From Dyslexia to Successful Fashion Business Owner; IFD Spoglight Atom Design

One of my favorite aspects of being an Apparel Designer is viewing and selecting artwork for an upcoming collection. I have always admired the talent and creativity that shines through the textile prints. Part of the joy in this process is meeting and working with the people behind the creations- they travel into town, from all over the world, to meet with designers who determine which prints will be selected. Atom Designs is one such textile print studio I have had the pleasure to work with over the years. Our "appointments" became just as much pleasure as business and after so many years, we get to know more about each other....which leads me up to Corinne McManus, the founder behind Atom Designs. She is an inspiration and I am honored to share her story with you today!

Corinne; Your education as a youth was challenging because you were dyslexic, but not diagnosed until you were 12….tell us about your challenges in elementary school, how your family helped you with this and what put you on the right path in the education system:

Up until the age of 12 I was considered lazy and stupid. My father was a teacher in the Army Education Corp so we moved, reposted every 18 months or so through my childhood and as a consequence I went to 13 different schools. At 11 I was failing my school entrance exams and my mother took me to see some visiting professor at the local university who tested me for dyslexia (with cross lateral and short-term memory issues) but even with an initial diagnosis, back in the early/mid 1970s not many believed in dyslexia and it was often considered alongside autism. A some point someone even told my parents that I’d never be able to tie my shoes or drive a car. My parents found a very small boarding school with only 12 girls per class that would take me and for the first year I wasn’t allowed to do any art or sport, all reading and writing, trying to catch up. I was disruptive in class and played the clown rather than answering questions I couldn’t easily read - all easily identified behaviors these days. But I was good at art and sports and was school sports captain which lead to my favorite school report: “Corinne is a good leader if only she’d lead in the right way.”

What education, training did you get…how did you choose your college and what degree to pursue?

For exams I had a reader and was given extra time but not for English, which I failed a record number of times (nine) and made getting into college very difficult as it was usually a requirement. My Father helped get me in to art college because I had a decent portfolio and he explained my dyslexia, so I did a Fashion and Textiles Foundation at Ravensbourne but, thinking I wanted to be an artist, went on to do Ceramics at Central School of Art & Design, for which I was far to busy having fun partying while also printing fabric and making clothes for shops in Covent Garden and on the Kings Road and a bunch of 1980s pop groups.

Any we may know?

My prints were worn on TV by Hazy Fantasy, Five Starr and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I did some pieces for Boy George but don’t know if he ever wore them.

Anyway, Ceramics wasn’t for me, or me for them, so I went out into the real world only, thankfully, for my parents to force me back. Miraculously Central took me back to do Textiles, I had a great time and the year after I graduated Central merged with St Martins, so I became an alumni of Central St Martins - not that I’ve ever had a resumé to put it on

How did you find your love/skill of art and design?

My grandmother, Elizabeth, lived in central London, was incredibly stylish, wore designer clothes and was always dressed up. She took me to all the galleries, museums and shows. Also, when we lived in Gibraltar we’d spend our weekends and school holidays in Morocco going round the bazaars and being taken to see the cloth weaving factories in the Atlas Mountains, that made a lasting impression.

Tell us about your life after graduation….you didn’t ever get a “real” job but instead decided to travel:

After graduation I went on a course for artists with small businesses run by the Princes Trust, I thought I was setting up a women’s tailoring business while using my designs for the linings but I met my first business partner, the wonderful Caroline McKenty, and as the course came with a considerable (at the time) travel bursary from the British Council we decided first on Milan, why not? and then, more because we wanted to go clubbing, we flew to New York having gathered up all our friends’ textile portfolios. We were clueless, we only knew of Macys but went to the British Consulate and they gave us a list of fashion companies in New York and we stood on corners putting quarters into payphones, calling calling calling. We ended up selling 16 designs on our first trip which for us was fantastic, it paid for itself and we had a fantastic time but initially we were still going back to our multiple jobs. After a few years of going to New York and on to LA and SF, Caroline found love in New York and MC2 (McManus & McKenty) became Atom…

How did you turn this into a business? What was the evolution of your textile designs?

At this time I was working multiple jobs, teaching life drawing at Central, colour therapy to hair dressers, fashion Illustration to mature students, working in a women’s heath club, cleaning houses, waitressing and traveling to the States on a regular basis. When the restaurant I was working at closed my friend who was doing my accounts pointed out that I didn't need to do multiple jobs to support the business I loved and advised me to take the plunge…

When I started my studio, all artwork was on paper or fabric and all hand done. Computers arrived at college the year after I graduated and no one imagined it would affect designing the way it did, but my designers Andy & Trisha came to me with these small computer designs they asked me to sell. I loved the designs but wasn’t sure how or if I could sell them but became one of the very first studios to sell digital designs. As we went through the 1990s, computers and photoshop pretty much took over.

Do you work with other artists?

Over the years I’ve kept a very tight collective of wonderful freelance designers, with two husband & wife teams (Andy & Trisha and Norma & Alan) and a number of other exceptional artists who’ve been with me for over 25 years. We’re all mostly BC, Before Computers, so everyone has their own individual hand that compliments the portfolio. I don’t really feel like the boss, just lead this team of artists/friends who essentially created Atom together, I couldn’t do it without them.

Do you still personally do artwork/designs?

Less and less, I keep meaning to do more- I’ve always hidden my work in amongst the portfolio and never sell a design as one of mine. Thankfully, when I do design I’m still selling.

At one Magic Show I was accosted by these two guys in Hawaiian shirts who’d figured I was carrying artwork and wanted to take a look. Going through the portfolio they really liked one designer’s work and wondered if they’d be available to go to Hawaii to design a collection. It was a week before I told them it was my work and saying yes was one of the greatest opportunities I ever had. I spent a month designing a collection for Kahala, making potato prints on a garage/studio floor under the tutelage of the great Dale Hope - the shirts are now vintage (the musician Jack Johnson wears one). Dale taught me so much and introduced me to the Hawaiian shirt industry, the wonderful people and the intricacies of how different motifs did and didn’t work together. I’ve been going and selling them artwork for nearly 30 years now. Hawaii is one of my special places and in 30 years I have made many amazing friends there.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Trying to get hold of people. It’s a constant struggle. When I started there were only a small number of design studios and there were no mobile phones, internet or live catwalk access. It was just us design studios and the forecasting services so what we turned up with was what was new, we were predicting the design direction and colours. Designs were pieces of handmade art on paper, sold for inspiration, as a starting point for the complicated process of turning it into printed fabric. Today’s digital designs are still hand originated but now essentially print ready, colour separated, in repeat etc – clients get so much more for the money. There are so many studios now I don’t know how they survive. The big companies tell me they could easily see 20 to 30 studios a week but they just don’t need to. To be one of the studios they do see becomes increasingly difficult. That and the contraction of the industry in general.

What are some of the top trends you see for 2021?

Lounge active and pyjamas… for 2021/22 and beyond. I alway hope for more adventurous design, brighter and bolder. I think, once given the opportunity, people are going to want to really dress up and have fun with fashion after this imposed hiatus. I also believe people are going to be more inventive and there will be, rightly, far more attention paid to the environmental and humanitarian impacts of fashion.

What skills are needed to succeed in the industry?

A good eye for design, colour and trend. Interpreting what clients are looking for and communicating that with my designers, but it is always important to allow your designers to be free and inventive while keeping them within the realms of what might sell. You also have to be a good people person and be fit and strong to push heavy cases around.

How do you see the future of the industry changing what you do or how you run the biz?

The Industry was falling off a cliff before Covid. Saturated market, too many studios, and now a worldwide recession and an inability to travel… I’m lucky being such a small company and I own my studio space so have much smaller overheads that many other studios.

I am not sure it will ever go back to how it was as I’m finding a lot of clients liking the zoom meeting or being sent collections on our website and being able to take more time in deciding whether to buy a design or not.

It also means they can see us exactly when they are looking for prints and not having to buy blind just because we happen to be in NY or wait for us to turn up. BUT there is nothing better than seeing a collection in real life, to be able to handle and discuss the prints with their team directly so we will try to continue making trips when everything opens up again…. just have to see what happens .

We will definitely be travelling less but spending more time at our destinations

What are your most memorable industry experiences/stories, most impactful moment?

There are far too many untellable stories.

I think obviously being in New York for the first time in the 80’s was nuts, I felt like I was in a film set every day. It was so exciting. We had some crazy times clubbing all night and with no sleep selling designs in the day, the industry was very different then and didn't seem to take itself so seriously.

I will always remember going to Hawaii for the first time, I spent the first week just pointing my finger saying ‘Look’ I couldn't believe the colours, foliage and landscape were so real. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It blew me away …. it was so opposite to grey rainy old London.

Do you have a favorite designer or person that inspires you?

My grandmother would take me down the Kings Road in the 70s to see all the fashionable people and the punks, she taught me people watching and exposed me to London’s street fashion from an early age.

I have always loved seeing what people were wearing in the clubs and on the street, from top to bottom from the shoes/trainers to hair cuts… I use to say I was going out partying to do ‘research' so I was actually working. I still love to do this its always great to see what the youth are up to.

I love any designers who designed clothes as pieces of artwork and their love of fashion…. McQueen, Galliano… from the tailoring to beading and embroidery, print, use of cloth, weave and knit. Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, Prada and Gucci through the 80s and 90s. I always try to get to the Dries Van Noten store whenever I’m in Paris.

Also I am always fascinated by new fabric developments and the sports brands who have these ‘think tanks’ experimenting with new knitting technology and 3D printing – if I was starting out now I think this would be one of the most interesting areas to go into.

Any favorite quote or words to live by?

I always say, ‘you can sleep when you die’ there’s far too much fun to be had on this earth to sit around or sleep it away, but my favourite quote is ….

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” by Oscar Wilde, its just so funny and makes me smile. I have it on my wall in the studio.

Last year I came across this poem, SMILE by late great comedian Spike Milligan.

When Covid hit causing shut downs, Atom Design was no exception. While our business required traveling and showing the textile collection around the world, we are no longer able to do that- so we figured out how to use our resources she and do something to make a big difference in peoples lives, so we founded Masks For Ordinary People!

Check out our post about Masks for Ordinary People- this impressive pivotal shift and what Atom Design is up to now!