AmyPowney is the powerhouse creative director behind London based independent label Mother of Pearl which has just presented yet another critically acclaimed Fashion Week show. When you think of fashion designers, it’s almost impossible to ignore the visions of gilded lifestyles and Zoolander-esque theatrics, but Amy is so resolutely grounded and humble it can be hard to believe she’s helmed one of London’s most successful small labels—recipient of 2017’s BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund no less. Here she recalls her childhood living in a Merseyside caravan, the sheer graft it takes to make it when you come from ‘nowhere up North’ and why she’s still frightened of fashion parties.
I grew up in Lancashire, on the border of Merseyside. My parents got pregnant when they were really young—mum was 19 when she had my sister—and they weren’t married, just totally in love. They worked on local farms, both of them always managing two jobs, one during the day and then they’d go back to work in the evenings. Growing up we didn’t have anything, but it was actually a really, idyllic early childhood because they were so young and we always made fun from everything and anything. I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood and hanging out with my family. When I was about ten, Mum and Dad decided seek ‘The Good Life’ and sold the little house they had in the village to move into caravan while they renovated a barn. It was totally and completely off-grid so we had to dig a well and get a wind turbine—and this was way before renewables were a thing. They had this dream of being completely self-sufficient.
“Picking cabbage in a field at 4am with your wellies on, bent over for hours definitely honed my work ethic, but it also made me realise that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
As a kid I worked on the farm beside my parents. Over the holidays they couldn’t afford to put us in summer school or take time off, so they’d just take us to work with them and because we were bored out of our minds waiting for them to finish, we ended up asking to help. We didn’t even want the money, we just wanted to do something instead of hanging around. So they let us work and we worked so hard that we ended up getting paid—it was only about £1.50 an hour, but when you’re 11 that’s a lot. I can remember getting my first pay check for about £200 in a brown paper envelope. It was just so brilliant and I remember being completely overwhelmed at having all that money.
The first thing I can remember desperately wanting to buy was a pair of Reebok Classics. I just thought, ‘I live in a caravan in the middle of nowhere and I’m already chubby, I want some shoes to make me cool at school.’ Trying to be a teenager in that situation with no water, no electricity, no nothing wasn’t at all easy. You couldn’t just have your mates round after school. As soon as I got that pay check I realised, that I could do it myself—and that was the beginning of becoming independent. It was also the beginning of me equating buying clothes with fitting in and that’s probably where my relationship with fashion started. It was always to do with that idea of being cool, or not being cool and basically being accepted.
“Trying to be a teenager in that situation with no water, no electricity, no nothing wasn’t at all easy.”
I think growing up and being picked on for not being ’normal’ really fuelled my ambition to make something of my life. I was always thinking, ‘I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it to London.’ These days money doesn’t mean the same to me—I mean, it means a nice place to live and nice dinners out which are obviously lovely. But when I was younger, money meant success and it was a big goal for me. When I was young I think I thought, ‘I want to go and be a fashion designer, but I also want to be rich.’ Picking cabbage in a field at 4am with your wellies on, bent over for hours definitely honed my work ethic, but it also made me realise that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.
I was always creative and all I ever wanted to do in school was art so I ended up on an art foundation course. You can’t just come to London from nowhere up north not knowing anyone and land an internship, so I did my foundation closer to home, then came down to London to do my BA at Kingston University. It’s quite a lot to go from a caravan in the countryside to central London—it definitely scared me a bit and I felt that Kingston was more of a manageable step to make than say Central St Martins. In my second year Giles Deacon was a tutor and he let me come and intern with him. From there on, I ended up then doing the bare minimum at Uni, because I spent all my time at his studio, or later Marios Schwab.
To make it work financially I had to work a lot. I had a job in a pub in Kingston and worked as a receptionist in a hairdressing salon on Saturdays. I worked five or six nights a week, then used my student loan to pay my rent. I never felt hard up back then and I actually had the time of life working in that pub. When you’re 21 you can do it all—I’d be boozing through the night, rocking up at 6am to go to college or Giles, and then working in the bar in the evening then boozing again. I had a ball at Uni!
“When people say, ‘How have you done so much so young?’ I really want to say that nothing comes on a plate. By the time I got to university, I’d already had about ten years’ work experience. “
When people say, ‘How have you done so much so young?’ I really want to say that nothing comes on a plate. By the time I got to university, I’d already had about ten years’ work experience. After Uni a lot of my mates when back home, but I knew I couldn’t do that. If I went back up north I just had this feeling that I’d never make it back to London. I ended up taking all sorts of bar jobs to keep me here. I went to Central St Martins to talk about a creative pattern cutting course I’d heard about to further my knowledge, but quickly realised I couldn’t afford it. Luckily the tutor there was impressed with my work and got me a job at Mother of Pearl. I worked there three days a week and interned at Marios Schwab the rest of the time. I worked stupid hours, but I really liked the balance of what I was doing—at the time Mother of Pearl paid for me to carry on interning for Marios.
From Cutting Floor to Cutting Costs
I was then really lucky because Maia Norman, who had set up Mother of Pearl, gave me an opportunity. My first job there was to cut fabric out, work with our machinist (who is still with us to this day), clean up and make tea. Over the past 11 years I’ve gone from the most junior member of the team to becoming the creative director of the brand. It wasn’t a straightforward thing, like one promotion after another like you might expect. Maia is involved in the brand, but not on a daily basis and she didn’t run the studio so when the manager left, I just kind of stepped in. I just started by pulling files off the shelf, learning how to write an invoice, how to pay people, finding all the suppliers we were working with and trying and to work out what we were doing. Over the next five years, I began to change things. At first it was, ‘well we could get another supplier,’ but then it became about sourcing my own things and finding a new way to work. I made so many mistakes along the way, because I didn’t really have a mentor and was so young learning on the job. But I definitely gained experience in every single aspect of the business—in fact I was so caught up in it, I wasn’t working any design for years. We had another designer employed, so it was definitely a collective effort from everyone involved.
