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Back to the future

Olivia Welsh in pink coat in front of pink flowering tree

Fashion Design graduate Olivia Welsh reflects on her time at Cambridge School of Art and talks about her company, which creates fashion designs influenced by British history.

I founded Olivia Annabelle a year and a half ago, creating fashion designs influenced by British history. A frustration with the lack of diversity and innovation on the high street fostered a desire to design clothes made from beautiful fabrics that are unique, well made and don’t follow the latest trends.

At the heart of the brand is our aim to make limited edition pieces that have longevity and timeless appeal that can be kept and worn forever.

When I graduated from Cambridge School of Art in 2017, I found most of the fashion work around my home city of Manchester was for big companies.  I didn’t want to work for fast fashion, so took an unpaid internship instead, doing embroidery, beadwork and other finishing touches for a company that made bespoke wedding dresses.  After eight months of this, I decided to try setting up a business of my own.

In October 2018, I applied for the Pure London trade show, which gave me the kick I needed to start creating a selection for buyers to put in large orders.  Since leaving the course I’ve had to think about the market a bit more, especially as my work is inspired by historical clothing.  I’ve had to tone it down a bit so people can wear it! 

Detail of Olivia Welsh's printed dress design
Detal of brown print jacket by Olivia Welsh
Detail of black and white print blouse by Olivia Welsh

While preparing for the show, I contacted my ex-tutor Mark (Hart) for advice on how to approach buyers and things like that. He showed me how to alter my brand, make it more wearable. He was really helpful and gave me some good tips for future trade shows.

It was the same on the course. The tutors were laid back, but also inspirational. They took an interest in our work outside of teaching, and were always doing things like sending me links to sites that might help with my designs. Mark had worked with high-end companies, so was really good at pushing us to be more adventurous, and our textiles tutor Davina really opened my eyes to new techniques that I’m still using now.

They always encouraged to use all the facilities, to get a range skills that would help us in the future. The sewing room became a kind of social life. Even though there was a lot to do, there was a fun atmosphere and I made some amazing friends.

People from industry came to our lessons, high-end designers like Antoni and Alison as well as designers from companies like Marks and Spencer, so we learned about different ends of the design world. We went to fashion exhibitions, like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, which showed us the designers’ processes as well as their clothes, and the V&A archives too, where a historian told us all about the clothes, and how they were made. Later in the course, I was able to book out clothes from them for my own research.

Model in studio wearing printed dress and purple jacket
Model in studio photoshoot wearing a dark printed coat and trousers
Model in studio photoshoot wearing black and white printed shirt with wide black trousers

Our graduate show at the end of the course showed me what a real-life fashion show would be like – stressful, in an exciting way! It was the first time I’d ever dressed models, and there was only about two minutes to undress and redress each model, so everyone was helping each other out. It was quite an experience, and I learned a lot.

Anyway, the Pure London trade show ended up getting me a lot of interest - in Spring 2019, Wolf & Badger signed me up to showcase my designs on their site. This gave me access to an international audience, including stores in New York, and I’ve already had quite a few orders from the US.

Olivia Welsh is the founder of Olivia Annabelle.

Interested in studying fashion design at ARU? Visit the course page to find out more, or book your place at one of our Open Days.