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Your Life Magazine - Hope on a Hanger

Red, amber, green. We’re all familiar with the traffic light-style symbols used on food packaging which lets us know whether something is good for us or not.

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One of Kay Davidson’s goals is to introduce a similar system to the world of fashion as she passionately believes it could just help save the planet. She also dreams of the day when fast-fashion is no more.

What may surprise you is that Kay, originally from Portsoy and now living in Guernsey is herself a fashion designer and tens of thousands of people across the world wear outfits she has created.

But it is her mission, she says, to make men and women change the way they view fast fashion and she is working with the connections she made on a Virgin Unite Connections Trip hosted by Richard Branson to make this a reality.

 

“I need to raise awareness about fast fashion as not many people know that the fashion industry is the second largest pollutant of water in the world,” said Kay.

“And when you can buy a T-shirt for the same price as a couple of packets of posh crisps you have to think about why that is. What’s happening to make it so cheap?”

She has also witnessed first-hand, the less glamorous side of the fashion world.

Factories crammed with workers, youngsters used and expected to work long and exhausting hours, churning out cheap clothes in life threatening conditions with the filth and waste from manufacturing piled high outside or poured straight into the water stream. 

“Everyone was shocked when they heard the story about the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in 2013 when 1129 people died in a building already marked as dangerous, earning less than the living wage, risking their lives daily,” said Kay.

” No one should die for fashion.

“People thought it was a one off but I knew the whole child labour and terrible working conditions was rife. It was everywhere, but no one listening."

“If the fashion industry was a model of sustainable and ethical goods and production methods I wouldn't object, but when we are destroying the planet in the process and not even paying a living wage to the majority of factory workers or to the farmers producing the raw materials for fast fashion, something needs to be done to raise awareness.”

 

GLOBE TROTTING FROM PORTSOY

 

During a busy and varied career Kay has worked with numerous well-known corporate firms and international brands and supported some key British designers such as Jeff Banks, Amanda Wakeley and Bruce Oldfield with their corporate uniform design projects.

“At one time, I could walk along any High Street and pass businesses ranging from the Post Office to a travel agent and think, I dressed them, I dressed them,” said Kay, 48.

She was also the designer who revolutionised the look of ScotRail by creating the ground-breaking, cobalt blue uniforms.

“I always tell people that my desire to create clothes was driven by necessity,” said Kay. “Portsoy was not a hub of high fashion when I was growing up. The biggest fashion statement then was the new season wellies coming into the local draper’s shop.

“A trip to the shops in Aberdeen would be planned months in advance, while the arrival of the Kay’s catalogue generated plenty of excitement!

“I recall telling the careers advisor I wanted to be a fashion designer and receiving a blank look in return. It wasn’t the sort of career people from the North-east went in for. I think I was meant to marry a farmer and have kids, not pursue a career in fashion.

“Following advice, I went to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen to study printed fashion textiles and even then, was only allowed to go by promising my parents, George and Nina, that I wouldn’t become all ‘arty farty’”

During her first term at Gray’s she quickly realised there was more to fashion than printed textiles so switched to the Scottish College of Textiles (now Heriot Watt) where she gained a BSC in Clothing. 

“At that stage, I was full of my own, bold self-confidence and making amazing creations from any piece of fabric I could get my hands on. I remember making a very funky Madonna-style top from an old pillowcase and my cousin still talks about the time I went to the Fife Lodge Hotel wearing a custom-fashion pair of bloomers I’d made!”

After graduating she worked with M&S in London, then at her graduation fashion show was head hunted by little start-up company to head up its design team.

“My career really took off when I was asked to create a new identity for ScotRail. It was the first of British Rail to privatise and have their own image. Previously everything had been grey and dull.  I took inspiration from the Saltire flag and created a cobalt blue jacket matched with black trousers or a skirt, a white shirt and a blue and black classic club tie.”

