Thursday, 26 July 2012

Thinking outside the hat box: Imogen's Imagination

Published on ForgeToday (the University of Sheffield's student newspaper) 20/07/12
Behind the post-industrial face of Sheffield lies a strong community of creative individuals. Within this vibrant community attention to detail is everything, and those with a determination to pursue their passion and share it with others have set up their own businesses.
‘Imogen’s Imagination’, a Sheffield-based millinery business set up by former University of Sheffield student Sophie Cooke, is one of these independent businesses. University brought Sophie to Sheffield from her hometown of Stafford, but the city’s vibrant creative scene is what has kept her here.
Red handblocked felt beret
‘I’m from quite a small town and what I liked about Sheffield is that it was big enough to be anonymous but – it is the biggest village in the world!’ says Sophie. ‘It’s a bit like ‘Cheers’, walking into a pub and everybody knows your name!
‘I like that side of it but I also really like how different the city is, and what an industrial city it used to be and what a creative city it is now. There is always something interesting to go and see or go and do.’

Although she works in Police intelligence analysis by day, Sophie is a creative girl at heart and hat making is her passion. She creates custom-made fascinators, hats and hair accessories for a wide variety of customers and events.

The hats, fascinators and hair accessories Sophie creates are inspired by vintage and burlesque fashion. The business has its roots in attending burlesque nights in Sheffield and her own search for something special to finish off the much laboured-over outfit, and although she professes a love for the pre-1960s period she strives to create pieces that are timeless.
‘I love the pre-sixties vintage stuff and I think it is really classy. The shows are just so entertaining and I love anything with a bit of glitter! But my work is more what I call “vintage and burlesque inspired.” It is more about trying to bring elements from that to create classic, timeless designs that you can wear with modern clothes and you can wear with vintage clothes – it is the idea of trying to be the antithesis of the high street.’
Her designs, which are petite and neat, show a noticeable effort to resist the high street’s love of all things feathered and over the top when it comes to hats and fascinators.
‘That is the aim, to allow people to have something different, something special but not obtrusive that will make them feel confident. I sometimes describe my styles as a bit “vanilla”, so they are not massively quirky or really outrageous; though I love that sort of thing, it is not my style. Hopefully that means I can appeal to a wider range of people.’
Limited collection fascinator
Sophie’s creations can be found on Facebook and Etsy ready to purchase but she frequently does custom orders for clients who have something more specific in mind. She receives requests for a huge variety of different occasions from weddings, christenings, race days, and even hen parties.
‘I want to offer something that isn’t more widely available. When people think of fascinators they think of feathers, which is quite “frothy” and the complete opposite of what I do.’
Her business also revolves around a desire to reignite a love for hats amongst the public, and stop them from always being saved for a special occasion. ‘I’ve always loved hats but never had the reason to wear them. I think that is an overriding thing with everybody – you don’t wear a hat unless you have to. If it is cold then you wear a woolly hat. For a wedding, you wear a hat or some hair accessories. And that’s it.’
While a great deal of her designs are for special occasions, Sophie feels that her smaller hair accessories and berets provide the opportunity and, due to their size, the confidence, to be worn any day of the year.
There is a sizeable network of vintage and crafts lovers in Sheffield who, like Sophie, have set up businesses that offer an alternative to the high street. Sophie travels all around the country displaying her wares at craft fairs and vintage wedding fairs, the main meeting places for like-minded vintage and handmade crafts lovers.
How Sophie manages her time is simply astounding. Part of me believes that while we sit downstairs having the interview, there is a Sophie Cooke upstairs working away on hats, and a Sophie Cooke at South Yorkshire Police Station, in possession of something akin to Hermione Granger’s ‘Time Turner’ in the Harry Potter series.
She frequently works 12-hour days, and amongst this she finds time to attend an evening millinery class at Leeds College of Art to expand on her skills. However, for Sophie, it is all worth it.
‘I probably class it slightly as an obsession. If I’m not at proper work then I’m working on the business. I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day – in between a sleep! Some people have partners, some people have children and I have the business.’
Due to the hours she spends on the business, it came as a surprise to me that Sophie doesn’t currently plan for ‘Imogen’s Imagination’ to take over as her main occupation, seeing it rather as a self-serving project than a job.
Ultimately, that is the most inspiring thing about Sophie. Leaving university uncertain about the future that lay ahead, she found that taking chances led to some very unexpected and exciting opportunities.
‘I do enjoy my job and that is why I only ever want to go part time. I really do love it as much as I whinge about it… It’s the Holy Grail, a job you enjoy. It may not be the most financially rewarding, and it may not be the highest profile, but if you love your job then nothing beats that at all.’
Although millinery bears no obvious connections to East Asian Studies, Sophie’s degree, what she values most from her experiences at university is the life lessons learnt. ‘If I hadn’t gone to university, if I hadn’t come to Sheffield and if I hadn’t had those good experiences and bad experiences then I wouldn’t be where I am now,’ she says, ‘And I’m very happy where I am now.
‘I would say take whatever is there, as you don’t know where it is going to lead. If you have a passion then do everything in your power to follow it.’
A degree and the knowledge contained within it are only a fraction of the university experience. At university a great deal of students are experiencing life away from home for the first time and are having to deal with the various perils of living independently. The future can seem uncertain for many students, yet if Sophie’s example is anything to go by, by achieving a job you love and filling your time with things you’re passionate about, then life will be fulfilling.
As for the inspiration behind the name? “I’ve never met a nasty Imogen!”

