Anissa Kermiche is one of jewellery’s brightest breakout stars of the past 12 months and her award winning designs are now stocked at some of the world’s most respected retail destinations from Net-a-Porter to the Conran Shop. But while her meteoric rise may have seemed effortless,  a whirlwind year took its toll on both her health and happiness. Here she shares her story—from her beginnings in the prejudiced and corporate world of engineering to her new life as an entrepreneur.

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Unlikely Foundations

I was born in Paris to a multi-cultural family with French and Algerian heritage. I had a very strict upbringing and education which I rebelled strongly against—there were a lot of arguments during my teens. I felt a huge amount of pressure because my mum was an unfulfilled engineer. She was taken out of university the year before she graduated to marry my father—a decision made for her by her family. There is a big gap between our two generations and the aspirations and achievements we could have in life.

Frustration really characterized my childhood and early twenties—because I felt that I had been deprived of the chance to explore what I really wanted to do. I was so envious of my friends in art school or those pursuing creative careers and felt completely trapped. However, as much as I complained, today I am very thankful to my mum for pushing me, because my business wouldn’t be where it is now if I hadn’t had so much rigour, discipline and structure in my previous career.

“My University was 85% male and overwhelmingly full of student of French origin. I was one of the only students from an Arabic background and you could feel the prejudice—especially from the teachers.”

 

I studied engineering, computer science and logistics at University. I had an one year internship coding and programming a website—html, php—and created various company databases. My Master’s degree was in project management, which now helps me on a daily basis to mitigate risks and plan. But at the time, of course, I could never have imagined how I’d be using my skills. I found a lot of it crushingly boring.

The engineering community isn’t renowned for its diversity, but most of my peers were quite easy and were just consumed with their studies. I was definitely the only person in my computer science classes who cared about style or aesthetics—even though I wouldn’t dare to dress the way I do now. I still tried to fit in the mold because otherwise I would have been immediately judged. My University was 85% male and overwhelmingly full of students of French origin. Because I came from a minority and I was quite clearly a woman, it was hard to feel accepted on the same terms. I was one of the only students from an Arabic background and you could feel the prejudice—especially from some of the teachers. I was always the first one called to the chalkboard and the teachers would often ask for me to answer the questions first. With the boys, it was more that they couldn’t understand why I was there. The other students were never openly hostile, they just found me a bit of an anomaly. I felt I had to constantly prove myself and show I was up to the grade.

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I got a job after University working for a consulting company where they bled young people dry with an insane workload. Where I really found my niche was in communicating our projects to clients—I very soon became the go-to employee to put together presentations. I’d rework every PowerPoint to make it visually beautiful. For me there had always been an obsession with colour and this was about the most creative thing I could do within my cell. 

“I hated the corporate side of the company and the idea that you had to fit in the company’s culture. You had to drink your coffee from a company branded mug that they gave you for Christmas.”

I remember the day I decided to leave. I got along with one of my managers and when I found out what her life looked like outside of work–which was non-existent–I decided that there was absolutely no way I could keep going. She was 29 and managing 17 people and doing a great job, but she had zero personal life. While it’s true I don’t have a lot of free time now, I couldn’t see myself devoting my entire life—way beyond the 9-5—to a company that sold information analytics. I realised I could only give up my life for something I truly believed in. I also hated the corporate side of the company and the idea that you had to fit into the company’s culture. You had to drink your coffee from a company branded mug that they gave you for Christmas. If you went for a cigarette break with the boss you were more likely to get promoted—all those office clichés just didn’t suit my personality at all. I didn’t want to play that game.

Quarter-Life Pivot

I was 27 and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I spent hours reading ‘Change Your Career’ books and decided to go travelling for a couple of months to India, not to find spiritual enlightenment, but to experience a completely different reality from the grey corporate world. Making a career change always looked so possible for other people, but when I thought about it myself it seemed completely unsurmountable.

