Where: London, United Kingdom
Sarah Dennis is…A writer, researcher, analyst and trend forecaster for WGSN – a subscription-only website that provides creative intelligence to the apparel and design industries. I’m also a collector of objects, especially ones with memories. I like to curate my house like a museum (much to my boyfriend's disgust) and cram every empty space full of patterns and textures. My favourite photographic theme is muffled.
Her story…After about 16 years (phew!) of education, I ended up working for Laura Ashley in the home furnishings department for a year. I can’t really remember how or why I started, but it was definitely more interesting than most shop assistant jobs. I was trained to calculate how much fabric was needed for made-to-measure curtains, to upholster and care for furniture and I learnt the basics of interior design. I took advantage of working for a large retail company and transferred to the Regent Street branch in London so I could live the dream and experience the bright lights of the big city. Unfortunately the big city wasn’t for me at that stage of my life and I left after a few months with my tail between my legs. Then I spent a year working as a design assistant within the Laura Ashley Design Service, which involved working alongside interior designers on client visits, creating mood boards with fabric samples and images, ordering bespoke furnishings and generally giving exceptional customer service to those very wealthy housewives who want their whole house looking like a Laura Ashley catalogue! Working there made me realise how much I liked the combination of creativity and paperwork.
I went travelling for a year after that, around Australia and South East Asia, which was one of the most amazing things I've ever done – from snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and working on organic farms and kangaroo sanctuaries across Australia to spending lazy days on a beach in Thailand. I kept a journal, which I wrote in every one of those 365 days in paradise. The trip gave me a taste of other cultures and I was well and truly bitten by the travel bug. When I came home I was determined to do something amazing with the experiences I had overseas in combination with my textiles background and passion for writing. And I was drawn down to London again.
Back in the day…Throughout secondary school and A Levels I was torn between art and English as my favourite subject. For a while, I toyed with the idea of studying English at university. But, after school a lot of my friends were staying in town to do an art foundation course so I decided to join them. At the beginning, it was difficult for me to let go, coming from A Levels, where the intricacy of still-life pencil drawings dominated our coursework to a new environment where we were being told to ‘throw paint around’, which was a very scary thought.
I was particularly drawn to the print room and my final work used techniques such as lino cutting, etching and other forms of fine art printmaking that were incorporated into a textile hanging – still very neat and tidy! After that, I studied printed textile design at Loughborough University. The course is renowned for being one of the most creative, outside of London. The first year was difficult for me – I was still torn between textiles and fine art printmaking and I tried to change courses without success as there were no spaces left. I think that might have been fate! I found my feet in the third year when a project to ‘just experiment in the print room’ gave me the chance to work out what I really loved doing and I ended up making three huge sample books of printed, dyed, cut, heat-embossed and stitched fabric. The funny thing about this project was that although it was very creative and at times messy, I still managed to end up with the neatest and most detailed collection of information, which almost resembled scientific notes, which was weird because my Dad is a scientist! At the end of my degree I felt like I still needed more time to develop my newfound interest in textiles so, with advice from my tutors, I went straight into an MA in Textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Presently…I’ll still quite surprised at how I managed to end up in a job that combines creativity, textiles, writing and travelling. As Materials Associate Editor for WGSN, I research and write about new innovations in the materials industry, style and photograph fabrics, and help develop future trend concepts for surface, textiles and graphic/print. At the moment, we're just starting our think tank research for spring/summer 2011, which sounds like a ridiculously long way away but it's intended to inspire our research at this stage. The research will gradually filter down over the next couple of years into a huge range of industries from automotives, electronics, confectionery, fashion and the high street.
I get to travel quite frequently for tradeshows, conferences and research trips, and have been lucky enough to visit Tokyo, Colombia, Shanghai, New York, Las Vegas, Cape Town and Copenhagen. My work and social life tend to blur quite a lot, not just because I met my boyfriend at WGSN but because everything I do becomes research for new ideas and articles – from visiting an exhibition or car boot sale to dinner with friends or a day in the country. I love taking photographs and have just started a blog to try and make use of some of the hundreds of photos stored on my laptop. I'm also a little bit obsessed with the Battersea Car Boot Sale, which takes place every Sunday, and get quite annoyed if I wake up to rain!
