Sunday, 21 June 2009

2.1 / Aesthetics and chutzpah / Ivana Nohel

What: Illustrator and product & fashion designer
Where: London, United Kingdom

Back in the day
My parents were very young when they had me and none of their friends had children at the time. So, I was always treated as an adult. I was led to believe I was capable of doing anything.

In the Czech Republic, there’s an amazing material culture. As a result of communism you couldn’t buy what you wanted. Everything was handmade and everyone was culturally astute. They’ve always been told what to do so the only way they have to express their identity is through music and art. That’s what I grew up with in Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
People in her young life…
I’m obsessed with sparkly things. When I was little, I’d love going to see the crown jewels. Friends of my parents who sometimes looked after me would take me to a glass bead factory and I would get jars of glass beads to play with. In the Czech Republic they have amazing fairy tales and that’s influenced me a lot – that sense of fantasy and reality was always in my life. Because I'm an only child, I spent a lot of time in my imagination and in my world I was a princess 24/7. My grandfather always indulged me and would treat me like a princess when I was dressed up in my little princess outfit.


We shared a house with my grandfather. That’s what you did then. You stayed in the family home. And when the grandparents died, the parents stayed and their children did the same. So, that was my identity until I was seven. And then we moved to Vancouver where I was essentially a latch-key kid. When we moved we didn’t have any money. My father had to go to med school and my mother supported him. I was left to go to school and come back on my own. I didn’t speak the language and I was shy. So again, I was on my own with my imagination.

School lessons…
I went to an inner-city school where there was an enormous mix of people. It was really cool. I was never picked on. But things changed when we moved into the suburbs, where it was homogenous and there was no ethnic minority there. I was the ethnic minority. This was in the 70s. One week after arriving, at the age of 11, I made some friends but one of the girls took me aside. Everyone had metal-edged lunch boxes with characters on the front and I had a 70s suede patchwork handbag that I used to bring my lunch in. The girl told me that if I wanted to fit in I had to get a lunch box. I’m the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, I’ll take two of those suede handbags, thank you very much! DO NOT tell me what to do!’ I think at that point in my life I learnt how relative everything is. You can get stuck in a certain way of being and be completely unaccepting of the things around you.

The birth of feisty…
We’re bohemian. My father has an intellectual background and my mother is into the arts. Coming from communism and having your own ideas could land you in prison or find you dead. So, if you believed in something you would die for it. You stood your ground. They left the Czech Republic because of the lack of freedom. That notion of freedom being important was instilled in me. Freedom is the basic fundamental thing that is essential to being human. No one has the right to restrict you with boundaries. You need your freedom, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.

I grew up during the time of the women’s liberation movement. My mother had a friend who was a full-on feminist (much to my father’s dismay). She got Ms. Magazine for my mum and was a huge influence on my life. I have that red-haired, Celtic spirit so god forbid anybody who tries to stand in my way. Perhaps that’s why I have a Jack Russell – I’m a terrier. As soon as you tell me ‘Forget it, it’ll never work’ I’m bound to try and prove you otherwise. For me, that’s the key ingredient to success – just being a heat seeking missile for something you want to do. People in different circumstances along the way will shit on you for different reasons. Resilience is half the fun.

The great escape…
I learnt a lot from other people while escaping from the Czech Republic. One guy, who thought he had the potential and wanted to be a welder, started working as a welder. It took them about three or four days to figure out that he didn’t know how to weld. But by then he’d learnt a thing or two and could get another job where he’d stay on for a week or more until they realised he was crap. That’s how he learned to weld and became a welder.

It takes people a little while to realise you’re crap so you should just learn as much as you can from every job. If you’re not saving lives or performing brain surgery, how hard can anything be when you have the basic skills set and the potential. You need a bit of chutzpah and the confidence to think ‘Oh, it’ll be fine’.


