Life As I Know It: Paula O’Connor

In the latest in our Life as I know it series, fashion director, stylist and art director Paula O’Connor shares her journey in sustainability so far and the impact it has had on her career and daily life.

I was previously Fashion Director at The Sunday Express where my key role for 14 years was to translate the latest catwalk trends into high street editorial fashion shoots for the weekly magazine supplements.

Whilst ‘new’ was always the it word – the ‘new bag’ the ‘latest must have accessory’ – I still had a sense of longevity in clothes even then. I tried to keep a timeless aesthetic in the shoots I styled and have always avoided clothes that are obviously just for that season. It’s easy to be swept away in the ever-changing world of fashion, but helping women to find their own style has always been my priority.

Credit: Constantinos Tsiliacos

When I left the paper nearly a year ago, I went along with a friend to Fashion Future Expo Exhibition in Holborn out of curiosity. I attended talks from Stella McCartney’s fabric suppliers, Mathew Drinkwater, the head of Sustainability at London College of Fashion, and a talk by Arizona Muse. It was here that I first realised how severe our landfill problem is and how crazy it is that we overproduce and ‘guesstimate’ what will sell. There was also a worldwide trade show as part of the event showing sustainable fabric innovators and designers. I met the person that was providing sustainable sequins for Gucci and also realised that there was a creative buzz amongst the fashion leaders; sustainability wasn’t necessarily the ‘oatmeal’ compromise I thought it was.

This inspired me to shoot a number of stories for sustainable magazines, which increased my knowledge of sustainable fabrics and led me to question where things were made, and meeting with some new independent designers that are gathering momentum within the industry.  I haven’t stopped loving creativity in clothes; instead, I’m trying to slow down the pace of what I buy and use my editorial styling work to suggest exciting sustainable designers and ways to shop for the long-term.  

At the same time I noticed a new wave of curated vintage online sellers that were giving vintage a contemporary spin which renewed an interest in what I thought I’d outgrown. I now see vintage as a fun hobby and enjoy looking out for original pieces from classic brands such as Jaeger, Aquascutum and love a St Michael (original Marks & Spencer) find too. Anything I buy now is a more considered decision, and I have definitely increased the pre-loved and vintage ratio in my wardrobe, and am buying less in general. I still buy the odd basic separate new (mainly tailored trousers), and I still haven’t completely given up my high street habit but I supplement the building block basics of my wardrobe with vintage coats, blazers, denim and dresses, and am always ‘watching’ a cashmere jumper on eBay! I think it’s important to have a strategy though when buying second-hand and a strict rule on only buying what fits you and your style, and simply walk away if it doesn’t.

New brands that I think are worth recommending are Community Clothing – a social enterprise set up by Patrick Grant of The Great British Sewing Bee that does great affordable Bretons and easy separates – and for simple pieces with feminine touches, Renlondon is a great one to look at. For tailored separates, try Beaumont Organic and Daiwear is an excellent workwear option.

I also love shopping locally, and I have recently used a local tailor to copy one of my favourite high street dress designs. I know this style of dress (drawstring waist, three quarter sleeves, calf length) suits me so am replacing my usual high street trawl with this failsafe method. It might cost a little more, but it also gives me something that no one else has. I tend to rely on Retold Vintage and the occasional trip to vintage fairs for coats and jackets and also pop to Gigi’s Dressing Room on Wood Street and Ella Pop up Vintage on Francis Road, Leyton, when I fancy a spontaneous browse, without the expectation of a guaranteed purchase.

I have also rounded up local stylists and vintage sellers in the area I live (Walthamstow, North London) to create the E17 Pre-loved Club where we hold shopping events. We sell a mix of vintage and pre-loved fashion locally, and the beauty of it is that there are 20 stylists in the room to give styling advice to anyone new to pre-loved. In sourcing clothes for this I often find things for myself, and my recent gem find was a Hardy Amies camel blazer in Oxfam in Bournemouth for a pound, which is tailored to perfection.

In everyday life, I’m slowly making small changes to try and make a difference. I am much more aware when I run the tap now for starters, and I have a special shelf in my kitchen for reusable water bottles so they are easy to grab on my way out. I’m a great believer in having a place for everything! I’m trying out soap bar shampoos from Lush, which are working out fine so far and trying to avoid plastic when I can in toiletries and the supermarket shop.

Last year I knitted my family scarves for Christmas and we now ask each other what presents we’d like in advance to avoid unwanted gifts as luckily we all feel the same about waste. There is a shop called Henri London in Hackney that have workshops where they help you to make your own shirt which I might suggest as a communal gift from us all to each other this year.

I’m nowhere near perfect, and haven’t completely stopped buying new, but I’m making an effort to change my long term shopping habits and finding fun solutions to have as little impact as I can.

Read more inspiring stories from our ‘Life as I know it‘ series.

Want to find out how to start shopping ethically? Read our guide to updating your wardrobe consciously.

Check out these top London spots for sustainable shopping opportunities.