As a child…My school reports always used the words conscientious, quiet and creative to describe me and I think I was happiest drawing or writing stories. I'm rubbish at remembering anything I did pre-14, which annoys my parents who took me on lots of holidays and day trips as a child. However, the one thing that tends to surface whenever they want to embarrass me is a phase in my life when I had imaginary horses. I grew up in the West Midlands surrounded by countryside and had an idyllic childhood playing outside in nature. I began horse-riding lessons at age 11 and rode every weekend for five years. At 16, I began looking after and exercising other people’s horses, which was kind of like the poor man’s way of owning a horse! Before that, I had my own imaginary stable in our front garden, where I had about ten imaginary horses. I'd pretend to book riding lessons and I'd create very imaginative jumps out of brooms, buckets and garage junk. Sometimes when I rode the horses they would refuse a jump or rear up and kick out. Try and imagine a young girl in pigtails running around a garden making neighing sounds and occasionally lashing out at the air!
Then vs now…I feel like I've lost a lot of my childhood imagination. But I’m hoping it will return when I have kids of my own. But I think people would still describe me as conscientious, quiet and creative. And I would definitely choose a day in the country over the city.
Places of interest…Generally, a good market or car boot sale makes me happy. I also love spending time on the South Bank, with the sound and smell of the river nearby. I try and visit vintage fairs when they're on and keep an eye out for open studio events or craft shows. Occasionally I book tickets for something a bit more unusual (most recently ‘A Ritual for Elephant & Castle’, which featured shaman-artist Marcus Coates and experimental orchestra Chrome Hoof). I always think I should make the most of living in London, where I'm able to take part in so many events that others can only read about.
Must see…I absolutely fell in love with Krakow in Poland a few of years ago. I booked a plane ticket to Berlin and one home from Prague a couple of weeks later and ended up spending the majority of my time in-between in Poland. Krakow was still at the stage of being pretty tourist-free and felt really magical. I remember getting off the train from Berlin early in the morning and finding castle-like turrets, horse-and-traps and bustling flower markets in a mist that seems to linger until midday. Tokyo is also a crazily inspiring place! It’s not just the obvious things like the fashion and technology but it’s the drinks cooler that plays a tune when you open the door, the way they package single mangoes in boxes like jewellery, the fluorescent paint-sprayed flowers, the LED’s on the side of a building in the shape of a flashing heart, the lace-upholstered taxis, the roofs of shopping centres that reveal tranquil gardens and the singing toilets with heated seats.
An average day…I don’t often have an average day of just sitting at my desk from 9-5. Usually I'm going off to see an exhibition, taking a trip to RD Franks for new magazines, visiting a student show or spending the day in a trends meeting. I’m not sure I could go back to being chained to my desk permanently. I take the bus to work, which some could say wastes two hours of my day. But, I love to just sit and watch the world go by or read. My route takes me down Sloane Street and Oxford Street so I get to see all the changes in the shop windows and the latest offers or events.
Fun projects…I love doing the trend forecasting for surface and textiles each season – it's the most creative part of my job. At the beginning of the season, everyone in the trends team bring ideas to the table and from there we look for emerging themes and edit them down to about six stories. Then a small team brief designers who create unique textile samples for us, we collect fabrics from Berwick Street and source student work and vintage finds. The samples are all photographed and we create inspiring mood boards along with trim ideas and imagery such as a particular artists work or exhibition relevant to a chosen theme.
You = Confident…The word ‘confident’ is hardly ever used when I talk about myself. I feel like I really just stumbled into my job and that a lot of it has to do with luck. Also, I often question and analyse my actions too much, which tends to stunt my creativity. For example, it has taken me months to start up a blog because I kept asking, ‘Why am I doing it? Who am I doing it for? What’s the point of it?’ instead of just letting it happen. I am very good at talking about things but not actually getting round to them.
