The creative powerhouse behind sustainable styling is Karen Uhlmann, a Fashion Stylist with a strong passion for helping women FEEL GREAT, LOOK GREAT and DO GOOD with conscious fashion choices.
Having spent nearly 20 years in the health sector, Karen’s approach to fashion and styling is identifying and finding the links between the environment, education and supporting the local retail community. It’s this unique approach that leads Karen’s clients to successful and sustainable choices in fashion.
That sounds so interesting! I would love to start by asking you how you’ve gone from your full-time job in the health-sector to your passion-business of sustainable personal styling?
The leap isn’t as great as it would first appear, even though health and fashion seem like they are polar opposites! My connection between the two is the synergy between the self-care and personal styling. Although fashion styling can sound quite scary and intimidating, I’m not coming at it from a necessarily high-end fashion design angle. Personal styling and fashion styling is really helping people to find their own unique style. It’s so important now we are in the age of social media. Whether we like it or not, almost everyone has a social media account now, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Even if your page is private, you still have a personal brand on show, so there is opportunity to really explore your own personal brand.
So you’re working four days a week in your health-sector job and you’re running Sustainable Styling basically at all other times during the week?
About a year ago I felt like I was coming to a bit of an endpoint in my health career. If I wanted to jump into a higher role, that was going to mean more bureaucracy, more management, more hours and more stress. I could see that the roles that I once wanted, didn’t look that fabulous to me anymore.
I started looking outside my industry for other roles where I could pick up my skill set and move into a new industry to get a new level of interest and motivation in my career. I thought about whether it was worth leaving my current job, which has a really nice work culture. I enjoy what I do, even though it’s not singing to my creative soul. Other roles wanted everything from me but weren’t paying that much, so I thought maybe I need to do something that I’ve always wanted to do.
Starting my own business wasn’t something that I entered into lightly, it was more of a feeling, a drive – a voice calling me to really explore this. I’ve been running Sustainable Styling it for a year now. Living your dream is a lot more painful than I thought it would be in many ways. The journey has been quite painful but it’s definitely worth it! Over my adult life I think I have finally found where I really wanted to be.
There’s been a lot of focus on quitting the nine to five but you don’t have to go cold turkey. You can play it safe and have a part-time role. Playing it safe isn’t the same as playing down your dream.
You mentioned that it’s been a dream but also a painful process – what’s been painful for you and how have you been able to get over those humps?
They are the same pain-points that I’ve had all my life but kept inside. Self-doubt, negativity, insecurity – you name it. We all feel it. They are the things that have probably stopped me pursuing the more creative side of me. These negative aspects have come out because I’ve now started to focus on doing something that is truly uniquely me and really having to back myself 100%. So, these pain points are things that I’ve experienced over the years but I’ve been able to shut them away because I haven’t had to really face them! You can cleverly do this without even knowing about it or subconsciously keep diverting them and sweeping them under the rug.
Nothing will challenge you as much as being in an entrepreneurial business. An entrepreneurial business is really backing your idea and seeing how it goes! Entrepreneurialism doesn’t always come out of tried and tested market research. It tends to be a dream idea that leads someone into really developing or inventing something in true entrepreneurial spirit. Saying that you still need a lot of good business acumen these days to sell your entrepreneur dream or brand because there’s a lot out there and it’s a really competitive market.
That’s so true – when you’re doing something that’s your dream, your passion, it’s so intertwined with who you are as a person that you put yourself in quite a vulnerable position. So there is a lot of worry about “what if it doesn’t take off”.
Yes! Now I’m out there in the public sphere and I’m thinking that I may have said something or worn something that I may have regretted in the past! I have to deal with that all the time. It can be a scary place – you’ve got to make sure you’re doing it with the right intention and it’s true to your brand. My business is very much a social media business so I try to keep it very happy. I want to make people feel good – that’s the whole point of me doing what I’m doing – I want to make people feel good about themselves. Certainly for a lot of them it’s around consumerism in fashion. I’ve been a fast-fashion victim myself and it’s not a happy place. Even though you do get a few moments of happiness when you buy stuff, in the end it can all come crashing down.
Self-doubt is one of the biggest ones that you’re going to have to deal with as you start your journey and the ones that crumble are the ones are the ones who let the self-doubt win. I’m realising how long it will take to get a really trusted brand out there, and that’s ok. I don’t want to be trusted overnight. I want to build my brand organically and I would rather have genuine followership. It’s a privilege that people trust my brand.
In terms of your job vs Sustainable Styling, have you got a time scale for going full-time or is that not something you looking at right now?
It depends who I’m getting advice from! When I first thought I was going to leave my job to pursue my dream, I thought “I’m not satisfied but I’m not desperate to leave tomorrow”. I did think I would be able to leave my job in a year, but that’s not quite happening!
I’ve got a lot of good evidence to suggest that the best way is NOT to give up your day job but to find a day job that’s a bit more contained, controlled, that allows you to find a nice intersection between your dream life and your 9 to 5. So it’s not focusing so much on how I’m going to “get out of it” but how can I make my 9 to 5 actually more appealing to my business, and what can I get out my 9 to 5 that will help my business! So if you quit, make sure you quit for the right reasons.
