Female Designer | Tracey Neuls | International Woman's Day | 2016
Travelling to Paris, we presented our new AW16 collection, Tracey’s 30th collection to date. Celebrating International Women’s Day
, we sat in a Parisian cafe with a glass of Pernod and talked about being an international woman.
Do you remember the beginnings of your creativity? What were you in to? Were you always making stuff?
I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV, so I had to do other things. I grew up in a remote area on Vancouver Island exploring the outdoors. I also had a box of Barbies, but they were flat chested, I wasn’t allowed Barbies with boobs! I had a black family that were branded the Happy Family.
How do you get a no boob, black Barbie in the 70’s?
I don’t know, but my parents found them!
Yeah, it was different and I always wanted something different? So then I began to make clothes for them, whole collections. I was designing so many, for the whole family. I was so disappointed, in one of my many moves as a young adult, I lost the box filled with all the designs.
It was like miniature clothing?
Exactly, I made all the patterns and everything and that was kind of the beginning of it! Mom and Dad didn’t have much money so they never bought me all the Barbie add ons. Also, all the clothes that Barbie came with were really glitzy and over the top, I wanted them to wear real clothes and original ones that no one else had. This is when I started making shoes out of cardboard and kitchen rolls.
That really was the beginning for your career at such a young age!
It went from Barbie to me. I had always sewn because my grandmother used to make quilts, you know with all the squares and she made oven mitts too. I remember when she got Alzheimer’s, she made a pair of mitts but they were sewn together and she didn’t notice. It was beautiful and sad. But sewing has always been in the family. My Mom had a good sewing machine - The Elna. Ooohhh I’m going to need to name a shoe after that!
Viola your daughter is very good at making things. I guess you’ve encouraged this?
She’s recently made some saddles for her toy horses out of spare leather swatches. I just think there’s something nice in knowing that you can create with your hands. I am slightly worried about this new machine age where you just don’t interact with your own body parts let alone other humans. Tactile is good. I don’t like to think of younger people automatically believing that something purchased is better than something you can make. You won’t build up the confidence, to know that you can actually do it - your way.
Your parents, did they encourage your creativity, how did they work with it? Yes, they would let me walk around town in the cardboard shoes that I had made. They were totally cool with it, it was good. (laughs) I just remember this one time, it was probably one of the last Barbies I had because I’ve played with them quite late! I was playing ‘house’ with the Mom and Dad dolls and my parents were outside listening to me playing. It was the first time and the only time that I had ever created ‘that scene’. I remember it now like it was yesterday, I’m probably going red now! Of all the chances to spy on your kid, that was the last time that I ever played with Barbies.
Like a coming of age scenario!
They say that kids are supposed to re-enact reality to make sense of it and that’s the whole point with dolls. They make an understandable reality out of the weirdness that goes around. Or stuff that you don’t really get. I loved The Smiths so much and there’s one song which goes ‘just 5 minutes with you, take me round the fountain or round the bush’ or something like that... I would sing that endlessly which I don’t remember the words for now. Then one time, my Dad was in the car and he flicked on my music when I wasn’t there. Later he says “I just want to talk to you about your music. I think ‘that song’ is really inappropriate.” I had never once clicked on to what the song meant. I literally thought someone was taking someone around the fountain for a walk - as you would growing up in the great outdoors? (laughs) My parents were quite traditional. The early days were pretty strict and religious around mine. My sisters and I weren’t particularly encouraged to go to college.
Do you want a Pernod? What time is it? I think this background is important because you are quite a rebellious person and you do go against the grain. This traditional background has probably had a positive effect on you.
I respected them. I think you love your parents to death and they love you as well, there’s nothing weird or dysfunctional but at the same time, I had my own little road to follow.
Can you tell me a little bit about your mother?
I do think times are changing somewhat because my Mom was the classic 1950’s housewife. She’s never worked for money but she has put literally everything into her family. I would come home from school and she’s there every single time, baking bread, cookies whatever. Her job as a mother was so appreciated and I think there’s something about that too, it doesn’t mean that you’re not an international woman if you don’t have a salary or career, it’s not about that. After us 4 children left the house, she started painting and now she’s an artist selling her work. She’s completely found a whole new side to her. She dedicated herself to family and then her next dedication is painting, so life is constantly evolving, and maybe that’s a sign of the times on a positive note, the fact that she actually could just dedicate herself to painting after so many years of being the classic 1950s Mom.
That’s great, I guess there’s just different chapters in life isn’t there?
Exactly and you’ve just got to embrace what you want to do when the time is right.
I think having old school parents can produce quite interesting characters! Pernod smells like Jelly Babies!? But yes. It was really old fashioned but I think having that old fashioned discipline probably adds well to our personalities. Respect is a small thing that goes a long way. On a day to day basis from driving to passing each other on the pavement, we are all equals.
You’re a very interesting mix, you can be quite moral but sometimes you’re so rebellious. A beautiful contradiction, like listening to The Smiths roaming around Vancouver Island!
Or Frankie Goes to Hollywood (laughs). I also feel, or I hope, I respect other people and you expect the same thing back and I think when that doesn’t happen then I can go a bit AWOL.
When you went to College was that a trip because you’d had quite a different childhood to other classmates?
I don’t know, I always felt confident. I think that’s one thing - even my Mom and sister said they didn’t get how I could just go and talk to people. They’re not as assertive. But I’m also quite anti-social in some ways too! I don’t know why it is. I think I just like having time in my own head.
What do we think about international Women’s Day? How do you feel about being a woman?
I think the ability to have a child is quite amazing and I’m very grateful for it. I remember talking with Georgina Goodman, she had a kid and said ‘it’s the ultimate creation isn’t it’ and I was thinking ‘ I don’t get what she means’ but now I do really understand what she means.
Is it creative having a kid?
Yes, you are creating a child, physically and mentally and it really doesn’t stop until the day you die. Think about how much you rely on your parents?
Do you think it’s a good time to be a woman or do you feel like it’s hard to be a woman?
I think it’s a better time to be a woman. I would like a point where you don’t actually care if you’re a woman or a man or white or black, or whatever. I mean probably everyone would like that - labels suck.
But do you think fashion can keep gender roles rigid, especially for women, it can sometimes be quite pigeon holed?
Fashion is quite weird with women, you’re either sexy or you’re frumpy or you’re desirable, or you’re sensible, or you’re whacky. I think confidence is the sexiest thing to me, it really is. I don’t think it’s always how you look because ultimately you get old and then that look isn’t there and if that’s what you based yourself on then you might as well give up now.
You have a daughter now who is 11. When she starts putting on lipstick and saying Mom I want to get a push up bra, as a woman, how do you feel about stuff like that, because you want to celebrate her and encourage her, I guess it’s about having fun?
You know what so far so good, I think it’s what you give across. Making yourself up to be something else isn’t the crux of being feminine. I don’t think I’ve ever once said “Oh Viola, try on these heels, you’ll feel so amazing in them” or “put some makeup on, you’ll look better”. In fact, she’s seen women on the street hobbling around in big heels and gone “oh my god Mom, look at that.”
She used to wear those little kitten heels when she was really young!
They were mine though, so they were comfortable, I don’t think wearing heels are wrong, I think being uncomfortable is wrong - and how can you be confident if you’re totally uncomfortable? It’s like having a toothache and having a conversation - you can’t. Although a Pernod and a conversation is pretty easy too!
You said you grew up quite late and you were sweetly innocent. Do you think Viola is growing up quicker than your generation?
She’s way older and more mature than I ever was at her age which I think is due to movies, internet, friends, even the education. She was learning about coke and heroin at school the other day. I don’t mind that she is but it sounded quite graphic. Then she informed me “You know Mom, coffee is also a drug.”
For international Women’s Day, you’re a woman and you’re international! You have carved out your own company which is not always easy.
Do you know what, I think that it’s not even a matter of easy or difficult. I think for me my work is something so within me. I haven’t bought into a programme, this is just my programme and if somebody wants to join me then it’s amazing. Fashion is a business but for me it’s also something else, it’s an appreciation for women and at the core, I seriously don’t like to see women hobbling around and I don’t like to see them uncomfortable in themselves. Designing shoes is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. People are too obsessed with attracting someone else. You’ve got to just think for yourself and have that be your driving force. It’s not always easy but it is so important to listen to yourself and not be too influenced by others.
You attract good women to your shops.
Oh ya! I try not to make the environment too intimidating. I want it to be personal and warming. I think some of the little things in life should be embraced. One of my collections from way back, when I stamped a teapot on the sole, was inspired by the idea of women getting together in the middle of the day and just chatting. I think some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been with women.
People can be a bit condescending towards that but you think it should be more celebrated?
I am not talking about ‘ladies who lunch’ or whatever the saying is. Women are very perceptive, and highly kinetic. If they were actually getting together, talking about what’s going on in the world, you could harness a huge amount of power. Women are more solvers than fixers. I wish there were more women in governmental roles. It still kills me that some UK courts of law don’t even have a women’s toilet!
Some men seem to be confused as to how chivalrous they should be? It’s not the 50’s anymore but what are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think it’s emasculating at all to outwardly show respect to women, I think it’s one of the most charming things ever. When I walk down the street with my Dad, he always takes the side of the traffic. I open doors for men and women. It’s being hospitable. You look at the animal world and male Peacocks with their feathers, should he not put his feathers on display? It’s a nice thing! Don’t read too much into it, this is the other thing, because life is just too fucking serious, especially in the design world, have some fun, be kind, be outward.
In terms of the motherhood versus career debate….?
First of all when I found out that I was pregnant I actually cried because I was so into my own little scene and the world of London and it was just fantastic being free. But then obviously when I had Viola, it’s the best thing ever. It is super rewarding. Mind you, I don’t know how people have 3 kids and a full fledged career, I’m really happy to have one child and one career, it works for me. Viola comes with me everywhere and always has. She is a part of me rather than a dependent. You can fit it all in. I work until 3pm, take some hours off for after school and dinner then work into the night. Being self employed does allow for more flexibility. As well, a child is a shared responsibility and my partner is very much involved in her upbringing. Just because I gave birth, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t a shared responsibility. There is that word ‘equality’ again and for me International Women’s day is about striving to achieve it.
Cheers to that! Thank you Tracey Neuls.