From fashion accessories to craft gin. Not the normal career path of a London College of Fashion graduate, but one that’s working for Helena Kidacka. Find out more about Helena’s journey since graduating from BA (Hons) Fashion: Design & Technology at London College of Fashion (LCF) and her experiences living and working in Shanghai.
What first inspired you to come and study Fashion Design & Technology at LCF?
I knew I wanted to go into the fashion industry ever since I was a little girl. My mum was a knitwear designer for years, so I guess it just ran in in the family. I also knew I wanted to go to LCF as it’s one of the most prestigious universities for fashion, not only in the UK, but in the world.
I chose to study fashion accessories at Cordwainers as it seemed more niche than womenswear. I was also aware that in womenswear there is a lot of competition amongst graduates. I felt that a very specific degree in accessories would make me stand out from the crowd.
What do you think the most important thing you did when you graduated was?
I graduated in 2010 which was an incredibly tough time for the UK economically. There were very few jobs for graduates, and a lot of my classmates even struggled to find internships. I worked full time as a hostess in a Soho gentleman’s club for almost a year after I graduated, as I was struggling to keep my head above water. Then, out of the blue, a good friend and former classmate of mine told me there was an opening at a small accessory importer she worked for in East London. I went for my first interview for the position of Junior Designer and got offered the job. That was my first foot in the door of the industry.
If I’m being entirely honest, If it wasn’t for my friend recommending me for the position, I honestly don’t know what I would be doing now. That job was my first foot on the ladder, which subsequently gave me the opportunity to move to New York and then Shanghai.
I think my advice to graduates these days would be to get some unique experience on your resume. If you can, try to intern for a couple of companies and beef up your resume. Also, look outside of the UK for employment. Asia offers tonnes of opportunities for graduates who are keen and willing to learn.
What made you decide to move to Shanghai?
Moving to Shanghai was not strategically planned at all. If someone would have told me 10 years I ago I would be living in China I wouldn’t have believed them.
In 2013 I was headhunted by a company in New York offering me a position as an Accessory Designer and Developer. I accepted and flew out there. We soon discovered that for Brits, you need to wait a period of around 18 months to receive a legitimate working visa for the US, so the company decided to fly me out to Shanghai to work for the year and a half wait period. They had a huge office here, as all the product they imported was sourced and manufactured in China. After a couple of months of living in Shanghai, I decided I really liked it here and didn’t want to go back to NYC. I really enjoyed the daily challenge of dealing with factories, taxi drivers and shopping in the supermarkets. Unless you walk into the offices of a multi-national company, no one in Shanghai really speaks English, so on the ground you really have to make yourself understood. The only way you can do that is by learning the language. I picked up the essentials in around 4-6 months, and from then on I have been adding to my vocabulary daily. Five years later, I feel quite confident in my communication abilities.
What’s the best thing about living in Shanghai?
The entrepreneurial spirit of people who live here. I find that people here are much more enterprising than in London or NYC. Perhaps it’s because to a lot of people China feels like a new and untapped resource.
You’ve started producing China’s first craft gin “Crimson Pangolin”. What inspired this innovative idea?
In early 2016 I took a trip back to the UK and discovered that gin was going through a huge revival. I was astonished by all the new craft gins on the shelves of supermarkets and bars. I came back to China and told my partner David about the discovery. David is from Latin America and has had his own business here for 4 years importing tequila and rum, so he knows the alcohol business in China very well. He suggested the idea of creating a Chinese gin, as it wasn’t a product that had yet been experimented with over here. We found a whiskey distillery in a city called Changsha who was willing to produce a small batch for us proving we supplied them with the junipers. We found a juniper farmer in Shandong who gave us everything we needed. After the factory distilled the base, we then experimented with different infusions with various botanicals we picked up from tea markets, local farmers etc. Being from Changsha, which is an area renowned for spicy food, we wanted the flavour to have an element of spice to it, but also be very easy to drink just by itself. We kept playing around and tweaking the botanicals until we felt the flavour profile was right. It was also really important to us that everything we used came from mainland China. We then bought the ingredients in bulk and began production in Changsha. We produced 3000 bottles for our first batch. That’s 2100 litres of gin! It sounds like a lot, but by China standards it’s small!
What skills did you learn from LCF and your time in the fashion industry that have helped with this project?
Working in accessory manufacture definitely gave me really useful experience when it came to dealing with suppliers, lead times etc. I also designed the bottle label and all our other branded items. I definitely think LCF provides you with the skill set to think careful and critically about design and the final product.
What’s been the biggest learning curve?
The biggest learning curve has by far been marketing. The China mind-set is radically different to any other, so we’ve had to hire a marketing specialist to help us navigate this jungle.
Also, gin is such a new and “exotic” product here that many local people still don’t really know what it really is. However things in China move so quickly that I think that within 2-3 years that will change.
What’s next for Crimson Pangolin and you?
We’re still such a new product, we only launched at the end of 2017, so we’re really excited to see what 2018 still has in store for us. We’re already being sold in a number of high profile locations in Shanghai like the W, The Peninsula, Atelier and a handful of independent cocktail bars. We’re also cracking the Beijing, Chengdu and Shenzhen markets.
We also want to expand our digital presence, which is where our marketing girl comes in useful. What a lot of people in the West don’t realise about China is that literally everything here happens on WeChat. There are tonnes of well-known bloggers (we call them KOLs here – key opinion leaders) who run their entire platforms on WeChat that reach hundreds of thousands of people. It’s our aim to be featured on more of these food, drink and lifestyle digital publications so we have an opportunity to show the local market that a Chinese gin is being produced.
We’re also planning to hold a handful of offline tasting events in bars and hotels, and also have a couple of trade fairs in the works too.
We first met Helena when she attended the 2018 Shanghai Alumni Reception. Find out more about the evening.