Over those years I never had the confidence to just take it all by the horns and I was always trying to work and do my best for the brand, learning constantly. And then, about two years ago, Maia and I sat down and she gave me part of the business. She said, ‘Ok, now you’ve got the reins.’ That was really when everything—for both the brand and myself—changed. I would say it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve worked out who I am, and who I am for Mother of Pearl. Even though I was working 70-80hr weeks before that period, I just didn’t have the same sense of ownership or self-belief.
“The stress that I’ve come across in the last ten years is immense. Coming from being this slightly chubby Gypsy child, without the backing of a mentor or guide has been a huge challenge and the pressure I have put on myself has been extreme.”
Bringing a singular vision has definitely helped distil the brand. In the past I would just go, ‘Well, it looks nice, so let’s just go with it.’ But now I’m much more protective of what is right for us. That sense of pride and protectiveness has coincided with age and all the legwork has definitely paid off. For a small London based brand we do pretty well and I think one of the reasons we won the BFC/ Vogue Designer Fashion Fund this year was because I’ve managed to glue all the threads together.
I’m definitely ambitious for the brand, but it’s different from that aggressive yearning for money and success of my youth. If you had asked my 21-year-old self she would have said, ‘I’m going to make it the next Burberry!’ Now as a 32-year-old, I don’t want that for the business and I don’t want it for the girls that work there. The stress that I’ve come across in the last ten years is immense. Coming from being this slightly chubby Gypsy child, without the backing of a mentor or guide has been a huge challenge and the pressure I have put on myself has been extreme. I love the team and I love my studio and we’re all incredibly passionate about the product we make. Of course, you want to grow to be in a more comfortable position, but the idea of being bigger than big and knowing the reality of what that would mean for myself and for the people who work for me is just not appealing anymore.
I also feel different about consumerism and the idea of selling more and more stuff. It’s one of the reasons that we’ve moved back to doing two collections a year, because we were just making so much product. I decided that we would make two strong collections a year where we love everything that we do, rather than just bashing it out. We’re not making 500 samples anymore—one year I worked out that I designed 700 products. It was mental and I definitely wasn’t doing the best job that I could. Equally, who needs 700 products (from a small brand) in a year?! It’s mad.
We’ve also decided to move to the ‘See now, buy now’ model which just makes so much sense. I also care so much about where the product is made and just don’t believe if day in, day out the whole team has steam coming out its ears that you will be making anything great. Now my message is that I want to design real product for real women at a good value price point for the designer industry—which I know isn’t high street price, but is at the very best value possible for the quality of design and manufacture. The idea is that you buy it, keep it, and look after it—it’s all those . Good Life principles again.
Playing the Fashion Game
In lots of ways I’m still scared of the ‘industry’ on a broader scale. Recently I was meant to go to a ‘do where I couldn’t get a plus one and the whole thing terrified me, because it always feels like these girls all know each other and I just haven’t integrated myself into that world at all. I just felt, ‘God, that’s bloody scary, I can’t do it. I just want to be in the pub with my mates.’ Of course, I’d probably get there and see lots of lovely people that I know and I’ve met so many amazing, clever, down to earth women in the industry. But I’m still frightened to go to the parties!
When it comes to social media, I have such mixed feelings. I quit my Facebook after a while, because I just started feeling depressed all the time. I’d go on it and manically stalk people and lock-in for hours thinking, ‘Oh they have a brilliant life, look how happy they are.’ These days my favourite things to follow are just silly things or people like Lena Dunham who have done a brilliant job of just going, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to put any picture up there of me just as I come’. But it can be so difficult not to get sucked in and find yourself sitting on Instagram for ages and thinking, ‘God, I need to be thinner,’ or ‘God, I need to look more like this.’ And by the end of it, you’ve got a complex. These days my boyfriend and I have a phone ban in the bedroom, because I was getting bug-eyed looking at everything last thing at night and first thing in the morning. It’s just mad how it gets to you and how quickly you stop interacting with each other. Now when you go to a bar and you’re waiting for a friend, you panic if you don’t have your phone. Because to sit on your own with a drink, looking out the window, or engaging in conversation with somebody else has become the most alien concept. And I can’t help but think there’s a sadness in that.
My parents did finally end up making it into the barn, but there’s still no central heating. They’re currently developing on the back of the field in a wild meadow and my sister is setting up a forest school there. It is truly lovely and I’m so happy they made it. For years, I literally lived in a crack-den in Hackney Wick, I can’t describe it any other way. It was barely a room, more a freezing warehouse with a toilet that grew mushrooms from the wall from the damp at the end of the corridor. But it was really cheap, it meant that I could live in London plus I didn’t have to share and there were some fabulous eccentric people that I met from living there. Back then it was hard for my parents to come and stay, so there was probably a nine-year gap between me leaving home and my mum coming to see her first ever MOP fashion show. When she finally got to a show, she was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. Of course, you go home and say, “I do fashion,” but until you’ve experienced the mayhem you can’t really grasp what it’s all about. Now they come to my house, which I’ve bought and renovated, and they love it. For them it feels like a little luxury from their barn but hopefully it’s now home from home. I guess my last real home was before we moved into the caravan. Putting the key in my front door now, and coming home is that same feeling I got as a 10-year-old coming home from school. It’s only now after all this time—with the help of my fabulously supportive husband, puppy and cat—that I’ve got that back and it’s sheer bliss!