With Toronto Fashion Week just around the corner, I was thrilled to talk with fashionista Sheila McElrea about her career in the ever-changing fashion world.
This power house female is a blogger, stylist, and the Founder & Executive Director of Fashion Helps, a non-profit that manages, initiates and facilitates programs that bring the fashion industry to a more accessible level.
Sheila’s career story begins with an educational background that is diverse in study. She has a Liberal Arts Diploma from Seneca College, a Fashion Education certificate from George Brown College, and she studied the History of Italian Renaissance in Italy. After all of that, she completed an honours B.A. at the University of Toronto, in Canadian Studies.
I saw you started fashion helps right after finishing your B.A. Is Fashion Helps what you do full time or do you have another job as well?
“Last year I had several jobs. I was much more active in the fashion styling business, and I worked in a bar pretty intensely. Starting February 2015 Fashion Helps is my full-time job. Last year was the most insanely busy year of my life, but I made it!”
Could you give me a bit of back story on Fashion Helps?
“Our mission at Fashion Helps is to use and promote fashion as a means to better the lives of Toronto citizens. We currently have a really successful day program (The Fashion Project) at a homeless youth shelter, Horizons for Youth. It’s a technical design program where the youth learn jewellery and leather making skills, in hopes of creating an opportunity for them to pursue employment with those skills.
Our second program is very simple: we run a yearly award at the University of Toronto, The Fashion Helps Award. Education is expensive and not accessible for everyone, so we use this award forum to assist mature students pursuing art.
Why did you choose to start your own business instead of apply to work for someone else?
“I’ve always been the type to do my own thing. I’ve worked for people and have definitely gained from those particular dynamics. It’s just a different experience. I love having the freedom of being able to make decisions. That having been said though, it does offer a kind of pressure that you don’t have when you work for someone. Every decision comes back to you, and it sits on your shoulders. If something good happens, people praise you. If something bad happens, it’s also thrown on you. If you don’t learn how to handle that level of pressure it can eat at you.”
Why did you decide to go the non-profit route?
“I’ve always struggled with my fervent love of fashion. It’s a major part of culture in a society, but it’s a luxury. Most of the world isn’t concerned with what new trend they’ll be pursuing this season. It is a lavish pursuit that many of us have the privilege to enjoy.
It really hit home when I took a lot of international development courses at UofT. A large part of the world is consumed with basic survival needs, not whether they should be wearing skinny or flare jeans. I can’t remove my love for fashion (I’ve tried), but it’s been my choice to focus that passion into something empowering for people who maybe don’t have access to this particular luxury. I feel very strongly about having a creative outlet available for those who could probably use it the most.”
What non-profit education did you have when you started it?
“I actually had no non-profit education when I started Fashion Helps. Clearly, I’m a quick learner! It’s been a whirlwind of challenges and learning opportunities.”
You studied abroad. How was that experience?
“Traveling and studying elsewhere has helped my career in so many ways. Being in the middle of a foreign culture, not speaking the language, and having to figure out where you’re going, how to communicate, and how to get from point A to B all alone, will show you how you respond to uncontrolled situations.”
How have you been able to apply that experience to your career?
“I get stressed like everyone else, obviously, but I rarely explode. Whether I miss a train, or have a lot of deadlines piling up, you put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Everything has a solution. Panicking will only make you blind to what your options are.
Traveling has made me calmer, has made me confident, and more open-minded. The experience of studying elsewhere was impactful because of the prolonged length of time.”
What did you want to be while in school?
“I always, always knew I wanted to work in fashion, and specifically I wanted to be a stylist. Not a lot of people knew what that role entailed, and certainly I didn’t back then. When I was making the transition from high school to college I made it known that I wanted to pursue a fashion education, which was pretty much shut down by my guidance counselor. I avoided it for many years, thinking it wasn’t the ‘smart’ move. That urge to work in fashion was always there and has never left.”
What type of training did you need to complete to be in the career field you’re in now?
