An Interview with Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion and footwear industry for nearly 20 years. She is a fashion lecturer, writer, currently researching social enterprise in the fashion industry and is involved with Oka-B footwear as their UK distributor. Her co-authored book Marketing Fashion Footwear: The Business of Shoes is due for publication later in 2016

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Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.

Born near Liverpool in the early 1970s, not a particularly prosperous time in the north west of England but my parents were hard workers and wanted a better future for themselves and us, at the age of 4 we moved to the Middle East where my dad worked in computers in the oil industry – a new and innovative sector which paid well for expats at the time.  Returned to the UK at 11 yearsold.  While prospects in the North West weren’t much better, the UK in general had a better economic outlook particularly in the south. Our family stayed in the NW but dad worked down south during the week for several years, after which worked in Spain and recently retired from a job in Switzerland.

I always wanted to work in the fashion industry, made dolls clothes, my own clothes and reworked and styled clothes for school friends.  Was never a question that I was going to do anything else.  I made the assumption I was going to be a fashion designer because I didn’t know there were any other jobs that you could do in fashion.  I never knew anyone that had worked in it.  Through school I did ok but although it was a good school it did not nurture my type of creativity or entrepreneurialism, it was a traditional academic girls grammar school and I was quite unique in my ambitions, even setting up a bespoke accessories company that recycled classmates jeans into drawstring backpacks – from what I remember they were quite popular!

I went on to a general arts pre degree foundation course but soon realised that I was better at talking about fashion than I was actually creating it.  My undergraduate degree is in History of Art and Design with Fashion history and theory and my masters, of which I was one of the first to study in the late 1990s is in fashion marketing and promotion.  Although marketing was not necessarily a new role in the industry it was being recognised as a growing area to study.  I completed that course in 1998 and moved to London.  London in the late 1990s was booming in the fashion industry.  It was an incredibly exciting time in terms of the industry’s creative and commercial growth. Commercially many trends were quite minimalist but it was the era of the mega brand, Gucci revival, Prada Sport and real innovators like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano were being globally recognised in couture and high end fashion.

Fashion was a cool industry and wasn’t something that stayed out on the edge for quirky misfits.  This growth coincided with the real democratisation of fashion.  First Zara who managed to appropriate key trends from the catwalk and produce them quicker than the brands themselves could – it was literally magic in front of our eyes and not only that, we could afford to buy these things too. There was also much more access to counterfeit goods. The internet was not widely used to buy fashion so there was a certain exoticness and desirability about being able to get a knock off LV monogrammed bag from a friend of a friend who had managed a quick dash to Canal Street NYC during a business trip to the US.

So for the first time a regular consumer could dress like a well off designer fashionista and I don’t think anyone really cared where the goods came from – or though that people were being harmed – so long as we could emulate a look from the growing legion of celebrities…

One of my first jobs was assisting the wholesale manager at the newly established ready to wear company Jimmy Choo.   This was a typical example of the democratisation of fashion.  Jimmy Choo was and still is a bespoke craftsman with a small team who would make bespoke personal orders for royalty, celebrities and very special occasions – weddings etc. A way to bring this to the masses if you like was to mass produce it.  Which is what they did – albeit to the highest quality and made in Italy it was still RTW, meaning that anyone with a couple of 100 pounds could by shoes that were also worm by Princess Diana.

We were all pretty consumed by this desire for fashion and some now say that it is the marketers that have ruined true creativity in fashion, in the quest to have lifestyle brands and so everyone can have everything we’ve taken the soul out of true craftsmanship and are forcing people to make and buy things that they don’t need. There is no real value in it anymore.

What is the importance of ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion style or ethical fashion business?

On a basic level I guess you mean clothes etc made in a fair way with materials that do not harm the environment? I think one of the problems with the term ethical is that it means different things to different people and ultimately it boils down to personal ethics and there is nothing more personal than our individual view on what is fashion – so you have a double anomaly which will be as unique as it is individual – what is ethical fashion style for me may be very different for you.

We’ll never pin this down because it’s too big.

I worry that it is still being seen as a niche or subsection of fashion for a certain person that puts personal values ahead of personal style

For me I’m interested in businesses that are run in an ethical way, fashionability and style will follow.  But this is about the core of a business and what is its purpose.  The vast majority of businesses exist to make money for the people that have taken the risk in setting it up.  They will look for a return on their investment of time and money so unless the person who has set it up or is in charge prioritises ethical behaviour and can convince shareholders and customers to measure that as a success I think we are a while off.

What is the importance of sustainable fashion?

