No room for creativity: Here’s how the cost of living crisis is affecting young designers
During the pandemic, the Tory government was telling young creatives to retrain and choose alternative professions, explaining how ballerina Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet) and to swap the sewing machine for a spanner and spirit level. And now, as we live through an energy and cost of living crisis, it’s the fledglings of the creative industries who are in the firing line again, with the lifelong aspirations of young designers and fashion students across the UK hanging quite literally by a thread. The hike in living costs means young designers are having to choose between food and fabric.
In mid-October, the Office for National Statistics reported that inflation in the UK had risen to 10.1 per cent the month before due to soaring food prices (up 14.6 per cent) – the highest annual rise in 40 years. Housing, water and energy costs have risen by 20.2 per cent since September 2021, with research suggesting that the average UK household is now nearly £9,000 worse off per year compared with France and Germany. Take a trip to your local supermarket and you’ll have to dig deeper for basic necessities like pasta (up almost 60 per cent in a year); jump on a bus and you’ll overhear pensioners discussing plans to use public transport to stay warm rather than paying to heat their homes.
And while the Tories continue to bulldoze the British economy, in front of me a blossoming designer is expressing their worries and anger at the situation. Whereas Liz Truss will pick up an annual stipend of £115,000 following her 44 days as prime minister, students are struggling to afford their £9,000 tuition fees and are likely to leave university with more than £45,000 of debt. It begs the question: is the cost of living crisis killing creativity?
“What isn’t angering me right now?” asks the young designer Izabella Bilinska, who is originally from Poland, where her parents have recently returned after being forced to sell their family home in London. The 25-year-old is struggling to pay her bills and is now dependent on her brother. “He’s helping me financially, he covers most of the cost for the apartment, buys groceries, pays the electricity and water bills,” she says. “It would be nice to see a support system for creatives, some kind of government scheme to get us on our feet.” The pressing need to make money right now has meant that she hasn’t been able to sit down with her designs for months and her job in media marketing takes up all her time. “I’m really backtracking, to be honest. Just when I thought I had one foot forward after leaving uni in 2021, it’s all gone backwards,” says the Central Saint Martins (CSM) graduate, who takes “old historic costumes and armour” and connects them with modern influences, often using leather and the Japanese rope-tying technique of shibari for her corsetry. “The majority of my income goes towards my half of the rent – what I’m able to pay – and the rest goes on food, travel and creative supplies. I feel a lot of creativity has to do with time, and time is a luxury – you need money to have time. It’s a vicious cycle that I’m constantly battling.”
MA Biodesign student Ziqi Li has been spending her time at CSM figuring out new ways that the fashion industry can be more environmentally friendly. The designer has been working with fat – yes, fat – using the globules of ester as a key part of “wearable items that change people’s perspective of the material”. But while trying to tackle worldwide environmental problems, the 23-year-old is facing her own issues, one being the mounting difficulties of paying for sustainable materials so she can create her work. “These days it’s hard to get [them], especially when we are working with sustainable items – the materials are usually more expensive than the normal chemical-based ones,” she says. And although Li has found some cost-saving and innovative ideas for materials, that isn’t a full-scale solution: “Sometimes, I will create my own materials, so I will collect from nature – basically foresting. So the money I spend on materials isn’t now the most vital part of the design process, it’s the time I spend.” With time being a luxury she can’t always afford during her studies, she would like the government to do more to help cash-strapped students. “We don’t have the power to speak loud enough to be heard,” she says about politics in general. “So I think we need to come together to speak out.”
Jared Knight couldn’t have picked a more turbulent period to leave his job working for a clothing company to focus on his own brand, Sampaix. “I’m jumping into this at a weird time in the world and it is very daunting. It’s been very stressful,” he says. His brand gathers deconstruction and reconstruction under one label, and boasts a collection of casualwear sweats and tailored coral-hued trousers with reef-like patterns; any leftover material is used to make ruffle coral bags and one-off pieces such as hats and caps. With the need to fork out more money on energy bills after the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) announced that prices will increase by £1,570 per year, the 27-year-old self-taught designer, who is originally from Man- chester, but is now based in London, is trying to strike a balance between creating because it’s his passion and creating just to keep the bills at bay. “I think I have the wildest thoughts and I have to somehow make some of them commercially viable in order to make enough mon ey to make ends meet and to keep the lights on,” says Knight, who lives with his girlfriend in a 700 sq ft live-work space that he “pays through the roof” for. “I try not to use the word ‘angry’ because I try to stay positive and not be angry about things that are unfortunately out of my control, but I just think [up-and-coming creatives] are always at the bottom of the barrel.”
You would have thought that a 23-year-old designer who has just landed their first proper job in the fashion industry might have narrowly avoided the impact of the economic crisis, but for Lily Willan, that isn’t the case. The Westminster University grad has just moved back to London from her parents’ house in Bradford for a new design role at Fred Perry after an inevitable period of applying for jobs during the day and working at a bar at night. “You shouldn’t be skinning yourself to pay rent in London to go and work and do what you wanna do. It’s actually a disgrace,” she says about the housing market in the capital, where rental prices have increased by 2.5 per cent in the 12 months leading up to August 2022. Willan’s personal designs are based on the men in her life back in Yorkshire and on what her “brother might find cool”. But even though she has gained traction for her authentic dissection of her surroundings, her experience of the economic crisis has, at times, left her feeling that her work is meaningless. “Everything seems a bit futile,” she says. “People have asked me if I’m still going to do some of my own stuff, and yeah, I’d love to, but what’s the point? I’m not gonna be able to make any money off of it because I’m not stupid enough to think someone’s gonna pay me £600 for a jacket. Nobody can afford anything.”