“You’re There To Empower Them” – MR PORTER FUTURES Mentor Ms Judith Tolley On The Role Of A Coach
Collage by Mr Maxwell N Burnstein
In her own words, Ms Judith Tolley is “the grit behind the glamour” of the British fashion industry. Head of business incubation at the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, a department of London College of Fashion, she runs programmes that provide fledgling designers with a grounding in the fundamentals of running a fashion business. “Cash flow. Manufacturing. Intellectual property. We just try to give business owners the tools they need to do their best job,” she says. Over the past 11 years, she has helped launch the careers of a number of British designers.
As a mentor for MR PORTER FUTURES, our upcoming mentorship scheme, she’ll be offering her coaching skills and wealth of expertise to three aspiring designers as they undergo a year-long programme to design, create and retail their very own collections. Could you be one of them? If you think you have what it takes – or if you know someone who does – visit the MR PORTER FUTURES hub now and get your application in before the 6 June deadline.
Here, Tolley talks about her own start in fashion and explains her role as a mentor.
On her start in fashion at Burro, a cult menswear brand that achieved overnight success with its iconic “No Alla Violenza” (no to violence) T-shirts at Italia 90:
“Terrace culture was huge in the late 1980s and football violence was rife. The anti-violence message really seemed to hit the zeitgeist and got huge amounts of press attention from style titles, particularly The Face and i-D. From there, all the UK indies [independent fashion retailers] wanted to pick the T-shirts up, and the rest is history. After the World Cup, spurred on by the press attention and by the fact that we’d made a bit of money from the sales, we [Tolley and three business partners] decided to go for it and open a shop.”
On barriers to entry in the fashion industry:
“We started Burro at a time when people took greater risks. It’s harder today, but there are still people doing what we did. You just need someone to take a chance on you.”
On learning on the job:
“I remember the first time we opened the doors of our store on Floral Street (in Covent Garden) and thinking, ‘Oh my god, what on Earth have we done? We’ve made a terrible mistake.’ None of us had any formal fashion training or knew the first thing about how to run a business. My background was in typography. But we ran Burro for 15 years nonetheless. We showed in Paris. We sold globally. At the peak of the business we even had a store in Tokyo. There was a lot of hard work, of course, and there were some really difficult times. If we had been better informed about what we were doing in the beginning, perhaps there would have been fewer sleepless nights.”
On the importance of collaboration:
“Having more than one person in the business can be hugely beneficial. Thinking about the work I do now, it’s often the businesses with more than one person, which tend to accelerate the fastest. It’s not just sharing the workload. Having someone to share your ideas with can really help with decision-making.”
On the role of a coach:
“It’s all about helping people to find their own inner confidence. What I try to do is get people into what I call the ‘thinking space’. From there, it’s up to them to work out where to go. This is their idea. It’s their journey.” You’re there to empower them, not to give them instructions.”