Cost-of-Living Adaptation: Warren Reilly, fashion designer

Warren Reilly explores the highs and lows of being an independent creative in London during the cost-of-living crisis

I'm Warren Reilly, a 26-year-old queer, mixed-race artist and designer, hailing from the London Borough of Brent. Art and fashion were my sanctuaries while growing up on the Church End Estate and provided the perfect form of escapism. My artistic journey began at Queens Park Community School and included enrichment programmes at some of the country's top art institutions like The Royal Academy of Art’s ‘Attract Programme 2014’ and Central Saint Martins Collaboration with ABP Autograph Shoreditch “The Album Project” 2015. Following my discovery of baroque and rococo art and my success on the RA programme, the leader of the course (Anne Gilmore) signposted me to a pivotal role as a Volunteer Room Explainer at Kenwood House for English Heritage which ignited my fascination with 18th-century art and culture. 

Pursuing a degree in ‘Textiles In Practice’ at Manchester School of Art, my dissertation "Pageboys to Protégés - Three Centuries of Style" discusses how fashion within art can be used to re-evaluate the history of ethnic minorities in colonial Britain by looking at classic British portraiture and Victorian photography through a new lens. After graduating with a First Class Honours degree, I launched impactful initiatives in my home London Borough of Brent, showcasing my commitment to inclusivity and storytelling through art and design. 

Reality

Reflecting on my four years in London post-graduation, I've witnessed the profound impact of the cost-of-living crisis on my artistic production. While fortunate to develop my career through internships, commissions, and community projects, balancing part-time retail work has become essential to make ends meet. Over the last 6 years both during my studies and after my graduation, I worked for H&M as a sales advisor and I now work for the V&A Museum as a retail supervisor. This, however, limits time and energy for my artistic pursuits and personal well-being.

Securing funding for community initiatives has been a silver lining, yet financial constraints persist due to a lack of investment, infrequent sales, and sporadic freelance work. Recently, funding from Brent Council has helped to kick start my business by creating artwork and products for my End of Residency Exhibition with Artist Studio Company (a 2-year rent-free Residency supported by ASC and Brent Council).

Over the course of the last six months of my studio residency, I was lucky to receive dedicated business consultancy support. I experienced a transformative journey that enabled me to grasp the intricacies of commercialising my creative practice. As a longstanding Church End and Brent resident for 25 years, and following on from my success running community initiatives, I was invited to be part of The Church End Community Partnership as part of the Greater London Authority’s High Street For All Challenge. I requested some additional financial support to help to fund and start up my own business. This enabled me to pay for the consultancy itself and to put the business strategies into practice. This pilot programme will help to inform future and wider support initiatives for local artists and creatives. My business has also received business mentoring and support from Rebel Business School.

As the second year of my studio residency unfolded, financial pressures prompted a shift towards more marketable work, sidelining personal projects. Along with using the funds to generate artwork to sell during my End of Residency exhibition with ASC, I also created products with the aim of populating a new e-commerce site via my new website. During the exhibition, I had an exciting opportunity to translate my artistic practice into tangible commercial products and successfully market them through my own exhibition/retail space. This showcase allowed me to present my artworks for sale in a gallery setting where I also set up my own pop-up shop for the first time. The shop offered a range of products inspired by my extensive portfolio, including fashion, accessories, prints, artworks, and gifts that reflected my creative style and brand identity. 

Nonetheless, reaching the right clients, partners and investors has proven challenging, making it difficult to sustain a studio space and grow my business. Now the residency and funding has ended, financial worries have returned and often weigh heavily, impeding my creative focus.

Adaptation

Living back home with family, instead of renting a space, is a sacrifice I've made. This shift has taken a toll, causing a dip in inspiration and motivation, exacerbated by the sometimes-disheartening landscape of social media. It’s difficult to watch individuals set off on a successful career straight after university due to family connections, whilst many others struggle and some wither away. Graduates, particularly those from working-class backgrounds like myself, can feel disillusioned by the creative industry's realities in London. 

