From drugs and sexism to the United Nations and Sex and the City - the rise, fall and resurrection of my career as a t-shirt designer

Most of you probably don't know this, but a long, long time ago, way before I'd heard the term startup or PR, I stumbled into a brief and intense career as a t-shirt designer. Completely accidental of course - back then my main calling in life seemed to be to provoke and outrage, and fashion was a great way to go about it. At the time my best friend and I lived and worked at a fashion/furniture/bicycle shop called Sick in London's East End. Sick was a very apt name for the shop - I've written more about living at Sick in this blog post. Our boss was a former punk who'd come out with pretty outrageous stuff every now and again. I remember him calling us "useless fucking females" whenever we'd done something wrong, which was all the time - pretty unsurprising considering we were two 18-year-olds, put in charge of a shop in spite of never having worked in retail before. Now, ten years later, I find it pretty horrifying, but at the time we thought it was nothing but hilarious. We never took it to heart but rather reclaimed and owned it in ways that our boss, ironically, loved. Part of that process was turning it into fashion.

  One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

It started as a provocative joke but pretty soon blog readers started asking how they could get their hands on one. My blog then was much bigger than it is now, with thousands of daily readers at its peak, and it wasn't long before I made way more money on the shirts than I did at Sick. After Vice Magazine included some of the shirts in a shoot, a distributor doing punk fashion got in touch and placed a bulk order (see guys, PR works!). I should've seen this was a business in the making, but I was young and I just wanted to have a bit of fun.

Coke built this body - inspired by my grandfather's t-shirt that said "beer built this body"

  Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

I'd hate me too - inspired by all the trolling I received on my blog
 

I fucked Franz Kafka - really not sure where the inspiration came for this one...

Other people definitely saw the potential, though. The French fashion label Vetements presumably nicked one of my designs for one of their t-shirts, which was then sold for $980 and worn by the likes of Rihanna. Oh well.

You Fuckin Asshole, by me, 2009

You Fuck'n Asshole, by Vetements, 2016

Anyway - a year later I'd abandoned my career as an East London Klub Kid to move to South Africa. I didn't know it at the time, but this was basically the beginning of what I'd now call my political awakening. I worked at a Cape Town shelter for homeless women and children, and spent most evenings reading about some of the most prominent socio-economic issues faced by South Africa. HIV/AIDS is one of them, and as a result I decided to do a fashion campaign highlighting World AIDS Day. I designed, printed, modelled and sold several different designs, all focusing on the huge problem of people around the world not knowing their HIV status. All proceeds were donated to UN's Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. At that point the blog was much smaller, but I still managed to raise and donate some £500.

Know Your Status - One of the biggest issues in battling HIV/AIDS is that people don't know that they carry the virus

Fuck Responsibly - Clue's in the copy

  HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

That was in 2010 and since then I haven't printed anything - up until last night, when I printed my very own We Should All Be Mirandas t-shirt. It’s an excellent parody on Dior's terribly ironic $700 We Should All Be Feminists shirt - as the designers say themselves, “It’s hard being a Miranda in the age of Trump and $700 feminist slogan tees. But if Mirandas ruled the world, the world would be a considerably less fucked up place. We should all be Mirandas: smart, pragmatic, ambitious and unafraid to eat cake out of the garbage“. I first spotted the shirt on Instagram in October and have tried to get my hands on the original since then. Alas, I've been unsuccessful, but with some spare time on my hands over the holiday season I bought the same printing gear I used at Sick all those years ago, to print my very first shirt in over seven years.

It felt great.

  We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

The weirdest places I've lived: a trip down Memory Lane, via shops, restaurants and fashion photographers

I somewhat unbelievably just bought my first flat. It's not something I ever thought would happen, perhaps partly because I've spent most of my adult life in London, where even the idea of saving up for a deposit seems unfathomable. The London housing market is insane and the political aspects of it used to frustrate me immensely from an ideological and socio-economic perspective (still does), but me buying a house was just so unlikely that I never even really considered it.

