pretty stories & leather bootsBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
When she has the time, Helen McGuckin stocks up on stories. Her favourite places to find them are the Sheffield Antiques Centre and the Moor Market. Also, Chesterfield Flea Market, car boot sales and the Peak District. At these places, she will buy vintage hats, suitcases and other treasures. Once, she bought a prosthetic leg. She saw that leg and she just had to have it.
When Helen is not buying prosthetic legs and other treasures, she will sit, drink tea, do work and people-watch. She’s interested in old people, young people. The people who go to the same cafe, every day for twenty years. The people who are just passing through. As long as they’re real people, she’s inspired. She takes stories from the way people live their lives, and dress to live their lives and their everyday realness. In markets, greasy spoons; “old school, normal environments.”
Last February, Helen went to go see Black Sabbath’s last ever concert in Birmingham with her husband, an illustrator named Tom J. Newell. She saw the concertgoers, with their accessories and black band t-shirts tucked into high, high jeans; just really normal, really real Black Sabbath fans. And she was inspired.
Helen also takes inspiration from films, and exhibitions. Her favourite photographers are Martin Parr and Derek Ridgers, for their “real, raw photography.” She has always loved Prada, and has fallen in love with Gucci under Alessandro Michele’s creative direction. She also loves new designers like Conner Ives, Dilara Findikoglu and Richard Quinn. She has books full of photos of underground youth cultures from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s; she goes back to them, over and over again.
Helen stores all these things in her mind, on her phone but also in a room, in her house in Sheffield. The room is full of the stuff she’s found, including the prosthetic leg. Because you never know when you’ll need a prosthetic leg. Or a pair of chaps. She found them at the market, three years ago, and has recently used them in a story for Knots Magazine.
When Helen is not stockpiling stories, she’s in Manchester or London, styling shoots for NastyGal, Missguided, Urban Outfitters or ASOS. When she’s not doing that, she’s shooting editorials for magazines like AnOther, KingKong and Bon, or creating mood boards for brands like adidas. And when she’s not doing that, she’s sourcing assistants, photographers, models and clients for new projects. Or updating her website, her social media accounts and PDF’s of her work to send to potential new clients. Soon, she’ll be working as an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University on the Fashion and Promotion Course.
“There’s always something to do,” she says.
I met Helen at a coffee shop in Sheffield. She was wearing jeans, boots and a black shirt. These days, she hates shopping. “I’ll go on a website looking for a jumper and I’ll end up looking at how they’ve posed the models, or the hair and makeup, or what accessories they’ve used,” she says. “An hour later and I’ll forget why I was on there.”
She says her look is mostly functional, easy to move around and travel in; “just jeans and t-shirts and boots, or Converse.” To dress up, she’ll put on a “different lipstick, or more rings or something.” She is very good at being self-effacing; really, today in this coffee shop, in jeans, boots and a black shirt, she looks so stylish and cool.
An important thing to know is that Helen really is stylish and cool, and if you tell her that, she’ll deny it. That’s because Helen’s love for fashion is honest, and without pretensions. She’s a stylist because she really loves clothes — the way they feel and look; how you can play with them, and create characters from them. The stories clothes can tell, through images. She’s a stylist because she’s good at it.
“It can be quite a battering industry, but you’ve got to get on with it,” she says. “I just try to make it quite fun and real.”
From the start, it was all about the images. In college Helen became “obsessed” with editorial shoots in magazines. She completed a Fashion BTEC, where she decided to become a stylist. Since there were no styling courses available at the time, she did a course in Fashion Studies at the University of Derby. By the time she began working, there were styling courses everywhere.
Helen graduated, moved to Sheffield and began working at TopShop — first as a sales assistant, then a visual merchandiser and eventually as a personal shopper. She loved the TopShop brand; she knew absolutely everything about it.
“I was very trend driven, then,” she says. “I had a discount. You would see loads of new things every day, and I totally bought into it.” She laughs, “I was a TopShop brand ambassador, which is what you become, working for brands.”
In Sheffield, Helen met Tom. When she decided to move to London, he joined her. She wanted to go to London because she wanted to get into styling.
“I knew I had to be in London,” she says. “I felt like I had to get that experience.”
She transferred with TopShop as a personal shopper in London for a year, spent nine months as an intern at Dazed, and left to assist stylist Jo Barker of Re-Edition magazine. “And then went from there to assisting Stevie Westgarth, a menswear stylist,” she says. “That was really good because he did loads of editorial and commercial jobs. And I love menswear. I want to do more menswear!”
