INTERVIEW - Fern, iOLA & EFFi
Fern and I met totally randomly one day as we both attended a mum-and-kid activity group and exchanged about our expat lives on the next playground. That was already some years back, and since then, Fern moved back to the UK and started her clothing brand, iOLA & EFFi, which has left me in awe.
I genuinely feel honoured to welcome Fern on OUTSIDE THE BOX, hoping that her story will inspire other to make their ideas a reality. Thanks a lot again for sharing your words in such a honest way. xxx Marie
Welcome on OUTSIDE THE BOX and thank you for spending the time to answer some questions for us!
One question we ask all our participants, in order to know the people behind a project: can you please introduce yourself in a few words ?
Hi Marie, thank YOU for asking me to take part!
Fern (Fernanda), I’m 38 yrs old, have 2 daughters (Iola 6yo and Effi 3yo) and a little boy (Enis 2yo), married to a wonderful Welsh man called Owain. I live in Middleton Stoney, just outside Bicester and 20 minutes from Oxford.
I love movies, music, dancing, constantly finding something to redecorate and reorganise or improve. I love Italian and Thai food. My favourite musicians are Andrea Bocelli (it reminds me of my Dad who passed away), Pink, Shakira, Beyonce, Queen and Meghan Trainor, and all of the 80’s music.
I was born in Ecuador and lived there until I was 28 yrs old, working as a Fashion Designer for a big clothing store, then won an Scholarship in London to study a Masters in Fashion Business Management in Westminster University and then met my husband, got married, and worked in different types of roles whilst working part time, moved to Switzerland, had another 2 kids whilst there and also started iOLA & EFFi Ltd., and then moved back to the UK.
While we normally ask our interviewees to define what Sustainability means to them, it feels a lot more relevant here with you to look into your meaning of Gender Equality! How do you define it, and how do you apply it on a daily basis?
I think my passion about gender equality is deeply rooted in my upbringing, my father was a very charming guy but was an abusive partner to my mother and my older sisters and to a lesser degree to me as the youngest. I am 1 of 4 daughters they had together and together as a group of women we went through very traumatic experiences. We lived in a house under his rule in a very “machista” and religious society (which I can’t think of the worst combination to be honest).
I’ve always struggled with believing I have a voice and an opinion and avoid confrontation but, in equal measure, I have always fought against injustice, whether it was to confront my dad, to get equal pay at work, and now to make sure that my daughters and son can see a world where there is no gender disparity and where they can choose to be whoever they want to be.
Gender equality is having equal rights and responsibilities, regardless of your gender!
And for me, learning that starts at home in the way we raise our kids. I’m very lucky to have found my soul mate, a man that not only supports me in every way, but that loves me and respects me, and with whom I have an equal relationship in terms of our responsibilities around the house and what we teach our kids. We both are responsible for running the house and raising the kids, but also support each other in having careers and hobbies apart from our family life, that define us as human beings.
On our daily life, both in the family aspect and the professional one, we are championing gender equality. Owain is a Mentor for Women in Mining (he’s a Mining Engineer) and me with the iOLA & EFFi Brand. If there is anything that I want to leave you and your readers with is that Gender Equality is not only about Feminism, it’s about human beings at the end, is about wanting the best for ALL. In my view, Feminism is not a women’s only movement, it’s a human being movement, and I don’t believe we can fully achieve equality unless we get males (young and old), to get on board, to wish and work for the same goal of Equality and balance.
You are the founder of iOLA+EFFi, a self-made clothing brand dedicated to female empowerment.
Can you tell us what drove you to start this project?
I studied to become a Fashion Designer and worked as one for 6+ yrs, in that time I had the pleasure to design for different age groups and genders, one being the kids and teens section. I remember quite early in my career being annoyed already, for what I had to design based on trends, mostly pink in all its shades.
The messaging was not empowering at all or diverse in my eyes, messages like “More Fridays, less Monday’s”, or “Daddy’s little Princess” or prints that are all “Sugar, Spice and everything nice” like kittens, bunnies, etc, whilst boys get much more exciting themes like planes, dinosaurs, robots, and not only that, but they also often learn through clothing like multisyllable dinosaur names or parts of a plane in a t-shirt.
It wasn’t obvious to me then how that translated as to how girls see themselves until I had my first daughter and I struggled to find what I wanted her to wear (eg bright colours, fun prints, and empowering phrases), so the idea was there and stayed there. Once I moved to Switzerland I went through a year long mentorship and self-discovery as I felt lost. And during that period, I realised how much I missed having a job, to do what I loved which is design and craft and wanted to start “something” that had a meaning.
I knew I needed that “something” to be something that will make me proud and will leave a positive legacy, and that how the idea of merging my passions about female empowerment and design. That is how I started a clothing brand that was not only about trends and following what others do, but about the beauty of being unique and having my own niche, where my clothes empower females to feel proud of what they like and who they are.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) for girls seem to be a strong focus of yours, why’s that?
The way I see it, part of the Gender Inequality starts in the labour market, especially in STEM fields, with only 25% of women graduating in those fields.
We live in a world full of new discoveries, new technologies and by not having women have a bigger representation, we are going to continue to grow in a world where women’s views are not accounted for and men don’t see us as part of the problem solving process and think of us as contributors to find solutions. What an amazing world would we live in if women and men developed technologies, systems, medicines, where the needs of ALL are considered.
We will be losing out as a society by not having more women part of that, but currently according to research, girls switch off from STEM subjects by the age of 6 and they start seeing STEM as male subjects, because why shouldn’t they? When the books they read are about helpless princesses and the clothes they wear are about ballerinas and princesses, riding unicorns and chasing rainbows. They don’t see themselves doing STEM related things.
We wanted to change that, and that is why our formula is: See it, Believe it and Be it.
SEE it: NO GENDER STEREOTYPES
we make clothing with prints that show girls performing roles that disturb the mainstream clothing conventions. Simply, we show our characters in our prints in roles that girls and women should be doing in equal measure to boys and men.
BELIEVE it: SMART FEMALE ROLE MODELS
Kids learn perhaps more from what they see us do as parents and the world around them than from what we say. When they see it as real and available then they believe that their aspirations are achievable and provide motivation to be empowered to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. Whether is to become the next female pilot or loving dinosaurs.
BE it: PLAY SMART, BE COURAGEOUS, BE YOURSELF
Girls often role play being firemen, scientists, train drivers, pilots and superheroes in their imaginative play time, so why not give them the costume and clothing that goes with it.
What in your own background is driving your fight for gender equality?
I think partly my family life when I was young, because I grew up with a father that abused my mum physically and mentally. Also growing up in Ecuador, the amount of abuse and lack of respect for women in general as a culture, is mind-blowing.
Men are to be attended to and women are there to serve them. Growing up I was aware of people around me, experiencing and accepting all sorts of abusive and controlling behaviour from men. I think the base of women accepting that it’s ok for them, comes from being financially dependent on their partners.
Women make constantly less money than men. But if we fight for women’s prominent role in the workforce, they will have so much more going for them, fulfilling them, than just their kids, their perception of themselves being dependent will change to be less accepting of that controlling behaviour.
My mother is a role model for me, for all the sacrifices and efforts she made to give us a better future away from an abusive relationship, without a degree and with 4 young daughters. I have seen what women are capable of doing with very little, we are able to multitask, to do anything for our family, but also, more often than not, we leave ourselves for last, and we need to think about OUR future too, our wellbeing, nobody else is going to assure that we succeed except ourselves.
As an entrepreneur, what kind of challenges have you experienced, and what are your greatest successes and achievements?
For me the biggest challenge has been to bring customers to my website and learn a completely new world for me that is social media marketing. I thought that with building a website and having an IG account and FB account was enough, that people will find me easily and I will have lovely products and I will sell.
But… there is a whole world out there full of competitors with more budgets than yours, so as a small woman owned business like mine, learning to promote my brand has been the hardest.
The rest is fun, I love doing the design and the production, fulfilling each order fills my day with joy, knowing that someone out there chose me, chose my brand, my products, and connect with what we are all about.
I think another challenge is finding self-motivation to continue, my husband and I, have a separate studio from the rest of the house where we work, and so we have that feeling of “going to work” every day, even if it’s just 10 metres from our front door. I have a lovely team of women who help me manage the social media marketing side of the business, and I find also in them a source of motivation to keep on going, we make plans, we execute and little by little we see the brand grow and evolve and its exciting. But my biggest motivation comes from happy customers, each positive message and review bring me so much fulfilment.
What has been the response of your family and your customers?
My family is very supportive, I speak with so much enthusiasm about the brand and what I do, that I think they find it easy to be happy for me. I have also gone to them with massive meltdowns because something didn’t go as planned, but I am very blessed to have the support of the ones closest to me.
Each customer means the world to me, the fact that someone chose my brand, my product, it feels like they chose ME. Therefore, each order keeps me on cloud 9 and each review is heaven to me, gives me a sense of achievement and keeps me going.
People so far not only connect with the brand core values but also with the love and attention that I put into each process, each email and order is processed by me, and all done with great love and pride.
As a mum of 2 girls and a boy, do you see a difference in the way you talk and raise them? Do you find it challenging to give them a similar and balanced education?
So far, I feel there is no difference in the way I raise them. Enis, my boy, is 2 at the moment, so there will be things that I will need to have a chat with him, as he grows and finds “irregularities” as I call it.
Iola and Effi have the message of equality so engrained in their system, that they pick up irregularities faster than we do. They will say to me that girls and boys can do the same and will speak out loud when things are not fair.
Iola and Effi love playing more with boys at school because she likes to play superheroes, jump, climb and be a bubbly child, she loves it, and we support her on that. Enis plays equally with babies and bottles as he does with cars and tools.
There is talk in our house about all sorts of issues, but we put extra attention to what they watch, and when there is something we find doesn’t have a good message, we address it then a there. Most of the books we read to them at night have STEM subjects in them, are about space, science, trucks, human boy or amazing women and men, because we think its so important that they learn about the women that came before them, what they did in order for us to be able to vote, work and get paid.
And in our home, there are no girls or boys’ toys, they all play equally with trucks, dolls, tools, lego, you name it. I think also because people know about our brand, the kids often get given toys and books that fulfil that way of life.
We’ve taught them how important it is what you say to yourself, so when they say “I can’t do this” we often say, “if you say that, then that is what you are going to get”, “You can do it, I know you can, but you have to keep at it.”. In turn, we try and promote speaking about your feelings and emotions. We think that this will help Enis be a rounded and levelheaded man surrounded by strong women, but able to express what he feels and how to express it so that he doesn’t feel like he has to ‘man-up’ (god I hate that phrase too, but that’s for another article).
On the same line as the previous question, what could you advise our readers?
To achieve gender equality, we need to get both sides (men and women, boys and girls) to want the same outcome. For men to see women not as competition or a lesser human being, and I think that to achieve difference we need to educate boys and men, as well as women.
Let them climb trees, balance on fences, jump from climbing frames, just show them how to do it safely. Push them to access their courage and try new things, when they achieve them, they will continue to chase more challenges, and they will learn that falling is part of the game and they can get up and do it again. The pursuit for perfection is an empty useless one, and the amount of attention that is paid to the ‘perfect look’ for girls stifles a girl’s ability to try something with a likelihood of an imperfect result.
We met a few years ago in Switzerland, and life brought you back to the UK. How has it been going there?
Do you see a difference between these 2 countries in the way girls and boys are raised, and the social pressure regarding gender roles?
Here in the UK is where we call home, our 2 years in Switzerland brought us many fantastic experiences, friendship and our 2 youngest kids were born there.
I think that the Swiss society doesn’t have many supports in places for women to go back to work, childcare is very expensive and the school schedule with kids coming home for lunch didn’t really allow me to be able to work, and we couldn’t afford more days of childcare than what we already had.
It’s hard to say about the way Swiss culture is around the way that boys and girls are raised, as my kids where in a bilingual nursery where all their classmates where from Expat families, so we didn’t really experience the Swiss way so much.
I think I can speak more for how the UK is, and I find here there is definitely a bigger effort to make sure kids access the same regardless of gender. There are many after school clubs for STEM, art, & sports for kids to access. I feel there is a definitive feminist movement that is perpetuated more in the UK culture. There seems to be more women in our political system, and more women coming through to high profile public service like the head of the capital city’s most important police force.
Where do you see room for improvement?
I think mum’s struggle to continue to work after having kids, and is mostly due to the cost of childcare vs the salaries that we can achieve. I think more “working from home” jobs for mum will help massively, as I believe kids learn by example. If you see your mum being happy and fulfil in both her career and personal life, then more changes both girls and boys will see each parent equally part of society, making the same contributions and the more likely is that kids will follow suit. And will find later in their life also partners that look for that balance of personal and career life.
Out of your designs and themes, which was has been the most exciting to develop?
(I am personally in love with the space one and ordered a set for my daughter!)
Space is definitely a favourite in our house, I love our female icon animal print too. We also now do mugs, bags, and many other products, so it has been very exciting to learn different techniques a be able to bring more option to my customers.
Whilst STEM was and is important to us, it’s a little niche. So, to appeal to a wider audience and still bring the strong messaging we have looked at more of the empowerment messaging and developing our style.
The latest being our MAMA + MINI female Icon “animal print” sweatshirt, which has an “animal print” but with little female icons instead of the usual spots in the leopard print. Also, we have started the “PRETTY” series of hoodies, which bring a new and fresh use of the word pretty, we have Pretty Smart, Strong, Fierce, Rare, and more, which we hope empower females all around the world, we also have them for women and kids.
Where do you see the brand going in the future?
Well, I would like to see it grow in volume. Manage to get my brand in a big retailer and see it move from being a bit niche and for people to see more the need of a brand like mine, that brings a bigger message of empowerment and equality and move away from only kitten, bunnies and look for more exciting options for girls.
Anything you’d want to add?
We did a fantastic video for the brand, which we feel really proud off, part of our #Choose2BMore campaign:
Find iOLA & EFFi online: