When we knocked at her church room studio door in Inkspot Arts & Crafts Centre, we found Alexandra passionately absorbed in her work. Ruler in hand, the energetic, easygoing and inquisitive 24-year-old fashion designer behind Xandra Jane Design welcomed us into her workspace with a big smile on her face and we smoothly started a conversation about her venture into sustainable fashion and the challenges she had to face along the way. Resourceful and rebellious, Alexandra has worked hard to develop a contemporary streetwear aesthetic that explores gender fluid clothing through zero waste and up-cycled techniques aiming at reconnecting people to their clothing whilst making a critical statement against fast fashion.
She invited us for a cup of coffee at Chapter Arts Centre, her favourite place to escape and unwind, where we delved into the subject of slow fashion and the ethical issues surrounding the mainstream fashion industry as well as the rewarding challenges of educating people through traceability. We then journeyed together to her home on the outskirts of Cardiff, a beautiful farmhouse set in a peaceful and inspiring location overlooking the city, where Alexandra offered us a most enjoyable tour and introduced us to some of her four-legged friends before we said our warm-hearted and cheerful goodbyes.
Tell us about Alexandra before Xandra Jane.
Before Xandra Jane I was a struggling graduate in London being told I won’t get anywhere in the industry without experience, though combine that without pay I wasn’t getting far anyway. Xandra Jane has liberated me and propelled me further than I could have imagined in the short time working so far. Alexandra before fashion was a little more care free and took opportunities or circumstances for granted, but isn’t that the beauty of youth?
Have you always wanted to be a fashion designer?
Not. At. All. This is not a fairytale career I was ‘destined’ to do and although for some, dressing their Barbies from the tender age of 3 was a tell tale sign, I was a little late to the party (fashionably so). I originally wanted to be an author, followed by mounted police - until I discovered you had to serve two years as a normal officer before they even considered letting you near the horses - I then set my sights on choreography. My passion fell within the realms of creating, in any shape or form. Fashion naturally took a hold of me from there.
Why fashion and why sustainable?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been one to thumb through the pages of Vogue but I have always loved to create. The idea of fashion came in my GCSE year when I studied textiles and the whole process of transforming a two dimensional sketch or idea into a tangible 3D garment engrossed me. Sustainability came a long while after and only emerged within my priorities in recent years. I unfortunately wasn’t taught a sustainable module in university which as an institution for preparing future generations for the industry, is an absolute shame and missed opportunity ‒ it became apparent through industry experience. Seeing wasteful approaches time and time again. When I finally ventured out on my own the final factor was a business mind. I thought how to produce the most cost effective item and naturally zero waste on textiles and upcycled garments seemed the right direction to take. I haven’t looked back.
What is it like for a young woman starting her own brand in the fashion industry?
Daunting, exhilarating, educational, liberating and certainly at times for me, lonely. I have an incredible support network of friends and family but when they don’t fully understand what I’m trying to do (my gorgeous Dad thinks Burberry is called Blueberry) it is definitely a one woman mission. I also was invited to speak for International Women’s Day at Cardiff Met recently and one question posed to the panel was: had we experienced any prejudice? I was about 20 years junior to the other guest speakers and although we all agreed a female stance in a male dominated industry has its challenges, I was the only one to have seemingly encountered ageism. Many times I have turned up to meetings and the information given to someone prior to meeting me is “Alex, Founder and Creative Director” so my androgynous name already surprises some, but to turn up as a 24 year old (who arguably looks about 19) shocks many. However, maintaining professionalism and being a friendly open person often overcomes the initial patronising greetings.
You've mentioned that you worked alongside Suzie Turner – What was the most significant learning experience during your London internship?
