Thursday, 28 November 2013

Mother of Necessity

It's always intriguing when something that began as a contingency becomes a driving force.  

In the case of Look-in-the-Bag, that happened because we couldn't afford models.  We would have liked to use photographs of LitB customers, but when we were developing the website we didn't have any, so that wasn't an option. 

Fortunately that's changed in the last year, and some of our customers have allowed us to feature them on our Facebook page.  

However, when setting up the website, we wanted to show our products being worn, so Neelam decided to draw some models and to dress them in Look-in-the-Bag accessories.  The result was a quirky and colourful collection section that makes our website a bit different from most other fashion sites.

People liked the collection section and began to express views on their favourite models.  So that we knew which ones were being referred to, we gave them names.  With names came characters and back stories.

Our models have now begun to take on lives of their own and have just come back from travels*.  Being fictional models though, they were able to go to some rather unusual places.

*Their travel stories will pop up once a week between now and Christmas.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Throwing scarves at Murdo (pt 2)

Despite his numerous accolades, Murdo proved to be engaging and entertaining - which is just as well, since I spent the next four hours posing for him.  Neelam spent the next four hours throwing things at him.

Murdo began by setting up a bank of reflectors outside the front window of our house. Associated with each was a powerful flash unit that helped to make up for the lack of daylight, and caused our neighbours to wonder whether a lightening storm was on its way.
Neelam & Andrew (the LitB directors) are standing either side of a fireplace.  Neelam is throwing a colourful scarf into the airMurdo, it turns out, likes to introduce a sense of frozen action into his images.  If he can’t do that, he goes for a touch of the surreal. Ideally, he does both.  Fortunately for Neelam, Murdo didn’t ask her to pose with bird skulls or hollowed-out fish.  Instead, he asked her to throw scarves at the camera.  Initially she threw them straight up into the air and Murdo clicked away as they drifted to the ground.  He tried that several times, then switched to another approach.  He taped a 5p piece to the corner of the scarf and asked Neelam to throw that end towards him.  She did so, enthusiastically.

After a couple of hours of Neelam throwing scarves and me smiling fixedly at the camera, Murdo decided to take some photos in our garden - just in case the magazine editors wanted something more conservative.  Sadly, despite Neelam’s aching arms, that was the shot they went for.

All in all though, it was a memorable day.  It took several hours for my cheeks to feel normal again.  Neelam's arm muscles suffered even more, but if the Indian Women's Cricket team ever needs additional bowling talent, she may be worth considering.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Throwing scarves at Murdo (pt 1)

I finished my teaching contract with University of Sheffield on 30 June this year.  The last working day was Friday 28th June, which I took as leave.  

The last day of any contract tends to be gloomy.  Concerns about the future are highlighted, and regrets about past choices surface afresh.  On this last day, the weather got into the spirit of things.  The sun failed to break through low-lying clouds and gloom prevailed.  Neelam and I however, were not feeling gloomy.  Thanks to PRIME’s publicity machine, we were expecting a visitor who came equipped with sunlight (well - an electrical substitute).  

The two directors of LitB are standing in a garden.  Both are wearing colourful scarvesNot long beforehand, we had had a phone call from Saga Magazine.  They were running an article on PRIME and wanted to include some case studies.  Look-in-the-Bag was selected (along with LinchpinPA).  Saga phoned to ask if it was alright to send round a photographer. I thought about the somewhat chaotic state of our house and the even more chaotic state of our garden and suggested meeting the photographer in a local beauty spot*.  Sadly the suggestion was declined.  We were informed that the photographer, one Murdo Macleod, preferred to shoot subjects in their natural habitat, and would arrive at 10am.

I googled Sheffield-based photographers by the name of Murdo Macleod but didn’t find any.  The only photographer I found by that name was an Edinburgh-based, award winning press photographer.  To our amazement, it turned out to be him.

Despite his numerous accolades, Murdo proved to be engaging and entertaining - which is just as well, since I spent the next four hours posing for him and Neelam spent the next four hours throwing things at him.

