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Progress: Jess McCleave tells how she went from demoralised PR to owner of her own ethical fashion label…

JESS McCLEAVE went from dreaming up outfits for the Spice Girls as a kid to being a real-life fashion designer as an adult — but the journey hasn’t always been easy. Two years ago, Jess, 33, decided to go it alone and set up Ilk + Ernie, a label from Brighton which reuses dead stock and waste fabric from big fashion brands.

How did your fashion career start?

I had a rocky entrance to the industry. After graduating from the London College Of Fashion, I got my first gig working as a visual merchandiser for Topshop’s flagship store. Looking back, it was probably one of the nicer jobs I had in fashion, although at the time I found it tough. I’m not meant for night shifts. I spent a couple of years bouncing around various roles, from styling to PR and realised quite quickly that I wasn’t fitting into the industry as I’d hoped. I once got told by a manager that I was ‘too nice to work in fashion’ after being soft on an employee. It felt super disheartening to be told that. The more I felt like the odd girl out the more I became it.

When did you realise you needed a career change?

I won’t name the PR agency, but after getting brutally mugged walking home one night, I called into my office to explain I wouldn’t be making it into work — I was covered in cuts and bruises and fairly traumatised — and my manager said, ‘This office doesn’t run with you, if you’re not at your desk by 10am you’re fired.’ So, I quit, not only fashion PR but the industry.

How did you pick up the pieces?

I missed fashion a lot, but I wanted to work on my own terms. Without any real plan, I pulled a classic lost-soul move and booked a one-way flight to India in search of both myself and my new business.

Absolutely fabulous: Jess is at the heart of everything at Ilk + Ernie

This was a business move?

I was at a point where I didn’t know what else to do. I had heard from a few friends that manufacturing in India was great. When I travelled out there it wasn’t necessarily to make anything, more to get some creative space for my brain. I had always wanted to be a fashion designer, I’d been designing clothes since I was a kid. I missed sketching designs and being creative. I don’t know how I’d ended up in admin in London — it was so far removed from my true self.

How did it help you?

I spent a couple of months sorting out my head, travelling and sketching and then I got a call from my cousin one day telling me to meet up with a friend of his in Delhi. That meeting is what essentially changed my life. Demetri had his own little label in a cool little area of south Delhi, he sat me down and told me to ask him anything. Later I was introduced to Sam, whose Sedex-certified factory I’ve been working with ever since.

When you imagined being a fashion designer before, what did you envisage?

Honestly? I’ve absolutely no idea, but probably not this [laughs]. Nothing can prepare you for how tough it is starting your own business. You never feel like you’re doing enough. I’m not just the designer, I manage social media, logistics, administration, styling, branding, creative direction and customer service.

Taking stock: Jess sources dead stock from big brands’ factories in India

What’s the single biggest lesson you have learned?

That it’s not just enough to put yourself out there — at the end of the day you’re a teeny tiny fish in a big ocean. I’ve been trampled on a few times by other brands and it’s not fun. The best thing you can be is resilient. I’ve never given up on making my dream a reality.

And the most difficult moment?

I launched my business under a different name. Six months into it I got hit with a cease and desist by a big corporation. My brand had started to get some attention and unfortunately for me they were about to launch a concession in their department store with a similar name. I was devastated, but a year later Ilk + Ernie was born.

What has been the funniest moment?

Once, in a fabric market in India, my tuk-tuk collided with an olive oil truck and me and my friend got drenched. A can literally upturned on our heads. I have a video somewhere…

Waste not: She then designs clothes using the material

Do you ever have any Eddy and Patsy moments?

[Laughs] I don’t feel I’ve reached that state of glamorous yet, but there’s time! A lot of my friends would probably disagree, though. I definitely exude Absolutely Fabulous after a few wines. Everyone’s a ‘darling’ and a ‘honey’ in my vocab.

What advice would pass on to others?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Nothing in life was ever meant to be easy. If you believe enough in what you’re putting out, eventually, others will believe in it, too.

What would you love to create?

A menswear collection dubbed ‘Ernie’. I’m not the girliest designer, my clothes are pretty androgynous and have been bought by the occasional inquisitive man. I’m super inspired by workwear and have been asked countless times to start a menswear range. Once I’ve got the money behind me, I’m hoping I will do just that.

YOUR FIRST STEPS TO BECOMING A DESIGNER…

THERE are three main entry points to becoming a fashion designer. University is an obvious choice and applicants usually need two to three A-levels, or equivalent, for a degree.

Courses include fashion design, art and design and textiles. College courses are also available — such as Level 2 Award in Fashion (Sampling Fashion Techniques), Level 2 Diploma in Skills for the Fashion Industries, Level 3 Extended Diploma in Fashion Design and Production — and usually require two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D), or equivalent, for a level 2 course.

Finally, an advanced apprenticeship allows applicants to work as assistants in design studios — entry normally requires five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), or equivalent, including English and maths. As an alternative, try volunteering, but whatever the route in, it is essential you show initiative, have excellent verbal communication skills and pay attention to detail.

The average salary for fashion designers is between £20,000 and £80,000 a year.

ilkandernie.com