How I #MadeIt: Amy Powney

As fashion moments go, the creative director and CEO – don’t let that ‘and’ pass you by – of womenswear label Mother of Pearl, is having a big one. In addition to a full page profile just of her face in British Vogue, last week Amy won 100k in the form of the BFC/ Vogue Fashion Fund chaired by Alexandra Shulman, joining previous winners Christopher Kane, Erdem and Mary Katrantzou – three names that creatively define the London fashion scene. At just 32, Amy is getting the thing we’re all chasing and hoping to have in our chosen field two years into her thirties: recognition. How did she get here? Without any leg ups – by working really hard, embracing her very un-fashion background, and pushing herself into the very space she’d been avoiding (digital!)
Amy’s solid five-year stint working in a fish and chip shop during her adolescence should tell you something about her work ethic, and more about her warm, easy-going personality. Growing up in a caravan in Lancashire, Amy spent her weekends working on farms so she could save up and buy into early ‘90s Lancashire fashion like adidas tracksuits and Reebok Classics. There was just one small mirror in her caravan, about the same size as her portrait currently in Vogue, and only now is Amy really starting to see herself – as a face of fashion, an award-winning creative director, and a confident CEO.
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Starting as a design intern in 2006, Amy’s ascent at Mother of Pearl – now worn by women across the arts from Florence Welch to Lena Dunham, Caroline Issa to R29’s global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich – is an inspiring story. A week before the awards were announced, we visited Amy at her studio in East London to talk about self-belief and how it relates to #buildingthebrand.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
You grew up in Lancashire, what were your early memories of fashion and style?
My mum was incredibly beautiful, but she worked on farms and it was the '80s so she just wore jumpers and leggings, and I guess my vision of what was beautiful was that natural strength in a woman. I didn’t have any connections to fashion at all, it wasn't something we talked about or did. In fact, we only had a tiny mirror in our caravan! I was into art at school, and I started reading magazines in my teens, but there was no fashion background. And the fashion in the North of England wasn’t like London – I grew up in a time where a full adidas tracksuit meant you were insanely cool. That was my fashion. When you look at the MoP collections, there’s my adult version of fashion in there, and there’s also an element of that sporty, almost tacky time. Having a pair of Reebok Classics was the dream, but we couldn’t afford them. At my school, clothes meant you were either cool or not cool, and because I couldn’t have them, there was a real desire for me to understand about this culture; that how you dress equals whether you’re integrate-able or not. We used to get our shoes from a second-hand shop, where shoes were sorted by size, and they hole-punched a hole in the back of the shoes so they could put string through them and sling them on the shelf, so everyone knew you’d got your shoes from the second-hand shop because there were two holes in the back. Not fitting in and not having these things made me much more interested in them; I wanted to make my money and work, and buy fashion.
Where did you do your art foundation?
I was pretty clever at school and my teachers wanted me to do A-levels but I just wanted to do art, and my parents supported me in that, so I did Art and Design for two years, and an A-level in textiles. Then I did an art foundation at a college near my home, and then moved to London when I was 18.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
Which university did you go to?
I went to Kingston. I went to look at central London universities but I got scared. I grew up in a caravan in the middle of nowhere. A few of my mates from my art foundation were going to Kingston so I decided to go there too. I studied BA fashion but I spent most of my time coming into London and doing internships with designers. I didn’t feel like I learnt that much at university but Giles Deacon was one of our lecturers and he said "Ok come and intern with me" so I spent all my time doing that.
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Do you think internships or apprenticeships are more beneficial than degrees for fashion?
Completely. The cost of university now is insane and I honestly don’t believe you learn anything about your career at university. You do learn about yourself and meet friends, so you progress as a person but in terms of career, I think it’s pointless. You’d be better off doing an apprenticeship for three days a week and then working in a pub in the evenings to support yourself.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
How did you find coming into the industry with this background?
I struggled for years. I was really envious of the people who came from that sophisticated fashion or arts background. For me it’s always been uncomfortable, and it’s taken me longer to find my groove as a designer because I was trying to fight against who I was, rather than embracing my background. When I started actually embracing it and using it as references and research, my designs got so much better; I found my identity.
What advice would you give teenagers who have no connections about how to get in?
Be true to yourself. As an employer, all I really want is someone who’s positive, dedicated and works really hard. If you can be that person, that’s a way in.
How have you found putting yourself out there as the face of the brand?
That’s where I’ve struggled the most. I’ve hidden away for a long time. The Northern sense of humour is so self-deprecating – to actually promote yourself is just not normal where I’m from, it doesn’t come naturally, and I used to be envious of those for whom it was second nature. But when I started using those ironic references from my childhood in my work, eventually, it gave me the confidence to be that person in public too.
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Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
What does your day to day job involve?
There’s isn’t a CEO and a creative director, I am those two things in one. I oversee every bit! Coming into a role like that, you’re expected to be a creative because that’s what you’ve trained to do, but then you have to consider the business and the brand and you also have to find yourself as a manager. Managing people is actually more pressure than my creative work.
What’s your management style?
I never shout. I have a really good relationship with the team, we have a great laugh. I like to leave people to it so that they get ownership over their role and feel passionate about what they’re doing and that’s good because I don’t want to have to micromanage anyone. I don’t really socialise outside of work with people I work with because I think it’s healthy to keep that divide.
What are your references for MoP collections?
MoP is a contradiction; if it’s feminine, it’s fused with sport or masculine. I like to take two alternative reference points. Photography is one of my biggest inspirations – I like looking at the socialist photographers, people like Martin Parr and Richard Billingham and Nigel Shafran. For spring summer, the reference was New York Stories, a series of three short films – one by Martin Scorsese, one by Sofia Coppola with her father and one by WoodyAllen – so that was all ‘80s references. Then the next collection we’ve just done is using references from the Romantic period of the 1800s.
Photographed by Lottie Bea Spencer.
You did a film this season instead of a show, how did you find that process?
Bloody brilliant! I really enjoyed doing it. For a long time I ran away from the digital world, but 18 months ago I thought, ‘Bloody hell, we’re a contemporary brand, what am I doing?’ So I really embraced it and got into social media (@motherofpearl). We didn’t have computers at university – we did everything by hand – and I was training to be a garment designer, which was about craftsmanship, but these days as a creative director, not only do you have to create great product, you also have to think about how it will look digitally – on Instagram, in film. In the past as a designer you designed a product, and then magazines and photographers and stylists would inform how it looked in an image. But now, I have to creative direct the entire process.
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How’s business – has Brexit had any effect?
Retail is not in the best place. People are spending more of their money on experiences – which is great in many ways, but there are a lot of brands out there – there are more now than there’s ever been before, and it’s difficult. Social media has changed everything; it’s become so fast. People aren’t as brand loyal anymore, they shop around, and the buyers do that now too; before, if they bought you, they bought you consistently, but now they shop around and it depends on what they fancy that season. We produce everything in Europe, so we’ve been hit by the exchange rate, but I’m pleased to say we’re still growing and sales are really good, so we’re moving with the times. The price point is right too; with my upbringing, I was never going to make a product that was completely unattainable. I just want to make women feel good.
When are you starting see now, buy now and how has that been as an independent business?
We’ll be showing our first shoppable collection in September. We skipped out of fashion week this season [and did a film instead] because you have to stop to be able to do it. So... we’ll see!