I crossed paths with Rachel briefly when we were both at WGSN, a global fashion trends forecasting agency. She was on the every aspirational editorial side, and I on the marketing side, but we got back in touch when she moved back from her role in NY to London in the last year. Having branched out on her own, and acquired a number of strings to her bow, including running the Fashion&Mash website, the key source for fashion & tech news online; organising FashMash events that help the industry collaborate and network; working independently as a journalist for titles like the Telegraph, Forbes and Mashable; and consulting directly with fashion clients.
I caught up with her to find out more about how she's changing the way the fashion industry works and inspiring more collaboration amongst her peers.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to get here?
I always wanted to work in fashion, but it can be a hard industry to figure out exactly where you fit. I went to London College of Fashion and I knew I had a big business interest, but I couldn't find my place very easily. After University I ended up living in South Africa and worked in editorial for FHM and Heat magazine. I lived there for a year and through my fashion degree and the FHM connection I connected the experience in fashion and editorial together.
I came back to England and worked at a variety of places on internships, including the Telegraph, Grazia and local newspapers like the Yorkshire Post. I got an understanding of how to write properly on broader subjects than fashion, supplementing the experience with a post graduate degree in journalism at Cardiff University.
I started working in the news team at WGSN (the global leader in fashion trends and consultancy) and was there for 8 years in total. It when digital was just starting to happen - Twitter had launched the year before, Facebook had been around for a few years but brands weren't really using it at that point. I had a personal interest in the area and I started writing about these digital channels and how brands could use them and it became my specialist subject.
I spent 4 years in the London office covering everything to do with marketing communications and traditional advertising in the fashion industry, and covering business retail strategy alongside this. I then moved to the NY office to continue to do the same. As I moved more into covering digital, much of it was happening in New York. It seemed like an opportune time to build contacts in that city and evolve my ability to report on what was happening from the front end.
I went out initially for 3 months, which became 6 months, 9 months and then 4 years! I never intended to stay, but it was a great lifestyle.
A year before I'd gone I'd started the Fashion&Mash website because of my interest in digital and fashion and because sources like WWD and Mashable weren't covering the smaller things that were happening in the industry. I started by sticking a folder in my inbox and saving stories and if I thought it was relevant I'd write a story on the blog. I naively thought that I'd have one a week or so, but it quickly evolved into one a day, and now I publish two or three a day, depending on time more than anything.
The website has been going for 5 years. Off the back of that I started a networking group called FashMash, with a friend of mine Rosanna Falconer, the Business Director for Matthew Williamson. The two of us have known each other for a long time and we both felt there was a gap in the industry for some kind of event that brought people in this field together, but wasn't forced.
I was used to going to meet-ups for networking where you heard a panel, you'd probably heard quite a few of them before, you'd connect with someone you know, have a drink with them, and then you'd leave without really having had the time to talk to anyone new. They often weren't facilitated in a way where it was very easy or comfortable to introduce yourself.
We wanted to set up something completely informal, curating people that we thought would be relevant to meet each other. The group has grown and grown - we now do the events quarterly in London and New York, the network is over 300 people and we also have events at established large scale gatherings like the Web Summit in Dublin and SXSW in Austin. The ones at places like the Web Summit we've evolved into bigger parties. The last one had 300 people who were separate to our existing network. It was a really nice broad section of people from planning, e-commerce, digital and social media, directly from brands, through to agencies, VC's, private equity groups, technology companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook's of the world, and a number of start-ups.
With the blog and these events going on, last summer I left my job and went out on my own. I continued as a writer, still writing about fashion and technology, looking at a wider business sector and retail strategy. The main titles I work for are Forbes and Fashionista in the US. I do Wired, The Daily Telegraph (fashion) and a mixture of business, technology and fashion titles in the UK.
I've started consulting directly with brands as well, which is a crossover from my previous role at WGSN, where I worked with clients directly and helped them with digital strategy. I do that in the format of innovation workshops, inspiring brands to think a bit outside the box and showing them what's happening around the world in terms of different trends and communications. I work with them on brand vision, tone of voice, content strategy and quite an over-arching view of what's happening in digital, whether it's customer experience or engagement through to in-store technology and so-forth.
When you started out on your own, what made you take the leap to do things differently?