I had always secretly thought about jewellery, but I just felt there was such a stigma around it. I had a lot of friends in Paris who had started not-so successful jewellery labels and then they would pester you in the run up to Christmas to come to their private sales. People made fun of them and I didn’t want to go down that road. Setting up a jewellery line has become almost a right of passage for privileged young girls with not much else to do with their time. But how many of them last longer than a year? Knowing that I neither had an endless supply of family money or the time to lose, I came to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t the right route for me. Sure, if you have a bit of money to waste, why not try you luck and lose two years of your life for nothing? But when it’s your own capital and your own savings and you have to take out loans to fund your production—it’s just a totally different story.

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And yet, I couldn’t shake the idea. Designs kept popping into my mind and I’d see inspiration everywhere. Eventually I cut my travels short and invested the rest of my budget into training. I rented a room in London and enrolled on some summer classes at St Martins because I think more than anything I was looking for validation. After that I decided to study a technical Computer Aided Design (CAD) course at Holts Academy in an attempt to bring part of my old world into my new one. The fact that I can design and 3D print all my own samples means I save lot of money and also gives me the freedom to push creative boundaries and experiment without incurring huge costs.

At the end of my course I won the final competition which was in partnership with Mappin & Webb —perhaps the push I needed to decide to launch my own business rather than go and work for someone else. I’d designed a lot during my studies and felt like the ideas were bursting out from my brain. I just needed to make them, even if it was just for myself. I found a manufacturer who would help me make the pieces and as soon as I started wearing them, personal orders began to roll in. Step by step I gained the confidence to launch my own collection.

Friction Then Breakthrough

At the outset, I had huge issues persuading manufactures to make my pieces. Of course, they saw me and immediately thought, ‘another Arabic girl spending daddy’s money,’ but very quickly they realized there was no bullshitting. It’s really unusual for a designer to bring CAD drawings and samples and I had an immediate grasp of quantities and the prices of precious metals, manufacturing processes and so on, so it soon became clear that I deserved respect.

“I think people have learned not to judge my book by its cover—but if it does happen, I don’t care—I have the skills and knowledge to achieve my goals whatever they think of me.”

Knowledge is so powerful. You don’t realise it when you’re young and your parents tell you to stick to school, but it will save you one day. The issue then was that they couldn’t understand my designs. My body language collection, for example, they labelled a joke and said that it, ‘wasn’t jewellery,’ and, ‘none of it would sell.’ Ultimately they didn’t want to make the pieces which meant I had to fight so hard. It’s so funny now to see that those are pieces selected by the design-focused stores like The Conran Shop and fashion leaders like Leandra Medine have been photographed wearing my ‘Roobies Boobies’ necklace.

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Being underestimated is very powerful because you can get in through the back door without making so much noise. When people think one thing of you and the other is true, it can actually be very helpful for getting them on to your side. Now when my website developer tries to rip me off, I know exactly how long a piece of code will take to write so I can call him out. If my manufacturer had tried to charge me a lot of money for sampling, I could bring my own 3D samples and CAD drawings. I think people have learned not to judge my book by its cover—but if it does happen, I don’t care—I have the skills and knowledge to achieve my goals whatever they think of me.

Stratospheric Success

Then came the launch of the website and an incredible year of business. I was completely unprepared for the speed and scope of the success that was coming my way and had totally underestimated the snowball effect of fashion. A few influencers wore some of my designs on Instagram and within days everything just started building. Grazia France got in touch and wrote a page feature on my collection then all the other publications started calling in samples to shoot. The magazines were followed by retailers and I was lucky enough to secure some fantastic destinations including Matches and Net a Porter very quickly.

“The truth is that the speed of growth completely overwhelmed me and pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that I was in a constant state of anxiety.”

I hadn’t planned for everything to explode so quickly and I almost immediately felt trapped, because I hadn’t considered hiring support. It was just me. If I thought working 50 hour weeks for a big consultancy company was tough, this was something completely different. The stress was incredible because there was just so much riding on everything and I was having to learn something new every day. As a minimum three nights a week were spent working through until morning and I would spend the entire weekend at my screen—I didn’t get dressed or leave the house. 

Of course, this was everything I had hoped for and it’s pretentious to complain about success. But the truth is that the speed of growth completely overwhelmed me and pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that I was in a constant state of anxiety. Adding travel for launches and events only made things work and instead of spending my nights dreaming of shapes and designs I was waking up in a panic about invoice reconciliation and tax codes.