And then I moved to Sweden. Malmö, that is - the housing market in Stockholm is not too different from that of London. All of a sudden, buying didn't seem like some sort of fairytale idea. After spending weeks and months analysing the housing market (which was a lot more fun than I would've expected) I finally bought my own piece of real estate dream. I can't believe I'm going to get to decorate MY VERY OWN FLAT in whatever way I want. That hasn't always been the case - I've lived in some, err, pretty interesting places. I've typically moved at least once a year over the past ten years - below are some of the weirdest places I've lived at.

  2008: Pre photo session with our very own internationally renowned fashion photographer

2008: Pre photo session with our very own internationally renowned fashion photographer

CAMDEN SLACK DEN: 2008
It was my first summer in London and I'd managed to get hold of a tiny studio flat on a council estate in Camden. It was about £900/month and there was no way I'd be able to afford that on my own (particularly as I wasn't working), so I teamed up with four(!) other troopers - including Yvan Rodic aka Facehunter -  and the five of us lived there over the summer - three people slept in the bed and two in the sofa bed. There was little other space for a wardrobe (not that we would've been able to afford one anyway) so I remember dragging back a shopping trolley to keep our clothes in.... Grim. That said, we had a pretty epic time in our slack den - we'd only just moved over and spent whatever little savings we had on shoes and booze. There were plenty of good preparties before heading out in Camden, or less typically, to the West End. It was the first time I lived abroad, and honestly, who needs a wardrobe or personal space when you're 18 and full of life, amirite.

  2009: At my "house" aka shop, getting ready for a night out

2009: At my "house" aka shop, getting ready for a night out

SICK: 2008-2009
The clue is in the name. I was three months into living in London and had just given all of my savings (err, a full £1200...) in cash to a landlord who turned out to be the scam of the century as, apparently, the flat we'd just paid for didn't exist. I was fairly devastated, but never really thought I'd end up on the streets. I didn't - I moved into a second-hand shop called SICK which was run by a 65-year-old former punk whose main claim to fame was that he, apart from being the founder of Boy London, also used to work with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren back in the 70s. SICK didn't have a shower, central heating, hot water or a kitchen. It did have a toilet though, and the walls in the loo were covered in pages from 1980s porn magazines (as you can see in this photo... lol.). My best mate and I lived there for a year and a half, slept on a mattress in the middle of the store and took turns in opening the shop in the mornings. Customers would walk into the shop and nervously go "err, there's someone sort of... sleeping in the bed?". Haha. Brilliant. I'm not sure exactly how we did that for so long, but I think being drunk for most of it probably helped.

  2013: Weekly visit from the chicks

2013: Weekly visit from the chicks

LA FOUNTAINE: 2013-2014
Two months after I'd moved to Uganda, I was attacked outside my house as the guard had fallen asleep and didn't open the gate quick enough before some punk saw his chance of mugging a mzungu. Although I was physically fine (-ish...) I realised it probably wasn't the safest housing option since there was no lighting outside the gate and anyone could hide in the bushes. I consequently decided to move into a guest house on top of an Indian restaurant called La Fountaine, located literally twenty centimetres away from a nightclub called Iguana. Because of Iguana there were always bouncers outside my front gate, and although it was incredibly loud and noisy constantly, I felt safe. Living there also developed my ability to sleep through anything (a few months ago I fell asleep in the dentist chair while getting a filling done - should say something). I had no furniture apart from a bed and some hangers, though I did get a lot of in-house visits from the chickens that the La Fountaine family bred for the food. Very organic. Mind you, they did have the best Biryani in all of Kampala... I stayed there for eight months and when leaving I remember already thinking "I'll look back at this and think it's really fucking weird" - particularly as I then moved into a diplomat mansion for an eight-week house sitting session.

  2014: A rare skull-free zone in the House of Skulls - my room

2014: A rare skull-free zone in the House of Skulls - my room

HOUSE OF SKULLS: 2014-2015
Once I was back in London I moved into a house in Walthamstow which looked beyond lovely. Unfortunately the person I was moving in with had only just bought the place, so I never got to see her interior style until we'd both unpacked. BIG MISTAKE. HUGE. There were skulls bloody everywhere. Everything interior-wise you can imagine, my live-in landlady had skull shaped. Vases, glasses, curtains, rugs, cups, pillow cases, candles, shower bottles, tiny booze bottles... I got a new-found respect for the number of things that come skull shaped or with skulls printed on it. She also liked to decorate the walls with bats(?!). It was her house though, so I couldn't exactly complain. She did, though - when I put fresh flowers in the bathroom she threw them out and said "this isn't a showroom" haaa. I kept all the flowers in my own room after that...

So yeah, my housing career to date hasn't been particularly straightforward. It's kept things interesting though, but for now I'm looking forward to having my very own place with no skulls, chickens or fashion photographers... Just me and my cat.

The three stages of a relapse - as told by a recovering Londoner

I remain unsure about my relationship to London. It's a love/hate relationship of sorts, and it'd be folly to downplay the impact it's had on me. Leaving was surprisingly easy, but when I visited last week I quickly realised that returning wasn't particularly so. It might seem strange to compare London to an addiction, but somehow it feels pretty appropriate - particularly since relapsing is often said to be part of recovery. Here's an account of the three stages of relapse I experienced when visiting for work last week.

Excruciating anxiety
It was a sunny Monday morning when I landed at Heathrow, six months to the day since I'd left. I felt nothing at all. Not a single thing - almost as though I'd never left. But the night before I was near hyperventilating, scared that I'd feel as though I belonged in London without really have anything to do there (this wasn't helped by the fact that all my meetings were booked at the very last minute). I only had one meeting that day, and once it finished that feeling crept back. I got on the tube during rush hour, and once a notoriously resilient commuter, I now had to control my breathing to fight back an anxiety attack. I was overwhelmed by the crowd and the crowded space, and getting on the wrong tube really didn't help.

An adrenalin junkie's fix
Over the next two days I ticked off six meetings with PR agencies, top tier journos, VCs and influencers. It was bloody great. I love my job, I love talking about why I love it and incidentally, the two are often the same. All very meta, I know. Anyway, it was two stressful days and I was pumped from eating very little food (not purposefully, I might add) and having some fantastic conversations. I battled through crowds on the streets of London as I rushed from one meeting to the next, and again, it was as though I'd never left. I got my fix and actually felt high in a way only an adrenalin junkie and/or a workaholic does. I started questioning my decision to leave London, a place where I learned from and worked alongside world experts in my field. Thankfully I was staying with my mentor - one of said experts - who successfully brought me back down to earth.

Feelings of gratitude
On the third day, my snot was black. It's as gross as it sounds, and Londoners will know what I mean. I went running in the morning and quickly realised why Mayor Khan recently warned Londoners against exercising in the outdoors. It made me think of my new hometown, its beautiful parks and the fact that I cycle everywhere. I cycled everywhere in London too, but out of resilience and high stamina as opposed to it being thoroughly enjoyable, or the city being easy to navigate around. Being on a crowded tube that morning also made me remember how lonely I often felt in London, a city populated by 8.5 million people. Perhaps amazingly, I've made a number of close friends in Malmö in just a few months time. Those are the thoughts that were running through my head after I landed from my high the days before.

To quote Samantha Jones (lol) I love London, but I love myself more. London is wonderful for the young, the wealthy and the hustlers, but to have the best experience I think you have to be two out of three. At one point I was both young and a hustler, but London aged me prematurely. Consequently I'm not as young and naive as I once was, and although I did give adult life in London a real working chance, I'm happy I got out when I did. And I'm even happier that I get to return every now and again for work and some quick fixes of adrenalin.

Six months in: returning back home after eight years abroad

Last week marked six months since I left London to move to Malmö, a Swedish city the size of Hackney. It wasn’t the first time I left London - I’d previously left to move to Wales, Berlin, South Africa and Uganda, but this was the first time I left with all my stuff without an intention to return to London, my home and base for the past eight years. Moving to new countries hasn't always been easy, but moving back to the motherland is not even comparable. Here are my few cents on moving back to the motherland after spending all your adult life abroad.

Friendly Swedes

Culture clashes o'clock
My worst culture clashes before moving to Malmö didn’t take place in Uganda or South Africa but rather Aberystwyth, Wales, the place where a pint of beer was cheaper than doing laundry in student halls and where students made fun of other students for taking their studies seriously (I left two terms in). Moving to Malmö has opened a new set of cultural challenges, albeit mostly in the best of ways. As an example, I’ve been pretty taken aback by how open and generous people are in Malmö, and I’ve already made a number of fairly close friends in a way that took me years to achieve in London. That said, since I come with a London mindset I initially met this openness and generosity with slight suspicion, which obviously was a bit strange to people who are now my friends. As for me, I seriously didn’t get why people were so friendly. The things London do to you...

Me having successfully escaped another informal post-meeting mingle...

People won’t know you’re different, so they’ll think you’re strange
Since you look and sound like everyone else - that wasn't the case in Uganda or South Africa - it’s likely people you meet will assume that you come from the same-ish context as them. That would probably have been fine had the place you left been similar to the one you moved to, but London and Malmö are surprisingly different - perhaps particularly in the workplace. For instance, I’m usually the last person to join a meeting (bang on time when the thing starts) and the first one to leave (right when it finishes) because I. Have. Work. To. Do. People in London aren’t exactly known to linger at work meetings, and that’s how I was raised so that’s what I’ll do (not linger, that is). That’s not how things work in Malmö. You chat, you laugh, you get to know each other and right then and there is where you build your network. I still haven’t mastered the art of small talk and as someone who suffers from social anxiety, it’s a pretty significant challenge… But more on that in another post.

Prepare for a pretty major identity crisis
Beyond people thinking you're a bit odd, and beyond probably being a bit odd, you'll also feel pretty odd. I still talk of Britain and London as though I’m British myself, and I have a hard time feeling Swedish, whatever that means. I suppose I feel like an immensely privileged immigrant in Sweden, with the passport, the SSN, and the language all in place, but without the Swedish cultural capital. I just don't feel very Swedish in the way that I still identify as a Londoner, though of course a majority of Brits (as was seen in the EU referendum) would see me as an alien in Britain. That's the tricky bit about being a global citizen - suddenly it's as though you belong anywhere and nowhere.

Malmö <3

They have changed - and so have you
I left Sweden for London when I was 18, and at the time I was immensely disappointed with Sweden at large. Growing up, I’d met few adults I could turn to for advice, inspiration or just a helping hand. I moved from home aged 15, learned to trust no one and ultimately became a pretty angry person. That changed as and when I went to university and pursued a career in London, a place where I all of a sudden had several role models and people that were more than happy to help me out. But my resentment for Sweden was still very much in place, and that didn't really change on a fundamental level until I moved to Malmö six months ago. I have a wholly different experience of my motherland now than I did growing up - a surprise to no one perhaps, but working to let go of previous prejudice and entrenched anger has allowed me to become a softer and kinder version of myself, both in spite and because of my motherland.

In many ways, returning back home after that long is like a gift that keeps on giving, while at the same time being a pretty significant challenge - a paradox of sorts. In my experience, many people seem to think that it would be easier to move back to the motherland than somewhere across the globe, but that's a fallacy. That said, rediscovering your country of birth is wonderful, and I wish everyone had the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, it takes some eight years of being away...

Att få komma hem.

Det finns kanske inget så fint som att få komma hem.

Man hetsar hem från flygplatsen och du är målbilden. Allt du är, och allt du inte är. Att få krypa ner jämte ens favorit, under ett tungt duntäcke på en tjock madrass i norra London. Fingrar som flätas ihop, tunga andetag och en alldeles iskall kropp som vill närmre. Det ligger nygräddade croissanter i köket, sidan om jordgubbarna jag aldrig äter men ändå alltid köper för det är ju dina favoriter. Tidsskillnaden hotar att förgöra mig och jag kämpar för att hålla ögonen öppna. Till slut somnar jag ändå, men det är okej för du är där när jag vaknar.

Ja, exakt så fint var det... Att få komma hem.