*Yes - Sheffield does have beauty spots!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

First Choice

Cover of Choice Magazine from July 2013.  Shows a photo of Zoe Wanamaker
Look-in-the-Bag's 2013 brief sparkle* in the media began in January.  Neelam picked up the phone one day and was taken aback when the well-spoken woman at the other end announced that she was phoning from the office of Prince Charles.

The caller explained that PRIME wanted to use LitB as a case study.  Were we happy to for them to send our details to the press?

We managed to overcome our concerns about media intrusion, the paparazzi, and phone-hacking and agreed.  Shortly afterwards, we received a phone call from Marcus Duffield.  He wanted to interview me on behalf of Choice Magazine.

They run a regular feature (called New Directions) about people who have a radical change in life.  Marcus sent me an example from a previous issue.  It nearly put me off doing the interview. 

The example dealt with the experiences of an RAF engineer who traded a life amongst Harriers and Phantoms for one amongst the skiing fraternity of the French Alps.  My experiences seemed decidedly mundane compared to such a (literal) high flyer.

Still, Marcus was encouraging.  We chatted over the phone for half an hour or so and he managed to turn my ramblings into a coherent article.  I never got to see who featured in Choice Magazine's next "New Directions" article, but I can't help feeling that I was an easier act to follow than my predecessor.

*We're aspiring to a media blitz but we all have to begin somewhere. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

The cost of publicity

Birmingham Selfridges Look-in-the-Bag learned something about the cost of publicity when we placed a small ad in Good Housekeeping Magazine last December.  Our website was new and shiny and we wanted to attract customers for Christmas so we paid out £300 for an advert in the classified section.  It led to a small jump in visits to the LitB site (around 60) but no sales.

One problem with trying to sell things through advertising is that people know that adverts are biased.  Of course, biased information is not necessarily untrue information, but it’s not surprising if people question what an advert says about the product being advertised.  The same isn't necessarily true of a product mentioned by a brand ambassador or used in a film or a TV show.  For example in the Bond film Skyfall, when Bond downed a beer in place of his usual vodka martini, the audience were more likely to think “After what he’s been through he deserves a beer” than to think “How much did Heineken pay for that plug?”  

The kind of person cynical enough to ask such a question would probably be cynical enough not to be surprised by the rumour that Heineken payed around $45 million to reach the plots other beers couldn’t reach.

Clearly, the most valuable sort of publicity is good publicity that isn’t paid for.  Thanks to PRIME, Look-in-the-Bag has been brought to the attention of a couple of magazines (Choice and Saga) and the local press.  We even had the undivided attention of a top press photographer, which is something I’ll blog about in a few days time.

Monday, 7 October 2013

A useful piece of small luck

Detail from a green iron fence - three circles and a downward pointing arrow.
I've blogged about various organisations that have helped Look-in-the-Bag in our 18 months of existence. There was the late, lamented Business Link, the bacon-scented Sheffield Enterprise Agency, and (by royal request) PRIME.  Somewhat unexpectedly, we also managed to get help from University of Sheffield Enterprise (USE). 

Around four years ago I completed a post-graduate diploma.  I began the course thinking that it would be interesting and would improve my career prospects.  I ended it feeling frustrated by the lack of structure and guidance, and with worse career prospects than when I began.  All in all, it seemed to have been a complete waste of time.

I was so disillusioned by the time I finished that I forgot to make arrangements to pick up the certificate.  Eventually I received it in the post and filed it away under "Useless Qualifications" (I have quite a collection!)

Around that time Neelam and I were in the early stages of setting up Look-in-the-Bag.  Someone at the university suggested I should check out USE. I did, and found that they supported students up to five years after graduation.  I graduated from Sheffield as a mature student in 2000, so assumed that I was well past their 'help-by-date'.  As an after-thought though, I mentioned my diploma, dated November 2011.  To my delight, I learned that, yes, it counted.  As a result, Look-in-the-Bag was entitled to use USE as its registered office, as well as gaining access to marketing and legal advice.  My certificate got refiled - away from "Useless Qualification" and into "Unexpected Business Opportunities".

