Why it’s never too late to chase your dreams
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with the phenomenal Rene Macdonald. Rene is the founder and creative director of Lisou, a British womenswear fashion company in London. Talented, bold and creative, Rene is a powerhouse in her career and a model for showing that it is never too late to chase your dreams. Her striking colors and her lovely silhouettes have been worn by many celebrities such as Sandra Oh, Olivia Munn, Rita Ora, Emma Roberts, and many more. Her inspiring entrepreneur journey began with the encouragement from her two sons, and the rest is history!
Rene is like my London Auntie, and I was so excited to talk to her about tenacity, kindness in collaboration, and finding your creative community.
Lo Harris: What role has fashion played in your life thus far, and what goes into your work?
Rene Macdonald: My journey in fashion began when I was a child. My mom was a major fashionista and loved clothes. Then I came along and was as obsessed as my mom. When everybody else had posters of their favorite band or their favorite film star, I just had cutouts from magazines just because I loved, loved, loved clothes.
It became really important to me how clothes make you feel. If I don't feel on top form, I can wear something that cheers me up immediately. It just gives me a bit of confidence. If I wear something that makes me feel happy, I feel better. And color always does that for me.
I'm from Tanzania in East Africa. Everybody wears color – men, women. There's no kind of rule. We do pattern clash, we do print clash. We everything clash!
Because I was raised in that environment and the backdrop of Africa, which is already in itself very colorful, I started the brand thinking I want to merge those two things – my African heritage but also I've grown up living in the West. So giving it a Western aesthetic in terms of silhouettes and shapes, but then injecting that with African color.
LH: I think that you not shying away from the diversity of color and fabric in Africa is integral because it challenges how we talk about color in fashion. It really breaks those stereotypes, which I think is so fantastic.
RM: I’m really glad that that's what you get from it because my relationship with fashion was quite challenging for various reasons. Firstly, when I was looking at magazines and looking at imagery when I was younger, I didn't see models who looked like me. There was no dark Black girl. When I would tear imagery out of magazines and stick it on my wall, I would always chop the head off because otherwise, I couldn't visualize what that would look like on me. It's changing, but it's still not enough.
LH: There's still a lot of work to be done, but you yourself are an act of revolution by existing and creating the pieces that you create, using the models that you use. You're doing important work, important cultural work. Can you share the story of what your sons said to you to transform the trajectory of your career?
RM: Everyone needs to parent the way they need to parent but I knew that when my children were young, I really really wanted to be present with them. I didn't want to miss a single factor. So it was all about them for years.
And I think they were in their late teens at the time, we were on holiday having a lovely time and my son turns to me and says, “Mama, you're a hypocrite, you know?” I take a breath and I was like, “Whoa, where are we going with this!” Respect is a big thing for me. So you can't talk to your mother like that. But I said, “What do you mean? Explain yourself.” And he said, “You've spent all your life telling us to follow our dreams, and you're the only one in the family who hasn't done that.”
And even now, saying it takes my breath away. He said, “You've always wanted to have your own brand, start your own company, and you just haven't done it. You just keep talking about it. And we are older now. We understand that it's your time, and we will support you 100%”
It was just the most beautiful gift to be given by my own children saying, thank you for everything you've done for us; now go do you.
LH: I'd love for you to share what doubts you've had while starting out. And how did you go about disarming those doubts?
RM: Every time I felt I've had a doubt, I’ve thought, what would I say to my boys if they were feeling doubt right now? I would say to them, just get on with it. Do it. What's the worst that can happen? Isn't it better to try something and fail than to regret it and never know what would have happened either way? Because it might work. And we only have the one life. So you've got to just go for it. Be passionate about what you're doing, believe in what you're doing, and also just be authentic in what you're doing.
LH: I’d love to transition to discussing what it looks like for you to nourish your team. You've mentioned previously that “the boss eats last.” Can you elaborate on this?
RM: I could not do what I do if it wasn't for my amazing team. I’m one of the luckiest people ever. They work really hard. They believe in the same vision. They understand the direction we're all going in and what we're trying to achieve.
The culture of your company starts from the top. So I've got to be as human as I can be and as real as I can be with my team and listen to them. We sit in a studio where it is all open plan. I don't have my own office. Our most junior member sits opposite me. We all chit chat all day long. It’s not about hierarchy. Every single person is a component of the success of that company. Take one piece away, and it doesn't work.
But the most important thing is for me to look after my team. That means looking after them obviously in the sense that yes, they're paid, but also looking after them emotionally. The happier you are, the more happiness you’ll bring, the better work you'll do, and the happier we'll all be.
In terms of eating last, the most important thing is my team and I have to be the last priority and they have to feel that I put that in first too.
LH: Would you have any concrete advice for a small business owner who is looking to scale or build a team around a creative vision?
RM: I would say pick the best people that you can surround yourself with. And when I say the best people, I don't necessarily mean the most qualified people. Of course, you will need people who have experience in the industry that you're in, because there'll be lots of things you don't know. One of our team has been in business for 25 years. She knows much more than I do. And she's fantastic because she'll fill those gaps in. But I think it's mainly finding people that you connect with. The thing I always say is, I can teach you any skill. I can't teach you a personality.
LH: Community building is everything. So I want to ask, what does it mean for you to find your people?
RM: I'm very, very much a believer in community. And I think it's meeting like-minded people you can collaborate with, but I also think it's about a much, much bigger picture than that, which is raising other people up and inspiring other people and helping other people. For me, having a brand is not just about, oh I want to make loads of money and be really rich. It's about what I can do with that platform when I reach success.
We've done school competitions to encourage children to be more creative. I think it's really important for younger girls or young people who look like me to see me and go, that could be me; I could be doing that thing. So that's a big part of community for me. And also it's where you live. It's essential to connect with where you live and to build on that.
LH: Where did you get the name Lisou?
RM: It was my childhood nickname. My mom made it up actually. And a lot of my family in Tanzania, they all know that as my name. And because by the time I started my business my mother had already passed away, I really wanted to honor her. A big part of the brand is an homage to her. Everything I know about fashion and about an awful lot of things is because of her. She was awesome. And in fact, on my desk is a picture of my mom that I look at every single day.
LH: Is there any advice that you have for Black designers who are looking to start their own label?
RM: Don't expect it to be easy. Expect to have to work, as my mom used to always say to me, 110% harder than everybody else. I think in a way that can be a real blessing because you enter really not expecting things to be easy. I get less disappointed, I feel, than my white counterparts. When I get a no, I'm kind of like, “Standard.” But it gives me the impotence to drive harder because then I think, no, I'll show you. Watch this space. You are not going to crush me. Whereas, if I get a yes it’s a surprise!
LH: Was there a particular moment you realized that you had the skills to execute the ideas you had in your head for Lisou?
RM: I discovered that I could draw on other people's expertise. I think it's so important to know your own limitations. I'm not formally trained. I didn't go to school to learn design. I don't have a degree in fashion design, pattern cutting – any of that. My mom taught me and basically I'm self taught. So there have been a lot of things where I have a vision of what I need to make but I maybe don't necessarily know how to get from this vision to the final product. It's about learning that when there are stages that are difficult, find somebody who can help you translate what's in your mind to paper to the final product.
LH: What has been your all-time favorite creative project to work on?
RM: My favorite thing has been establishing and starting a fashion brand. That is probably, in terms of career, the thing I'm most proud of. Let's hope it doesn't, but even if it were to end tomorrow, I would still die with a smile on my face.
Lisou is available online and at Nordstrom.
Head to Instagram to watch the complete interview and be sure to follow Lisou