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Models & influencers wearing Anissa Kermiche; clockwise from top left, Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, model Joan Smalls, Courtney Trop of Always Judging, Pandora Sykes, model Toni Garrn

In the end my health gave up.  I was using my left hand on my track pad so much that my two left fingers completely paralyzed from the neck down and I couldn’t move them at all. It happened to be the week that I had to design and plan the upcoming collection so there was no chance of the week’s rest as prescribed by the Doctor. I did the whole week typing with one hand. If you miss a deadline, you won’t produce a collection on time to launch with a retailer and if you miss a launch and you can’t fulfill the space they’ve given your on their selling schedule then that’s it. The whole collection, the whole production that took you 8 months won’t be sold there. So where are you going to sell it? At this point jewelry was perhaps 5% of my time. The rest was the huge burden of business.

Creative Block

The thing that really scared me was that I had stopped designing. It was like I was like I was in darkness for a whole year. I felt like I had run out of ink and the business stress had killed all of my creativity. There was no time to do the things that had once inspired me like go to trade fairs or museums or travel and I just didn’t have anything new to say. From the outside it looked like 2016 was the best year ever—and it seemed like success had come so quickly and easily to me, but the opposite was in fact true.

“The thing that really scared me was that I had stopped designing. It was like I was like I was in darkness for a whole year. I felt like I had run out of ink and the  business stress had killed all of my creativity.”

I have really mixed feelings about last year—it feels like I went through every colour of the rainbow. There were moments of pink, like my first inclusion in Vogue magazine or when I signed with a big retailer. But there were also moments of blue. I only saw my godson once last year and I was a terrible friend. I didn’t date a single guy, I just had zero time for anyone else. I also realised that I hate going to events. Drinking a free glass of champagne in a room where I don’t know anyone doesn’t interest me at all. Pushing my way to be photographed to raise my profile isn’t something I will ever do. But truthfully it is important when you are launching a brand. You may only meet one person that night, but it could be very beneficial for business. And if you don’t go, you feel guilty. In fact I felt guilty pretty much every time I rested or did anything for pleasure during the entire year–because there is always more to do. That’s when I felt blue.

Now I think I’m in a green period, resembling renewal and hope. I went to Tulum, Mexico for New Year and made a promise to myself to unplug for the first time in at least 24 months. I started to dream about jewellery again. Without intending to, I began creating and came back with my next collection in my mind. I’m so excited about what’s coming next, because I connected with myself and I feel like I have strong ideas that I’m proud to share again.

It does mean I will have to take it much easier on myself. I’ve decided to skip this fashion week season—but I now know there will be another buying season almost immediately afterwards, so it won’t mean that I am dead. Journalists can wait and I don’t have to go to every single event. I also have other small projects that are inspiring me—one of my big retailers has asked me to design a high-end fine collection for the Middle Eastern market, for example. While I may lose out on a few sales it is better than burning out and having nothing new to offer.

“I started to dream about jewellery again. Without intending to, I started creating and came back with my next collection in my mind.”

I’m definitely not saying that to be creative you have to offload the rest of the business side—in fact having a strong grasp of margins and sales is invaluable to me through the design process because that insight of what has and hasn’t resonated with customers guides my designs. But you can’t be a control freak and you have to delegate or you will lose the thing that is really unique to you and your ability to be original. And to me that is not a risk worth taking.

As for what people might think, to be honest I don’t give a shit. If they want to see me as happy, good for them. If they want to see my as sad, go for it. If they want to see me as a spoiled girl who is spending daddy’s money, whatever.  I look at the number of sales every day and I can see my charts, my graphs, my Google analytics–that’s enough for me in terms of validation these days. I live and sleep with myself and I’m not trying to construct an image of myself for other people to consume. Now girls who used to look down on me try to be my friend. I don’t hold grudges and I’m a curious person, so I’m happy to finally get to know them. But it is probably the best sort of revenge because it is a result of work. Not from a new boyfriend or becoming more beautiful, just work. And that is a blast.