I did a degree in anthropology because I wanted to go into architecture, build public housing and help people. Your environment has so much to do with how you turn out. Public housing is uninspiring. I was keen to create happier spaces for people.

In Canada, you can take one course in your last year, like basket weaving, just to relax. I did a course in theatre design, where there was costume and set design. My tutor asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I told him I was going to do a masters in architecture. He said, ‘Darling, you’re going to be bored. Go to London and apply to work in the theatre. You’re definitely good enough.’ And I just thought, ‘OK. That sounds good.’ My parents were driving me crazy and I didn’t see any future in Vancouver. I came to London and applied in the theatre, fresh off the boat going, ‘Here I am!’ after only doing one course in theatre design, thinking I was good enough.
Pimp your skills…
I was working at Aquascutum and my flatmate told me there was a job going at the BBC in the costume department. I applied and then got annoyed because they kept telling me they’d call me back but didn’t. I called them every single day for a week and eventually they told me that I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have the right qualifications. I said to the guy, ‘I’m going to be in the wardrobe handling costumes. I have a university degree. How much more qualified do I need to be?’ Then he said, ‘Describe a woman’s outfit from the late 1800s.’ And I did. He told me to come in for an interview and I got the job. It was just that what-do-you-mean-no attitude that got me in there.

Falling into fashion…
It’s about aesthetics. It manifests itself in material goods. Another reason I studied anthropology is because I’m fascinated by the way people live – their surroundings, artefacts and clothes. I’m interested in the symbolism in things. The details always fascinate me. I got into fashion because I couldn’t afford couture clothes. If I could make my own jewellery, I’d make my own jewellery. If you can’t afford something, there’s no reason why you can’t have it. Just make it.


I’m good at three-dimensions. The body is just a three-dimensional form that you put material around. I had an amazing opportunity while growing up. When I was at school there was ‘cooking and sewing’ for girls and ‘electricity, woodwork, drafting and metalwork’ for boys. I did both. The cooking and sewing class teacher had worked in Paris for Yves Saint Laurent as a couturier and ended up being stuck in suburbia in Vancouver – a cultural wasteland where she taught 12 year olds how to sew. She was the most miserable cow but very early on fell in love with me because I was a perfectionist and took to sewing quite naturally. She was impressed at the way I finished everything by hand. I learnt a lot from her. People I’ve worked with in fashion ask me how I learnt to do certain things – things they never learnt to do.

When I ended up working for the BBC, I met a boy named Erin who was studying fashion at St Martins. He was amazed at the coat I was wearing. After I told him I made it, he was beside himself. We instantly became friends. He got me my first job in fashion. Back then, security at St Martins was a bit lax, I was taking a night course at the college and was able to get into the building. I kind of became a student there. As a joke the other students would put my name on the roster and I’d go in about three or four times a week. I’d help other students, do my own thing and I learnt a lot. It was the most bizarre thing and they let me do it. That sort of thing would never happen now.

Lucky break…
Erin got a job as a knitwear designer and was asked to recommend someone to fill his old position. He recommended me. So I was hired by two Persian women to design cashmere. At the time, in the 80s, the cashmere designs were very plain and catered to a levied Persian clientele that just liked bling. I think I understand lifestyle so I knew what they wanted. Then Erin left his job and his boyfriend helped us set up our own company. We made clothes for a couple of years. Then the recession hit and it crippled us. I was completely destitute, not knowing what the hell I was going to do. I moved in with a friend of mine.