Sophie wearing one her own creations

By Alice Burrow
Photographs courtesy of Sophie Cooke

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Rihanna for River Island

It has been announced that Rihanna is designing a collection for River Island. I am not into Rihanna as a musician simply because it isn't my kind of music but, fashion-wise, I do 'get her'. I can see why she is the perfect choice for a high street collaboration as she is 'the' role model for young teenage girls whose primary destinations for fashion are brands like River Island.

I've been trying to pinpoint Rihanna's style to get a taste for what to expect but like any young female into fashion, it changes constantly. Sometimes she'll be pictured in an outfit I absolutely love and other times... not so much. Lately she seems to have latched onto what I like to call the 'Tumblr trend'. (That is not a mocking term, I'm guilty myself of jumping onto the band wagon! My own feet are adorned with creepers as we speak.) So studs, creepers, disco pants etc.

I expect the collection will be an amalgamation of Rihanna's style but entwined with the trademark River Island 'bling' (cringe - sorry I couldn't think of a better way of putting it!) I think the bulk of the collection will probably be casual street-wear inspired stuff so t-shirts, snap-backs and that kind of thing. However, I'm more curious to find out what the dresses and smarter pieces will be like. River Island already have a few pieces in their collection that match my expectations of what the collection will be like and it kind of exemplifies why Rihanna is the ideal choice.

Rihanna-style cap from River Island A/W 12. (Image from Fashion Editor at Large)

Many are questioning why she chose River Island over the likes of Topshop but to me, Rihanna isn't Topshop collaboration material. Topshop are becoming more comfortable with doing collaborations with established fashion designers rather than celebrities. My mum and I frequently talk about River Island when shopping as she used to shop there back in the 70s when it was 'Chelsea Girl'. As I've always explained to her, to me River Island is like Topshop on drugs - the clothing is similar but everything seems to be adorned with diamantes, studs or metallics. (This is a very sweeping generalisation - there are of course lovely exceptions.) I've bought very few items from River Island as they always take it just bit too far on the final detailing. For example, their jeans are a lovely fit but there seems to be an obsession with adorning them with some added useless extras like diamantes or buckles. Their handbags similarly fall victim to the outlandish logos. They've tried to cash in on 'logo mania' that fashion houses such as Chanel have brought into the mainstream but for me, it just doesn't work. However, while I'm not a fan of their clothing I do respect River Island as a brand and I think they've made some very clever moves in the last few years to revives the brand. Selling their wares on ASOS was a particularly notable one.

I've always been more of a Topshop girl at heart so while I won't be queuing up at midnight for this one, I'll be interested to see what comes out of it. But from past experiences of pop star collaborations, I'm definitely more into the H&M/Topshop fashion designer collaborations.

(sorry I couldn't resist)

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Wish List

Classic black blazer (This photo is taken from ASOS, sadly can't find the jacket)

Tartan/ Paisley / Printed trousers

I realise now the majority of items are black but I guess I'm into core pieces this month (the trousers excluded!)

