Courtney McWilliams’ clever, witty and beautifully made designs landed her a job in menswear at Givenchy about five minutes after she graduated from her MA at the RCA in 2010. She spoke to us about how she adjusted to working for someone else rather than being her own boss, and the mix of skills and luck that led her to her dream job.
Courtney McWilliams, Fashion: Menswear, 2010
How did you get the job at Givenchy?
I’ve been working there since last September. My boss Brendan [Mullane, the senior designer] and the director of the menswear team Nicola [Antonacci] came to the Royal College to interview in I think it was July, literally quite close after graduation. We were all interviewed, they came over for one day and just interviewed Royal College and Saint Martins students and I heard back from them quite soon after. I just had to do a little project of them over the space of a week – I designed a little collection for them. They also took another boy from Saint Martins. They just contacted the college in general – they wanted to take graduates from the best schools in England.
Did you have a feeling you’d got the job, after the interview?
No – I came out and I said to Hilary in the office, “Oh God, I’m way underqualified for this job!” and she said, “Oh, I’m sure it will be fine.” They said I’d be helping to run the studio and designing and doing this or that, and I was so used to working for myself and doing my own thing I didn’t know how I could be in charge of a collection or a team, I didn’t think it was something I knew how to do. In the end it took me about a season to learn – you just have to rise to it really, it’s such a fast-paced thing, it came quite quickly and I think the Royal College taught me to think on my feet a bit and adapt really quickly.
It really sounds like being thrown in at the deep end…
It was. You quickly realise that your boss is extremely busy doing other things and that your problems aren’t really relevant to him, so you can’t go to him every second and say actually I don’t know how to do this, you have to go and find a way, so you just learn really quickly. I also found personally that I had skills in print and graphics that other people didn’t have so I kept pushing to do things that I was good at and I wanted to do and I could take responsibility for comfortably without needing any help, so I created a role within the team that didn’t really exist before.
What was your original plan before you got the job?
It was to have my own collection, do my own thing. I didn’t want to have to worry too much about getting a job – I just accustomed myself to the idea I wasn’t going to get one. I registered myself as a small label, got a website started up, got my collection started for next season because I thought, I can’t rely on getting a job because I know how few and far between they are. I was just starting on the next collection and I got the job. That was quite painful because I was all powered up to do my own thing and I thought, how am I going to go from that to that? But I knew I had to take it because it was just an amazing opportunity. When I weighed up my options I knew I had to go to Paris.
Was it difficult, the transition from working for yourself to being directed by someone else?
At first it is when you come from doing your own thing. When you produce something you don’t like anyone touching it or having another opinion because it’s yours and this is what you do and what you represent. You quickly have to realise that there are a huge amount of designs that go out in a very short space of time. It’s not your label, it’s Riccardo Tisci’s label and you are there to make him happy and respect the brand. It took me a while to realise it wasn’t all about me for once and just go out there and do my job and sort stuff out without being too emotionally attached to it, especially with pre-collection which goes so quickly. Initially it felt completely different. My friend Nick who I work with kept saying, “Remember it’s not your label!” It was a print or something and I was like, “I spent so long on this print, I love it so much,” and he said, “Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.” Because with every piece of artwork you do you spend ages on it and you feel like it’s your child, but things get cancelled for all sorts of reasons and you can’t get too attached to it.
Do you see your current job as practice for eventually having your own label?
I don’t know what the future’s going to hold. I’m sure that there are many different options that could arise. I would be happy to not go back to my own label but I’ll always have that there. My company still exists – my brother has taken over it for a while and is producing T-shirts under my name, just because it’s something I’ve spent so long building and I don’t want to give it up. It’s not the be all and end all if it doesn’t happen – I want to keep moving up through Givenchy or even LVMH and getting to a position like Riccardo Tisci, or I’d be just as happy to work under my own name. I’m just going to ride it out and see where the future takes me.
Pictured: Courtney McWilliams
What advice would you give to current students and graduates who would like a job like yours?
I was talking to someone the other day from the Royal College who’s just graduated and it’s different – for me, I was extremely lucky that there was a position available when I graduated that I could interview for. For a lot of people there aren’t places available because people [in the fashion industry] move around but there’s rarely a vacancy that hasn’t got anyone to fill it. I was quite lucky but I was just saying that going door to door handing out CVs [is a good idea]. I think you have to sound keen, you have to be like, “I really want this, I really, really want to work for you.” Being too keen is not uncool – you have to be a little bit desperate and show you really want it. We get a lot of CVs coming through from graduates and students who want to do an internship and it’s the ones who come to Paris, drop their portfolios on the doorstep, email, call up… We’re working so much and we get so many CVs that they’re just forgotten, so if you keep pushing it and saying, “This is me, this is who I am and why I want to work for you,” that’s the best way to stand out.
What do you think made you stand out from other interviewees?
One of the reasons that I got the job is that I had a real strong sense of my own identity, so I went in there and was like, “This is me, this is what I’m about, I have a website, I have an online shop, I can tell you everything about every single stitch, I created a brand for myself, I created an image.” There was no question they could have asked because I knew everything about who I was. I think that’s really important and it’s one of the best things I learned at the Royal College. I spent two years defining myself and really creating an entire package, and I think that was the reason I got the job, because I knew who I was.
So it sounds like the attitude you need to work for a label and to create your own label are basically the same?
Yes. Even when I’m designing for Givenchy, we have to produce a lot of research. I don’t ever forget who I am and what I’m designing. If there’s something I don’t want to do, I say to my boss it’s not something I feel strongly about so I’m not going to do it. I want everything I produce to be an extension of me as a designer and it’s the same when you have yr own label. For example we sometimes have to produce pieces with fur and I’m anti fur, so I just say, “If you don’t mind, I’m not going to design anything based on that,” and he says that’s fine. I think it’s important to stay true to yourself and know who you are. Among our team – there’s only three designers now, Brendan the senior designer and Nick and I – Brendan oversees the whole collection and does some of the formal pieces and assists on knitwear, and then Nick takes control of denim, knit and leather, and I do jersey, outerwear and print so we’ve created little areas for ourselves that we’re more expert than the other people in.
Was there a particular moment when you thought, wow, I’ve really done well?
I feel like I’ve leapt forward so much since I’ve been there… If I think about my first day that I was there sat at my new desk in my first job, to now when I’m conversing with Riccardo Tisci and talking about prints and we’re having a laugh together and going to parties and meeting these amazing people… I’ve worked on all these amazing projects with him. We work on the collection really closely together, but every time I go in I sit there and go, I can’t believe I’m sitting here working with Riccardo Tisci, it’s ridiculous! He texts me sometimes and I cant believe he’s texting me. It’s bizarre to think that everything I aspired to while at the Royal College has come true.