirely different year groups (three if you consider there were part-timers in their second year), so I now have double the friends I would have had if I’d done a single year. I feel as though I was just as productive as the people on my course who were studying full time and not working – having a limited time allowed me to be more focussed.

I was living in Hackney, and so there were days when I wouldn’t go in because I didn’t have to, I wish I’d spent a bit more time going into the campus and using that resource.

I went to Japan towards the end of my second year as a part of the UAL’s international residency program. Someone from the previous year’s cohort had gone and told me what an amazing time they’d had, and so I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was there for almost a month and spent a lot of time on my own, which was very new for me as I’m quite a social person.  I spent pretty much every day cycling around Tokyo with little scraps of paper. I’d bought with me some of the paper that I was working on, and as the time went by I kept using the paper, I had to cut it up into smaller and smaller pieces so that I didn’t run out of materials to work with. Because of this, my drawings became much smaller. I had always worked on a relatively large scale, so it was a major shift in how I worked, which was forced by the circumstances. Also, I had to have everything I needed on my person rather than having access to a studio’s worth of materials, it definitely helped me. You can fall into habits when you’re sat at your desk and actually going out and about and doing stuff really helped shake things up.

The first thing I did when I graduated was to quit my job (I was selling furniture at Habitat during my degree).  I got a job for Wholefoods market, as their graphic artist. I now do that four days a week, and then spend a couple of days focused on my own illustration projects.  I have always been choosy about what I spend my time doing; I am not focussed on trying to make it work commercially right away, it just needs to be really fun.

Conga, by Tim Smart

Conga, by Tim Smart

How did your collaboration come about?

Rob: I am always looking for ways to introduce the brand to like-minded customers; a nice t-shirt didn’t currently feature in the range so it made sense to have something.  I also wanted to do something with a point of difference and a reason behind it, I started exploring illustration and I finally found Tim on UAL’s ShowTime.  One of the things that took me about Tim’s work is that it had a human element to it, it was quite real in a way, and it is also quite fun as well.

Tim: Rob got in touch with me and said that he wanted an element of storytelling and something that expressed some of the ethics of the brand.  The whole process was kind of a casual back and forth where I would sketch some ideas and we’d meet up and talk about them and I’d go away and work on them a bit more. It was a really nice process.

From the beginning Rob was really honest and open about not knowing how we were going to manage the collaboration, but we were both happy to just go with it and see how it worked out. This is quite an unusual approach – most people would come with a certain agenda. Rob did come with certain ideas that he wanted to express but I felt like he wanted for me to have creative freedom. I didn’t feel like I was hired as a freelancer to hash out Rob’s ideas; it was a partnership and collaboration. I had never experienced that before.

Even though Rob said from the beginning that he wanted it to be collaboration throughout, I didn’t anticipate that I would be so involved all throughout the process and that it would be a long term thing. It has been a really valuable experience being involved all the way through.

What are the main benefits you found through your collaboration?

Tim: One of the biggest benefits of collaboration is that you gain all this new experience and insight that you don’t expect. I really enjoyed it, which has been the main thing. I choose what I do because I enjoy it. To work on something that is a joy to do really is the main thing.

Rob: When you work with other people, whatever comes out is always going to be greater than what you could have produced alone.  Also it gives you a new perspective on what you’re doing – much more than I had realised.

Tim wearing a T-shirt from the collection

Tim wearing a T-shirt from the collection

Advice to other alumni wanting to collaborate:

  • Do your research
  • Approach it gradually – our collaboration felt right from the first couple of meetings, but that won’t always be the case
  • Go into it with an open mind, but also trust your gut and your instincts
  • Be structured
  • Acknowledge that it might go wrong, but there will still be things you will learn from it

The t-shirts are now live on the website to buy now!


Rob and Tim will be speaking at the upcoming alumni event ‘Meet your new business partner’ on Wednesday 18 November, at Blueprint Bar, 272 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EW from 6pm.  The event is free for all UAL alumni and students, and you can register here.