Lessons in Creativity | MISSBISH Sarah Mei Hughes is Without Limits

Author: Nicole Fung

I got to know Sarah Mei Hughes over Turkish breakfast in London one morning and immediately fell in love with her. She's the type of girl that you instantly click with. No hate, all love, smart, creative, driven and talented in so many ways. Early on in her career, Sarah worked with luxury brands including Calvin Klein and Marc by Marc Jacobs as well as sportswear heavyweight, Nike. She's also kept an open mind exploring her creativity working as a freelance nail artist, part-time modeling, managing a fine art print studio as well as a silkscreen printing studio and gallery. Her latest venture has been developing her own brand, ESSMEI, a bandana brand where she is involved in everything, each hand-made from scratch. There's nothing that this girl cannot do. She's 100% MISSBISH.

Tell us about yourself. Where you currently live, what you currently do and the path that lead you to where you are today.
I live in London, in Islington, near Angel, between Shoreditch and the beautiful Hampstead Heath. I’m a creative consultant and a producer and studio manager at a branding agency in East London. In the past I’ve worked for luxury brands, leaders in the fashion industry, and also for the heavyweight, Nike, where I’ve been tasked with coordinating special client events and customising footwear with VIPs and press. I’ve also worked at a silkscreen printing studio and gallery, where I managed everything from sales, stock, printing workshops, technicians, incoming orders, clients and outgoing deliverables to liaising, coordinating and managing artists and exhibitions.

I feel like working in fashion, specifically for brands like Calvin Klein and Marc by Marc Jacobs, has taught me the difference between minimalism and rich pattern in apparel and interior design as a means of expression and identity. That, and having a Chinese mother with expensive, yet classic taste! She always dresses in modest, yet richly coloured clothes and has a healthy stash of excellent handbags and shoes from her pre-Sarah Mei years. Nike taught me that it’s worth going the extra mile and trying something new. The people I worked with and the brand brought the best out of me. I definitely feel the value of the work I put in then and the work I do now with the Portland design teams to consult on NSW footwear.

Between fashion – including a stint as a (self-employed!) freelance nail artist – a leading sports brand and a fine art print studio, I’ve defined my tastes and strengthened my confidence in what I can create and direct. I know what quality looks like and I’ll always appreciate good and clever design. I’m constantly inspired by things I see and this has led me to working in branding at a graphic design studio. I can’t wait to see what the next step is.

What is it like working in London as a creative in a city full of creatives?
I love how this city is constantly changing yet remains the same. I know I’m not bored of London yet because every time I go away there’s a tipping point in the trip where I can’t wait to get back to it. I love that it’s so dynamic and although there are several creative figures I’ve long had admiration for, there are always new individuals and collectives I come across who inspire a thought or action or decision. Realistically, in the age of the Internet, the entire globe has become a very, very large city and I love that I can count creative people as friends as far spread as they are.

“I dealt with the pressure by panicking, questioning myself and doubting everything but then just doing it anyway. I just pretended I knew what I was doing and just winged it. It worked.”

What was it like working for Nike as a NIKEiD Design Consultant & Event Manager? What lead you to that role?
I remember I got that job because someone I knew on the NIKEiD team tweeted me and told me to apply. I had just graduated, didn’t have a clue what to do, so I just applied for part-time work, then made myself available for full-time hours because I loved the people in my team. I ended up shouldering a bit of responsibility because we didn’t have proper management in the two design studios in the London flagship store that we ran at the time. The manager of the store noticed I had a bit of initiative and asked me to coordinate some high-end client events in the studios for creative teams from companies like Google to come and basically have a great time. I worked at some pretty big campaign events with NIKEiD and met so many athletes, VIPs and journalists. There was always so much excitement and the 2012 Olympics were probably the peak of that.

I left NIKEiD when management starting changing and we didn’t have as much freedom and creative scope. Sad, but the creativity in that team and the generation before us who were always visiting to check in on us really made it for me and when things changed, we dropped like flies and the people worth staying for weren’t there anymore.

What was it like organizing Nike’s high-profile corporate events? Was there a lot of pressure put on you and your team? If so, how did you deal with it?
I was 21 at the time and it was immensely high pressure as I was doing it by myself under the name of a massive corporation. It had to be slick, fun, yet fundamentally cool. I had great guidance from one of the London NIKEiD OGs, Malee, who’s like a sister to me. I managed it and managed a team of 20 Design Consultants to help me throw great events. We created such a good buzz in the flagship store and every time we made sure we brought in our resident hip hop DJ, Chris P Cuts (chrispcuts.com another NIKEiD OG), which started off this craze of Central London stores having live DJ sets instore, deafening customers but entertaining the staff.

