NAME: Leah Abbott
LOCATION: East London
WHAT YOU DO: Freelance Stylist and Vintage Sales Advisor
WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP
Growing up I actually always thought there was something wrong with me, because unlike the people around me, it took me a long time to find my passion and to decide what I wanted, it was pretty scary to tell the truth. I was always good in school and studied English in university so for a long time I settled with the idea of being an English teacher, and I still would love to work with and educate children. However, having now discovered something I love – styling, I can tell that was never truly my ‘passion’.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND
Well, I grew up in Bristol with my mother and sister and lived there until I was 18 years old. I had pretty normal childhood, my mum is amazing and always raised myself and my sister as strong, independent women. I would say however that this level of ‘independence’ made it hard for me to stick and secure a place in a strong girl group, I had friends don’t get me wrong, but I was never the ‘coolest’ or the ‘leader’ and always kind of felt like I was on the outside and alone- which doesn’t do a great deal of good for a teenage girls confidence. It wasn’t however something that really got me down, I enjoy my own company so much I never really felt like I needed them, and instead developed a really strong friendship with some guys around me who are now like brothers.
Because of this, I was pretty happy to up and leave my hometown as soon as I finished college and moved to London. This was really a defining moment for me. It submersed me in a whole new world of creatives and showed me alternative paths you can take in life which are pretty unheard of in Bristol. In terms of styling, I managed to get into it literally just by going out in the city as a new student and having people consistently comment on my outfits. At first I was kind of baffled as I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly noticeable alongside the fact that I was pretty curvy, I never really put myself in the field of ‘fashion’. However, as I started to get asked to lend items I had out and for pictures of my looks it clocked to me that maybe I was doing something significant and finally I had found my path! Step aside from this I really got my name noticed and more high profile fashion work after being scouted for Skepta’s iconic ‘Shutdown’ video and few of his and other artists after that as well. I guess people gravitated to the fact that I stood next to these guys, not in a particularly sexual way, but as a strong woman with presence and confidence- I assume I got that from being surrounded by male friends. A lot of the time I styled myself for these videos too, and as people found this out they began to ask me to help them out with additional projects and styling other girls in the same way, more so to give them the same strong ‘vibe’ rather than identical ‘look’.
AT WHAT POINT IN YOUR LIFE DID YOU DECIDE YOU WANTED TO PURSUE YOUR CURRENT CAREER
I would probably say I started to take it seriously and really try and turn how I dressed into a ‘job’ during my final year of university. I knew I wasn’t enjoying my academic course, and I guess started to worry about what I would do after and where my life was going. I had volunteered in a school for a while, and I’m so happy I did before I finished because it really showed me that teaching was not for me at this time. I guess this ‘fear’ of trying something I planned to do for the rest of my life and not feeling like it was for me really gave me a kick up the ass to pursue what made me feel good- which was fashion. Following this, I remember going home and jut searching the internet for established stylists and any ways I could help them as an assistant, really just trying to get my foot in the door before it was too late. After emailing I think about 8 people, I only got one reply, from a stylist called Luci Ellis. Little did I know that this was to be a huge blessing as she really took me under her wing and taught me the ins and outs of styling, the business side of things particularly, how to loan clothes, how to dress guys as well as girls, just everything I wasn’t doing before. I am so grateful for this woman as she bought me along with her to some amazing shoots, the first person we worked on together was styling rapper ‘Schoolboy Q’ for a magazine spread! Witnessing someone like Luci, making a great life for herself by doing something which I loved to do naturally really gave me the motivation to pursue it as a career.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO & HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL
I really love the feeling of helping someone and making them feel good. Growing up I really wasn’t confident or happy with myself for a long time and I guess I love giving such variety of people, whatever gender, shape or whatever, the opportunity to feel like a million dollars simply by dressing them up. I can’t explain the buzz I get standing back on set and seeing people in looks you’ve created, and even better seeing these looks posted and published for the world to see. Likewise, styling myself and seeing people reciprocate an image of a curvy, woman of colour so well really gives me a sense of pride in myself.
HOW DO YOU HOPE FOR YOUR WORK TO BENEFIT OTHERS OR MAKE THEM FEEL
I really hope that even if it’s just for a day, whoever I’m dressing feels confident and super secure with themselves. Particularly if its young women as I know first-hand how hard it can be to be sure of yourself in a world that floods you with doubts and standards to live up too. I also hope it inspires people to be creative with what they choose to put on their body. I believe everyone has style, whether it differs from my own it doesn’t matter, what does matter is being brave with it and letting it tell others a little about you.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST CAREER MOVE OR DECiSION YOU’VE MADE SO FAR
The best decision and kind of move I’ve made is definitely realising that there is no shame in asking for help. When I applied to be an assistant, it wasn’t for money or any material benefit but simply for someone to help me pursue my dream and teach me things I couldn’t learn alone- this has really changed my life.
BALANCE IS THE THEME OF NIKAO’S CHAPTER 5 COLLECTION AND RULE WRITER CAMPAIGN; SO WE’D LIKE YOU TO TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT YOUR VIEWS ON THE TOPIC!
