Yesterday I found out, I’m in the 2.5% of fashion business owners who are black. Needless to say, this was a shocking revelation to me!
I find now that in light of the appalling murder of George Floyd, many of my followers and customers expressed interest in hearing more about my company and who they are buying from, which I totally understand. Therefore, for the first and hopefully last time, (as I don’t want to be defined by colour or race) I felt it poignant to tell my story. My name is Claire, I’m black and the co-owner of British Retro. I set-up my company after l graduated from Central St Martins College of Art and Design 8 years ago, alongside my business partner David. Needless to say, it wasn’t an easy road for us, as we started with very limited funds and spent 2 years living in a cold warehouse, working 15-hour days, 7 days a week and spending very wisely. We literately couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
Let me go back a bit so you can understand better. I’m really not looking for any sympathy here, as it was a long time ago and even though I still bear the scars in the form of anxiety and shyness, I have forgiven the people involved. I went to a predominantly white school where I was subjected to the worst type of racial bullying on a daily basis for years, and I’m not sure any white person can truly ever understand the full impact of racism unless they’ve experienced it. The abuse I received led to the constant feeling of emptiness, zero self-worth and years of feeling alone in what became a very small world for me. As all black girls are aware, racism is something that is with us for life, not every day of course. Even though I have come a long way since my school years and now feel blessed to live in a society where for the most part of the time I am not judged by the colour of my skin, I’m always aware that an encounter with the wrong person/group of people, is never far away. During my turbulent school years, my only solace was to study, and through my hard work, I was eventually accepted at the prestigious, Central St Martins College of Art and Design. Life did get a bit easier being in a university with a very diverse mix of students, until after I graduated and hit a wall trying to find jobs. Even though I qualified with a 2:1 degree, I couldn’t even get one interview, and to this day I’ve never had one, so I’m grateful I met David who was already in the fashion business but totally disenfranchised with the industry and the people running it. He never once saw my colour, just a girl that had determination. We started British Retro, with the main ethos being, to make well-made, affordable & sustainable clothing here in the UK, that look amazing! We wanted to create a company free of judgement, prejudice, a safe environment for free-thinking and one that didn’t follow the ways of other brands. We have pretty much achieved this, but it comes at a cost in that we don’t make the same markups on our products as a lot of our competitors, hence we have to be ultra-careful with our expenses.
We’re not a team, we’re more of a rabble with individual minds throwing everything in and seeing what comes out. This isn’t always easy, (Oh boy the rows!) but through our total respect for each other, it works for us. We do laugh a lot too and to this day we don’t consider ourselves a brand (we don’t fit in a box!).
For years I was unhappy with myself and my colour. I just wanted to fit in and to be accepted. David, on the other hand, has never really conformed to the what’s considered normal and taught me that fitting in was boring. Nowadays I’m so proud of my colour, what I have achieved and being British. I still have a long way to go to shed the last of my scars, but every day gets a tiny bit easier.
A bit of advice for black girls starting out in business, any hate or prejudice you may encounter, use that negatively to fuel your tenacity and never ever give up on what you want to achieve. Easier said than done I know, but the end result is so much more satisfying when you fight for everything you accomplish.
We understand you want to see more diversify and representation from every race and size.
In the beginning, David actually wanted me to do the modelling. Although I was very flattered I was also sadly far too shy. We have only ever employed 2 models at one time and these models have always happened to either be family or friends, (people who I basically feel comfortable around). This has solely been to do with my anxiety, shyness and fear of being judged as a result of what I have been through. I have never chosen any model based on the colour of their skin or race, this would make me a total hypocrite and completely ludicrous considering everything I have mentioned above. Another factor for us was the budget, as to the point I made earlier. So, we have my dear friend Kacie, who’s is a real darling & hasn’t a bad bone in her body and also Minja (Miss Psycho Cat) who we felt had the perfect look for our clothing. As a lot of you already know, Minja has worked with us since the beginning. Over time she has become like family and now we have complete trust in her work with our clothing. We do also have many other lovely ladies who we collaborate with from time to time and are heavily into our scene, but we appreciate that there is a lack of diversity here so both David and I are actively going to seek to work with more collaborators rather than them coming to us!
I hope from what I have said that it has given you some understanding of our venture and I apologise if I have used any incorrect terminology, (I’m still learning). Whatever your opinions on this whether they are good or bad, I just hope that my frontline experiences can challenge people to think more about inequality and discrimination and not just in relation to black people but to all. We’re all on this one planet together, and to survive and progress as a species, we all need to break down the barriers of race, religion, gender, sexuality and to unify.
If you feel you have anything to contribute to what I have said then please contact me. It may take a bit of time, but I promise I will try to get back to as many of you as possible
Thank you so much for reading this
You are all wonderful people.
Here’s to one race ‘The Human Race’