The success of that design led her to re-designing uniforms for the Post Office, and becoming chief designer of Europe’s largest managing agent, supplying corporate uniforms for everyone from banks to airlines and High Street stores as well as working with household name designers such as Jeff Banks and Amanda Wakeley.

Aged 30, Kay launched her own label, creating capsule wardrobe collections for businesses. Swing by Specsavers and you’ll still see staff wearing some of the 26,000 outfits she created for the company. 

“I found working with both the leaders of the companies and the staff that wore my designs a refreshing change from the fickleness of fashion. My designs suddenly had much more meaning and purpose to them than simply adornment.”

 

LOOKING BEYOND STYLE

 

Kay has always been curious and analytical by nature and wanted to know her craft from the ground up. The scale of the projects she designed allowed her to travel extensively sourcing fabrics, as well as garment manufacturers, from near and far.

Some of what she found shocked her to the core...

“I’d personally get on a plane to source products in the Far East, visit the factories and teach people new sewing or production skills. I like to be involved at grass root level to bring them on and up,” said Kay.

“But I’d go past maybe 20 or 30 factories and look on in horror in what I was seeing –  child labour, filth, grime, terrible conditions, people packed in like sardines, factories with holes in the roof, no fans or proper ventilation. 

” It’s not just on one place, but happening all over the place in Cambodia, Bangladesh, China.

“It’s endemic of the fashion industry which wants consumers to buy more clothes. The more pressure there is to buy more fast fashion outfits means there is more pressure to keep producing cheap rubbish which means they cut corners and use the cheapest ways to do it whether that’s people or chemicals or growing the crops with pesticides. It’s a just a car crash.

“While sustainability methods are improving year on year as we find better ways of doing things, there is still a long way to go for fashion to clean up its act. The standards and factories used to produce my designs for corporate customers have always had to comply to international guidelines on workers’ rights, health and safety as well as environmental policies, so it can be done. It is the fashion industry that needs to change and consumers need to be made aware of what it is they are actually buying. 

“One way of doing this is to help women, and men, buy less clothes and stop the consumption of fast fashion. I don’t wish them to spend less on the fashion industry, I want to see it continue to grow, but I believe we should pay a fair price to those who make our clothes.”

Kay contacted entrepreneur, Richard Branson’s foundation, Virgin Unite, after learning about their Disrupting for Good leadership gathering, and much to her surprise, within a few weeks she found herself on a plane to South Africa for a Virgin Unite Connections trip, where she mentored young entrepreneurs at the Branson Centre for entrepreneurship then spent three days with fellow entrepreneurs where they met with Richard, shared ideas and discussed how to make this happen.

“As a result, I am working to establish standards in the fashion industry, a bit like the traffic light system used by the food industry so the consumer knows about sustainability.

“I want it to be in your face so every shopper can make a better decision.”

"We are now so much more aware of what we put in our bodies, it's time to take notice of what we put on our bodies as well."

 

STYLE DNA

While Kay’s stance is admirable, many women will find it difficult to resist a bargain as they may feel pressurised into buying the latest fast-fashion look, whether it suits them or not.

Many shoppers will be familiar with the experience of having a wardrobe full of clothes but feel they still have nothing to wear...

“I often hear from clients that they think of themselves as unfashionable or old-fashioned simply because they haven't purchased something that month. There’s something not right when you start thinking that they need to buy new outfits all the time.

“Clothes have become too cheap and the UK clothing world has now officially gone a step too far for me.

“What people need to do is find their style DNA. I genuinely believe your style DNA is set in you in your teenage years or early 20s when you are in experimenting. I don’t believe in fashion, but in style - the two are quite different.

“My style DNA has its roots in show jumping. I’d spend every weekend as kid taking part in show jumping events around the North-east wearing my black jacket, white shirt, jodhpurs and boots. I still feel fantastic dressed in black and white.

“I want to help people identify and create their own style DNA whilst focusing on your body positives. There’s nothing better than showing someone how to restyle their existing wardrobe then helping them create a capsule wardrobe full of outfits they will love to wear for years.”