Summer Reading

On the Road - Jack Kerouac

I've always had a fascination with twentieth century American culture and more specifically it's beat culture. For many, On the Road is a monumental novel. A book of a lifetime. The inspiration to hit the road of discovery and find their own inner 'Sal Paradise'... but for me it simply wasn't. It took me a long time to read as it never properly grabbed me, in the same way that Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' never did. It made me quite sad that I didn't enjoy this book as much as I expected to because, generally speaking, I am a huge fan of American literature.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

I bought a really lovely copy of this when I went down to an Oxford open day in 2010 but it had stayed on my bookshelf gathering dust ever since. Friends that had read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' berated me for having not picked it up. I finally did this Summer and what an amazing book. I couldn't put it down,  and as a result spent two days cooped up in my room! This is one of the best books I've read that deals with the divide between black people and white people in the early twentieth century American South (this and The Colour Purple) but what I really loved about this book was the father-daughter relationship between Scout and Atticus.

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

A friend bought me this for my 18th birthday and though it seems rather ironic, being a History student, I've never really been in to historical fiction. Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII's attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, seen mostly through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. It's quite fascinating as the basic story line is of course true but the way Mantel humanises famous historical figures is the best thing about the book. Anne Boleyn, in particular, is portrayed as a nasty, spiteful character which is odd because throughout the many school years I spent studying the Tudors this is how I always imagined her to be. (That is my very sad history 'thing', imagining what historical figures were really like...)

How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran

I've always been a huge fan of Caitlin Moran's Times columns as it is quite refreshing to read writing that is so blunt and honest but very witty. Feminism seems to of had a recent resurgence in interest, with Moran spearheading the movement, with online communities of young women exploring the movement through networks like Tumblr and Twitter. It is wonderful that it seems (slowly) to be shedding it's 1970s, bra-burning, man-hating image. I was really looking forwards to reading this book and had high expectations. She has entwined a personal memoir with an account of modern feminism and it really works. It was slow to start but I did the last three quarters of the book in one bedtime reading session, which meant a 2am bedtime - oops. It has left me rather sad though as I know I'll never be as cool as Caitlin Moran (writing for the Observer at 15 and living alone in London writing for Melody maker at 18, sigh!). Also, f you're a fellow Moran-fan I recommend giving her Teenage Diary reading on Radio 4 a listen before it disappears off iPlayer here.

My bookshelf in my new uni room is looking a bit sorry for itself and making me miss my pretty bookshelves at home! I need to sort it out and hide the uni books (History books and dictionaries...) then fill it with lovely fiction books.

What have you been reading this Summer and what do you have waiting on your book shelf? Can you recommend me any good books? (Note - not 50 Shades of Grey, a bandwagon that probably isn't for me)

Independent Living

Sorry I have been absent for some time. I have basically officially moved over to Sheffield in the period I haven't been posting. Even though I've been a student here for nearly a year (passed first year with a 2:1, proud of me) university holidays are infamously long and I was home every few weeks for quite some time every time so Sheffield never officially felt like 'home'. However, I needed something to do this summer and I needed money. The latter particularly badly so the natural conclusion was a job. While I'd love to go off and do something thrilling and exciting like trekking across Eastern Europe and saving orphans it was early June when I realised my Summer was basically plan-free, thus too late to organise anything outrageous so I started, in my usual, style to frantically panic about what to do. When I moved back home I applied everywhere for jobs but most places shrugged or explained they needed permanent staff and the rest simply never got back to me. In the end I felt a bit deflated and I realised that I had fallen back into a routine at home of doing sweet FA so I decided on a whim to come back to Sheffield and try to get a job here and lo and behold I got one! It is only a waitressing job at a chain restaurant but all the staff are lovely and with tips the pay is decent.

Our beloved (and slightly battered) poster of Audrey Hepburn that graces the living room wall.

I've moved into a student house with five friends, however there are only two of us actually living here over Summer. And even then, my housemate Nile is a musician so is frequently gone for long periods of time. It can get a bit lonely at times but living independently means I get so much done. I've started reading properly again and slowly getting back into drawing. I'm also learning to make proper wholesome meals for myself. I will happily confess that I am a decent cook but last year I fell into a lazy routine of 'easy food' which wasn't particularly healthy and I've since discovered that buying the very basics of a dish can be cheaper than buying the finished thing pre-packaged. It is daunting living on my own but it will be worth the money and the experience. I used to ring my parents like once a week during uni as I was surrounded by friends and flatmates but now I'm on the phone everyday!