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Meeting the Target Market

A sculpture based on a mobile of origami birds
On July 19th 2012, I made my way to Hillsborough Jobcentre to begin PRIME's Preparing to Run Your Own Business course.  I entered the building and found myself in a room full of women.  I don't know what this says about mature male* entrepreneurs in Sheffield, but for Look-in-the-Bag, it was a great piece of luck.

Having done courses at Business Link and at Sheffield Enterprise, I was familiar with much of the material (though on PRIME's course it was covered in more depth and eventually led to a Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI) accredited Level 2 Certificate).  As far as I was concerned though, the main advantage of the PRIME course was that it brought me into contact with a fascinating group of women willing to share a wide range of experience and some extremely useful insights.  Many of the insights were relevant to business in general, but as far as LitB was concerned, we hit a rich seam of advice and ideas when it came to potential customers for fashion accessories.

* I know quite a few women who would say there's no such thing.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Right Age!

View of a courtyard with table and yellow umbrella, seen through a square hole in a steel doorI'm used to being the wrong age.

Most recently, I've been the wrong age for a career in research.  I've spent years doing it, but historically research has not been a career.  Rather it was an apprenticeship that had to be served by anyone wishing to be an academic. In the last few years efforts have been made to help researchers in the early stages of their careers, but I dropped out of all qualifying categories for "Early Career Researcher" a long time ago.

I'm also the wrong age for a lot of business advice and help.  Much of it is targeted at entrepreneurs under 30, and I passed that milestone a couple of decades ago.

I was therefore delighted when, one morning in May 2012, I heard an interview on Radio 4's Today Programme with a man who made cases for musical instruments. Rod Boyes set up Pinegrove Leather after he was made redundant at the age of 50 (an experience I was shortly to share).  He had been helped by the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise. PRIME was established in 1999 to support prospective entrepreneurs over 50 who were threatened with unemployment.  Finally, unlike Neelam (a mere stripling in her 40s) I was the Right Age.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bacon sandwiches are good for business

A stack of brick-red pipes seen from the end
Business connections in Sheffield are lubricated by bacon fat. 

Once a month (usually the second Tuesday), SENTA (Sheffield ENTerprise Agency) holds a business networking breakfast.  Entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs gather to talk about business and to engage in the kind of juggling that usually goes on when people try to stand, talk, eat and drink, all at the same time.

I contacted SENTA at the recommendation of someone who had set up a consultancy a few years back and had found them to be helpful.  They were.  The course that Neelam and I attended offered similar material to Business Link's, but it was less formal and there was more opportunity to engage with the tutors, and the other people attending.  

Best of all though (from my point of view) were the bacon butties at the networking breakfasts.  Neelam (being vegetarian) is less keen.  Somehow croissants and Danish don't have the same appeal. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Goodbye Business Link

Photo of a battered door witth peeling blue paint
In Autumn 2011 Neelam and I attended our final Business Link workshop.  Business Link was a business advice service funded by the UK government.  It offered excellent online resources and a generous free training and mentoring programme employing experienced and interesting business people who, in my opinion, it used poorly.

Business Link's training programme ended in November 2011 and everything went online, where it survived until October last year (it's now been replaced by  While I'm a huge supporter of online resources, the virtual world is not yet so rich that it can fully substitute for real interactions.  Sadly though, in the case of Business Link, that's not as much of a loss as it should be. 

Sally and John, the two tutors I met, clearly had a lot of experience, which they were happy to share.  However, the sessions they took consisted of standard Business Link PowerPoint presentations.  These were informative, but didn't really need people to present them.  At the time, I remember commenting that they would have been more useful (and more interesting) if the sessions had followed a university tutorial model.  In other words, everyone who registered was asked to work through the presentations and accompanying exercises prior to attending, and used the sessions as an opportunity to consult a Business Link advisor, and to learn from other prospective entrepreneurs.  As it turned out, this is the model adopted by two of the other organisations from which Look-in-the-Bag has benefited: the Sheffield Enterprise Agency and PRIME.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Small business - big hopes

A row of tools hanging from a woodent shelf
"Most new businesses fail within three years."
It's something we often heard as we were starting up Look-in-the-Bag.  We went to a lot of networking events, business start-up seminars and marketing days, and we learned a great deal about what new businesses did wrong that caused such a high failure rate.   