They moved back to Sheffield because they wanted to be closer to family and friends.
“I don’t know if it’s so necessary to be in London now; everything is online,” says Helen. “As long as I can keep up the relationships I’ve built with PR’s and keep going down for meetings with brands and photographers, then I can make it work from wherever I am.”
As long as she’s in Sheffield it doesn’t really matter if she’s not in London or Manchester; she can get the train when she needs to. She still gets invites to London Fashion Week, but she prefers to watch it on her phone.“You can almost see it as it’s happening, without the stress of getting dressed up and fighting your way in,” she says. “Runway apps are updated twenty minutes after the show.”
She prefers to go to the press show days. She likes to touch the fabrics, take time with the clothes and start creating new looks and stories in her mind.
“You go to a press show room to see the collection, and you know that everybody is going to be using those pieces to shoot with,” she says. “You’re using the same pieces that another stylist is going to use. You’ve got to think: how am I going to do it so it’s different to other people’s stories?”
On her wedding day, Helen wore a pair of black Prada boots under an ornate, floor-length white dress. She loves contrast; applying different styles to the same story.
“Even if I’m doing a pretty story, it’ll have a tough leather jacket or boots,” she says. “I try to have that humour, androgyny or toughness in all the shoots that I do, because that’s what I enjoy.”
She tells me about a recent shoot she did with London-based photographer and good friend Laura McCluskey in the Peak District. It was a Western story. “I like to take people out of their comfort zones and Laura loved the dreamy location,” she says.
“I’ve seen lots of Western coming through Autumn/Winter collections, so I wanted to pick up on that trend and work with a new model we found, who’s actually from Leeds.”
If Helen has an image in her head for an editorial, she will cast models herself. She has lists of models and makeup artists and photographers she likes. As well as loaning garments from PR’s, she’ll go searching for interesting pieces from antique and vintage shops.
“It’s like getting my thoughts and things onto an image,” she says. “That’s the fun part.”
Sometimes, she’ll take a story out of her stockpile and build the image around it. For example, a girl looking moody at the train station could be: “This girl used to live in China, and she’s travelled elsewhere, because she’s fallen in love. And she’s got the train, so she has all these bags with her. But she’s just got dumped, so she’s heartbroken.
“Most of the time I want my editorials to be a bit funny,” she says. “I never take fashion very seriously. Especially when I’m doing editorials, because you have to be so serious on the commercial side.”
The commercial side, for Helen, is often e-commerce work; producing photos for online shops like ASOS and Nasty Gal.
“It’s important to know in commercial jobs what the trends are,” she says. “Especially doing e-com, because they want to know what’s on trend at the moment. You can be inspired by the shows, but you have to bring it down to the commercial, shoppable level.”
I ask Helen how she knows what trends are coming through; I want to understand how someone keeps updated season after season, when the catwalk is so far ahead of the high street, anyway. How does she do what she does?
“Maybe because I’ve been reading magazines since I was sixteen; things get repeated a lot of the time,” she says. “I keep up with things in the shops; I notice the difference between what’s in store, and what’s on the catwalk. What blogs are talking about, how people are wearing clothes on the street. And then I merge it all together.”
To explain, Helen shows me a PDF on her phone that she’s sent to a brand for Autumn / Winter. It is page after page of words like: Boho, crochet, metallic (which is both a colour and fabric), rodeo, tartan, oversized businesswear. She takes me through every page, and explains how a trend might be a trend, but it also might fit into another, broader trend. Like red, which is a trend for Autumn / Winter but it could be a Western red dress or a floral red dress, and those are also trends; which is the same problem with graphic knit, which is a trend but also, an element of several different trends.
“I find it really hard to explain it, because I work with images all day,” says Helen. “You’re selling trends, but you’ve got to make it interesting and cool, which often, in street style, is in the details. So are people rolling their jeans up, or rolling their sleeves a certain way? Or wearing scarves, or bumbags? All that kind of stuff.”
We finished our drinks, and Helen took me on a tour of Sheffield. She showed me the Moor Market, where she touched fabrics and suitcases. She tells me about her friends in Sheffield, with creative businesses of their own. “Everyone is so inspirational, we all push each other,” she says. She talks about Tom, who encourages her to follow her dreams, no matter what.
“It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable in what I do,” she says. “When I started working in fashion, I was like, oh my god, everyone is so cool, everyone has got money! I just felt like I didn’t fit in.
“But I know I’m good at it,” she adds. “I know I want to do it.”
And I thought: fashion is lucky to have her.
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2