What would need to happen for you to be able to go full time in reality
I would need to have a more stable and growing income. I have got clients and opportunities coming up but your dream job is exactly that. It doesn’t come with a lot of safety and security and it’s a lot of hard work. For example, I went to this incredible conversation with artist Megan McKean, who has been commissioned by the Museum of Brisbane to undertake a Bristopia exhibition. It’s taken her seven years to build her business and she’s got some really big clients and she’s written two books! She says you don’t need a lot of budget, you just need a clever business idea that you can run on a shoestring budget. Don’t outsource for the sake of outsourcing. Suck it up in the early years and do everything you can to keep the cost down!
Timeline wise I’d like to leave the 9 to 5 sooner rather than later, but I also see the reality of how long it can take, especially when you’re breaking into a new industry. Assess the level of risk that you’re willing to take. I’m spontaneous but I’m not a risk taker and I don’t like the idea of leaving my 9 to 5 without any guarantees.
Yes! There’s definitely more than one way to do it! We met at a Queensland Leaders networking event and you caught my eye across a crowded room! So cliched, but you stood out from a sea of suits and boots as someone with a unique sense of style and colour and you were someone I immediately wanted to talk to. You mentioned personal brands – I would love you to tell us a bit more about what personal brands are and why they’re so important these days.
There are some people in the public eye who get their personal style and their brand working as one. Someone who has shown they marry those two together and does a really good job of it is Amal Clooney. It doesn’t matter whether she’s rocking up to a royal wedding or she’s outside some High Commission Court, she is always Amal Clooney. She but she obviously has to work at the most corporate end of law but she still allows herself and her feminine style to come through and she isn’t scared of a bit of colour. She’s really brought her own personality and her own style into her space and and she’s challenging those corporate law environment stereotypes. She’s done that beautifully. And it’s not just because she’s married to George! In fact I think George is the trophy in that relationship!
The other person who I think marries that personal styling and brand is Jennifer Aniston, so someone completely different. I’m not a big JA fan to be honest with you but I really love the fact that she is true to her natural style and her natural beauty. She’s a natural living girl, she’s a Yogi, she’s into her nutrition, she’s into her health. When she steps out on the red carpet she’s never overdone. She really sticks to her true unique brand and style. You can see her personality. That’s what she really wants to sell – herself!
So what is it about you and your personal style that you want to become part of your personal brand? So for me I like to be on the creative side of fashion but not to the point where I’m polarising people. I like to be able to walk into the Queensland Leaders forum and stand out, but not in the wrong way. Appropriation is really important too. It’s all very well to be inspired and aspirational in your dressing, but we also have to find where it might border on appropriation and that’s where a stylist can help.
I do think that if you’re investing your life and your time and your savings into developing your brand then you should seek out some objective views and insights into your style, just like you would go and see someone about SEO or marketing. Really, having a stylist to give you a good guide and set your own blueprint, having a good understanding of what your brand is, what messages you want to sell and what it is you do. From yoga retreat, to writing a book to entrepreneurial coach – we want to be the best version of ourselves and the most natural version of ourselves, with a bit of polish and style on the edges. That way you’ve got the winning formula!
How can we build our sustainable personal brand in a cost conscious way?
Sustainability isn’t just about eco fashion and ethical fashion although that is the way forward. You’re doing more than just buying a piece of clothing, you’re advocating or supporting companies that care about their workers. It can also be when you’re buying clothes and accessories that you’re supporting local businesses, whether online or offline. I’m a fan of boutique and more independent chains, but I work with whatever you feel comfortable.
What does sustainability mean to you? Some people just want to wear ethical clothing. That’s great! For me it’s a little bit of lots of different things. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to say goodbye to big brands and that’s why I’m different to ethical fashion bloggers out there. Yes, you’ve got to hold global brands to account, but any brand that’s a global brand has an ethical responsibility to make sure they’re doing the right thing by other people, plants and the world. Let’s not cut them too much slack, but realise you can get really good bang for your buck at Zara and H&M as long as you ensure it’s going to give you mileage. It’s got to feed back into your brand.
As an entrepreneur you need to be really resourceful and keep the cost down so don’t just go out and buy stuff. Think about how it’s going to relate back to your brand. Once you’re an entrepreneur it’s a 24/7 hat that you’re wearing – even turning up to a coffee shop now I have to make some kind of effort, being a stylist! it doesn’t mean that I have to look like I’m going on the red carpet but I actually have to think about what I’m wearing. Luckily you can get away with a lot with activewear as I’m a yoga teacher as well!
I think if you want to invest in building a capsule wardrobe, the best way to do that is through custom-made. No one else is going to have it, and you’re going to turn up into a room full of people and get noticed for the right reasons. You’ll leave a really good taste in peoples mouths and be remembered for the right reasons.
The other great sustainability tip is op shops and vintage buying, because you can save a lot of money and there is nothing more sustainable than upcycling and recycling. Now op shops have got a standard that they have to meet and a lot of the clothes have to be nearly new. Unfortunately for people like me who loves that classic vintage fashion, it’s getting harder and harder for me to find a mainstream op shop that sells things like an Armani jumper or coat. Those thing tend to be found now in vintage boutique shops but if you love your designer brands, don’t get them brand new – you can buy great designer secondhand clothes online.
How can people find out more about what you do? How can people work with you?
My website is www.sustainablestyling.com.au. You can download my free Sustainable Styling checklist http://www.sustainablestyling.com.au/downloadables
If you sign up to my monthly musings you will get 25% off my styling services.
You can also find me on Instagram here: www.instagram.com/sustainablestyling
And Facebook here: www.facebook.com/sustainablestyling