The most significant learning experience was actually once I had left. During my time I developed the skills to work with great precision and accuracy which I have carried through with me today. The main role of this internship for most was to hand embellish Swarovski crystals onto French lace for 8 hours a day. I was shortly promoted to a pattern cutter in my time here but 10 interns at a time would work on this wedding gown. I received an e-mail shortly after my time there explaining an intern had taken the gown over to the heat press and burnt the dress. Thousands of pounds worth of damage was caused, 6 months’ worth of work and this was just the hem of the dress. It was discarded as you don’t recycle in haute couture. This subconsciously laid the first pave stone into my sustainable journey, had I not been promoted to pattern cutter my entire time spent at Suzie Turner would have been working on a piece destined for landfill.
Why is traceability so important to your vision?
Because people deserve to know. If you are spending your hard earned money, whether that be £20 or £200, you are buying into something and deserve to know the details, and unfortunately answers are often hard to find. Companies don’t want the pressure. Without traceability I feel it near impossible to educate people, I appreciate fashion is a materialistic interest for many, but unless you’re a nudist (each to their own), you dress yourself every day and therefore are responsible on some level for issues in the industry. I am interested to see how I manage the journey cards as my business grows, there are so many layers and processes in the industry. I can ensure the traceability of my garments because I oversee every step, I am a small business and often with my reworked garments it’s just me and my interns working on them.
“Without traceability I feel it near impossible to educate people.”
You have become a very successful fashion designer in a very short period of time. Why do you think this is?
Bad luck, hard work and perseverance. When I came home from London I felt like I had missed my chance at the industry, but I had two options. To carry out my time in the big smoke and return home eventually bankrupt, or to get back to Cardiff with the little money I had left in my pocket and try to make it solo. There is nothing wrong with working in retail or a call centre job, but I had spent 3 years of my life studying, over a year working free labour and thousands of pounds on London rent and my craft. I wasn’t going to settle for a job I didn’t want to do.
Every negative that comes my way, I turn into a positive. I have only myself to rely on and that is a very big wake up call. I also think I realise as a young designer the importance of inclusion. My collections are towards the higher end of pricing, but to truly reconnect people to their clothing I offer downloadable sewing patterns and tutorials so my customer can not only grab designer at a slice of the price, but experience what goes into the manufacture of a garment. I always hold my hands up and admit any mistakes, I am very honest with my customer that I’m still on a learning journey (though as a designer you forever will be, stay curious!) and dare I say my ideas are different. I’m not producing generic designs that are ‘on trend’, I am exploring my craft and enjoying the journey and ultimately I think that shows.
What is the driving force behind Collection Zero and how did you arrive to it?
I will be completely honest here… I was sat in AllSaints Design Offices in London with my time coming to an end, thinking how best to provide a product that would maximise my customer base and be most cost effective for my weaning graduate account. The jumper as a starting point would be one size fits both genders and as a designer, working against the norm was a natural direction to take with fabric choice. Even though they are listed and described as jersey knit, people still assume they are woollen simply because they are a knitted jumper. From there the shorts and skirt developed as accompanying pieces to the statement. I am primarily a womenswear designer, but this kick started my passion for gender neutral.
Where did the idea for the Journey Cards come from?
Initially this stemmed from my hardships in the industry and sheer level of under-appreciation I received at multiple establishments. So my journey cards were primarily a nod to my interns. In the UK this really is first world exploitation. I’ve worked for companies in an intern position who have taken my designs through to a final collection, the non-existent pay wouldn’t be so bad if they at least acknowledged you.
My interns are an integral part to my business, they donate their time to help me achieve MY dream, is it so hard to name them as a way of thanks? If someone picked up a garment they’ve helped to pattern cut and wanted to offer them further work, that’s great! They’ve earnt it.
It was only natural to extend from there and include all information for the consumer. I realised many people are oblivious to what goes into a single garment, my partner initially thought all clothes were manufactured by machines much like cars, it became a priority to highlight the intense labour hours that go into one item. People often want to know where their food comes from, why is clothing any different?
What has being a NEW BUSINESS CARDIFF LIFE AWARDS 2017 finalist meant to you and to your business?
