A Life in Fashion – part 1
Influence and failure
I blame my father and mother – if it wasn’t for them, life might have been so much simpler! How so? My father was a Naval Captain. He ran dockyards rather than driving ships and was an energetic and highly organised leader who also cut a dash on the sports field. He met my mother when she was a Wren. I was never quite sure how she found herself in the Navy, as she was a creative person who was a pretty good artist and I couldn’t fathom how her temperament would have fitted the military. Just as well that she did though; it was their diametrically opposed tendencies that have proved to be the key to my life story.
So I was sent off to school in Portsmouth. As with many boys, I decided early on that developing my skills on the sports field was a higher priority than grappling with the rigours of the classroom. I was reasonably good, but not setting the south coast alight with my achievement. That is, until David L. Taylor came into my life. DLT was the under-16 rugby coach and persuaded me that I had a lot more talent than I either believed or was displaying. He was my first mentor, taking time to spot and encourage latent talent, and I was soon playing rugby and cricket for Hampshire Schools, alongside those with considerably more stellar talent. DLT was also head of the Combined Cadet Force and I soon found myself as Regimental Sergeant Major and trying my hand at a week-long selection process in Wiltshire trying to gain a university army cadetship. Regrettably this fell off the rails as comprehensively as I’d fallen off the obstacle course high wire the morning after a heavy penultimate night.
This turned out to be the first in a succession of failures although, ironically, my report on the selection week for the school magazine was used in army recruitment literature for years thereafter. “A” levels fell similarly short and my gap year became a re-sit year.
Next up, after a pretty limp set of re-sit results, I found myself ambling through a Geography degree at Goldsmiths College, London (a cool establishment today, rather less so in the 70s!). One Italian girlfriend and her opera-mad family later, I discovered I had a voice and spent ten years studying privately and trying my hand at no less than 26 of the great tenor roles from Radames to Peter Grimes. It would become apparent though that this was not to be my career.
After University I had moved back home with my parents in Cheam and they persuaded me to join them at the local church, St Paul’s. Having escaped religious stuff as soon as I’d been given the chance as a teenager, this was quite a step, but the carrot was a large number of young people, and it was not unreasonable to assume this would mean a pool of potential girlfriends. I gave it a whirl and two weeks later I was invited to a weekend away with 150 young people, and quickly found myself drawn into the fellowship and to meaningful faith.
I am a firm believer that when coincidences start stacking up it’s no coincidence. I had moved from my university digs in Asburnham Place, Greenwich, home to the pub where the Krays used to plan their stuff. The weekend away was at Ashburnham Place, Sussex, the well-loved Christian retreat. One of the 150 people I met at the weekend was Gill who, several years later, was to become my wife. God must have such fun planning all this stuff!
Soon after, I was pleased to be invited to be part of a house group by Jerry Lepine – I didn’t realise you could so quickly be part of the action – and a little while later by Tony Berry to be part of the team leading a beach mission in East Anglia. Name dropping is pretty sad in the wrong context, but you’ll be picking up the theme of key people and encounters dotted along the way.
A couple of years later, I was invited to take over, with Gill – now my wife – running the children’s ministry for 93 seven to eleven year olds.
It was too much to give this my best shot and carry on singing, so I decided the time had come to lay down my operatic ambition. My last role was singing Don Jose in Carmen, the first full role I had sung 10 years earlier. It was a glorious evening in Embankment Gardens underneath Charing Cross station. My entrance was from the back through the audience and as I stood waiting, I looked across at the statue towering over me – it was Robert Raikes, the 18th Century founder of Sunday Schools. A great reassurance and another key encounter. But also another failure.
The children’s work needed full-time oversight and after 18 months I persuaded the church to employ a full-time worker. I thought this was my escape from the world of fashion that had paid the bills for the previous decade … but someone else was chosen. Ken Hobbs was one of my application referees and when I didn’t get it, he wrote a letter which I came across recently, saying I might well find that I would be used a lot more as a Christian in the secular world. Maybe, but apparently another failure.
A year or two earlier, I had been at a conference at a local Pentecostal church. A wild weekend of worship and ministry, and on the last afternoon I was prayed over, by someone I hadn’t seen before or since, that I would have a double anointing. It sounded good but I wasn’t sure what it might mean so kept it quietly in my mental filing.
All this time, I had been working for the organisation I’m now with, the British Fashion Council. I hadn’t applied for a job in 27 years, but now found myself promoted to Head of Operations, Joint CEO and, in 2010, Chief Operating Officer – in a job I’d never taken over-seriously. But over the last couple of years, I’ve met up with a number of Christians in the creative world including Steve Cole at Artisan, Chrissie Abbott at Burberry/HTB and Nicole Robyn at the International House of Prayer in Kansas. They have helped me to gain a much clearer vision of why I think God has kept me where I am. More of that to come.