International travel and working closely with overseas suppliers and young designers have given Phionna a wealth of experience she is passionate about sharing with her students.
Phionna explains, “After I completed my qualifications in New Zealand, I worked as an assistant designer/CAD operator for a New Zealand designer womenswear firm. I then travelled for 18 months with my sister, visiting South America, USA, Canada, the Middle East and parts of Europe. This gave me a wider view of fashion in general, but more importantly it enabled me to develop. Because I’d travelled so independently, the companies I worked for had no qualms about sending me to travel on my own and I was open minded about meeting and working with companies overseas.
I moved to Glasgow and gained retail experience, working in a designer womenswear outlet. I then went to London briefly, before joining Damart in Bingley as a garment technologist. I outgrew my job within a year and moved to Milton Keynes to work for Rohan, the outdoor adventure wear specialist. This was highly technical clothing as when you produce a jacket to be worn in extreme conditions it can be a life or death situation. Since the garments were so technical, a lot of factories didn’t have the necessary understanding so I travelled to Turkey and Portugal, offering guidance and ensuring that standards were maintained.
I then moved back up to Manchester, working on labels including Lonsdale and Gola, where I worked with retailers such as Top Shop. The turnover was so quick that I would travel from Manchester to a meeting with designers in London; then fly straight to Turkey where I would spend three or four days helping them make samples, before flying back to London to take them to another meeting.
My overseas work expanded when I went to work for Cohen & Wilks International in Leeds, who produce childrenswear for pretty much the whole of the high street; Sainsbury's, John Lewis, BHS, Next, M&S and Debenhams. I started there as garment technologist and was promoted to Technical Manager. I worked with factories in China, Malaysia and Indonesia, going overseas up to five times a year for three weeks at a time. I began to spend a lot of my time training and working with graduate designers and garment technologists. I worked closely with the factories on all aspects and because I had been travelling for so long, I built up a relationship with them. This takes time but they appreciated the help I gave. Eventually the company asked me to relocate to China, and I was also approached by contacts there to work for them.
I loved my job but left industry because I realised the aspect of my job I enjoyed most was training people. I clicked well with the young designers and throughout all my frantic years in fashion, I taught aerobics at night when I was in the UK. All these factors motivated me to teach, first in Harrogate and then here at Bradford College. Teaching is always changing and the students are different every year.
From my own experiences, I felt that graduates weren’t learning the right skills for industry so I want to use all my personal insights to help them. I still try to go back to CWI in my holidays, so I keep up to date with industry and give my students accurate information. I bring a lot of what I have learned into my sessions and try to apply it to the course.
My job included doing the ethical inspections. Factories discussed information with me that would not reveal to others as they trusted me. So I was able to do accurate audits. I got more involved in looking at the full production cycle, going back to raw materials – dyes, threads, buttons etc. It is about taking responsibility. I wasn’t happy with some of the conditions but I was very happy to work with people to develop and improve conditions. There are no overnight solutions.
Recently Year 1 National Diploma in Fashion & Clothing contributed to the design of the Appleton Academy uniforms. We sat in on the interviews for selecting the uniform suppliers with College Executive Director, Kath Oldale and College Principal, Michele Sutton OBE. My background in childrenswear meant that I could guide them and it was invaluable experience for the students.”