Realistically, I think my favourite events were the ones I organised and hosted for Nike World HQ team trips. Mainly because I didn’t mind telling them about particularly terrible trainer colour way releases and then enjoyed the inevitable banter once the shock had subsided. They probably didn’t give a crap.

I dealt with the pressure by panicking, questioning myself and doubting everything but then just doing it anyway. I still do this. Doesn't everyone?! I had help whenever I asked for it but I was so stubborn, I just pretended I knew what I was doing and just winged it. It worked.

Working with one of the most successful companies in the world, what were some things you learned?  What takeaways did you gain from the experience?
One of the main things I remember learning was to smile when you’re talking on the phone. Such a weird and tiny detail, but it changes your voice, you sound friendlier and the person on the line warms to you. Works like a charm. Nike is a powerhouse. You can’t not notice that. And some of the original ideals and thoughts of the brand are so relevant to everyone and everyday life. Working in branding now, I often compare clients to Nike in terms of it’s ideals and the 11 maxims that the sports brand hold at it’s core. It might not seem like an obvious or fair comparison at first, especially with regards to smaller companies or charities, but Nike was once a small company with great ambition and the drive to provide athletes with what they needed to succeed.

I have a degree in English and American Literature and studied cultural identity and heritage in depth through fiction. Nike pays a lot of attention to history and heritage and authenticity. I loved that about the brand and I also use that aspect to compare all brands now. Nike taught me how deeply important this was and also that the visual is just as important as the story.

“I want to develop my career in the design industry. I want to absorb and learn as much as I can. If it’s me calling the shots, I want to make sure I can do that to the best of my ability.”

ESSMEI is your latest project. Why bandanas? Can you tell us the process from conception to the finished product?
I chose bandanas because I use bandanas daily as scarves, tucked under my coat collar. It’s the most practical accessory after the watch. It has so many uses and I really enjoy when practicality meets great design. One of my friends calls me Practical Patricia which is TOTALLY apt. For me, it’s always function over fashion. I don’t wear trainers or sneakers because they’re fashionable and currently covetable. I wear them because they’re comfortable.

Bandanas are good for scarves, pocket squares, hair ties or scarves, sweat rags, accessories for bags or wrists, back pocket fillers, masks, etc etc etc.They’re also square — the perfect blank canvas. I start when I have an idea. I don’t force it because I’m adamant that I need to enjoy it (which I forget further down the line when I’m sweating over a second layer of ink in the studio at. I sketch, I draw, I doodle, I procrastinate. I basically develop ideas until a pattern comes to fruition. I then spend hours on the wrong software drawing out the pattern manually as accurately as I know how because I am stubborn and don’t ask for help. Once the design is finalised, I choose the fabric, buy it, cut it, sew it and spray mount them to mount board to print on.

The printing is the fun part. And also the scary part. You have no idea how much wastage is possible or how wide the margin for error is! I really rate professional printers who are so tidy in their practice. I finish up looking like I’ve dipped myself in ink and had a shower in the washout room. I love the immediacy of hand-printing things. I love how tangible everything is. I love that you can feel the layer of ink on the fabric or paper. Once the bandanas are printed – one, two or three layers, depending on the design – you need to use heat to cure the ink on the fabric so it doesn’t wash out. One time, I didn’t do this enough and trusted the heat tunnel to do it’s job. I nearly cried when the ink washed off half of the batch I’d spent so long printing. I had to heatpress the other half so I could salvage them and guarantee they’d last.

I sorted out my own e-commerce platform, sorted out my own visuals. Drew my own logo, learned coding to tweak my site’s template. Got my buddy Ollie to shoot a lookbook which I modelled myself. I made my own gifs and did the marketing for the products entirely through my instagram. I doubted myself all the way and when they sold out hours after their release I was so elated! I was so appreciative of the kudos I got for my work. Patta blogged it and it hit some London-based streetwear blogs too. It also ended up on Moodmail which is one of my favourite things EVER.

I’m currently working with my partner in crime, Jowey Roden, to produce some nicely designed practical things. We love clothes, shoes and homeware and we like exploring ideas with pattern, type and colour. He has an uncanny ability to work with good lines and shapes, producing ridiculously amazing visuals and my strengths lie in colour and meaningful pattern. We are a brilliant team so the energy we create when we’re brainstorming is so exciting. I can’t wait to unveil what we’ve been working on!