To be honest I think there comes a time when you're doing so much and you're doing a lot of it for other people and you realise that there is a gap in the market to do something for yourself. When you're covering fashion and technology, particularly looking at it from a journalism perspective, there aren't many places that need somebody full-time to cover it, because it is such a niche, but there are tons of places that need it a little bit.
Similarly with the consulting, a lot of people need agencies and that creative point of view, but there seems to be a little bit of a space in the middle for a contextual person to help them see the bigger picture, and to see what direction the market is moving. Much as somebody might be really on the pulse within the business, nobody really has time to do something all of the time as well as doing their day job and I try to fill that gap.
And what about the networking side of it, what do you guys get out of running that?
The aim of the group is to encourage openness. Fashion has traditionally been a very closed network, especially in Europe. People don't tend to willingly share ideas, but with a digital mentality there are open source ideas, you can share things with people, and you all have the same issues and challenges. Therefore, why not help each other better your businesses? Not least for the fact that at some point it's quite likely you might end up working with or for that other company anyway!
I think that's what a lot of people have realised, and within the group there's an aim to share ideas, and knowledge sharing, with a long-term aim to facilitate partnerships in some way. Ultimately fashion and technology working hand in hand is the future of the industry no matter what.
For me the benefit personally is that a broad network facilitates everything in my work. The better contacts I have, the better stories I write. The more knowledge I have about the industry the more work I secure. It's also a huge amount of fun. We do a lot of great events and groups of us end up at the same global festivals and conferences and have previously shared houses at these events. A lot of these contacts have become very good friends and we have an active facebook group where people share ideas and thoughts. There are also job postings with people shifting roles. It's really nice and rewarding to see that taking place.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in working for yourself?
For me, it wasn't just about going out on my own, it was also moving back from NY to London, and to be honest, that was the biggest decision. It was one that I'd been thinking about for a long time and I knew it was the right one, but it was almost like becoming self employed was a natural part of that. It wasn't something I could easily do in the US for a variety of reasons, not least the visa situation, but also the cost of living was a lot higher in NY and there was no safety net of family if it all went wrong.
When I first made the decision to do it I decided to give myself the summer, and allow myself until Christmas to play it by ear, to see how things work and really try and get going. That was almost quite naive, because as soon as you tell people what you're doing, suddenly things come to you, which was really reassuring and nice. I found myself insanely busy from the minute I started. The biggest learning for me was how to say no to things and allow myself to be ok with being out of money because it's not actually what I want to do. That was my new years resolution for 2016 and that's been my biggest marker of success.
It has been a huge learning curve. You realise how little money there is in some things, even if you really believe in them, but I still keep putting my work out there because in a way it is a promotion for the other work that I do. Fashion&Mash is essentially a portfolio of my own work and part of my decision making to go freelance was how many people would contact me through that site to do other work for them, whether it was helping a brand out or other publications wanting me to write for them. By complete accident it's become a tool for this new career, which I never thought it would be, I just thought it would be a project that at some point I'd stop doing, and now I realise that I can't!
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Every day over Christmas! When you stop, you forget what it's like to be on that treadmill and when you're in the process of relaxing you question what you're doing and whether it's of any real benefit.
I continue to question it all of the time, but then you have a really positive meeting, and suddenly you're like 'yes I can do this, and people want to pay me just for talking' and that reassures you. I'm very much at the beginning, but in a way constantly questioning your ability makes you push yourself harder.
What do you find difficult about your job / managing multiple jobs?
I think the hardest thing is that when I was in a full-time world I essentially just had to be the person that shows up and delivers. Now I'm finding that I have to be the person that has the relationship with the client, deals with the follow-up afterwards, and also the financial side. That full circle is very different to what I did before, and it's a totally different skill set being a sales person vs. just being someone who comes in and talks about innovation.
That has been the most challenging part. I'm getting better at it, and realising I'm a lot better at selling something in person. I can talk about the idea, rather than just sending a proposal or a pitch. Working in fashion you have to be creative and visual and I don't necessarily have the graphic design experience. All of these skills make you realise someone else has always done those things when you've just been a cog in huge organisation, so it's getting to grips with how to get those done to the best of your ability.
The benefit of having the Fashmash network is having a lot of other people to lean on that are from different walks of life to me. I'm building out the Fashmash side with an advisory board that is helping to create something more sustainable with revenue behind it. It's been really incredible meeting people who are so willing to give up their time for you and give their advice.
