As a leading figure in the fashion and PR industry in Northern Ireland, Cathy Martin knows a thing or two about business, seizing opportunity and bringing to Belfast the lively fashion scene it so desperately craves.
She’s taken West Coast Cooler FASHIONWEEK from launch right through to 25 (soon to be 26) seasons, partnered with huge sponsors and proved wrong those that were once sceptical of how beneficial a collective fashion show truly could be. (Answer: very.)
As a successful businesswoman, Cathy serves as one of the most influential and inspirational role models for both young people hoping to enter the fashion and PR industry and for the community of bloggers she’s brought together with the launch of her popular #NIBLOGGERBRUNCH.
Ahead of the launch of Belfast FASHIONWEEK AW18, The Style Edit caught up with Cathy Martin to discuss how BFW has evolved since its first season, the obstacles overcome in making the event the success it is today and her advice to those hoping to make it in the fashion industry.
You wear many different hats on a daily basis – blogger, PR and talent manager, boss, mum etc – how do you tailor your day to be as efficient as possible?
Some people think that my life must be chaotic, having to manage so many different projects and to ‘be’ so many different people, but I kind of like it like that! I was once professionally advised to choose one thing and ‘be’ that, but I don’t want to just be one thing. To me, that’s boring! Yes, I am a (single) mum and an agent and a writer and a stylist and a PR/events person – but who’s to say you can’t enjoy (or be good at) more than one thing? It keeps my working life interesting and exciting. And all of those things blend and crossover a lot, so there are multiple benefits. Sometimes, yes, it seems manic, but I genuinely wouldn’t have it any other way and I seem to manage ok without a fixed plan. I just prioritise my tasks on a daily basis and get the head down and work my way through them, best I can.
What’s been your proudest moment in your career so far?
I suppose bringing BFW to 25 (now 26) seasons is a good thing to have achieved. The fashion and retail landscape is so different to how it was when I started. And certainly, there wasn’t a big consumer-focused fashion event in Ireland except maybe the Off The Rails show in Dublin and The Clothes Show in Birmingham. Now there are lots of fashion events and I sometimes worry that people might get event fatigue, but they keep on coming, so I know there is still a healthy appetite for it. And before all that, I am also proud of curating a fashion show of the best of Irish Linen fashion back in 2002 and bringing it around the world, kick starting with a show in Paris. Now that was fun!
What’s been your favourite failure? (something that felt like a failure at the time but in hindsight you’re grateful for)
One time I had a client open a new business (which has, by the way, gone on to be hugely successful) launch on election night. I advised against the date but despite my advice, they wanted to go ahead. Barely anyone showed up. I was mortified. This hadn’t happened before (or thankfully, since), and I learnt that you are a PR/events professional for a reason – so I stood my ground to explain that I had advised against the date choice from the beginning. Since then, when I research or have a gut feeling about something I will explain my reasons and put those in writing – not just to save my own bacon should it go wrong, but to consolidate my professional opinion.
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
Honestly? Sometimes, I cry. Sometimes I get grumpy. Mostly I just call my other half Paul for a rational take on what I’m fretting about and he talks me through it. Or just listens if I want a good rant. And then I go back to just taking one thing at a time and dealing with it, best I can.
You’ve recently delved into the world of bloggers and influencers, hosting the now hugely popular #NIBLOGGERBRUNCH. With experience coming at blogging from the perspective of a PR and a blogger, what advice would you give to those hoping to start a blog now?
I created www.thefwords.com back in 2014, but didn’t really start populating it until a year or so ago. (A mix of being busy + imposter syndrome + that advisor who said I should pick my ‘one thing’ all put me off a bit). I’ve been writing since about 1997 when I did my media training at the BBC and wrote some articles for Northern Woman back then. I have since had regular and one-off columns in a number of magazines and newspapers both here and globally and I really enjoy the written word. So my first point is that you should actually enjoy writing if you want to be a blogger. Or you should enjoy creating video content if you want to be a vlogger. Of course, practice makes perfect so you get better with experience and I know I often re-read previously written articles and blogs and recreate them in my head. That’s totally normal. My next point is to advise others to NOT be like me and wait for the moment to be perfect or the content to be just right. I say, start writing and populating your blog or vlog anyway. You don’t have to share or publish it – yet. And you can go back to it and launch it whenever you feel ready, but if you don’t write it or create that video content when the moment comes to you, then it might never be done. Don’t believe the hype that every blog that can be written has been vlogged or written, or that you have to be super-niched to be successful. You can write about topics that others have already, but in your own voice and with your own point of view. And if only 100 people read it, then so what, you’re doing it because you like it, not for the numbers, right?
As for the #NIBloggerBrunch, I created this over a year ago to bring the creator community together with the PR and advertising industry. It’s been a great platform for people to network with brands, small businesses and with each other and I for one have made some new friends with common interests among the community. Maybe one day I’ll develop it into some kind of association with guidelines and principles. I’m kind of working towards this already, but it’s a pro-bono project and for now I need to prioritise things which pay the mortgage (and the Irish dancing fees!) at home, so it takes a side step now and again.
With the emergence of IGTV and the rise of Instagram microblogging, where do you think the future of blogging is going?
Not sure. Who knows!? There’ll certainly be more happening on IGTV and I predicted back at New Year 2018 that more and more video would go vertical (portrait). I also despise bad grammar and spelling, in fact I’m a total pedant (which some people find boring), but at least traditional media has editors, so I think we need a few editing angels in the blogosphere, but whether that will happen or not is another thing. One thing I’d like to see more of is a bit of regulation and organisation around how products are promoted using bloggers and influencers… because not all those who call themselves ‘influencers’ have proper actual influence and sometimes those who have influence don’t necessarily use their influence ethically. I like the growth in #AD and #sponsored, but I find it annoying too, because personally I would never endorse a product that I didn’t actually believe in or genuinely like – but not everyone is like that, so I understand the need. On the flip side, I totally despised how the @bloggersunveiled Instagram account became a quasi-acceptable Mean Girls type platform to just be nasty about people with online profiles here in Ireland, whether they were doing wrong or not. I mean, who are you to judge when you are a keyboard warrior hiding behind a pseudonym and you turn out to be a long-standing troll? Filtering and airbrushing are not new. And why not use that collective voice to call out the fashion magazines and beauty companies who’ve been photoshopping images for decades?
How has social media changed the landscape of your business?
Massively. I do so much on social media and have achieved so much because of it. Plus, it creates so many more ticket sales to BFW than any print ad I’m afraid to say.
AW18 is fast approaching in the fashion world, what can we expect from this season of Belfast FASHIONWEEK?
More shows at St Anne’s on 19 October – the perfect girls’ night out – plus a fab new brunch event (details to follow) and the Sushi Saturday and Style Sunday events.
With 25 (soon to be 26) seasons of Belfast FASHIONWEEK under your belt, which one has been your favourite to work on?
I still love the Victoria Square underground carpark show in 2010.
How has Belfast FASHIONWEEK changed since its very first season?
It’s changed so much and not at all. The ethos is the same in that I love to bring a bit of fashion theatre to the everyday girl, but it’s just approached in a very different way.
I see lots of people who started out with us doing their own thing – excelling in the fashion industry worldwide or just doing similar events here at home. It’s nice and flattering that they have emulated what I started
What were some of the early day struggles of Belfast FASHIONWEEK?
Cashflow, getting people to take me seriously and getting people to believe that a collective show could have benefits for all.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about working in the fashion and PR industry?
People think it’s glamarama every day. But it’s the same as a lot of other jobs. You’re managing budgets, schedules, egos, and long hours. But yes ok, it is sometimes pretty fun too.
What’s your ultimate goal for FASHIONWEEK?
We’re about to finish up our sponsorship with West Coast Cooler after an amazing 25 seasons. I’d like to find a new perfect partner to take us to the next level.
What’s one thing we all need in our wardrobes to nail AW18 fashion this year?
Animal print. It suits everyone. Even just a teeny, tiny accent of it on a belt or a shoe is sexy and adds a bit of a roar to a look.
You’re stuck on a desert island and can only bring one outfit. Which outfit makes the cut?
If no-one else is there, then truthfully, I’d bring high waisted training leggings in a nice thick fabric and a cosy fleece for cold nights. Plus, some good trainers for climbing to the high fruit at the top of the trees and running from any predators. That’s not very fashionable, but hey. If it’s a Love Island kind of island, then I want to wear a one piece swimsuit to suit my shape. All day every day.
What’s something that people always get wrong about you?
I think people always expect me to be hard and a bit of a bitch. I’m not. I’m a total softie and actually quite sensitive. People often think I’m loaded too – and that is so far from the truth. I’m a self-employed single mum doing it on her own. I re-sell a lot of my clothes and after years in designer clothes I just love me a bitta high street. I live quite simply at home with Valentina and, after my separation, I chose to have a small home so I could spend any spare cash on experiences. I’m very happy though – the big house I used to live in is up for sale and I had some fab memories in it, but we are so very happy where we are.
Tell us about your most memorable fashion faux pas.
I make faux pas all the time. My usual styling advice is to know yourself naked and use fashion as a tool to highlight or hide the bits of your body you are loving/loathing that particular day (not saying loathing your body is a good thing by the way, but it definitely happens to a lot of us. And I’m totally generalising and being a realist here too). Sometimes in my head I think I am long and lean with a smaller bust and I buy clothes to suit that kind of figure, when in reality I am only 5’5” and have boobs, hips and a tummy which all need to be dressed in a kinder, more flattering way. I now spend a lot of money in The Zipyard getting things altered to suit my shape and size, so I don’t miss out on key trends or silhouettes.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to those who want to make it in fashion?
I think experience and research is key, but don’t just work in retail and think you can walk into VOGUE. Aim high and contact anyone you can think of who will give you a good grounding in where you want to be, BUT you must bring something to the party too, so give all you can when you get through the doors. Bosses notice hard work, fresh ideas presented well and people being enthusiastic. Making the coffee at PRADA is still working at PRADA, so make that coffee with gusto!