I’ve told a lot of you already but for anyone who hasn’t seen me for a few years, fair warning- this may come as a shock. At 2pm yesterday I took my final bridal order. Gilly Woo Couture will cease trading on February 28 2018.
I have been trying to write this for three months but I have simply been too darn busy to find the time. (Oh the irony of being too busy to quit your job!) The plan was to write a ‘last orders at the bar’ post to give you fair warning but I’ve left it too late and I’m now fully booked, so if you are disappointed, I’m genuinely sorry, but I have to stop sometime and I have been trying for three years now.
I’ve agonised over how to explain my decision to abandon a profitable business I spent 15 years building, how to make you understand that I love what I do desperately and wholeheartedly, but I hate it almost as much.
I thought it would be best to keep my explanation up beat and flippant, kinda “It’s been fantastic but I fancy a change,” sort of thing. But I owe you and myself more than that so brace yourselves: a bit of over-sharing may be about to occur….
I’ve been on the brink of burnout for three years now. I’ve withdrawn from friends and family, and I’ve been in a state of near constant anxiety for eight months of the year. Throughout the summers I often survive on four or five hours of sleep a night (new mums – I know! What luxury right?!). I don’t have time to exercise or socialise or rest. Work consumes me.
For 15 years I’ve been busy trying to make brides happy. If I bled on your hem, the tiniest almost imperceptible spot, if you got makeup on your dress, if you lost weight or put it on, if you changed your mind or flipped out about armpit fat, if you single-mindedly focused on the most minute imperfect detail: I worked all night to fix it and I never charged a penny.
Last Christmas, just before I left for India, I had a breakdown of sorts and literally collapsed in a heap of heaving sobs on the workshop floor, frustrated, exhausted, devastated. I was hyperventilating and hysterical. I knew I’d had enough.
Over the years I have tried so hard to reform Gilly Woo and make it sustainable, but I just don’t have the right character. I find it impossible to charge what I need to to be able to make a decent living without working 60-70 hours a week. I never wanted Gilly Woo to be high end, I wanted my dresses to be accessible to people with average incomes – but even as it is, I can’t afford my own dresses!
So few people understand the intensive labour and skill involved in bespoke dressmaking and I’m so over justifying myself. You simply can not compare a shop-bought dress to a bespoke one. It’s like comparing a photograph to an oil painting. They are not the same thing at all, and often the oil painting, like the bespoke dress, is the less ‘perfect’ of the two in a certain world view, despite being considerably more expensive.
Did you know it costs in excess of £10,000 to develop a Karen Millen dress, to the point where you can buy it in a shop for around £200?
When I make a bespoke dress, I’m doing that £10,000 worth of sampling and wear testing and remaking for the tiniest fraction of what it’s actually worth in reality.
But, it’s really never been about the money for me: I’m not driven by money. I want to be useful, and sometimes, I am. When I boost someone’s self esteem or make their dream come true, when I change someone’s perception of high street fashion or help cure their body dismorphia, when I encourage someone to question their consumerism and research ethical fashion and when I teach someone a new skill or inspire someone to take a risk.
And sometimes I feel I inadvertently perpetuate the ridiculous notion that in order to experience the best day of your life, you must spend money you can’t afford on a dress you will wear once and starve yourself as much as possible in the process.
(Side note – one of the best days of my life was donning Wellington boots as a child and splashing in a stream in the pouring rain, then eating fish and chips out of newspaper sat on a climbing frame in Southmead with my Mum and younger siblings. I doubt wearing a big white dress will ever top that to be honest.)
You see, it’s not just the long hours and low wages that are the problem now. I feel I must do something more useful for the world than making incredibly impractical dresses that cost thousands of pounds and are only worn once.
So, dear reader, it really is time for me to go: go and train to be a yoga teacher or join the circus or do more work with differently abled people or maybe just write more stuff like this – honest stuff about how I really feel instead of the glittery frippery of couture dressmaking that masks a swollen (on its way to being humped) left shoulder, injured beyond repair by endless repetitive sewing; tired, deteriorating eyes and a soul weary of trying to convince my sisters that their worth is more than just their dress size.
So this is goodbye. Time at the bar, ladies, please! I have six months left to complete the last 20 dresses on my books and then it’s sayonara bitches! Gilly Woo is off to new horizons… I’ll travel and run and sit in fields and live in tents and I’ll heal in time, maybe one day, I’ll make some more dresses.
But whatever happens next, I’ll be forever grateful to each and every one of you for allowing me to experience such a wonderful career.
With endless gratitude.
P.S. Anyone wanna buy a sewing machine?
Gill Cockwell is the owner of Gilly Woo Couture in Stokes Croft. Once her shops closes, she has tentative plans to learn to drive, give up her flat, sell her stuff, buy a van and travel around working at festivals and potentially writing articles for a living.
Read more: A fashion designer’s story