I've learnt a lot just from having conversations with other people and learning from their experiences. I think part of it is just finding the confidence that you are capable of doing something, and then it's just learning how to do it.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
I just get stuck into it. As a journalist, the thing I find satisfying is that I have a contextual knowledge of what is happening. When you take a break you feel a bit out of the loop, so the first thing you need to do is to read up about what's going on. That's what I throw myself into and by writing I'm putting out a viewpoint that is saying that 'I understand this area, this is why I'm writing about it, and this is why it's important'. That's almost about my own confidence as well.
There's something really refreshing about being able to know that you've got a great understanding of an area because you've written an article about it. Obviously behind that you've had to do a ton of research and speak to a lot of experts, and that gives you a really well rounded view. That gets rid of the fear because you can use that knowledge to apply it to a multitude of things.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I think I would have always said that it was when you walk into a brand as an outsider, to provide them with something that they've asked for, and thinking they're going to know everything I'm telling them already. Going into a large organisation and giving them a viewpoint can be intimidating, but actually its empowering - they need you and you have to realise they have you there for a reason.
The other thing is Editors of certain titles. One of the biggest things you have to accept as a journalist is the rejection - you get things turned down constantly. When something you've worked hard on is thrown back at you it's a really hard thing to stomach. You have half an hour of thinking that you're shit at your job, but then you realise that their points are valid, and that you're writing for their audience, and when you get to the end of that process (which can be tedious), you always end up with a better product.
It's actually really refreshing. You learn from it, and as a freelancer you don't feel like you have people to look up to and learn from, so I'm trying hard to lean on people where there is that opportunity.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
When people say yes to one of your pieces. It's the realisation that businesses have a need for something that they can't fill internally and they need to find an expert from elsewhere - and when you get hired as that person it's very rewarding.
Obviously when I'm that person my role is to inspire them, get them to think in a different way and inform them about the industry. It may be things they already know but it's about applying them in a different way and thinking about how it might work for their business.
I have an enormous drive for everything about Fashion&Mash and FashMash and their role to help grow the industry in new ways. That really inspires me to see that impact and to connect people in new ways. I think there's an enormous period of change happening in Fashion and it's our generation that are driving that and who will be the future leaders of the industry. It's incredible that they're approaching it in a new way with a more open attitude, and if we can be part of that it's amazing.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
Being an 'expert'! I question it every time. I think what it really means is that you work in a niche, but it's a huge compliment when someone calls you that.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
I think I've always been very driven by the future, but increasingly I'm telling myself I need to live more in the present. It's been a learning curve for me moving cities. I was constantly looking at what I'm doing next, and suddenly I'd lived in NY for 4 years without realising it. With the work I'm doing now I'm trying to really embrace being more in the moment, as somehow things seem to be ticking along.
How do you define success now?
Things like job title have never driven me. As a journalist you're very motivated by seeing your words in print, and that continues to drive me. I know I have certain target publications that I really want to write for and if I can make that happen it's incredibly satisfying.
For the time being, I'm trying to focus on each project being an individual success as it's still a new thing for me to work in that way. There's a list of brands that I'd love to work with and getting to do that is huge.
In journalism, you put the work in and the outcome is seeing your words in print. On the project side it's about doing work for a brand from an innovation perspective, and seeing it come out the other end. As that starts to happen more and more you start to see how your work has an impact and that's becoming a real marker for success for me.
Do you get hung up on the numbers of people engaging with your work and your blog?
I used to be a lot worse, although I'm not so much now. In social media, I know what to do to increase the engagement. On my website I'm a bit more obsessed with the numbers, particularly in relation to publications you work with where your money is based what you achieve in that sense.
The nice thing with Fashion&Mash is that it's more about who subscribes. It means that people are talking about it internally and finding it valuable. When you see that the MD of a luxury brand has read your piece about them and signed up, it means that they're seeing value in it. It's a real niche that I'm writing about and everyone who signs up is a really relevant audience member. It's about quality over quantity, and getting the right people to read ultimately.
Where would you like the business to get to?
I'm still not sure what the long-term goal is, for example in 10 years. It's hard to know in an industry that's changing so fast. Who knows if this is a niche that won't be relevant in 10 years time, it might become the broad area that everyone is covering by then.