One day, she was having her nails done and there was a woman in the salon sitting next to her complaining she was having her wedding dress made and it was crap. My friend tripped up and said, ‘I have a friend who’s very good at dressmaking. She’s a designer… and this and that’. It transpired that the woman was Aliza Reger, Janet Reger’s daughter. At one point I had the same agent as Janet Reger. They thought this whole episode was an omen. They’re quite into fate, as I am. I made Aliza’s wedding dress and they kept me on to design Janet Reger showpieces.
Impress, don’t stress…
When I was at Janet Reger, I started thinking there was something I needed with more substance, where I was learning something new. A friend of mine saw an ad in the newspaper for the head of the department designing Sindy fashion dolls. I didn’t have any experience in plastics or product design but I did a presentation for them. I mocked up a product and new packaging for Sindy. They said, ‘You know, you haven’t got any management skills because you’ve never managed people. But, you’re the only person who presented to us in a way that showed you’ve given some thought to who buys the product, what it looks like on the shelf and you’re the only person who’s mocked up the doll and the packaging. Nobody else gave it all as much thought.’ I’ve realised that you can learn most things on the job. But you need to have the ideas. That’s the only thing you can’t be taught.


After four years designing dolls, I signed up with an agent who got me a job in the art and licencing department that handle the rights for Mr Men and Star Wars. One of the prerequisites for the job was to be Mac literate. At that point I didn’t have email at my desk. I’d never even turned on a computer. That was in 1994. I had a month left at my old job and decided to just learn how to use a Mac. My thinking was ‘how hard could it be?’ I did a crash course. I muddled through and they never even noticed.

After a while, I really wanted to design the dolls again. About six months later, they called me from Disney. Someone I worked with at Hasbro (the company that produced Sindy dolls) formed the development team and was bringing design to England.


He hired me to design all the Disney princesses as the ‘doll expert’ (there don’t seem to be that many of us!). The design team were all product designers below me. I don’t know if that sort of thing happens these days but I don’t have any formal qualifications, just experience.
A window into another world…
I do window displays now and then. In general, this line of work doesn’t pay well but I really enjoy doing it. I bullied a friend of mine, who owned a shop on Columbia Rd, into getting more advertising by letting me do her window display. I have a friend at Labour of Love, after seeing my first display, asked me to do a window for her. A few others came from that. It’s a fantastic outlet. And at some point down the road I’d love to do interior design or architecture.
Right place, right time…
When I was sitting around thinking of ways to make a living I met a girl at a dinner party. I showed her my work and she hired me to illustrate for Spears Wealth Management Survey magazine. I currently work as a Contributing Editor at Nolcha – Fashion Business Network – and met Sarah Toner, who I’m working with now,
at one of their networking events. It's a great company for new designers. Sarah’s a ballerina and teaches women how to walk in high heels. She's written a book inspired by her experience called Fabulous in High Heels and I’ve illustrated it. It’s a book full of humour. My licensing background, my experience designing underwear and dolls are all beneficial to this project. We’re creating a brand, doing underwear and merchandising. It’s using my past experiences and building on them.

Style advice…
It’s all those clichéd things like ‘you need to know yourself’, ‘don’t be afraid’ and ‘don’t let other people tell you what you should do or be’. I’ve styled people and where there’s a lack of style, there’s also a lack of knowledge of oneself. Perhaps it’s also not being kind to yourself, a lack of confidence and not recognising your good points. If a woman is always focused on parts of herself she doesn’t like and says ‘oh my god I hate my thighs’, I’m like, ‘Well, you have amazing tits. Work with the tits! Forget the thighs!’ Whatever you’re good at, whatever your strong points are, focus on that.

Interiors and decoration…
My kitchen is like a gypsy caravan. I love anything to do with gypsies. And the bedroom is inspired by Marie Antoinette, very zen, no pictures on the wall. I’m influenced by people and things. I love gypsy culture and love all the bangles and spangles. Their sense of aesthestic, colour and magic. I love Marie Antoinette (that whole period) and Barbara Cartland’s sense of romance and style. I’m a book fiend. And one day I’ll have floor to ceiling books, mainly picture books. I’m a massive book collector – photography, art, architecture, quirky books, Spring Heeled Jack and illustration. I love children’s illustrators and Czech illustrators in particular. My taste is eclectic and maybe a little schizophrenic.

