Photos by Theo Hewett , story by María José Contreras
Today we kickstart Conversations, an interview series where we'll be canvasing the voices of leading women who are a daily source of inspiration for us, strong women who celebrate the individual as well as the community around them.
This week I meet Alison McDougal at The Allbright, in London. Alison is a successful fashion stylist and the founder of Alison.Style, a personal styling business through which she helps women and men equally to regain confidence in themselves one outfit at a time. A dedicated style mentor now, Alison moved to London 8 years ago - although she still speaks with a lovely slight Scottish accent - to pursue her career.
Here we sit down to talk about navigating through personal insecurities, the democratisation of personal styling, and the importance of listening to your gut.
Hi Alison! Please, tell me a bit more about your background and how did you break into styling.
So, my background is in Textiles & Fashion Design. During my studies - in the Scottish Borders - I spent my time learning about textile design (knitting, printing, weaving), fabric composition and garment construction. When I came to London I had a dream of becoming a womenswear designer. I really love fabrics, texture, all textiles and also understanding how a garment has been made - ‘Why does that have the perfect fit?’. Initially, I got into high-end styling, working with Rebekah Roy, assisting her - I absolutely loved it - on editorial campaigns and high end catwalk shows where I quickly realised styling was something I definitely wanted to do. I then deliberately moved into visual merchandising as I was keen to be able to understand more of the retailer’s point of view when it came to outfitting and seasonal changes. I then moved into the disruptive tech in fashion scene, starting off working with The Chapar. It was a personal styling startup for men, and I would style clients virtually, then send a box of clothing to them in the post. On a daily basis I would speak with clients on the phone, build them outfits and then physically ship them out to arrive on the client’s doorstep. It was kind of a unique model at the time, but this way of making it easier to shop is becoming far more common which is cool. Challenging traditional methods of shopping I love exploring! I was there for three years, and it scaled so quickly that went from a small team - it was like five of us in an office - to being a big warehouse that opened up in Nottingham. With the team expanding, and lots of stylists coming on board, I went to kind of leading a team of stylists, which I loved, but I had been in menswear for three years and I wanted to keep my skills in both menswear and womenswear. And then Marks & Spencer came along - at the time I didn’t know it was Marks & Spencer - and hired me into their Venture Labs team. I was taken on as the Creative Lead and Co-Founder for a womenswear styling project. Initially it was a tiny concept (literally an idea on some post it notes!) which we trialled and adapted constantly, until it became Try Tuesday. It was such a fun project to be part of from Day 1 and it is still doing really well and changing all the time!
When did the idea of leaving all that behind and starting your own project came across?
As the project scaled I had to move away slightly from the customer which I massively missed after time. Working in person with real women and men, and body shapes, and seeing how proportions change from one person to another, and how people’s aspirations and comfort zones are so unique. I really missed being close to the individual customer, and getting to understand and dress them. So that is when Alison.Style was born! I rely entirely on word-of-mouth at the moment and have grown a lot since opening the doors and also adapted what I offer massively as I learn so much from my clients about what they actually want. I get to know clients very well and I genuinely think of them as very good friends!
You have mentioned the uniqueness of comfort zones among your clients - Is there indeed a link between style and self-confidence?
Absolutely. When I work with a client - particularly when I’m at their house - and I say “Can I get you to try this on?” most women will go into their bathroom, put it on, and come back. And that’s absolutely fine; I want people to do what they’re comfortable doing. But as the session goes on, they become completely at ease and will try anything on and even stand around in their underwear. It’s almost like breaking down the wall that we can easily build up with all these little things that we take on all the time from comments made to us, stuff we see in the media, comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes you need someone who is completely unconnected to come and just be like “Look at yourself, look at your waist, look at the curves you’ve got here. We’re going to be able to play so much with volume and texture to really enhance your waist”. There are so many things you can do and so many comfort zones you can push when people start to see themselves. It can make such a difference. I think the whole point of it is to break all those boundaries, to have fun, and explore, and don’t necessarily follow the trends. I try to educate the clients on what works for them, because I want them to continue to flourish and continue to challenge why they go for certain things when they shop. I want to make sure they are friendly to their wallets but also to their stress levels, and they don’t buy something thinking “I need to find a way to wear it”, and rather something that’s going to fit in their lives and make them feel fabulous every time they wear it.
Hiring a stylist isn’t usually accessible for everybody, but I read on your website that your aim is to democratize personal styling. How are you challenging this in order to open the service to more people?
When I was working with men I saw how much an individual can benefit from getting that little bit of help with their style, whether it’s just getting the right fit or the right shoe or getting the right tie. Why should it be the case that you need to be a celebrity or a very wealthy person to benefit from that expert advice? It should be readily available to anyone, whether you have £50 or £5000 to spend. Therefore I decided I would make my price points as affordable as possible, whilst still providing as much value as I possibly could with each client I am lucky enough to work with. So many people say that it’s their dream to get work with a personal shopper or someone who can help them with their look as it is assumed it will cost a huge amount of money! But they can, whether needing one key item to perhaps a total overhaul, I have options for everything!
How would you define success in your life today?
That’s a really good question! I think for me success would look like every single client I work with having a great experience which genuinely makes a real difference to their everyday life and their confidence (within themselves and their outfit building ability). For me it’s all about the client, making sure they’ve enjoyed and gained something from the process is so important to me! Happy customers who feel full of excitement when they go to their wardrobe in the morning or ahead of an event - that to me is success.
Finally, if you could look back and give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I wish someone had told me to not be so fearful and question my gut instinct all the time. It would have made things much easier. For the first five years in London, I was so nervous about doing things wrong and scared of proving myself to people, and I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting their time. The journey I’ve taken, it’s been worthwhile, but I could have taken more advice from people had I not been scared about rejection. University seems a bit of a bubble, but then you graduate and think “I’m not going to apply for that job yet. I’m going to get a bit more of experience first”. The first job I got, which was my lucky break, I applied to it and they came back and said they were sorry but I didn’t have enough experience. But something inside me was telling me that I could do that job, so I emailed them back and they gave me some advice and a list of things to get during the next three months. Three months later I emailed them again and said “I got what you told me to get”, and they said “come and meet us”, and I was offered the job. Also, listen to your internal voice, I only discovered this very recently and it is crazy how much of an effect it can have on your productivity and confidence - we can be so mean to ourselves! Be kind to yourself!
Alison is wearing the Oscar top, the Frederick top, the Karl trousers, and the Joseph dress.