To kick off the Strong Women Interview Series I chose to interview my mother, Ann-Sofie, because I really look up to her and admire her. Taking a leap into the unknown has been a common theme in my mother’s life, whether that was moving away from her home and starting her own fashion design business in Stockholm with no help from her family, or moving to a foreign country in the Middle East where the culture was completely alien to her own, before eventually settling in the UK. It takes real guts.
I have learnt a lot from my mother and one thing I really admire is that she always tells it like it is – in true Swedish fashion. In the UK, my mum’s boss asked if he could call her “Ann”, because “he would never be able to remember the name Ann-Sofie”, to which she replied: “no”.
Fed up with the small-town life up in the far north of Sweden, my mum moved to Luleå (about 70km away from her home) when she was only 15 years old to study tailoring and design at college. Then, at only 16 years old, she moved into a flat there with her boyfriend – can you believe it!? Only 16 years old and already living on her own with a boyfriend. When she was around 20, she moved to Stockholm and eventually set up her own fashion atelier in the city centre. It is from my mother that I got my love for fashion, she used to make my clothes for me when I was little from fantastic fabrics, and her shoe collection is even bigger than mine.
Tell me about your career and what led you to fashion
I finished compulsory school when I was 15 and started a two-year course at college straight after the summer holiday. I was then a qualified lady’s tailor. But there was no work as a lady’s tailor, so I had to rethink my career.
I had no money to start my own business and I wouldn’t have been mature or experienced enough to do so anyway at that age. So, I took a job knocking on people’s doors and selling encyclopaedias. It was very good money, but I became fed up with it very quickly.
I then got a job as a travelling sales woman selling hair products to hair dresser salons. I earned some good money and managed to save a lot of it. But I wanted to get into fashion. So, I got a temporary job in a fashion design studio in the Old Town in Stockholm, but they didn’t do too well and closed down. The owner actually got a job as stylist for Bruce Springsteen and took off to USA! She was never seen again.
After that I thought I could become a textile teacher as there were no jobs in tailoring. To pass the entry requirements for the university course I had to do a six-month course in artisan textile and embroidery, which was incredibly boring. I had to work on weekends in a hypermarket to finance my studies. The teacher course was incredibly oversubscribed, I applied twice but unfortunately, I didn’t get in. Shortly after that I had the opportunity to start my own business in the centre of Stockholm.
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Describe how it was setting up your own business?
It was terrifying. Nobody thought it was a good idea. I wasn’t too sure myself during the first six months! I had no financial help from friends or family, so I was only risking my own and the bank’s money.
What advice would you give to women setting up a business?
Research the market area and make sure there isn’t somebody else doing the same thing around the corner. Look online and see if you can find a niche for your business. Be prepared not being able to have an income to live on for quite some time. Make sure there is nothing else distracting you for the start of your business.
What was the most satisfying thing about having your business?
To get to enjoy my work, being my own boss and making my own decisions about everything. And people were impressed with me for succeeding! That felt good, especially when my family was impressed with me. I had my business for 12 years before we moved to the Middle East.
What was the hardest thing about owning a business?
I had sleepless nights worrying about the very high rent of my studio. Worrying about being able to pay the VAT and tax, not always having money for food and other essentials – I had to eat cheap kebabs for dinner and make it last for two days. I used to dream about delicious plates of food – that just shows how hungry I was!
How was your work/life balance and what did you do to switch off?
My work/life balance was not good, I guess. My friends thought I might as well live in my studio! I worked into the night six days a week. But I liked to work in the evenings; the phone didn’t ring, and I would turn up the radio loud. But I did find the time to have fun in the clubs and bars in Stockholm as well!
To switch off I enjoyed windsurfing a lot and long walks in all the beautiful parks and open spaces around Stockholm. I also did a lot of solo travelling around the world like Hawaii, New York and Rome.
For you, what is the definition of a strong woman?
Someone who is honest and speaks their mind without being hurtful. Someone who doesn’t say ”Yes that’s fine, I don’t mind” if they are uncomfortable with something or don’t agree with something.
When do you feel most powerful?
When I take on a task without knowing if I can do it and not being afraid of failure. There is always something you can learn from failure. Helping someone is also incredibly empowering and satisfying.
What woman do you look up to the most and why?
Malala, for standing up for girls’ and women’s rights, even when facing death as a consequence. Also, Emmeline Pankhurst for her incredible and tireless struggle for women’s right to vote. It has had an impact on all of us. We were finally listened to thanks to her.
What is the one practice that you live by?
Treat people as I would like to be treated. I also love this quote by Emmeline Pankhurst:
“I would rather be a rebel than a slave”
It sounds so heroic! I hope I am a rebel in a small way in my own domestic life.