4 British Designers That Went From Rags To Riches

| January 5, 2014 | 0 Comments

Alexander McQueen Portrait

Great Britain has given the world more than its fair share of creative people. Throughout modern history, fashion designers, artists, painters and inventors have become well-known for their skills, talents and imagination. Many have been honoured with awards; some are world-renowned.

What can we learn from successful Brits that have made it big in design? Let’s look at five well-known icons who led the way in their respective industries; three individuals and one two-person design team.

1. Alexander McQueen

Lee Alexander McQueen was something of a fashion oddity; a lad from London who dared to be different. He allegedly embroidered a rather rude word into a suit worn by the future King of England when he was just a teen. Yet within 20 years, this daring designer would count Gucci as his major shareholder. At the British Fashion Awards, McQueen claimed the top gong no less than four times. He designed for top houses such as Givenchy, and he received a CBE in 2003.

Seven years after his honour, McQueen would die a tragic death. Friends suspect that he committed suicide due to a spiral of depression and drug abuse, possibly fuelled by the trauma of losing his mother nine days earlier. The designer left £50,000 to his pet dogs and £100,000 to animal charities. His final, unfinished collection featured recurring themes of the afterlife.

Alexander McQueen by Tim Walker

2. Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine: Tatty Devine

Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine set up their tiny jewelry company, Tatty Devine, in the late 1990s. Originally, the pair used found plastic objects to make fun, handmade items with quirky appeal; their best-known early pieces are the plectrum bracelet and volume control brooch. In time, the design duo purchased laser etching and cutting machines, enabling them to make their own plastic charms for necklaces, bracelets and earrings, and they opened their own workshop to speed up production.

The pair piqued the interest of British fashion magazines while selling home-made leather cuffs at London’s famous Spitalfields market. Now, Rosie and Harriet have developed a range with Selfridges, but they stay true to their roots, still making the perspex pieces that they became famous for. Their designs are bigger and more ambitious than ever. In the 2013 New Year Honours, the founders of Tatty Devine were given MBEs.

Rosie Wolfenden

3. Vivienne Westwood

The advent of punk marked a sea change in British fashion and the culture of the nation. The freedom to make music inspired Vivienne Swire, a British designer, to use clothing in order to shock and make a statement. She moved to London aged 17; like Tatty Devine, her early creations were sold in a London market. Her move into punk, and the clothing that made her famous, was inspired by Malcolm McLaren who became her muse.

Vivienne Westwood may have been famous for her revolutionary approach to design, yet many of the elements she used were inspired by traditional British clothing. She was interested in the use of Scottish tartans and based some of her designs on traditional styles used in the Industrial Revolution. She has been awarded an OBE and DBE and famously neglected to wear underwear when she met the Queen.

Vivienne Westwood

4. James Dyson

Before James Dyson, nobody knew much about industrial design. But in an era where Apple’s finely-tuned designs make headlines, it’s easy to see how Dyson was the godfather of the move towards attractive, functional devices.

Dyson’s design talents came from his schooling at the Royal College of Art, yet he quickly realised he had a knack for solving problems. The original Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner retailed for a four-figure sum, and the designer only sold it himself in desperation when he could not involve an existing manufacturer; they wanted to continue to sell vacuum bags.

Ironically, the Dyson vacuum cleaner caught on precisely because of its bagless design – the one aspect of the device that manufacturers hated. Buyers, in contrast, loved it. The funds generated from the original design allowed Dyson to create additional products and launch his own design awards.

Sir James Dyson, Royal College of Arts, Dyson Building

Making It As a Designer

There are no shortage of success stories in British design. From vacuum cleaners to haute couture, the common thread in all of these stories is a determination to make it big and a big dollop of self-belief.

So how can today’s British designers break into the mainstream?

It’s unboudtedly easier to get started in business nowadays, since the internet has democratised and demystified the process of setting up on your own. However, competition is fierce as a result. Successful startups watch the pennies in the early days, economising on non-essentials and ploughing money into developing great products.

If you fancy forging a career in design:

  • Familiarise yourself with inbound marketing and social media so you can do as much as possible yourself. Moz and Social Media Examiner are fantastic resources for beginners and pros.
  • Connect with other designers online and offline; use sites like Meetups to organise get-togethers and networking events so you can bounce ideas off others.
  • Instead of creating a website, consider using a design marketplace for faster results and more traffic. Doozey is a great marketplace for British designers; everyone has to be pre-approved so buyers enjoy a very high standard of goods.

Perhaps the main ticket to design success is the desire to express themselves via any available outlet, regardless of eventual profits or fame. If you put your best foot forward, create quality work and believe in your own creativity, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be the next big thing in British design.

By Claire Broadley

Claire Broadley is a content writer with an interest in British startups and online marketing. She collects Tatty Devine pieces and runs her own business, Red Robot Media.

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