Nene is one of Fashion PR’s most popular women. With nearly two decades of experience and a client roster spanning luxury and high street brands, she recently set up her own agency, Industry Menu—a pay-as-you go service which is swiftly disrupting the old business model. But while she may be making all the right moves now, her journey hasn’t been all plain sailing. Here she talks about what it’s like to be the only black woman in a magazine office, coping with redundancy and discovering what really matters.
I was born in Putney in West London. I have four siblings—I’m the second eldest of five—and we all grew up on an Estate. Dad was an accountant and Mum always had two jobs, one as a nursery nurse at a private nursery. They were both originally from Nigeria and moved to the UK before I was born—Dad had done his degree at Cardiff University, so that was the link. Sadly, he passed away 12 years ago.
I went to a local school, loved Putney and even from a really young age worked hard and threw myself into everything. My mum definitely inspired my work ethic. I was chess champion several times, sprinting champion and competed for Middlesex Borough—basically everything you’re meant to be doing as a kid. There was never sibling rivalry as such, but we weren’t a gang either. It was always every man for himself. Sometimes they jokingly say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I’ll reply, “I was born with the same spoon as you!” We were all raised the same, though we did got to different schools—but some people have got just that little bit more drive. All of my brothers and sisters think I’ve had it all handed to me on a plate, but that’s definitely not the truth.
Fashion Teething Problems
I started doing internships from the age of 16, because even as a teenager I knew I wanted to get into fashion. My first internship was at The Sunday Times Style, then I went on to Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Company & Arena and then I assisted a stylist for two years. I didn’t get paid for any of it. I had absolutely no money and I definitely couldn’t buy any of the clothes we were shooting, but I didn’t care because I loved being there. At Vogue no matter where people came from, they were all real grafters, and would be in the fashion cupboard until God knows what time—it wasn’t very glamorous. But at some of the other magazines, everyone wafted about and seemed posh. It was so different and I felt intimidated. Aside from Ekow Eshun who was the editor of Arena and Claudette Prosper who was the fashion editor at Company, I don’t think I saw another black person—or person of colour—in any of the offices I worked in as an intern. At least when it came to the fashion departments on magazines back then, the staff was overwhelmingly white—I just remember thinking, “Where are all the black people?”
“At least when it came to the fashion departments on magazines back then, the staff was overwhelmingly white—I just remember thinking, “Where are all the black people?””
But I can’t ever remember the lack of diversity putting me off. Some of my siblings would think like that, but even though there weren’t any people that looked like me at Vogue or Harper’s, I don’t remember the whole race thing occurring to me much when I was younger. I was just focused on making my way.
After all that work and those internships, I couldn’t get a full-time job on a magazine. I’d assisted on shoots with Kate Moss, but I still couldn’t get a bloody job! It was a really difficult time. In the end, I found a position at House of Fraser as an Admin Assistant on the buying floor, and then from there a job came up in PR. I suddenly realised that the styling side of fashion wasn’t business-focused enough for me—it had always felt a bit too creative and subjective. I wanted to stay in fashion, so I applied for the PR job and I got it, because of all my internships and contacts. Once I got into PR, I never looked back.
After three years I moved on to various different agencies and worked with some amazing clients. At one point I was looking after Bulgari and Ritz Fine Jewellery which was incredible. I’d never stepped foot in The Ritz, and all of a sudden I was going there for lunch at least twice a week. Everything just went up to the next level. I’d been to some posh places before, but this was a whole new world. I was going out to all these parties, drinking champagne and generally having the time of my life. After a few years of moving around agencies, I got head-hunted to lead Impulse PR which was a boutique PR company—small but with lots of big high street brands. There was definitely a pressure to change things and we only had a really small team of between 8-10 people, but I was so up for the challenge. I think one of the reasons I stayed there so long (11 years) was because I had a lot of autonomy and I got to hire the whole team— which was amazing because that’s when you get to control your environment.
In some ways the job was so great that it make me un-hirable anywhere else. I went to work with a bounce in my step, I got to work from home one day a week, I had a great team and travelled so much. There was one period when I’d only been home for few days during a 6-week period. I would be in New York and LA for press days, maybe if there was a special project I’d do shoots in Cape Town. Sometimes my flat in London was just empty because I was never there, which was amazing because I love travelling. I also love taking ideas from start to finish, and being totally involved in all the stages of a project—it was a hugely fulfilling role. I did sometimes work long hours, but I managed my own schedule which is so important—you don’t start interning at 16-years-old to still be working at midnight at 38.
Seriously Out Of The Comfort Zone
When I got the call to say that Impulse was going to be shut down I just thought, ‘Oh shit.’ I called one of my besties and drank a bottle of rosé champagne—she had her two kids running around which definitely helped diffuse the situation. Had we been alone, everything would be hyped and I probably would have worked myself into a frenzy, but it was great to be in that environment while the news sunk in. I only had a couple of days to tell everyone on my team that they’d lost their jobs. They were like my kids, and I was just gutted for them. At the same time, I knew they would be fine because they were young and all grafters, but it was still a crappy thing to have to go through. Looking back I would probably never had left my job, but after 11 years it was probably a good thing that I had a little shove.