Influential family…My dad is a huge influence in my life and whether I like it or not I have many of his good and bad traits. Although he trained in microbiology, he also has a creative flair and was torn between studying art or science at university. He's shown me all the intricate drawings of fantasy scenes and dragons he invented in his head, drawn on the back of laboratory test results during his days studying for an MSc. I think my Dad is the most enthusiastic and passionate person I know. He always has a cheeky look in his eye and his conversations range from round-the-world adventures to the process of brewing cider to his latest charity shop purchase to tattoos. He's also the biggest hoarder of junk. I have definitely picked that up from him. My Dad was really chuffed when I went to university and then did my MA. He keeps telling me I should always write it after my name! Although neither of my parents pushed me into my career choice, they have always been there to support me and I hope they're proud of me.
Collections…I've started to collect a lot of ceramics, mainly from the car boot sale. They all generally have a similar ‘textile-y’ look of illustrative patterns, collaged or hand-drawn effects, mostly in floral designs. I also bring back items from my trips away for work or holidays, such as hand-stitched lotus shoes from Shanghai, embellished cushion covers from Thailand and South Africa, a quirky fabric horse head from Tokyo and Art Deco tins from Paris. I love the way all my objects have a story behind them, which brings back memories of people and places. For ages, I’ve been talking about creating a book of photographs that documents all of my bits and bobs with their specific references. Because I have so many things, I've stored them in boxes and often forget they're there. I also have an obsession with postcards and one of the walls in my flat is gradually being turned into a patchwork of magpie finds.
Inspiration…Often it’s things other people walk straight past or sometimes they just look at me as if I’m crazy, particularly my parents when I show them photos of my trips away. It could be colours, textures, an old chair that’s been thrown out, bric-a-brac, patterns, a crack in the wall, distorted mirrors, beads, clutter, sounds, balloons, feathers, old books, textiles, packaging, notebooks… Most of the things I find inspiring are just random objects I come across so it’s really hard to categorise them. I also love exhibitions that are interactive and inspiring, such as the Psycho Buildings at the Hayward last year where you could row a boat on top of the building and hover in the air in a giant inflated balloon. I’m really looking forward to seeing the Walking In My Mind exhibition, which starts tomorrow.
My favourite place in London has to be Battersea. I live there and I love that its right on the river, is pretty chilled out, has a fantastic park, a weekly car boot sale and is a scenic walk across the bridge from the King’s Road. I like being able to travel into the hustle and bustle of the city but then cross the river to the peacefulness of home.
I read lots of different things – Dezeen, SHOWstudio, KithKin, we make money not art, Inhabit, Meta, Fashion Technology, LOUDreams, Puff&Flock, talk2myshirt, Moritz Waldemeyer's blog, faces in the clouds and saint verde digest. And my favourite magazines include Surface, Textile View, Viewpoint, Clear, Creative Review and Grazia when I’m traveling.
People…My boyfriend, a digital designer is always finding crazy videos on YouTube or dragging me to gigs to see people I've never heard of and then often become obsessed with. I'm really lucky to work with a fantastic colleague, Philippa, who has a real energy and buzz about her and she inspires everyone she meets. Parusha inspires me with her enthusiasm and ideas, her continual energy and the way she is charmed by old-fashioned English traditions such as cucumber sandwiches and embossed wallpaper. I love the fact she has an idea and runs with it. She makes me look at things with new eyes. I love the intricate hand-cut paper designs by Rob Ryan and the work of Hussain Chalayan, a fantastic innovator and forward-thinker.
The future…I’m pretty happy with everything at the moment. I’m at that age when house/babies/marriage talk starts appearing in far too many conversations but it’s really easy in London to still feel a bit like a student with a carefree attitude. It’s when I go home and see my brother who is four years younger and has a wife, house, car and two cats that I start to freak out!
To do what you do…It’s really hard to get a job in this industry – fashion and fashion journalism are incredibly popular and pay exceptionally badly! The best piece of advice is to try and get some work experience or an internship, and be prepared to work for free for a while. I think times have changed from the days when you worked at the same company for 30 years. Now it’s all about having varied and exciting experience within many different areas and bringing a unique vision to the table.
Best advice…Believe in yourself.