September 5, 2011
so far, so London
So it has been 9 months in London. 9 months of novelty, bureaucracy, existential crises, loneliness, rejection, vacation, self-destruction, wondering, wandering, cash flow issues, random encounters, queues, new friends, risky behaviour, beigels, confined spaces, grandeur, wrong turns and righteous reinvention.
I knew that it would be a tricky to move to a new city in a new country, but of course there was no way I could prepare myself for it. Do I love London? Every once in a while, when it loves me back – most of the time the relationship is somewhere between ambivalent and adversarial. It is not that different than Toronto, just more extreme – London deals out euphoria and downright hostility, but without much in between. It is not a city you can cruise along comfortably in. Especially if the nature of your occupation is inconsistent.
When you’re winning at London, you feel brilliant. When you’re losing at London, you feel like an abject failure. Experience can modify your reactions to the fluctuations somewhat, just as in freelancing, after a while you accept that your last job won’t be your last, ever. You just have to accept that the struggle will never be transcended.
My three greatest dragons to slay have been isolation, obscurity, and squalor.
I slept and worked in this sixty square foot room in East London for just over seven months. To say it was a downgrade from my studio situation in Toronto would be an understatement. But there was nothing to be done for it – I only had a couple months worth of expenses saved, I had lost the location-specific portion of my income, and I had no definite business plan in London. I chose to operate with as little as I could, allowing myself only a few business-related investments – an office chair, a new small scanner and a work lamp. The situation was physically and psychologically confining.
In December, business was good, with two large projects from American clients and a number of smaller ones, I was almost wholly occupied with work. Personally, I had never been so miserable in my life. I was sick with a persistent cough, there was a lot of tension and disorder in my flat, and I was lonelier than I had ever been before, far away from my family and friends. I’m not sure why I chose November to move, in retrospect.
January was decent business wise but I started to experience some cash flow issues as I had difficulty opening up a UK bank account as a self-employed person. I had put a plan into place to meet people in London – so my social anxieties were alleviated somewhat, but overall the only reason it was better was because December had been so bad. The other major event was the eviction of some toxic flatmates – so me and my remaining flatmates had the opportunity to upgrade the flat and it became significantly more liveable.
In January, February and March I attended my first European fashion weeks, in Berlin, London and Paris. These experiences were incredible and enlightening, but not without difficulties. As a new kid in town, I experienced the most frequent feelings of professional rejection I had since I was a new graduate. Berlin was covered by a freelance job, but I was mostly just hanging out, wall-flying it, for London and Paris. And eventually, pants-flying it as I carelessly spent next month’s rent on cafe au lait and macarons in Paris.
Coming back to London and reality was rock hard. For the first time in my entire career as a freelancer, I experienced two consecutive months with zero revenue – March and April. The “freelancer’s vacation” is probably the most stressful thing I deal with in my work, more so that time because I had spent my usual buffer, and had foolishly decided to live in a ridiculously expensive city. I have had several zero months in the past & ridden them out fairly smoothly on savings and faith. Not this time. This was probably the most intense professional existential crises of my entire life.
Racking up credit card bills, I refused to lose at London. I took my time and divided it in two. I revived my resume – moribund for 8 years, printed it out, and literally pounded the pavement by day, applying for shop assistant positions all over London. The rest of my time was spent re-assessing my web presence and professional goals. It was like post-grad anxiety all over again – interviews for jobs I could care less about by day, agonizing ambitious angst by night. I stripped down my website to the essentials, and started posting less often, but focusing on gnarlier subjects, posts that would take a while to work into shape.
Just like they always do, once I had achieved a level of hustling momentum, the freelance gods blessed me with my first ever consulting client, advising and overseeing fashion-related artwork for a game developer in San Francisco. Then I got one of my highest profile jobs ever for a dream Canadian client, doing an ADR paper doll for The Bay. Suddenly, I was OK again. I turned down two retail positions. I paid off my credit card bill (though I would be hovering between black and red until August) and I could afford my trip to Glasgow with Gail in June.
Despite the good news, I was still dealing with a lingering sense of isolation. I was keeping a diary for a side project at the time, and it was strange to read how repetitive my obsessions were: lonely, money, lonely, money, lonely, money. The exercise of writing it down was really useful, it made me realize that I had to do something about my situation, as I could see that it was resulting in genuine psychological distress and some low-level self-destructive behaviour.
At the beginning of July, I met some kind strangers, as had become my habit, at the V&A on a rainy night. One of them mentioned he had a desk share available & lived in my neighbourhood. I checked it out, and while it didn’t suit me exactly, the solution for my isolation had presented itself. It was time to take on the risk of an extra monthly expense and find a good desk share. Within two days I had found it and moved in and it was a physically and socially expansive experience from the beginning. My working space is no longer confined, and an added level of social texture in my life has made my days significantly more pleasant.
Once that move was made and I had settled into a new routine, I finally had the career-defining epiphany I had been searching for since March. I often struggled with how to describe my blog – it is a fashion blog, but it is not the type of fashion blog that most people think of. It is not an outfit blog or a street style blog, and while it errs on the analytical side, it is definitely not an academic blog either.
With an unconscious impulse, I found myself typing “trend theory” into Google, and guess what the top result was? A post I made on The Fashion Spot in 2005. It was some long tail voodoo magic, of course that is what Final Fashion is about! I googled “trend theorist“, and I found that no one calls themselves that. Well, now someone does, and as the first ever trend theorist I have the opportunity to define that role as I continue to think, write, discuss, and observe fashion. It was an epiphany on the same level as when I named my grad collection “final fashion”, or when I first put “fashion illustrator” on my business cards.
Now I am finding the greater clarity of purpose has started to have an effect – I am creating more estimates, some for UK businesses, I am finding new friends with great affinity at greater frequency. For the first time in well over a year, I feel temporary bursts of contentment. My consulting contract has been renewed twice, and I have other contracts lined up through January. This week, I was finally able to save one month’s worth of expenses again. I’m preparing to attend fashion weeks in London and Paris. I selected two new flatmates and my living space is now even more neat and comfortable.
Will I stay in London indefinitely? I don’t think so. I miss being near my family, and now that my business is 100% non-location-specific I don’t see why I should settle in such an expensive city when I could live much more comfortably in a smaller centre. I do plan stay the rest of my Visa here – until October 2012. It continues to be an incredibly life-defining challenge for me – the first time I ever attempted something truly on my own. Though it has been difficult, I cherish the solitary nature of this endeavor. In order to make a bid for social mobility – which is what moving to an expensive, competitive city truly is – you have to take financial, social, and professional risks and be very persistent. I have and I’ll continue to do so, because the professional and personal rewards are so satisfying.
When I come back to Canada, I’ll be able to have my very own studio for the first time, and I’ll be totally self-reliant, at a profession I absolutely adore.
Thanks for reading. Love from London…