“I only had a couple of days to tell everyone on my team that they’d lost their jobs. They were like my kids, and I was just gutted for them.”
After the dust settled, I was looking for jobs, but nothing screamed out to me. I remember thinking, ‘This can’t keep going on, I’ve got to start earning.’ At the beginning, I just wanted a stable income and was really intimidated by the idea of setting up on my own, but last July, I started doing some freelance work for these two amazing women and it felt really right. They offered me a full-time job, but I ended up turning it down. It was definitely a WTF moment: ‘How can I turn this down when I’ve got bills to pay?!’ It was also a wake up call for me to get my head together to start my own business. My gut was guiding me, but let’s be honest, my gut doesn’t pay the bills!
There was obviously a lot of anxiety because I didn’t want to lose my house and I didn’t know how I was going to maintain the expensive lifestyle I had built for myself. If I lived in a smaller place it might have been cheaper, but it never occurred to me to sell my flat and move out of London. I just decided to try and make it work and I went through a few different phases until I came to Industry Menu.
I decided to go to India and find some clarity, then the plan was to come back and set up my own business as soon as possible. There was a bit of yoga but mostly I went for a month of cleansing the soul, body and mind. Four weeks of eating vegan and ghee and just clearing everything out. By the time I got home it was Christmas, so I set myself the goal of no more messing about—the company had to start in the new year. I started putting it all together in January this year and launched in April. The plan is to change the whole business model with a pay-as-you go service for PR and production, instead of asking clients to pay a hugely costly retainer. Lots of brands are struggling and just can’t afford massive monthly outgoings. Another issue—which is a bit of a PR secret—is that some months agencies do great work for you and some months they don’t. It’s not on purpose, but you can only divide your time so many ways between the huge number of accounts each PR is expected to look after. So some months a brand gets good love, and some months you have to forget about them a bit because you need to spend more time on other brands. The idea with Industry Menu is that you get exactly what you pay for. It’s a much more bespoke, more pick ’n’ mix approach tailored to whatever budget the client has to play with.
Shop Nene’s Look
The entire business is self-funded, so I wanted to take it slowly to make sure I didn’t end up in debt. So no swanky office, no personal assistant—just me and a network of creatives collaborating to create a professional, but great value service. Very quickly I picked up 4 or 5 clients and I realised that my business plan goal of juggling up to 50 clients wasn’t what I wanted at all. There had to be some sense of balance if I was curating my own future. Lots of my old contacts have been really supportive. It’s funny who comes out of the woodwork when you get made redundant. Those that aren’t still there for me, I just take with a pinch of salt. There’s already enough to worry about.
Get By With a Little Help From My Friends
In lots of ways I think I’ve been really lucky in my career because I’ve always had massive support from others. I’ve definitely chosen not to put myself in negative situations, because I’ve got no time for that. I don’t want to be a slave to fashion, I want a real life too. I’ve never experienced any overt racism or prejudice, but then I haven’t really worked for big corporations. There’s definitely been a lack of diversity through the years—at House of Fraser there was only one other girl non-white girl on my floor who was Indian (we’re still close friends now). I’ve also had other women of colour in the industry help me out, which really touched me. Sometimes you would see each other at press days and things and you’d connect. One girl reached out to me even though we didn’t know each other because she was leaving her job and thought I might be interested—and that was purely someone trying to help a sister out. But really, there are very few networks or ways for women of colour to advance in what is still a majority white industry.
That definitely hasn’t got any easier, even over my career. When it was announced earlier this year that Edward Enninful had got the editorship at Vogue [the magazine’s first black editor], I definitely thought maybe it’s time for things to change. I said to my friend, “He’s going to blow away the cobwebs,” and my friend said, “Blow away the cobwebs? He’s going to blow the house down!” I’m really excited because it is so important to see black people in positions of power and as role models. It makes everything possible, especially for young people.
“I’ve had other women of colour in the industry help me out..But really there are very few networks or ways for women of colour to advance in what is still a majority white industry.”
When you’re from a different background and trying to make it in fashion I would say firstly don’t put any limitations on yourself. Don’t say you can’t do something because you’re black or your parents aren’t well-connected. Just go forth and do it—go for what you want. When things don’t go your way, like when I had to side-step out of magazines, you could either come out of the industry, or you can keep knocking on the door—even if your confidence is battered. It’s also worth remembering that things work out how they should. I definitely did not want to be made redundant, but now I’m so excited about the opportunities and experiences ahead. I’ve also been able to spend much more time with my family which can just fall by the wayside when you’re in the machine. You also realise there is more to life than shit you think you need to buy on Instagram. I had a mad moment when I was in India and I saw someone had this great lamp on their insta-feed and I immediately ordered it from Aldi. I was halfway across the world on a cleanse and I ordered a lamp. And I didn’t have a permanent job. I mean…—you have to catch yourself in those moments. Ultimately, yes, I want to earn enough to buy what I want, but after everything I’ve been through, I’ve just realised I need a lot less than I thought I did.
Additional transcription by Titi Finlay