“My degree was life changing for me in that it trained my brain to be able to think and operate in a different mode than I was used to. It trained me to organize my thoughts and give my writing and communication a focus.
A lot of fashion shoots that I have been hired for, I also produced or helped produce. This was extremely good training because of the management skills that it taught me. When you produce a shoot you’re basically ensuring all the roles are being met from conception to obtaining the final image. You have a hand in everything and you guide the crew to make sure the final objectives are met for the client.
Aside from formal training, having an ability to network, problem solve, remain calm, and manage personalities are all key skills in starting and running Fashion Helps. Nobody can train you for the world. You just need to jump in and get your hands dirty.”
What are a few things you would like to accomplish in the next few months?
“The next couple months for us are busy! Fashion Helps is partnering with a designer for World Mastercard Fashion Week to promote our initiatives.
Right now, we as a team are working on building our programming, and ensuring the programs we already run stay strong and impactful. Our day program at the shelter has received funding from several generous donors. Managing everything this program needs consumes part of my day.
What are your plans to grow your business?
“I’m always eager and interested in growth, but I have to remind myself of the benefit to staying small and growing slowly and steady. My days and weeks are never the same. I’m often all over the city having meetings with potential partners, brainstorming program initiatives with artists, attending events and generating funding. For example, a couple weeks ago I was in NYC to meet with a really cool organization to discuss a potential partnership. It’s good for me because I’m not great with repetitive routine.”
What type of female would you recommend going into your field?
“My immediate team only consists of females so I’m happy you asked this question!
In my field you have to straddle two separate industries. The fashion world is one side and we deal in the nonprofit sector as well. An interest and basic knowledge of both of these professions is imperative.
Personality wise you need to be versatile, a quick learner, very open minded, not scared of pressure, and takes the initiative. Because Fashion Helps is still young we’re in the building stage, which involves a certain kind of grit and tenacity. If you’re the type to be upset because someone didn’t email you back, you might struggle.”
What are some aspects of your job that people might not consider before entering it as a career?
“I’m a big picture thinker, and then it filters down into figuring out the minor steps to get there. This requires that I always be focused on the end objective and not be sidetracked.
Multi-tasking is also a huge aspect of my role. At any time you could be juggling 3-5 different projects with tight deadlines. For example, you could be in the middle of 3 projects in one day, managing all the personalities and partners involved in those different projects. Then have someone call you panicking because their email doesn’t work, while juggling a 5pm funding deadline and organizing a phone meeting with a potential sponsor.
It sounds inconsequential, but if you’re not able to prioritize and manage your time efficiently then you won’t be productive and your organization won’t grow as quickly.”
Who are your career role models?
“Hilary Clinton, of course. It’s difficult as a woman to sustain a career in politics, and even more difficult when you add in a public dimension. She’s been public about not initially wanting to marry her now husband. She says she was concerned about her career being superseded by his. The fact that she was aware of this at such a young age, and at such a different context of time, is impressive. She put off marrying Mr. Clinton for many years because she had such a quality career going for herself.
She’s made such a valuable impact on the access to women’s health. She’s spoken up many times about women’s rights when it wasn’t well received. She was one of the first to argue that women’s rights were human rights.
Nonetheless, all of her accomplishments have been critiqued against the backdrop of the gendered expectations of being a woman. How many journalists need to discuss her appearance? When she was First Lady I remember the heated debates about her blazers. The rhetoric in the media about her, though, surrounded this, and her lack of hair styling, and why isn’t she camera ready all the time. She was BUSY.
Since Kerry took over as Secretary of State I’ve heard nothing about his appearance or how he chooses wears his hair. Hilary Clinton has persevered. She’s a true inspiration for men and women everywhere.”
What would you have done differently to get where you are now?
“If I could go back ten years of course I would do things differently. Everyone would. What I spent my twenties doing only brought me to today, though, and I’m proud of what we’ve built with Fashion Helps.
I should have joined clubs and associations when I was in college and university, but because I feel that way I now have partnerships with them and act as an alumni mentor.”
