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Career Lessons: Designer Helen James

helen james

I generally dislike the descriptor ‘Ireland’s answer to Martha Stewart’ when talking about female lifestyle entrepreneurs, but every feature relating to homewares designer Helen James is obliged to rope the two talents together. Yes, both women are names in their industry. Martha is a cultural icon in the US and most Irish people are on a first names basis with James due to her acclaimed interiors and homewares line with Dunnes Stores – Considered by Helen James. But it feels weird to try and label someone like James with a catch-all. In her career which has spanned over two decades, Helen James has worked on every rung imaginable for a textiles designer. She left Ireland for New York in the 1990s, finding herself working for Donna Karan and starting up her own accessories label in her spare time. Her first drop of scarves fared so well in boutiques in the city she pursued running her own brand, returning to Ireland for the noughties until she shut down the brand with the advent of the recession. Another stint with Donna Karan and the States followed until her return to these shoes where she married her love of interior design and food and went into partnership with Dunnes Stores.

Here she joins Marissa Carter, Caroline Kennedy and Domini Kemp in sharing her careers lessons in our series spotlighting successful Irish women.

My first job…
The first work I got paid for was washing up in my friend’s parent’s restaurant in Brittas Bay. I was 12 years old and I remember getting a little brown envelope with my name written on the front. It contained £10, I felt like the richest girl in Ireland. After that my first job was a waitress in Judge Roy Beans when I was in college. I lived on taco chips and salsa for quite a few months.

The moment I grew up…
Having my first child felt like the moment I stepped into adulthood. I thought that having a child would take the focus off my career and it did for a short time, but then it just made me even more determined and focused. It made my time more precious to me and my career something that I was doing for myself away from the new role of motherhood.

Everything changed…
When I moved to New York in 1993. Ireland had no place for me. I had just graduated with a degree in textile design and I really had no clue what I wanted to do. When I arrived in New York I felt such an amazing sense of liberation, anonymity and freedom, no-one was expecting me to be anything or anyone. I tried lots of different things – interior design, singing, acting, painting, even stop-motion animation which I studied in the School of Visual Arts on 23rd. Ultimately I ended up back in textile design but I came back to it with renewed vigour and passion that that was truly where I wanted to be

Ireland had no place for me. When I arrived in New York I felt such an amazing sense of liberation, anonymity and freedom, no-one was expecting me to be anything or anyone

The scariest moment…
There have been so many! But a couple that stand out are moving my family to Brooklyn in 2010 in three weeks when I was offered a job with Donna Karan Home, uprooting three boys from the fields of Westmeath to the busy borough of Brooklyn was definitely a daunting experience. Equally moving back to Ireland two years later with no job was incredibly nerve racking. I think what is really important though is that people understand that everyone is terrified. There is a perception maybe that when you look at people who have achieved something that they are super confident and assured, but in my experience that is not the case. Everyone is terrified, you have to just feel the fear and move towards it; Acknowledge it but don’t let it stop you.

There is a perception maybe that when you look at people who have achieved something that they are super confident and assured, but in my experience that is not the case.

The most influential person in my life and career…
There are two people. First, my mother because she is my champion. She would do anything for me and often does. She is such an inspiring and strong person. In my career my close friend Kate Shand has been a huge influence, I value her opinion over any other. She believed in me when I didn’t really think I could do it, she told me I could. She lives in New York, we met through a mutual friend 20 years ago and connected over textiles. Because she is so far away we don’t see each other as often as I would like but we talk on the phone often, giving each other perspective on career goals and challenges. It is so important to have that person that you can relate to and discuss things that others may not understand.

I thought that having a child would take the focus off my career and it did for a short time, but then it just made me even more determined and focused. It made my time more precious.

My favourite part of the day…
The morning. My head is definitely clearest and I get my best work done before the day moves in with all its distraction. On the weekend I get up with my youngest son who is six. We have about three hours of just the two of us before the rest of the house wakes up. That is very precious time

I love my job when…
When I have a wave of creativity. When something new starts to emerge and it leads to a new collection or range. Creativity is not a straight line and it ebbs and flows sometimes the lows can be frustrating but when you are working on something that you are really excited by that is the most rewarding of all. I also love meeting people who connect with my work. That is what it is all for after all. Designing into a vacuum is not what I’m here to accomplish.

My best failure…
I suppose when my Fashion range closed. It forced me to re-evaluate where I was and what I was doing. It released me in a way so I was able to move on from something I had lost the passion for. Although the word failure has such negative connections I don’t really believe in it. You always learn, you always achieve something. The only failure would be giving up and doing nothing.

Although the word failure has such negative connections I don’t really believe in it. The only failure would be giving up and doing nothing.

What makes me excited…
Challenging myself. I get bored easily. I need to constantly be looking forward. I suppose it’s drive. Although that concept only occurred to me recently, that I am driven, but if I put my mind to something I won’t let go until I achieve it. That is what keeps me going

How I want to be remembered…
I would like to be remembered as someone who forged her own path. Someone who didn’t let fear stop her from doing things. I also would hope I was generous to people coming along the path behind me. And maybe that my three boys would think I did an okay job guiding them through their childhood.

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