I feel that graduates have been fooled by the education system and the creative industry regarding the realities of being creative and trying to function and thrive in London, especially if you come from a working-class background. The notion of working to the bone to succeed feels ever more like smoke and mirrors, especially due to social media presenting unrealistic time frames for aspirational dreams. Essentially, despite the fact I have achieved some incredible accomplishments through my projects and community initiatives, because I am not making enough money to earn an appropriate living in London, I am made to feel that I am a failure in the artistic society, which is certainly not the case. 

Freelance work for Brent Council, Burgh House and Les Bougies Baroques, along with my role as Associate Creative Director at The Mixed Museum, has bolstered my CV. While these experiences are enriching, The biggest issue I have with these organisations is that while we always have fascinating ideas, being grassroots initiatives or government bodies with tight budgets, the sporadic pay leaves financial stability uncertain. I recognise that I have connected with some fantastic companies and individuals, which is an achievement I am very proud of. Many of these experiences I had no intention of originally getting involved in, but as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, I had no choice but to adapt to working freelance in alternative mediums such as graphic design, curation and creative direction to keep me afloat. However, working in these alternative mediums has helped to bolster my original artform in a sense that I think much more about the presentation of my work and its legacy. I am already incredibly lucky to have my work and items from my family archive being held as acquisitions in the collections at Brent Museum and Archives and therefore I have begun to focus on how my work will affect the world long after I am gone. 

Inspiration

It's important to note that while a cost-of-living crisis can present significant challenges for artists, it can also be a source of inspiration and a catalyst for new perspectives and creative solutions. The cost-of-living crisis caused a shift in artistic themes and mediums. I have noticed my work has become increasingly more political, focusing on the history of colonialism and its effects on the modern world as well as exploring the plight of the rise of individualism and nationalism. I use my work to question what the term ‘Britishness’ means today in my recent project, ‘Union Ain’t Jack’. To learn more about this project, you can watch my spotlight with ASC here.

I have had to shift away from my preferred/experimental approaches within fashion and textiles to bring my work to a conclusion which was financially viable and feasible with the resources I currently have. Some artists may find ways to adapt and respond to these challenges in their work. I am still trying to find methods to crack this. 

In conclusion, while the cost-of-living crisis poses significant hurdles, it also sparks inspiration and prompts fresh perspectives. It has led to a shift in my artistic themes and materials, guiding my focus towards more political and reflective content. Balancing financial viability with creative vision remains a puzzle I'm still solving. 


Connect

Email: 

Projects: [email protected] 

Sales: [email protected] 

Websites:

https://www.warrenreillystudio.co.uk/

https://mixedmuseum.org.uk/ 

https://brentfashioningourhistory.com/

Instagram:

@warren_reilly

@wr.designs_

@wr.fineart

@foh.brent

X (Twitter):  @Reillystudio

Films:

FASHIONING OUR HISTORY: THE DOCUMENTARY - https://vimeo.com/605114320  

About the 'By The Cut of Their Cloth' project - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gho49mQyntM 

Being Brave - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qr1wg-OSm0&list=PLd5J6h0A6R0-INKmJ34RYDa49a5jsSJSL 

Mood Of The Nation A/W2020 - Warren Reilly Graduate Collection - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RG-m4xuK5j0

Header Image Credit: Portraits of the Artist - Courtesy of Warren Reilly

Author

Warren Reilly

Warren Reilly

My name is Warren Reilly, I am a 23-year-old, gay, mixed-race (Irish & Jamaican), award-winning social designer and applied artist from the London Borough of Brent. I completed an Art Foundation Course at Kingston University and went on to secure a First Class Bachelors Honours Degree in Textiles in Practice from Manchester School of Art. I became Creative Director of the ‘Fashioning our History’ project as part of Brent 2020: London Borough of Culture funded by the Mayor of London and Brent Council. I have now been named as the local Brent artist who has won a rent-free studio for 2 years in Alperton thanks to affordable workspace provided by Artist’s Studio Company In Alperton, Brent. The affordable workspace was secured by a section 106 agreement for 243 Ealing Road.

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