In an ideal world I'd hope to get to a stage where things are successful enough that I could hire someone who works with me. Fashion&Mash as a website is really growing, and taking on guest contributors and there has been a lot of interest in opening those doors. It's still predominantly me at the moment, and while I want that to remain the case, it would be amazing to see that grow with someone else's mind behind it in a way that would benefit the readership.
How do you start your day?
I deal with emails first, because I have a lot of information that comes in over night from other regions, so it's about keeping up to date with what is happening in those worlds. I also try and plan out the social media for Fashion&Mash for the next few days and try and get ahead.
It also depends on what projects I've got on, sometimes it's about getting out of the door to have meetings to get new projects, sometimes I have a huge deadline for an article that is really in-depth and research heavy and I'll spend all day on the phone doing interviews with experts getting their viewpoints. Other days I might have already done that and my whole day will be spent writing. It's really on a project-by-project basis.
The benefit of Fashion&Mash is that there is one post I do that tends to be a round up of all of the other stories that are happening in the industry, and I have to be on top of the industry to write that piece. Whilst I'm sure I could use certain algorithms to make that happen organically, it's something that helps me keep up to date by doing it myself.
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools or tips?
People always laugh at my laptop, as the second screen is full of digital sticky notes, ones for life admin and others for projects. I do things like turn the font to red if it's urgent; otherwise I have the font in black.
I use Evernote for all of my journalism. A couple of years ago I stopped doing recordings for interviews, I now type everything word for word as it's less time consuming than transcribing. I do that in Evernote so that I have a record of it, I love it for the way you can structure things.
I'm still a paper person too. When I'm starting an article I still have to go and get a piece of paper and write out a plan for the article. It's only when I have it down and can visualise it in that way that I can then go and write it up digitally, I think it's a generational thing.
I have an app on my phone called Pocket that's really good where you can read articles and save them by key word, but ultimately you still have to find the time to read the pieces!
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I'm learning to say no to things I know I'm not going to love doing and to focus on things that really inspire me. When you're in an organisation, there are always going to be things that aren't top of your priority list, but they are for the organisation and you have to say yes to them. It's really nice to be the master of your own destiny and I feel at the moment that I am somehow in control of it!
How do you come up with new ideas?
That's probably the hardest thing - to constantly have new ideas and to keep on top of what's happening. As a journalist you obviously need to be first with things. I think it comes down to having a really strong network of people that I can speak to and understand what they're working on and thinking about. And then really vast reading, and being able to apply things that might be from other industries back to fashion.
You have to be a sponge to what's out there. One of my sticky notes is essentially just for new ideas, and I carry a notebook around to constantly write down things that spark a bit of an idea. I might not do anything about it but it's useful to have those sources so that when I am pitching a publication I have a resource to go through to look through all of the things that I have thought of over the past few weeks.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a designer for years. I was obsessed with fashion when I was a teenager. When I was doing my degree, I thought that maybe I'd do marketing and PR and did some work experience, but quickly realised that PR wasn't what I wanted to be doing. I realised that I'd rather be on the receiving end of what the PR's were doing.
I started looking into it and found that I had a natural inclination for writing. I'd actually always loved it and done a lot of it as a child. I went camping with my cousins in France each summer, and remember making them all create a magazine (I was very bossy!) - it was wildlife themed. Without realising I'd always been preparing to be a journalist.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I know it's cheesy, but to be willing to try anything and go for it. I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs who really go for it, get funding, have it all go horribly wrong and somehow find a way out and do something else that is then successful. There are incredible people out there that fortunately I get to cross over with that really blow my mind.
I used to work with John Lewis on a scheme called 'bringing skills to life', working with school children. We did a project with 9-11 year olds in schools in the UK and they had to come up with their view of the store of the future. It was incredibly compelling. They had these crazy, innovative ideas, and some of them were just really simple things that they wanted, i.e. wanting shopping to be more fun, not to have long queues and not be as stressful for their parents. All things that are super relevant.
When I was talking to them, I said that the most important thing in life was to be interested and be interesting. I think so many people out there are very good at telling their story and not willing to listen to others. I have really learnt through mentoring start-ups and being a journalist how valuable it is to listen.
To see more of Rachel's work, check out www.fashionandmash.com or follow them at http://facebook.com/fashionandmash or their instagram http://instagram.com/fashionandmash or twitter here http://twitter.com/fashionandmash . You can follow Rachel's personal twitter at @rachel_arthur
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