These are a few of her favourite things…
I love Tim Walker’s photography. My friend and I are ‘Walker stalkers’. If I were a photographer, that’s the sort of photographer I’d be. I sift through bookstores, magazines and the internet. Travelling and sometimes just walking down the street inspires me. The V&A, the Wallace Collection and Bond Street jewellery stores are brilliant. There’s something magical about touching jewellery and seeing things sparkle.

In Florence, the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella is amazing. It’s an old pharmacy where monks made weird tinctures of all the herbs they grew. It’s set in a beautiful palazzo, smells incredible and is very old fashioned with all the old packaging on the soaps and pefumes. If I had a shop, it would be like 10 Corso Como, in Milan. You enter a secret courtyard and there’s a tiny boutique where the owner obviously handpicks things from £10 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. There’s a wonderful, little restaurant and upstairs a small gallery, a bookstore to die for, a record store and a cute hotel called 3 Rooms because it’s only got three rooms. Whenever I see someone with a Corso Commo bag I feel like I’ve just seen someone who’s a part of the same club.

A friend of mine Giovanna Ticciati has just opened an amazing gallery in Petworth, in West Sussex – a beautiful little town full of antique stores. She has a gallery with antiques and new furniture and is working with artists and artisans to make things for her shop. She’s a story. At one point she decided she wanted to learn how to do plastering. She walked into a plastering shop and said, ‘I want to apprentice’ and learnt how to plaster. She basically built a place called Beach Blanket Babylon on Ludbury Rd. I read Planet Fabulon, love JS Smith Esquire, the ABDC 3D book and Tsé & Tsé Associées.

Words of wisdom
So much of what we accomplish is related to confidence. People have different lives and backgrounds. Obstacles have a lot to do with how you were treated as a kid and insecurities that you acquire either at a young age, puberty or through bad experiences.

A lot of what we do as adults has to do with networking and the relationships we form. I’ve been in jobs where my personality has been too strong and the only thing that’s kept me there is my talent. I’ve been told, and quite rightly so, if you’re talented and amazing but you don’t get on with everyone, you have to be ten times as talented – it’s almost better to be crap and get along.

Confidence tricks…
My father always said to me, ‘When you’re with someone and you’re feeling a little nervous, I would almost guarantee that the person you’re talking to is more insecure than you are, so don’t worry.’

The only way you fail is if you don’t try. It’s much easier to procrastinate and worry about doing something than actually doing it.

On the horizon…
Since way back when, every once in a while, someone falls in love with my work. I’m hoping the book illustration brings more depth to that. Illustration is something you can do anywhere. I want to have a studio in Canada where I can just draw. I want to be able to go back and forth between London and Vancouver. I’m hoping to turn Fabulous in High Heels into a brand, fulfilling my fashion side, using my product design skills and packaging experience. I definitely want to do more illustration. I’ll carry on with the window displays and make the most of other opportunities that come my way.

Profound advice…
You can be the most talented amazing person but if you’re sitting in a room and nobody knows you, you’re going nowhere. So put yourself out there!

See and understand an opportunity when it arises and go for it. The first seven years of my career, I changed jobs about once a year. When the opportunity came up, when I got a bit bored, I moved on. There wasn’t a single job that wasn’t related to what I wanted to do. Even if you’re cleaning toilets, make sure that if you want to be a film producer, it’s in a production company. Make sure whatever you're doing relates in some way to what you want to be doing, where you ultimately want to be.

The other thing I do is to think about where I want to be in the future. I totally picture it in my head – the car I’m driving, the rings on my fingers and I sometimes I draw it. I don’t know whether it’s because you recognise it when it happens or because it’s a result of your wishing it to happen but it works for me.


Redford said...

Brilliant story. I find that a lot of people in fashion jobs have the most fascinating stories of how they came to be in the industry. I think the diversity of the people in fashion is what makes it such a great industry to be involved in. said...

This will not actually have effect, I think so.

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