You’re also a part of the art world, what is it like managing and curating galleries in London and corresponding with artists?
I react so strongly to great visuals and it’s a pleasure working with people who are capable of creating such visually beautiful pieces. Managing can often be stressful but I think I’m good at looking after things and I like supporting and encouraging people who are good at the more creative things that I’m not so good at. A lot of the artists I worked with at the print studio were newly-established or not known to many outside the gallery’s community or illustration industry but it was so redeeming to see their work develop and confidence grow in leaps and bounds as the studio brought people’s attention to their work.

Working at the print studio and managing the gallery taught me a LOT about running a business. It built and broke my tolerance of a lot of things but I am immensely grateful for my experiences and have a massive stash of amazing limited edition prints on my wall and stored in my flat. I can count some talented illustrators and designers as friends and was overwhelmed by their gratitude when I left to go into branding. I make sure I involve them in as many projects that I’m involved in as I can now.

You have experience doing a million different things. What have you enjoyed the most and the least? Where do your passions lie and where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I want to develop my career in the design industry. I want to absorb and learn as much as I can. The 10 year plan is to be running my own studio, agency or brand, something that I can build, creating things that look good and are made well. If that happens in 5 then I’ll be happy but I want to make sure I’m having as much fun and learning as much about myself as I can in that time too. If it’s me calling the shots, I want to make sure I can do that to the best of my ability.

“Prepping for anything is about teaching yourself routine. It’s about pattern and then pushing yourself incrementally to achieve the next mile or milestone.”

Tell us about your involvement with Nike running! How often do you run?
I started running by myself when I started working for Nike. It was impossible to be surrounded by athletes and not pay attention to my fitness. I whined about it all on Twitter and then Charlie Dark challenged me to run Berlin half marathon 2012 and invited me to join Run Dem Crew to train for the race. I was close with Bangs (bangsandabun.com / spikesandheels.com) and she introduced me to my first social running experience. It changed my life and I channelled so much energy into the training and the crew. I met so many people and travelled to New York, Berlin and Amsterdam with a tight-knit group of overwhelmingly amazing people.

I guess with a running blog (now defunct – imrunningipromise.com), Twitter and Instagram, Nike took notice. I remember when they started using Twitter and Instagram officially for the first time. It was a massive deal! I remember the campaign for the launch of the FuelBand and I was swept up in the excitement of everything. I was featured in a lot of campaigns for Nike Running and Sportswear, initially because of my involvement with the crew and then as I started channelling a more defined presence on my own social media accounts I had further opportunities to shoot for the different campaigns.

I owe a lot to Charlie and Bangs and I hold them in high esteem for the attitude they have for getting more people, especially women, interested in sport, socially, competitively and for body, mind and soul! I have made great friends with runners who are based around the world and have committed so much to make other people feel empowered and involved, like Robin Arzon (@robinnyc), Jessie Zapo (@jessiezapo), Keith Morrison (@keithemorrison), Jeggi Elinzano (@paavozatopek), Mike Saes (@mikesaes) and Nanna Barlby (@nannabarlby). These people are so special. Nowadays I run once a week. Mainly because I don’t enjoy it. At all! I wasn’t made for running. I love swimming and yoga and love pushing myself to be more limber and stronger.

How do you prep for marathons? What’s your fitness regime?
Prepping for anything is about teaching yourself routine. It’s about pattern and then pushing yourself incrementally to achieve the next mile or milestone. My fitness regime involves solo sessions where the internal struggle is SO real and then social sessions to distract from the pain and to up the ante with friendly competition.

Are there any other fitness activities you enjoy?
Yoga and swimming. I love how light both make me feel. I find it hard to meditate but yoga practice usually leaves me feeling like I’m floating. I did 10 years of classical ballet growing up and I love barre work. I love that juxtaposition of strength and elegance.

What are three hidden gems in London?
1) Loong Kee — the best Vietnamese food in East London. Order the rare beef salad, then deep fried seabass and morning glory with garlic. Make sure you get steamed rice on the side. Take your own beer, they won’t mind.

2) Le Sacre Coeur — the muscles with garlic and the onion soup. Mind-blowing.

3) Floating Lotus — dim sum sessions with the family. Get there at 12pm on a Saturday for the best food you’ll have in your life.

What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH is a platform for women who go just as hard as our male counterparts. It’s an opportunity to highlight creativity and flair. It’s so important to support instead of criticising with the intention to break down something you didn’t help to build. I love women who look after other women. I will admire and support talent and hard work from whomever, male or female, but I thrive when I’m surrounded by my strong girlfriends and peers.

Photography: Jowey Roden

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