Creative Dundee

Dundee Fashion: Jolene Guthrie

Jolene Guthrie is the founder of Jo-AMI, specialising in knitwear and crochet. In this chat, she talks about building an audience and the innovation needed through lockdown.

This is part three of a six-part series of conversations with makers in the local fashion industry, produced by Chris Hunt – PR & Events Director at Genuine, and Founder/Director of Social Enterprise Scotland Re:Designed CIC, New conversations will be out every Friday!

What do you do?

I am Jolene Guthrie, and I founded Jo-AMI in 2019, a Scottish Fashion & Knitwear brand which creates cool, comfy and considered designs. I make to order alongside selling in a few local Stockists.

Specialising in knitwear and crochet, my designs are created with sustainable materials whether they are recycled, reclaimed, or high quality natural fibres.

Jo-AMI produces long lasting unique pieces developed with heritage influences. It connects to my personal life as my relatives ran Donbros Knitwear in the 1960’s. Though the business changed when production went abroad in the 20th Century, they had lots of making in Alloa, and I discovered the depth of the connection through my Great Great Auntie Evelyn and a trip to the Clackmannanshire Library Archives. They had one of their garments and I was able to see the order books, so it was amazing to use them as inspiration within my Masters collection at Heriot-Watt University and starting my own Scottish knitwear brand.

How do you do it?

Although hand powered, my pieces are made on an industrial machine which feels like a continuation of the Donbros business really. I work on various machines myself and with local independent manufacturers. I also sell online to some key Stockists and I can do Custom-made for people looking to pay for something unique.

Being nimble and indie has helped me manage lockdown though it’s been a struggle of course on so many levels for us all. My part time work disappeared so Jo-AMI and my online community is now my sole focus, working from home digitally is so amazing to connect with audiences there, and make all my ideas which I have never previously had time to do in depth. I also work as a freelance Designer and have a few local projects that I am lucky to be working on currently.

I had a Prince’s Trust mentor when I first started out which was great for developing my business plan and goals. I have completed a Business course with Elevator, which was the Creative Accelerator Course in Perth. This was a 12 week course, 2 days a week so it was huge commitment, but so good to help start the journey and secure my brand ID. I have also worked in London, consultancy and for local brands such as Tom Pigeon, building a network is key so you have people to speak to and bounce ideas off.

What do you think are the Challenges and Opportunities working in this sector locally?

Through previous Designer roles I have worked with major High Street brands through a supplier, where a lot of small independent brands are used as reference or inspiration for new designs, and this can result in very similar designs being produced and so result in IP issues arising. It is hard enough to be a small business never mind being copied by big corporations and receiving no credit whatsoever. In the past major Retailers and Brands used to commission healthy collaborations with new Emerging Designers, but this change has altered the way we as Designers all think now about how we want to stick to indie Stockists, sell our Labels and develop Customer communities online, without such risk.

When I finished University, I was determined to use my Degree, so am keen to build and create any opportunities possible. During lockdown people wanted to buy tactile clothing and so having an online presence is a great place to showcase my work, but I am keen to get out and show my work in person to all my amazing Customers.

Doing a brilliant Pop-Up in late 2020, during that brief time when we could get out and about, definitely made me consider a need for a Shop or accessible studio. Jo-AMI needs somewhere to make, and where Customers can come and try on, feel the fit and quality. With the bigger Retailers folding, we have a lot of empty space that literally no one can afford, so I hope something interesting may rise out of that which is more local and better for the environment too. I want to be able to have an accessible Studio so I can provide people all ages including Students with specialist skills, rich in heritage, and get people involved in making and storytelling through their clothes.

Why do you love Dundee?

Born here I was also an Undergraduate here, and over the years have noticed a lot more people setting up here as it is a good environment to be in. The rest of Scotland is accessible for Industry events and to meet new Customers but being home here in this beautiful place is key to me.