AS A CURVY MODEL OF COLOUR YOU FIT TWO CATEGORIES WHICH ARE NOT WELL REPRESENTED IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA. DO YOU FEEL THAT TIMES ARE CHANGING AND THE BALANCE IS SHIFTING TO ALLOW FOR A MORE INCLUSIVE FASHION INDUSTRY AND ONE WHERE YOU CAN MAINTAIN A GROWING CAREER
I definitely feel the balance has shifted, in fact I now see so many casting adds searching for rather than avoiding these two categories of individuals now! As a result of the crazy growth of the internet and social media, reality is really something we can’t escape anymore. We are constantly exposed to images of people all over the world and if the fashion industry wants to continue to grow and be supported by all they had to acknowledge this shift and include this ‘reality’ in their field; which means using curvy and colourful women alongside traditional model types.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST HIGH OF YOUR CAREER SO FAR
I would say styling my first solo music video with an all-male cast. This really conquered two fears of mine- moving away from assisting and accepting jobs alone, alongside styling menswear, as women’s style is obviously something that comes more naturally to me. Following this though and the success of the video, I have been asked to come on board as more permanent stylists for the musicians involved which is amazing as I’m now moving into having personal cliental which is something I also aimed for.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST LOW OF YOUR CAREER SO FAR – HAVE YOU HAD TO OVERCOME ANY MAJOR STRUGGLES, ADVERSITIES OR OBSTACLES
I really don’t know if I’ve had any particular ‘lows’. Of course when dressing people you run the risk of them really not feeling what you suggest which of course never feels great, but I don’t take it as a low because I appreciate the fact people have their own tastes. One thing that is a particularly frustrating obstacle is getting PR companies and brands to take you seriously. I know for a fact I can do this pretty well and compliment the items I use, but much like everything creative, a lot of work is based on reputation alone, which affects how often showrooms and designers are willing to lend items to me. It’s frustrating because I witness a lot of ‘stylists’ get items just handed to them because of their reputation which means they’re really not putting much work into their styling as everything is pre-picked and delivered. However I know the only way around this is to work harder which is what I plan to do, so I guess I take it as motivation rather than an adversity.
ARE THERE ANY AREAS OF YOUR LIFE WHERE YOU STRUGGLE TO FIND A BALANCE
It’s crazy that this is the theme because this is really something that’s on my mind at the moment. Like any normal person I have bills to pay and responsibilities which requires me to maintain a stable job aside from freelance styling. I find it so hard to balance pursing my passion and maintaining a healthy lifestyle as freelance work is so up and down, sometimes there’ loads and sometimes there’s none which means it isn’t something I can solely rely on to get by yet. I also find it hard because a lot of really cool work is based on availability and is pretty short notice which means I often have to skip work to be available for the job- risking losing money, or I have to turn the styling job down completely which is so frustrating as it’s what I love to do.
INSTAGRAM AND SOCIAL MEDIA ARE PLAYING A MAJOR ROLE IN MANY OF OUR LIVES, AND CAN BE VERY DIFFICULT TO BALANCE AMONGST OUR OTHER COMMITMENTS. HOW IMPORTANT IS SOCIAL MEDIA TO YOU AND HOW DO YOU MAKE IT WORK TO YOUR ADVANTAGE AND NOT ALLOW IT TO TAKE OVER YOUR LIFE
Social media is definitely important to me and I feel there’s a bit of a stigma with saying that, it’s not something however I feel anyone should be ashamed off. I of course understand how it can become toxic and life consuming if people use it in terms of comparison to others or as a place to put others down but for me it has been the source of so many amazing opportunities and so I can’t be anything but grateful for it. I guess I use it as a portfolio, I am in the process of making a website but I do feel like at this moment my Instagram does a great job at displaying my work without one. I guess because I view it in this way, more as a place of ‘work’ it stops it filtering into my personal life negatively.
ARE THERE ANY SOCIAL, POLITICAL OR OTHER IMBALANCES IN THE INDUSTRY THAT YOU WORK IN, WHICH GIVEN THE CHANCE YOU WOULD CHANGE
We are definitely in a much better place in terms of gender, race and size representation in fashion than we were 10 years ago. However, having recently attended Paris fashion week, I realised that this is something still only true for street/urban fashion styles and is still not the case in the high fashion field, in terms of runway models etc., to be blunt they were all tiny and Caucasian. Alongside this, I would really like to challenge the gender roles and reciprocation of women in music. There is no reason why a women can’t stand up as an equal ‘boss’ to a male artist particularly without being sexualized or degraded in anyway which is sadly the norm. Likewise for girls in music videos. I feel when I tell people the videos I’ve been in they automatically place a ‘video girl’ stereotype card above my head, but I want people to realise that being a ‘video girl’ goes beyond booty shaking and bikinis. It can mean being stylistically portrayed, complementing songs in an artistic way, representing beauty, wealth, confidence, a number of things in music beyond ‘sex’.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON GENDER BALANCE AND EQUALITY
As mentioned previously, it’s really something I care deeply about. I hate to see girls masking themselves or acting in an unnatural way simply because of a male gaze. I guess growing up with strong male friends who looked at me in no other way than one of ‘them’, I learnt to carry myself in a way that demands nothing but respect from the opposite sex and I want every girl to be able to embody this because it’s really how it should be for all. Women are so amazingly strong and intelligent it makes no sense for them to be categorised in any other way. I’m so happy we’ve recently witnessed such a rise in amazing young female artists – Jorja Smith, Ray Blk, Steflon Don just to name a few- It’s really the time of the strong independent woman!