It was incredible to not only have sustainable but high-end fashion recognised here in Cardiff. Between that and the Cynnal Cymru awards I really am starting to build recognition for my brand and philosophy which is great. It’s another step forward not only for Xandra Jane, but Cardiff too.
How would you describe your brand?
A developing streetwear aesthetic that explores gender fluid clothing through zero waste and up cycled techniques. Sustainable. Contemporary. Rebellious. Reconnecting you to your clothes and rebelling against fast fashion.
What can you tell us about your experience of working with models?
As a whole it is important to know professional models are incredibly hard working and driven individuals with levels of discipline I could only dream of. It can also be a lonely job for them too, travelling all the time to various locations and castings so I really empathise and think there is a huge misconception about how ‘easy’ it is to be blessed with good looks, they can also often be as self-conscious as anyone else.
Many design houses have a ‘muse’ and my go-to models as you will see are definitely my friends Callum and Zade. They complement each other so well in terms of achieving my balanced gender neutral aesthetic. Callum is my oldest friend, I’ve known him since secondary school and as a very skilled hair stylist he works two talented jobs on set. Zade I found through a shameless Instagram stalk (#CardiffModel) when another model let me down a day before the shoot, I’m glad she did ‒ because Zade is now my go-to girl who is incredibly versatile and frame after frame are shot-perfect.
To those reading your blog, you come out as being an amazingly dedicated and well organised person, concise and even motherly at times. Would you have found such a blog useful during your formative years at the University?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s the initial reason I started the blog. Personal style bloggers were in abundance on my google searches but never ones written by a fashion designer, someone who prefers being behind the camera rather than in front of it. The only mildly similar blogs I could find would consist of people’s creative portfolios and that never really described much in terms of their journey. I also think it is important to show there is a human behind the brand. Certainly as a role of creative director, it is great for me to connect with my customer in as many ways as possible, blog writing also shows a glimpse into my personality which I feel makes Xandra Jane as a whole more relatable.
In one of your blog posts you touch on what Fast Fashion and Slow Fashion are. Do you believe that Slow Fashion could ever become the mainstream?
It’s something that is certainly growing in demand, and I will never stop working towards that goal or educating others where I can, but ultimately it comes down to the consumer. (You can take a horse to water etc.) It is also an eternal balancing act of not forcing information on people who aren’t ready to listen as they will only block you out. One day, yes of course, in my time? Maybe not. Unfortunately we are in a generation of consumers, people who claim to “love” fashion but only wear an item once if not at all. People who can’t wait to discard their technology for the latest model. This isn’t love, this is under appreciation and disregard for craftsmanship. We have a long way to go.
“People often want to know where their food comes from, why is clothing any different?”
For your brand you use journey cards. Do you think that people take the time to read the stories within them?
Yes, definitely. Perhaps not all people, to be realistic. But I certainly know people do - and it leads them to love the pieces even more. They often become even more interested in the story behind a garment and this is exactly what I intended to achieve. I want my clothes to sell for style, and if a customer then discovers the morals, ethics and journey behind the piece leading them to spark an interest or investigate and think further, then my work here is done!
Although concepts such as sustainability, Fairtrade, ethical products, forced labour are increasingly making their way into the classroom, do you think that the level of awareness is high enough to shape future minds into being more responsible consumers?
I think the educational structure in the UK needs reassessing as a whole. Morals and values are taught as much at home as they are in school but I think planting that seed of information is good enough for progress to happen. Sparking curiosity in a young mind as to ‘why’ things are wasted, consumed and taken for granted can definitely be the starting block to widespread change.
You are part of a young generation of entrepreneurs who tend to be more aware of environmental issues, globalisation and much stronger change driven than others before them. On the other hand, it is the same generation that scores higher on the consumerism levels than the previous ones. How do you think that all this will balance in the end?
We are in a period of unsustainable demand and unsustainable production which doesn’t come to light until it’s at late stages in the game. I think it is down to everyone, consumer through to designer to instigate this change ‒ unfortunately we are a society of consumers and it will probably get worse before productive growth can happen.
You are passionate to create, but also to teach, to set an example. Have you always been driven by such energies, or has this been brought on by the fact that you had to experience the backstage of the industry?
In terms of teaching I used to run my own dance classes, knocking on the door of 10 years ago. So from a young age I’ve always displayed leadership qualities within a creative field. I struggle a little more with ‘teaching’ people about the wasteful nature of the industry as there is a fine balance between education and preaching. Especially when you are so passionate about it.
My customer is often fortunate enough to not have the problems on their doorstep, therefore I allow my designs to pull people in, and the teaching comes as a natural afterthought. With my one-on-one classes, this is simply another means of income. I never had anything as advanced as what I am offering when I was in school and curious about fashion, so to be able to offer that now leads to a great response and demand. I also work by myself which can be lonely for someone so socially responsive so it opens doors for me to meet new people which I love. I was asked recently to give two talks, one to industry professionals and the other to textiles students. Public speaking is not my strong point, but to engage an energy in a room and experience people really interested in what you have to say leads to an addictive energy that I want to continue.
What would your employees say about you if you couldn't hear them?
I honestly do not know. Probably I’m a little bit on the bonkers side, would throwing the adjective funny out there be big headed? I can be a little excitable and I’m a very open person. I probably tell my interns too much in terms of the business side of things. That being said I think it’s important not to conduct yourself with a false air of perfection. I’m 24 and haven’t run a business on this scale in my entire life, they know it’s not easy sailing. I could reign it in a little though. And probably to stop singing.
In a recent blog post you have written about application and interview sins. What prompted you to do this?
Because I was ignorant to how many people actually struggle with the process, reading over that blog post my partner said I sounded annoyed in areas, but I kept them in because it is annoying. The industry is hard enough to get into as it is, when you can’t proofread an application you don’t really help your chances. I just wanted people to know what I look out for in particular which I’m sure others do too. Even when I applied for unpaid positions just for the experience I spent hours tweaking my CV and cover letter, I wanted the companies to know it wasn’t a generic application, I wanted to work for them in particular! Also, when people apply at Xandra Jane now, they have no excuse!
“I want my clothes to sell for style, and if a customer then discovers the morals, ethics and journey behind the piece leading them to spark an interest or investigate and think further, then my work here is done!”
You describe the interviews that you conduct as being very informal giving the candidates an opportunity to open up and be themselves. What has been your worst experience as a candidate?
As a candidate myself I have one particular horror story that is almost unbelievable. Between KTZ and AllSaints I secured myself a job in London as someone’s fashion assistant. I will not be naming them for reasons of respect and fear (joking about the fear) ‒ not only was my employer late to every single scheduled meet up, including 20 minutes late to my interview and again on my first day of work ‒ they also believed they could speak to dead people and wanted to interview me about my late Mum.
Beyond a clothing line, they also wanted to release a book, launch an album and host an exhibition night at a museum in the space of 2 months. I wasn’t a fashion assistant, I was a PA for an impossible dream. Oh and they also wouldn’t let me hire any interns based on their star sign. I lasted three days, had become an anxious wreck and promptly quit. Though even these three days taught me how not to run a business or treat people - so every experience is invaluable!
What does your family think about your career choice and ambitions?
As mentioned my Dad calls Burberry: Blueberry and Tommy Hilfiger: Tommy Finger ‒ but for someone with no clue about what I am doing, he is the most supportive and incredibly generous, kind hearted friend I could ask for and he really is my idol in terms of work ethic. I grew up watching him self employed working long hours to provide for my family and he really has set the bar in terms of my drive and motivation, he now has great faith in my ability to dust myself off after any setbacks and keep at it. My sister is the complete opposite to me (I’m the career girl, she’s the family oriented home bird). She is a wonderful Mum, her first boy Freddie is a year old today and the second (a girl) on the way. They’re very supportive and pleased that they no longer need to pay for clothing alterations.
Can you talk us through a typical day in your life?
It is almost impossible to describe a ‘typical’ day which is ultimately why I love my job as no two days are the same! In one word? A typical day is busy. Very busy.
What other disciplines are you involved with or interested in?
The nature of creative people is to stay curious and forever extend your learning to grow and improve, giving new dimensions and perspectives to approach your work with. I take a handful of online courses in Photography, Sustainable Business Practices and most recently Nutrition. Having been diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 16, my health has been a great focus with Pilates and Yoga strengthening my core. I would hate to be a jack of all trades master of none but it’s inspiring and fruitful to expand my knowledge and understanding in various topics. That’s the point in life, surely? I also continue to look for workshops in my field to hone in certain skills, I’ll be attending a denim masterclass soon, for example.
Running your own business can be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
I grab a book and immerse myself away from technology. I’m currently reading The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Further to this I enjoy hiking and having recently acquired the responsibility of my partner’s Mum’s horse so I now horse ride which used to be my biggest passion before I moved away to study. Pilates also features heavily in my life due to a condition I have called Scoliosis, and of course like most people, a night in with a movie and food often does the trick.
What are your favourite places in Cardiff?
I sound so boring but I do honestly love the spaces I work in being the farmhouse and my church room studio, though when I need escapism from those I head to Chapter Arts Centre with my laptop to carry out admin work with an endless stream of coffee. Troutmark Books, Jacobs Antiques and Splott Fleamarket are all fascinating scenes to explore and fix my bookworm needs or just take in potential inspiration from vintage objects that hold a story behind them, they’re all places you can go for free, which is always a plus.
What would we find in your wardrobe? How would you describe your personal style?
Unfortunately a lot of neutral and dark colours which is something I am working towards changing and anything you see in the Digital Pattern Library. I unashamedly admit I will pick comfort over style which is what leads me to design the two in unison. I carried out a wardrobe inventory on the blog but have since sold around a third-two thirds of my wardrobe. Pieces I hardly wore.
Do you wear your own designs?
Yes. Especially those featured in the Digital Pattern Library which are slightly more feminine than the Xandra Jane aesthetic given I am primarily a womenswear designer. But I am in love with all of my designs and certainly do wear the ones I am able to!
What is your opinion about the local fashion scene?
I’m worried to answer this as I don’t want to upset anyone. But given I have stated how honest I consider myself, and everyone is entitled to an opinion… I don’t think there is a fashion scene. To me, someone has a sense of style about them when they don’t follow the trends. Chokers and Kim Kardashian bodycon silhouettes aren’t fashion forward, they’re stale. Cardiff Fashion Week is a great event for students but I think that’s the extent to which it stretches. Hopefully this will start to change when original designers begin to emerge and realise there is no need to flock to London.
Who do you admire?
My dad and my partner who are both incredibly hard working men at different stages in life, and my friend Ceri who is basically a real life Lara Croft and all round bad-ass, one of the strongest people I know in all senses of the word!
“Sparking curiosity in a young mind as to ‘why’ things are wasted, consumed and taken for granted can definitely be the starting block to widespread change.”
What are your personal ambitions and dreams?
I want to learn new languages and experience cultures. I’m currently saving for a deposit on a house.
What would your future self's advice be to your present one?
Keep a level head and persevere. Cut the niceties with money-talk and just get straight to the point. Maintain your level of honesty and professionalism and please stop sweating the small stuff.
Can you recommend us:
A book: my go-to book recommendation is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
A song: my all-time favourite song is “Freedom” by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton.
A film: my eternal film choice is Apocalypto.
Thank you, Alexandra for the great conversation and the in-depth insight into your world.