It's a well known fact that 92.3% of statistics are made up. Despite assertions to the contrary, most of us use a lot more than 10% of our brains, we are often more than six feet from a rat, and we don't need to drink two litres of water a day.

As it turns out, according to an OECD survey of start-ups that began in 2006, most made it past their third anniversary - despite the recession.  Businesses that began in 2005 probably had a higher survival rate.  According to Professor Jonathan Levie of the University of Strathclyde, they had a median life longer than the median tenure of a new job in Canada or the UK.

However, concern about the frailty of new businesses has no doubt played a part in encouraging governments, local authorities, universities and charities to offer help to people starting, or thinking about starting, a new business.

The odds of a new business surviving may be better than they're sometimes made out to be, but it can still be nervewracking thinking about how much it could all cost; and it's certainly confusing working out who needs to know what about your business.  At LitB therefore, we were happy to take all the help we could get and we came into contact with some very helpful people and organisations that I'll blog about over the next few days.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Campaign for Real Success Stories

A red door with a streak of white paint splashed across
I find few things more demoralising than motivational speakers.  Every time I hear another story of a dropout who left school with an NVQ in bird feeding*, a heart full of dreams, and a great idea, I cringe.  When I then learn that the great idea took root, grew and blossomed into a worldwide business empire, I just want to give up. 

Such people are exceptional.  Some are exceptionally talented, others are exceptionally lucky.  Either way, I would question the value of lessons based on exceptions.  It is highly unlikely that our business will turn us into billionaires.

[A chorus of motivational speakers addresses my inner ear:  You gotta belieeeeve Brother!  Believe the dream!  Cast out negative thoughts.  You too can make millions.  You just gotta belieeeeve!  Banish the doubt!  Stamp it out!  Know you can do whatever you want!]

Anyone setting up a business wants it to succeed but few people enjoy the staggering success of some of the examples routinely mentioned in business talks.  Examples based on more modest, less exceptional success would be less discouraging.

*OK - cheap shot.  NVQs are easy targets and not always fairly so.  I found my NVQ level 3 surprisingly challenging.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The cost of getting LitB on the go

It's amazing how many things you need to buy just to package and market the stuff you're selling, and it's frightening how expensive it can all get.

As well as getting scarves, bags and jewellery organised, we also needed to get business cards, address labels, product tags, and labels to stitch into things. 

One of the most surprising expenses was business insurance if we wanted to sell to the USA and Canada.  When we found out that it would cost an additional £500 we decided that North America could survive without Look-in-the-Bag products for a year or so.

The most annoying expense to date though, has been a recent hike in delivery charges.  We had found an excellent source of boxes that we thought were just about the right size for us (320x220x80mm).  They were - until 2nd April.

A recent survey organised by the BBC found that the UK's traditional three classes have now split into seven.  This development is being reflected in Royal Mail policy.  Our postal service used to offer a basic 1st & 2nd class service.  In recent years though, classes have multiplied.  For a while we've lived with big 1st & 2nd class, and small 1st & 2nd class (for both letters and parcels).  On 2nd April 2013, Royal Mail introduced medium parcels. 

When we took a package for despatch from the local post office and asked for a stamp, we were told to push it through a slot in order to determine its class.  It was tantalizingly close to fitting.  The package went part way, then stuck.  I asked at the counter how much more it would cost if we sent our box as a medium parcel instead of a small parcel.  "Three pounds" I was told. 

I gulped.  Our current postal charge of £4 barely covers our expenses as it is.  The box was stuck in the slot.  I pushed harder.  The post office woman shook her head.  "Sorry,"  she said, "it'll have to go as a medium."  I groaned, paid the postage, and wondered what to do with a large pile of boxes that are no longer quite the right size for us.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Beach Fantasy

Sand between your toes, the sun on your back, 
and the blue-green of a tropical sea.  
Wrap yourself in a daydream and relax.