IF YOU WERE YIN WHAT OR WHO WOULD BE YOUR YANG
I would say if I wear a Yin my Yang would definitely be a place- my bedroom. I’ve lived in some really shit places after moving out from home and figuring out a new city so I guess I realise now how important it is to have a healthy place to relax and recuperate and just take time for yourself. It’s also the place I guess I get most of my ideas, I have a pretty big wardrobe and like to display a lot of items like bags and jewellery so I often find I get styling inspiration just from looking around it. But most importantly it brings me such piece from the hectic outside world which I really need for a clear mind.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF BEING A RULE WRITER & WRITING YOUR OWN RULES AND HOW HAVE YOU APPLIED THIS TO SHAPING YOUR OWN LIFE AND GETTING TO WHERE YOU WANT TO BE IN YOUR CAREER
For me a rule writer is someone who is ultimately content with themselves and what they’re doing. Whether you work in a supermarket or a gallery or you model, as long as it’s something you’ve chosen for yourself and you are content then you have ultimately written your own rules. There is no joy that comes from comparing yourself with others and trying to live in somebody else’s blue print, this is really something prominent to me as it took me so long to find my passion but I never settled with my heart wasn’t in as an easy way out and so I guess I ended up really writing my own rules. Because of this I’ve learnt that there is no embarrassment in trying anything, it is not uncool to ‘try’, 5 years ago I never thought I would do some of the stuff I am, but I tried and it worked, and I want people to know that life is actually a lot easier living by your own rules rather than what others set for you.
WHAT RULE OR RULES OF YOUR OWN DO YOU LIVE BY
Well I definitely live by the rule of being pro-active. If you want something, go after it, if you want to work with someone then ask them- the worst they can say is ‘no’ which once you’ve experienced it you realise isn’t that bad. Also things aren’t just going to be handed to you and so you need to be pro-active to push things in the direction you want. I also would say I live by the rule of being a nice person- always. It’s so easy to get caught up in the wrong side of attitude, don’t get me wrong, I have it! (lol) but you never know what someone is going through and so I would never be intentionally mean or rude to anyone, a clean heart wins every time!
WHICH WOMAN INSPIRES YOU AND IS THE ULTIMATE RULE WRITER
Well I guess it’s cliché but definitely my mother. I’ve witnessed her go through so much and come out the other side still the most honest, loving and clean hearted person I’ll ever know. Aside from family I would say NY based model Paloma Ellesser was my first real inspiration. She stands, like me, as a curvy woman of colour, yet has graced the pages of vogue and numerous editorials that would never usually consider girls like her or myself. She got her break simply from experimenting with style in a confident way which others reciprocated well, pretty similar to where I started also I guess. Even better is that we actually recently met in Paris and she is as lovely as I had hoped, she actually approached me to compliment my look which was a real feel good moment for me.
DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE IN 3 WORDS
R&B, colourful, multifarious
PIECE OF JEWELLERY YOU CAN’T BE WITHOUT? (EARRINGS, RING, NECKLACE ETC.)
I always wear 3 gold rings- I got them for my 19th and 20th birthday and one for my graduation from my Mother so they’re pretty sentimental. I also always wear earrings, I have quite a few piercings and plan to get the majority of my ears done and so I feel pretty naked without them.
CURRENT FAVOURITE SONG OR ALBUM
I’ve actually just finished watching the ‘New Edition’ biopic so im super obsessed with like late 80’s early 90’s funk and R&B. I love some of Bobbi Browns old tracks like ‘don’t be cruel’, alongside early 90’s classics like ‘Jade- don’t walk away’.
WHAT’S YOUR NEXT MOVE
Next I really want to move into perhaps having a few permanent clients that I work on styling regularly. I’d like to see what I can come up with after building a relationship with an artist and learning a little more about them rather than just being on set for a few hours and putting them in something chosen completely externally. I’ve also developed a taste for more menswear styling and so I’d definitely like to do more of that, just to push myself really.
WHAT’S YOUR BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO SPREAD THEIR WINGS AND WRITE THEIR OWN RULES
Don’t be embarrassed to ‘try’, everyone started somewhere and although you may want to fast forward to being the best it doesn’t work like that. Forget what your friends or anyone else may think and live for you and you alone, as when you go to bed at night its only your own mind you have to be content with.
WHERE CAN WE FIND YOU/YOUR WORK
Leah’s pictured above wearing pieces from Nikao’s AW17 Chapter 5 “Balance” Collection. Available for pre-order from August ’17