I like your comment about being a mentor. I would like this blog emulate a mentor model. View this interview as though someone was reading it wanting to do exactly what you are doing now- what guidance would you give them?
“I think it’s really important to follow your gut. If you feel like something is the wrong move for you, whether it’s the smart move or not, say no.
Email people and ask them for an opportunity. If they’re great, awesome. If they’re mean to you, thank them and move on. If you know what you want, heed others advices but always take it with a grain of salt.
Volunteering and interning can be very valuable in this industry but you have to recognize when it’s time to present yourself as a professional.
After everything I do with Fashion Helps I evaluate. If you’re consistently negotiating where you can improve then you have no option but to increase your productivity. If I partner with someone on an event and it wasn’t an experience that enhanced Fashion Helps as an organization in several different ways, then I no longer keep it as part of the process.”
Is there a strong female representation in your field?
“In both fashion and the nonprofit sectors, females are everywhere. I would argue women are abundant in the nonprofit world because women pursue a service role more than men. In our North American society men are expected to profit, and provide and create a certain kind of career success whereas the feminine construct is more focused on serving, helping, aiding.
Another conversation would be whether or not women have the influence in these industries.”
I really like that last comment. Could you elaborate on it?
“The words power and influence are important when discussing the situation of women throughout history. A historical woman can have an influence, but she may not hold the actual power. They often don’t go hand in hand.
Game of Thrones depicts this very well. Cersei Lannister has a lot of influence over her son who is King, but she never holds the actual power. She has authority and she has influence but she’s not the ultimate decision maker. This is why Queen Elizabeth the first is such an amazing figure to study. In a time when women weren’t to reign, she held the power for an incredibly long time. In our capitalistic society power is most seen through the accumulation of finances.
Women in fashion certainly have authority, but the people who own and control the major fashion corporations all over the world are mostly men. LVMH is a great example of this. Don’t get me wrong; women have taken this industry by storm (Anna Wintour). But, we’re not there yet. Keep working, ladies!”
What are some professional development activities you would recommend to practice in your field?
“Know your competition, and learn from them. Speak to everyone, pursue everyone, and ask advice from everyone that you see as credible. Do whatever you need to do to educate yourself as much as possible, and then make a strategic plan to put it into action. You’re never ‘done’.
When I have a moment that I’m proud of I’m only excited for the day. The next morning you focus on what’s next. Always be moving forward regardless of what you’ve accomplished.”
Do you feel like social media has a strong impact in the development and success of a business these days?
“Social media can be a very, very useful tool, and can have a strong influence on the development and success of a business. No matter what your business is, you need elements of a strong online presence. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, accounts, are helpful in creating brand presence for your business identity.”
How have you utilized social media to develop Fashion Helps?
“I don’t go into any meeting without doing a lot of research, and social media is often what I look first. Even when I hire a volunteer I look online and check what they’re about. If you Facebook is full of whining and complaining then I probably won’t hire you. But if it’s full of what you’re passionate about, then it shows me that you’re dedicated and engaged in your career.
When I started pursuing working in the fashion industry I always tried to be very strategic about what I put up on social media. If you brand yourself as a carpenter, people will probably hire you for carpentry. If your business’s branding is cluttered you probably won’t be hired at all, because it’s difficult for people to categorize you.”
What social media advice would you give someone who is making a self-brand?
“My social advice is to have 2-3 consistent focuses, and delete anything that doesn’t fit into those categories. Your online presence should be curated according to what you’re seeking. For example, a carpenter’s social media presence could have content showcasing their portfolio, related design inspiration, and maybe carpentry events or initiatives.
Cohesion is important.”
Sheila’s professional development recommendations
The Toronto Public Library has a lot of helpful courses, depending on what you’re looking for, and they’re free!
I also have attended classes at Toronto’s Fashion Incubator (TFI). They have sessions that are informative and also offer an opportunity for you to network.
Connect with Sheila: