Christie Fels
Career

Deskside: Christie Fels

Artistic Director & Head of Womenswear, Hostem. London

Welcome to Desksides (we started last week by quizzing The Cut's Stella Bugbee on the state of print), The Coveteur's brand-spanking-new series in which we sit down with leaders in various creative fields and figure out how they got there. We guess we could've also named this, "how the hell do I get your cool job," accompanied with a "help me I'm poor" GIF from Bridesmaids, but then realized going the mononymous route was a little more succinct.

Christie Fels
For our second Deskside sit down, we decided to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction (from publishing, that is—we’re still staying in the fashion realm, friends) and hit upon Christie Fels, who, when it comes to dream jobs in the world of retail, pretty much owns it. We’ll lay it out for you just in case her name doesn’t ring a bell. Picture the hippest store you can imagine full of clothes by the likes of Thom Browne and Yang Li—that’s Hostem, the East London shopping destination that actually lives up to that hackneyed phrase, because it’s more art gallery, cultural institution, hang out spot than let-me-just-stare-at-you-and-then-dolefully-ring-you-up store. And Fels? Well, she’s no less than Hostem’s artistic director and head of womenswear. So, those art installations (partnering with Frieze, no less) and curated racks of Ann Demeulemeester and Comme des Garçons—yeah, all her. Here, the native South African talks to us about finding her niche, creative freedom and becoming a “mono-tasker.”


ON HER CROSS-CONTINENTAL CAREER PATH:

“Professionally I have always tried to seek out positions within emerging, young companies. I started out at WHATIFTHEWORLD, which is a Cape Town-based gallery for a new generation of international and South African contemporary artists. I relocated to Antwerp in 2009 and spent three years at RA [Boutique], which was an institution for progressive retail in a city renowned for 'The Antwerp Six'—a collective of influential fashion designers who attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the ‘80s, including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten.

In 2012, I came London to join LN-CC's PR and Marketing team helmed by Charlotte Hall. A year later I was approached by Hostem's Creative Director, James Brown, who was thinking about expanding the business beyond the men's store, [which was] initially conceived in 2010. I joined Hostem to head up the womenswear division and help oversee this expansion and growth.

I studied interior architecture in South Africa, and at one stage attempted a degree in fashion. After three months I realized the course wasn't for me as it was primarily focused on the technical aspects of making garments—a topic I was interested in, but not necessarily as a career. All the subjects I took in school were in the creative fields such as languages, art and drama.

Cape Town is a hub for the production and design industries so I gained a lot of experience in set styling, location scouting, exhibitions and installations. This early experience equipped me with an invaluable skill set, especially as Hostem has increasingly become about site specific shows with designers and makers we work with. It has been great to combine the two.”
ON FINDING HER PLACE WITHIN FASHION:

“I don't really think of myself as being in fashion somehow. I have always been interested in the curation of product as well as building a brand image. Fashion is one facet of lifestyle as a whole. I certainly knew I was interested in product and fashion imagery but the window to accessing brands where I grew up was limited, so I had to be creative in how I experienced fashion. If I had stayed in South Africa, I would probably be doing something more related to art or architecture.

My career path has evolved organically based on the people I have met and been inspired by. You can really fight to get somewhere but if you are not right for a company or the role, you soon realize it’s the wrong environment for you. Naturally, I tend to be most motivated and at home when the work I am doing is a true reflection of myself and there is no compromise in the vision I am working towards.”
ON THE VALUE OF EXPERIMENTATION AND FINDING NEW INSPIRATION:

“I experimented as much as possible during my time in South Africa in different areas of the creative industry. I was a partner in a menswear label that really tried to push the way that fashion was being consumed. We were part of a collective otherwise comprised of industrial designers and artists and presented the garments at shows or exhibitions, not in stores. I always knew I wanted to live in Europe at some point so those years were a test bed for exploring everything I was interested in, which was a lot of fun looking back. When I had exhausted all options I searched for the places I found inspiring elsewhere in the world and packed my bags.”
Christie Fels
ON VIBING WITH HER BOSS:

“I met Hostem's founder James Brown years ago by chance in Portugal. He and I share similar views on fashion, retail and lifestyle as a whole and when we met up in London I was incredibly excited by his vision for Hostem; I wanted to be a part of it. The best part about my role is that there is fluidity from day-to-day, there are no confines to creative possibility.”
Christie Fels
ON HER ROLE AT HOSTEM:

“As art director, I am responsible for ensuring that everything stays within the context of Hostem's vision. I work on all creative projects in tandem with James, which includes anything from branding and digital presence to installations, collaborations and seasonal shoots. It is my role to maintain the consistency of Hostem's output from a brand voice point of view. Heading up the women's division entails the management of Hostem womenswear from inception to reality. This encompasses the identifying of relevant brands that align with our ideals, buying, styling and overall honing of the aesthetic of our women's offer.”



ON THE CHALLENGE OF RESTRAINT:

“The most challenging part of my job is to practice restraint. I suffer from wanting to do everything and pronto. I am learning the importance of mono-tasking so as not to take on too much at once.”
ON THE MOST EXCITED SHE'S FELT ABOUT WORKING WITH NEW DESIGNERS & ARTISTS:

“It's difficult to single out one favorite but I'm very excited about Atelier Bâba, a luxury womenswear brand by Gabby Massey and Melissa Thompson. Their debut collection is comprised of hand-crafted boots, shoes and blankets dyed with midnight indigo pigment from North Africa and will be exclusively available at Hostem.

The discovery of London based weaver Amy Revier has been one of the most rewarding working relationships for us, culminating in a recent exhibition of her work during Frieze. Twenty pieces made exclusively for us were shown alongside a site specific performance of her process over five days, during which clients could order from the textile she was weaving. For us this embodies the evolution of independent retailers bringing consumers and designers together, an interactive experience that larger department stores can't compete with.”
ON HER LEVEL OF RESPONSIBILITY AT HOSTEM:

“Working for Hostem has afforded me responsibility and autonomy in all areas. I have involvement across all factions of the business—creatively, financially and strategically. It is incredible to be able to conceive an idea and execute it all the way to inception, taking full creative control whether it turns out to be good or bad.”
Christie Fels
ON WHETHER TO BE COMMERCIALLY VIABLE VERSUS ARTISTICALLY INTERESTING:

“If we believe in a product and love it on a personal level then for us it intrinsically has value and commercial viability. This transcends to the customer thanks to the passion of the team and could be anything from a basic white shirt by Jeffrey Smith to couture by Thom Browne. Our approach is never a commercial one.”
Christie Fels
ON COMMUNICATING PASSION TO THE CUSTOMER:

“London customers, especially East London based ones, are incredibly well educated and aware of the products and designers we work with. They are interested in process, the making of garments and story behind each piece. We have an incredibly loyal and supportive following mainly from the creative industry, which has become a key part of Hostem's culture and success to this point. We believe that people are looking to be challenged and look to Hostem for product they wouldn't ordinarily come across. Above all they are looking for knowledge and experience.”

ON HOW TO THINK ABOUT RETAIL:

“Retail needs to evolve to cater for today's demand. Consumers are looking for excellence in both product and experience; those looking for product alone can shop online and have it delivered within hours and they aren't interested in spending time in stores. We see our competitors to be restaurants, galleries or theatres, places that sell experience, not just product.”
ON THE COLLABORATIVE NATURE OF HER JOB:

“My job is completely collaborative. Internally, I work with James on the vision of every project or idea we conceive of, which then allows me to work directly with other members of the team, drawing on their individual talents and skill sets. I have to ensure that the visual image of the brand is projected in the right way, so the execution of all printed matter, for example, is something I work closely on with George Hields. George is part of the Hostem team, as well as a trained bookbinder, who realises collateral for any installation or exhibition we work on.

Our process with designers and artists alike is also collaborative and when placing an order of a collection with young brands there is often an element of development of exclusive pieces for the store.”
Christie Fels
ON WORKING AND LIVING IN LONDON:

“Working in East London is great; Redchurch Street has such a strong community which is a rarity in London these days. The entire road knows everyone by name and there is a strong sense of protection and pride to the area. It’s a pleasure to have you morning coffee in Allpress and feel like your home. Morning walks on Hampstead Heath have become vital for my daily being—it is such an inspiring part of London and feels like you're the middle of the English countryside. If you go super early in the morning you can spend hours without seeing a single human. I find this extremely cathartic.”

ON THE BEST ADVICE SHE'S BEEN GIVEN AND THE LESSONS SHE'D PASS ON TO ASPIRING RETAILERS:

“The best career advice I have been given is that there should be no divide between your work life and your personal life. Some of my closest friends have come through work and to be able to work with them and be surrounded by them on a daily basis can be a true gift. Work should never be just a means to an end. If you don't love what you do then stop [doing it] and keep searching. One of the greatest things in life is to be inspired by each day that comes and be challenged by it.

Stay true to your vision and be uncompromising in your beliefs. In this industry, staying true to your own aesthetic choices and views is what makes your approach unique. Desire to find creativity within your field and challenge people’s expectations of what they know and understand. Most importantly, hard work and hunger pays off.”
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