The career paths we take in life are endlessly fascinating, particularly in the creative industries. No two journeys are the same, and most are met with obstacle after obstacle, and many twists and turns.
After the unprecedented period of upheaval that has rocked industry en masse like no other, it’s important to remember there never has been a simple linear career path to tread. For some, lockdown has provided a chance to slow down and reflect on their current path. For others, it has cut their path off cold. While there has never before been quite such a global contributory factor, there have always been external factors moulding and shaping careers, and internal voices seeking to quiet the noise and guide the way.
Being in Manchester during one of its great fashion and club scenes, and to be involved amongst that entrepreneurial movement was incredible
Alison Sharpe, founder of online home and lifestyle store, Cup + Cloth, has taken her own winding route. “Manchester has always been important to me,” says Alison. She began her design career working as a clothes designer in the city, setting up independent women’s wear brand Britain with a colleague in the 80’s, which was first housed within Afflecks Palace, the Northern Quarter’s emporium of eclecticism, before moving to the more refined surrounds of the Royal Exchange. “Being in Manchester during one of its great fashion and club scenes was amazing,” she says, “and to be involved amongst that entrepreneurial movement was incredible.”
That entrepreneurial spirit definitely stuck. She went on to establish a new brand, Trip Fontaine, in the late 90’s, making and customising T-shirts and jeans for independents around the UK and USA, gaining her column inches by selling her designs globally to fashion editors and celebrities. Buoyed by her success and not wanting to rest on her laurels, in 2005 she embarked upon a degree course studying Printed Textiles at Manchester School of Art to really hone her skills. This led her to a career in Textile Design, designing for brands such as JW Anderson, Topshop Unique and Turnbull & Asser.
“As well as clothing I have a love affair with interiors,” she says. “There is a strong link between fashion and interiors, so moving towards homewares and lifestyle was a natural progression. I wanted to create something inspiring, where people could buy well edited goods under one virtual roof, and so in early 2017, Cup + Cloth was launched.”
Founded on a desire to make well made products and good design easily accessible, Alison buys direct from independent designers and makers, so as to best support like minded creatives. She sources new pieces by attending design showcases such as the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Show in Manchester and New Designers in London, along with visiting many University degree shows in order to spot the most promising talent as early as possible. “The excitement of seeking out new talent is what Cup + Cloth is about,” she tells me. “We have discovered wonderful designers and makers’ products from visiting these yearly shows.”
When seeking new products, she is careful to consider whether they fit into the Cup + Cloth aesthetic. “From original art to ceramics and textiles, we don’t have a particular formula, but it has to be cohesive and fit together,” she says. “We have a large portion of Northern makers and artists in our collection, including jewellery from Ciara Clark, prints from Ralph McGaul, ceramics from Sabine Grimshaw, leather goods from Marisel and apothecary products from Pilgrim.”
There are no hard and fast rules of where they source from though. They have an ongoing relationship with a rug maker in the Ukraine, with whom they collaborate on design and colour stories, and they have recently launched a new rug design exclusively for the brand. Another overseas designer Alison highlights is Madoka Rindal, a Japanese ceramicist based in Paris. Her work is distinct; hand thrown vessels with simple hand painted inky faces. “Currently we are one of only a few UK stockists,” says Alison, “and her collection sells exceptionally well. It is very well priced at under £40.”
The art section in the store is also steadily growing, and they are particularly keen on showcasing artists based in the North. “Currently Ralph McGaul, a print maker from Macclesfield, is proving very popular with customers,” says Alison. “The art we show is very collectable and affordable, as we believe art should be available to all.” Although they prefer to buy directly from makers, sometimes they source a small portion of wares from suppliers based in Scandinavia. “These products are mainly made in India, and the company gives back to the communities by offering education for children. For us, it’s vital that Fair Trade and decent working conditions are adhered to when we do buy from larger companies.”
The recent lockdown has of course meant the closure of monthly markets that Alison usually attends, like Treacle market in Macclesfield and NQ Makers Market in Manchester. As these slowly begin to reopen Alison is keen to get back. “It’s a vital way to connect with customers,” she says, “enabling us to share the story of where the products come from, how and who’s made it. This is fundamental to our philosophy.”
“The crisis has hit us all hard, so we wanted to give back in some way. We offered free shipping while the community was in Lockdown, produced face masks for charity, donated to East Cheshire Hospice, and currently are donating to BLMUK. I believe business needs to be more altruistic; kindness and empathy is so important in a world that is very uncertain.”
All photography © Cup + Cloth, used with permission.