What do you think is happening to Fashion right now, in Scotland and generally?

I think Fashion is changing as are customer’s shopping habits. We need to look at a major Public Campaign in Scotland around buying local, and why, and how Scottish brands and makers sell ethically and affordably. There are so many amazing small businesses in Scotland that are paving the way for the rest of the industry already. The shift to online big Retailers who often make using slave labour is awful, we have to promote and maintain ethics. Jo-AMI is an ethical and local choice for consumers.

We also need to look at Copyrighting now as the EU laws around it are gone. Lots of local Designers have had issues and I just question how anyone can support brands copying to make on the cheap, increasing Climate Change, employing cheap labour, or greenwashing.

It takes skills to make something that is built to last, worth mending or reselling.

What would you like to see happen in Scottish Fashion, or in Dundee for Fashion?

I am looking forward to doing Pop-Up Shops and Events again with other people. Running your own business means it is essential to get together with others doing the same. Not just Christmas markets which were great to start off with, but going forward we need more Fashion based events. Other than going direct to Shops for Stockists, or having my own Shop, which is a way off yet for me, we need something regular every year, or even a permanent and curated space with an edge.

That is not a comment on stuff that is already happening, but it is about beautiful spaces for the customers who love us, the experience, our Fashion, our Skills, and price points.

I also work on a Freelance basis with a Charity called Front Lounge. Working with young mums, it is Chaired by Sam at Isolated Heroes, who got me involved and we teach how to make clothing and run workshops. I went to one of the local Schools and taught there, and loved working with these young creative mums, developing their skills and realising their potential. So great to be involved in and be out meeting people, everyone talks about how they cope with kids, sitting with their babies, knitting, and making things. Really worthwhile, and we want to do more.

Do you agree with the importance of collaborative working?

Totally. Through the business course, I met so many people within the creative sector, and I am thinking of joining Amps when I can, as I have heard it is a good space to be in. Support networks with like-minded people are really important and sharing opportunities helps to drive the business and keep up to date.

Being at Uni here, a few of my friends studied different specialisms and so it is great to work with them on new ideas and developments, we do peer to peer skills swapping, and from even an initial idea we grow stronger, create buzz and amplify each other.

Collaboration is so important and brings complementary strengths and champion each other within the sector in a practical sense, not just working in silos online.

Instagram and the website are my Customer community hub, but physical stores or events still deliver a majority of sales when you are not advertising, and every time you have a physical sale you meet a new person who often follows online and talks about you to their friends and family. We need the personal touch, to meet, both to build momentum and also to meet Influencers and Trade.  It is about the experience and audience development.

What are your hopes long term?

Online markets are quite saturated, so I consider which ones to do carefully, and look forward to a return to physical events. Engaging with a PR function service and Marketing and Events is a key goal for the business. I need to meet Industry, Influencers, PRs, swap advice, take part in relevant targeted networking with Influencers who are aligned. It is about finding the right people to surround me, who have an emphasis on sustainable practice and small business.

The Industry also needs to be taken way more seriously as a profession. It is currently looked at as quite niche, which is not accurate, as most are Designers, independent brands and workers. We are already working for ourselves; most are across the digital side; we are that link between freelancing and employment.

Surely with Covid-19, Brexit, Climate Change and Industry and Consumer behaviour changes we are where there is value. It takes innovation, resilience, and hard work to stand on your own to do this. It is hard, so surely there is a path there where Industry in the traditional sense can work with us more.

Suppliers struggled during lockdown, although most of mine are Scottish based so we were able to navigate as best we could, but we could do with looking at that more, and how we train apprentices too, which we could do if we had proper support and spaces. Everyone in Scottish Fashion who has been going longer over the last 10 years now has a massive legacy of people they have trained up; from other Designers to Influencers or PR, so we know it works and provides jobs and businesses, who in turn then train up more. I am definitely excited and keen for the future. We can do a lot.

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