On a Friday night in one of London’s emerging cultural and arts venues, Eva stood on the catwalk in front of eight photographers flashing lights. She introduced herself as a new fashion designer whose collection of silk clothing uses prints that tell stories inspired by her Lebanese heritage, childhood and London life. Before inviting her models on stage for her fashion show, Eva explained something of her educational background and efforts to make it as a textiles designer.
“I had been on the verge of giving up, but my friend told me about the Ladies Who L-EARN programme,” she explained. “When I met the director I was a mess, but she told me I was talented and that I could go somewhere if I believed in myself. And now I’m here.”
The programme is a six-month intervention that aims to empower young unemployed women with the skills, attitudes and experiences they need to make it in life. Eva’s confidence and self-belief flourished as, amongst other activities, she was able to access a work placement in the textiles dyeing department of the Royal Opera House, and given the opportunity, along with others on the programme, to test the appeal of their products at Trading Places, a start-up market stalls project.
Less than a year before her fashion show when at the graduation party for 2012-2013, Eva had been announced as one of the winners of Ladies’ Den, a business pitch competition at which she and other emerging entrepreneurs presented their ideas for investment, and were quizzed about their validity by an expert panel. Eva had spoken with huge passion about her desire to make a living from her work, recalling memories of her early childhood and watching her late father, a tailor, sew.
The prize she was awarded was six months of coaching with a business development professional working for a crafts-based incubation organization. She had received her award in tears and shock, telling the audience: “I’m like this because I never win anything!”
Since then, she has pitched for and won free studio space at her coach’s place of work, and has also sold some of her work through open studio weekends there.
Making a living from her creativity is still a way off. But Eva is now on the right track. She has stopped thinking that the only way she can earn a living while exploring her design potential is as a retail assistant. She is now looking to teach. Like other women in the programme, Eva began by feeling in dire need of help but has now become sufficiently empowered to believe she can help others.
“I’ve been struggling to prove myself my whole life,” says Eva, reflecting on her story. She arrived in London with her refugee family at the age of two and her early years were tough. Still having difficulties reading by the age of eight, she was moved to a school for special educational needs and stayed there until she was sixteen. Frustrated and battling with teachers throughout her time there – certain that she belonged in mainstream education – she felt trapped and capable of much higher-level learning than she was being offered.
She was also the victim of racial bullying at school and in her local area. As a result, she finished school with no qualifications at all. The same year, Eva’s father passed away.
Grieving and with poor basic skills, she was nonetheless determined to take her place in mainstream education.
Over the next few years Eva completed a series of art and design courses in FE colleges. She achieved a Foundation Diploma and then a Fine Art degree. Unfortunately, her degree was still not an entry into the world of work that she had been dreaming of and striving towards. She joined Ladies Who L-EARN feeling desperate after a range of unpaid placements in fashion houses, and some short-lived jobs in retail.
It had been a struggle to prove herself and she had felt exploited and bullied. Though her design work had been commended by many, she was still being told it was “not commercial enough”. After so many knock-backs, she wondered whether to just give up.
The six-month empowerment course “came just at the right time” Says Eva. The programme matched her with a mentor who is a knitwear designer and so was not only able to encourage Eva about employment, but also able to offer credible advice on her portfolio. Eva describes it as a relationship “that restored my faith in the fashion industry.”
The two met monthly, and when the course formally ended, kept in touch informally - one of the key messages she learnt was the importance of not losing touch with people and letting yourself slip back into isolation. Another stand-out session from one of the workshops for Eva focused on speaking publicly with authenticity – something that she says she struggled with throughout university.
Towards the end of the programme, Eva was offered two different fashion retail jobs. She phoned the Ladies Who L-EARN director and said: “It worked - that thing you said about being in an interview and knowing you’re good enough as yourself. I was confident and they must have liked it.”
The lesson from her own still-unfolding story that she’d like to pass on to others is that of how damaging it is to be doubted; but also how much can change, so quickly, once people finally start to believe in you and you begin to believe in yourself.
Her parting message to others when she appeared at a workshop for the new intake of Ladies as an inspirational and newly networked guest speaker was: “Never let anyone put you down and say your dreams can’t come true.”