Picture of Look-in-the-Bag's Beach Fantasy LookThe first time I ever tried snorkelling was nearly the last.  No one showed me how to ensure that the snorkel fitted properly, and within seconds I was coughing out seawater and desperately trying to understand the appeal.  I was persuaded to re-don mask and snorkel and put my face back down in the water.  I’m glad I did.  

I usually prefer mountains to beaches, but this particular beach was a short swim from a coral reef.  I’ve been an avid fan of natural history programmes since I was a  child, so the chance to (literally) immerse myself in one of nature's most stunning ecosystems was too good to miss.  

The experience of floating above intricately sculpted corals and shimmering fish is magical, but it is even better if it is followed by the experience of stepping out of crystal waters onto a sunlit beach and walking on soft white sand.  Unless of course, one stops to think about where the sand came from.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Gods of Small Things

When my nephew Tom, was six, he desperately wanted a place at Hogwarts. Shortly before Christmas, he sent a letter to the North Pole to consult Santa. 
"Am I a wizard?" Tom asked. "Can I do magic?" 
Santa obligingly responded, but not with the news that Tom wanted:
Dear Tom,
Thank you for your letter. I am writing to let you know that you can perform magic, but sadly not enough to get you into Hogwarts. Some magicians create potions that turn lead to gold and make people greedy for wealth. Other magicians cast spells that bring fire-belching dragons roaring from the sky to make people tremble with fear. You Tom, can perform one small piece of magic. You can make people smile and say “I’m so glad I know Tom.”
Please make sure you use your magic a lot in the coming year.
Yours sincerely,
Father Christmas.
A rainbow-coloured silk scarf.
The letter makes me think of the goddess Iris. Classical deities are generally associated with great deeds of power, mystery and might. Some ruled the heavens, some ruled the waves, some ruled worlds and underworlds. They fought with storms and lightning bolts, with magic and with fire. Iris was, I’m sure, a deity of many talents; but the only one that people generally remember is her ability to create rainbows.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

A bonny bouncing limited company

Look-in-the-Bag Ltd has just celebrated its first birthday.  It came into existence at Companies House on 7 February 2012.

Actually, that's not true.  It began life as Look in the Bag Limited, but Neelam (wearing her designer's hat) felt that it worked better as one word (and preferred Ltd) so ten days after it was born company 07938340 was rebranded.

Of course, this leaves the frustrating thought that, had we held off a little bit longer, we could have been company No. 08000000.  That honour went to MT Lucky Ltd, which was registered on March 21st.  I couldn't help wondering who was company No.1 though.  Being inquisitive, I emailed Companies House and began an informative exchange with one of their archivists.  She told me that the earliest registered company was the Legal and General Life Assurance Society, (registered on 2 November 1844, before registration numbers were introduced).  The oldest surviving company  is Ashford Cattle Market Ltd, (No. 118) which was registered on 25 September 1856.

To confuse matters, Ashford Cattle Market Ltd is not the only No. 118.  Company numbers were introduced in  1856, with National Savings Bank Association Ltd being the first No. 1.  Then, in 1862, due to a change in legislation, numbering was restarted.  The second No. 1 was distinguished from the first by appending a 'c'.  This continued until company No. 2726c was registered, after which, in 1864, was legislation changed again and the 'c' was dropped. 

Being the kind of person I am, I can't help noticing that, between 7 Feb and 21 March 2012, over 61000 companies were registered, while between 1862 and 1864 there were probably fewer than 3000.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Winter Classic

Snowman wearing sunglasses, strawhat & rainbow scarf
Neelam loves classic design.

She loves Indian design, but at this stage she wants to concentrate on less geographically specific 'Look's.   One of the problems is expectations. Because Neelam is Indian by birth, people who meet her enthuse about the colours, the patterns, the textures and the fabrics of Indian products and assume that she will produce similar designs.  Neelam shares their enthusiasm, but when people in Britain talk about Indian design, they often do so in the same way that they talk about Indian food.  Ethnically, culturally and linguistically, India is probably less homogeneous than the European Union.

Neelam likes the 'traditional' Indian looks that are admired by people here.  She also likes modern reworkings of them (such as those sold by Yuti, her niece), and she likes styles that are less well-known in the West - such as Madhubani and Warli.  Above all though, she appreciates classics.

Designs evolve as a result of a combination of culture, environment, technology and tradition.    Most parts of the world for example, have traditional clothing based on long strips of cloth that are wrapped around the whole body (kilts, kimonos, saris, sarongs, togas, etc).  The type of cloth (cotton, linen, silk, wool) depends on the environment, as does the availability of dyes (e.g., woad, saffron, carmine).

Crude snowman with coal eyes, carrot nose, flat cap and scarfTechnology affects tradition.  When cultures discovered stitching, it became possible to have clothing cut and shaped (tailor-made) to cover specific parts of the body, and it increased possibilities for adornment.
Recently, Neelam had the opportunity to recreate a classic design that was not available to her in her youth.  She grew up in South India, where the environment is not conducive to the construction of snow figures.  Last week's snowfall in Sheffield meant that she could make up for lost opportunities in her youth.  Her first effort provided a useful mannequin for Look-in-the-Bag,  but in the end, she decided she preferred the classic snowman look.

However, even in the construction of snowpeople, technology has an impact.  US Patents 3059279, 375964, 4164341, 535348, 5632926, 6176464 and 7963500 are all for different designs of snowman mould.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Keeping a husband out of mischief

Around this time last year,  Neelam and I were sitting in the Gardener's Rest pub in Neepsend, talking to a second hand book shop owner called David.  He's the brother in law of a friend (Michael) whose birthday we were celebrating.

Twisted Titles greetings cards on display in 'Books on the Park'David was in the process of moving his shop (Books on the Park) to larger premises, and one of the things he hoped to do with the extra space was sell cards from local artists and designers.  Michael had already mentioned this to Neelam as an opportunity, and she had explored options.  However, a day or so after meeting David, Neelam came up with a bright idea.

The best ideas work on several levels.  Not only do they do "what it says on the tin", they also suggest ways of using the tin when it's empty.  One of Neelam's many problems is that she has a husband with a low boredom threshold.  Rather than leaving her alone to get on with her design work, he comes along and fiddles with her pencils.  Her bright idea would (she thought) not only lead to suggestions for greetings cards, it would also provide respite for her pencils.

Neelam suggested that I should try coming up with ideas for cards based on book titles.  I immediately suggested that she sketch an inebriated bird jeering at the world from a floor littered with empty bottles of Mexican liquor.  Neelam chose not to illustrate Tequila Mockingbird, but liked the suggestion.  She liked even more the fact that I sat down at my computer and began to generate further ideas.  Sadly for her, in less than an hour I had knocked off over a dozen suggestions and went downstairs to resume pencil fiddling.

Within a month, Neelam had produced ten greetings card designs, all on the theme: "A Twisted Title: It's almost a classic".  It's a bit of a change from scarves, but she enjoyed doing them.  They're now on sale across Sheffield (in Books on the ParkSheffield University Blackwells, and Sue Callaghan Bookbinder), as well as at Octavia's Bookshop in Cirencester.  Needless to say, they're also available from the Look-in-the-Bag Website.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Logo Motion

One Saturday in July 2012, I sat and watched Neelam work on a logo for Look-in-the-Bag.
There was a time when I would have thought it was a bit premature to have a logo before one had a product.  Now I'm not so sure.

I used to be scathing about marketing; nowadays though, I'm a bit more open-minded about its value. Having a wife with a background in advertising has certainly played a part in my change of heart, but it was beginning to change before I met her.

My brilliant, beautiful and creative wife (who carefully reads all my blog entries before they're published) enjoys designing logos - which is just as well because she's had to do it a lot over the years.  She began working on a logo in a quiet moment not long after we came up with the idea of  Look-in-the-Bag.  Her initial thoughts led to:

LitB logo - 1st attempt
A first attempt

It was clear and neat, but somewhat formal and reminiscent of a chainstore label.  So she played around a bit more and came up with:

LitB logo - 2nd attempt
A bit more funky

Neelam was quite pleased with this logo and was slightly disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm.  It appealed to her because of its quirkiness, and it did begin to grow on me.  However, after we had discussed it a bit further, Neelam decided she wanted to try coming up with a design which could link the company name and theme. I liked this idea and sat beside her as she played around with fonts, colours and shapes.

It was fascinating watching her. I know nothing about design, but I know a little about poetry.  It seems that, just as with poems, "less is more" when it comes to logos.

LitB logo - The final product
The trademarked logo

Sunday, 13 January 2013

It all begins to fit together

Sunlit coblestones in East London
Neelam had been keen to do something on the theme of mosaics since she moved in with me. Her first planned project was to replace our boring cement doorstep with one coated in small tiles.  I was less enthusiastic about the scheme than she would have liked.  Her passion for mosaics found a new outlet when we started planning Look-in-the-Bag.

However, much as Neelam liked the idea of a line of accessories based on mosaics, somehow it didn't seem to offer enough scope for originality. I probably didn't help matters when I pointed to a checked scarf she was wearing and asked "What's the difference between that and a mosaic scarf?"

I have a talent for looking but not seeing. I suspect it's widespread (particularly amongst men). I can lose my keys and find them half a day later in the pocket I thought I had emptied. In the case of 'Look in the Bag' however, both Neelam and I were guilty of looking but not seeing. The name was a play on the word 'Look' - treating it as both a noun and a verb. We had been undervaluing the noun. As a result, on a Sunday morning, late in November 2011, Neelam sat up in bed and began frantically writing down ideas in her bedside notebook. Within a few minutes she had a long list of themes on which to base designs. The Tessellated Look will include mosaic-styled scarves and jewellery; but Neelam's list was the start of a long (and still growing) list of 'Looks'. To paraphrase her words, the ideas should combine quality and a touch of humour into a designer look.
"We should aim to own the word 'Look'", she said.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It's corporate language. When people use the word 'Look', I want them to think of us."
"You spent far too long in advertising."
She laughed.
"Why not be really ambitious?" I suggested. "We could aim to own the word 'In'. Or 'The'.  They're far more common than 'Look'."
She gave me a look that I would not wish to try marketing.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Flowers, Mosaics and DunKrugs

Neelam standing in front of an easel with a partly-completed image of a sunflower.  The real sunflower is besider her.
One of the ways in which Neelam exercised her talents when she first came to the UK was through botanical illustration.  She proved to be very good at it, and is beginning to acquire something of a reputation locally.  It was not surprising therefore, that her first thoughts on design should have focused on plants and flowers.  Sadly, no-one with whom she discussed her floral ideas was terribly enthusiastic.

Market research is a tricky thing - especially where creativity is involved.  You never have to look far before you find someone who confidently asserts that your ideas are lacking in some way.  People love to give an opinion, and the more ignorant they are, the more strongly they express it. 

In 1999, the psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote an article entitled  "Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments". They describe the phenomenon (named, imaginatively, the Dunning-Kruger effect) whereby ignorant people can be so ignorant that they are ignorant of their ignorance, and talk with greater confidence than experts.

When it comes to fashion, I'm a DunKrug.  I am to fashion what Jimmy Choo is to army boots.  The only time in my life that I ever came close to being fashionable was when I got beaten up as I was leaving school.  It was the punk era and I walked home in a ripped blazer and torn trousers.   If I'd had a few safety pins handy, I could have become a local trendsetter.

Despite my lack of fashion sense, I was able to suggest, with DunKruggish confidence, that Neelam should rethink her designs.  Unfortunately for her, so did people with far more style sense than I. Neelam's ideas were good (they usually are), but people felt that there was a danger of them veering into territories occupied at various times by Cath Kidston, Laura Ashley and William Morris.

Needless to say, we haven't seen the last of Neelam's floral designs.  Flowers featured a little in our first collection, but she's biding her time until she can come up with something distinctively ByNeelam.  Until then, she's turned her thoughts elsewhere.  One of her early thoughts was to design products based on mosaics.  I was quite excited by the idea, and envisioned a nation of accessorizers all dressed like Elmer the Elephant. Sadly, she ended up with something far more subtle and stylish.  Shame.