For me ‘sustainable fashion’ is about a product or service that can make enough money to fulfil its objectives in a fair way over the long term without harming people or planet in the process. This should be the way that every new product and business in the fashion industry approaches innovation, development and change – and if not we are not going to have an industry that lasts much longer.

You have been in the fashion and footwear industry for about 20 years. What are the major lessons that can be passed on to people new to that industry?

Know what are your values and beliefs when you enter into the industry.  Make sure you take full advantage of the knowledge that is offered to you in internships, university etc – this is your chance to build your ethical foundations.  If you say you are anti-fur and then take a design internship at a company that uses fur in their collections then ask yourself are you really anti-fur? How much do you know and understand your values? Most people are appalled at the working conditions in factories in places such as Bangladesh but as a junior designers or PR for a fast fashion company do you really know how transparent your supply chain is.  If you are too scared to ask the question for fear of being sacked – a) is this really the career you want and b) – imagine how scared a machinist in Bangladesh is?  She can’t afford to ask the same uncomfortable questions and probably has much more to lose than you –so, ask the question.

You lecture and write on fashion. What is the general content of the written and spoken work?

I write about the business of fashion particularly from an educational perspective.  As an academic I do try to keep my own personal bias and beliefs about ethics to one side but prompt students to think for themselves, offering facts and issues for them to explore themselves.  I see huge potential in the next generation to make a change, many students know that there is so much in the fashion industry that is wrong but are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Hence the know your own values above.

You research social enterprise in the fashion industry. What is the specific content and purpose of this research?

The term ‘social enterprises’ is very broad and in various forms they have been around for years – such as co-ops. For the most part they are a type of business that has a dual return on investment – meaning that the time and money invested must return benefits that are both financial (i.e it should be sustainable) and social – so people must also benefit in a wider sense.  My current research is based in the UK and looks specifically at a new legal structure called a Community Interest Company. There are now over 12,000 CICs registered in the UK representing a variety of sectors from music production and childcare to arts organisations and housing providers, all agreeing with the fundamental principle of asset locking any financial surpluses and using them to benefit their community rather than paying out to shareholders or personal investors.  I am exploring the role that this type of business model could take in the Creative sector and hope to focus on new and existing fashion companies who want to use this structure.

You are involved with Oka-B footwear as well. What tasks and responsibilities come with this collaboration?

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I really believe that you should practice what you preach and the fashion industry is changing so rapidly that sometimes the only way to do this is to continue to work in the industry as it evolves. My company imports and re sells Oka-B in the UK.  We are responsible for the brands distribution and marketing here.  I talk to my customers both retail and wholesale and am involved with all the day to day challenges this brings.  It has been a brilliant experience – as someone who started out communicating with clients via fax and phone seeing the shift to email and then online sales and now social media – there is no better way to learn than by doing it.  How customers engage with social media and the amount of quantitative data about customers is at the touch of a button now – years ago you would be lucky to see it updated and faxed on a weekly basis. It’s hard work and I have a huge empathy for any fashion start-up today, even though we are based in the UK we are subject to so many global challenges.

You co-authored Marketing Fashion Footwear: The Business of Footwear. What is the argument and evidence for the narrative and content of the text?

The footwear industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in apparel over the last 15 years or so, fuelled by fast fashion and our avaricious consumer appetite, students are now looking for specific texts about this sector and how it works.  Footwear has responded to fashions cycles and trends but it is still a different industry in terms of its design, construction and manufacturing processes.  How we consumer and use footwear is also different in terms of motivations and emotions. We hope that it will be a text that supports both students and new entrants to the footwear market and gives them confidence to find a fulfilling job in a very exciting industry.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

I love supporting and spreading the word about new ways of doing business and companies that challenge the status quo – always on the lookout for a new or better way of doing things in the fashion industry.

What meaning or personal fulfilment does all of this work bring for you?

I get huge satisfaction in seeing people connect and collaborate and prosper and if I can intervene to make that happen I will.

With regard to ethical and sustainable fashion companies, what’s the importance of them now?

There is no future for the fashion industry as it is today if there is not a paradigm shift to a better way of doing things for everyone in the supply chain.  China has an aging population and will run out of cheap labour, if it hasn’t already.  We can’t keep ‘racing to the bottom’ of the labour pool and squeezing profit margins.   The next generation of businesses have to believe that profit can be measured in other ways such as healthy people and a healthy environment.  We have to be better and we all have a huge responsibility to create the confidence to do it.

Any, feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Don’t make ethical fashion niche – it should underpin every element of the industry and become the norm. To do this we need to keep raising the profile of what the good people do, find your allies and get on with it.  Every single retweet, like and blog article discussion can add together to make a very loud noise.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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