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LONDON, United Kingdom — When Rosh Mahtani graduated from Oxford University with a degree in French and Italian Literature, she was “super lost,” unsure of what career path to take. Despite this, during an internship working in the fashion closet for Harper’s Bazaar, Mahtani landed her first job as a visual merchandiser for accessories at the now-shuttered online retailer Avenue 32.
While at Avenue 32, Mahtani took a wax carving course in London's jewellers' hub Hatton Gardens, fashioning landscapes and demonic creatures inspired by the 13th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. It was a medium that “felt, for the first time ever, like it made sense to me,” laying the foundations for her designs and brand today.
From 10 prototype jewellery pieces she sold to colleagues and friends, “little by little, this community started to grow.” Five years later, that community has evolved to aid Alighieri’s 500 percent annual growth rate and turnover of £3.2 million in 2018. Stocked by the likes of MatchesFashion, 10 Corso Como, Ssense and Galeries Lafayette, Mahtani has collaborated with the likes of Louise Trotter at Joseph and launched her first fashion show in September this year — enabled by her belief that “you can do whatever you want, you can learn anything, you just have to want to learn it.”
How did your career in fashion begin?
It was never always about jewellery. It was about telling a story. At school, I was a general all-rounder and I loved English Literature, Maths, Biology, but I never felt good enough to do any of those single things. When I got to Oxford [University], I read French and Italian as I loved studying literature. But I missed doing things that felt rooted in the now.
When I graduated, I was super lost. I didn't know what I was going to do. I don't think many people are honest about the time it takes to figure that bit out. But taking your time is a good thing, so you can try lots of different things and then fall into something organically.
I interned for a jewellery designer called Estelle Dévé and with the press team for Mr and Mrs Smith in Melbourne before doing a one-month internship in the Harper’s Bazaar closet. Whilst I was there, my boss knew of a job going for visual merchandising at Avenue 32. It wasn't as analytical as I would have liked it to be, but it seemed like a great company where I could learn a lot. I put myself forward and that was my first proper job.
What was the benefit of not going to fashion school?
I think not going to fashion school served me really well because I had no constructs. Maybe, had I gone, I’d have had to specialise. Like, are you a creative? Are you doing fashion textiles? Or are you doing business?
I still get frequently asked, “Are you going to get someone in to do the business side of Alighieri?” But I like doing both. Don’t let people make you feel you can't be creative and a businessperson. I think that myth still reigns supreme. You can do all of it, you just have to have the confidence to do it.
How did your first job prepare you for your career today?
At Avenue, it was my job to organise the accessories category online. I was definitely not satisfied with the VM role, I found it boring and I actually got really told off by my line manager for putting together a strategy for the buying team, as that wasn’t my job. But I learnt so much from it, like how to upload CSV files to a website and how to do the What's New upload. It gave me a clear understanding of how a backend should work — what a backend was.
I was also looking at what were to become my competitors today, so when I started Alighieri, I didn't have to think too much about where I should price, because I knew what was out there. I knew the wholesale price of it; I knew what retailers would mark up; what price points sold well; what was being returned because of bad quality.
How did you transition into jewellery design?
I always loved jewellery from a young age, the idea of talismans and amulets, the universality of it. While I was at Avenue, and going through a horrible breakup, I did a wax carving course. I kept reading Dante at the time, which I studied for my finals, and I spent all night carving stuff out of wax, thinking about these demonic creatures from [Dante Alighieri’s] Inferno — it was an outlet for me to express what I was going through.
I've learned the hard way that you have to have contracts in place to protect yourself.
Working with the wax really felt, for the first time ever, like it made sense to me. I didn't have to think about it, which was such a huge moment in my life, realising that maybe I am good enough at something. I just had to look outside of the academic box that school and university puts you in.
I decided to start making one piece for each poem in The Divine Comedy. I had a group of friends at Avenue as the focus group, I took in 10 rings and said if anyone wants to buy them, we're going to sell them for £25. Someone on the buying team said, “I think you need to up that to £50 — don't undervalue the product.” It was a great way of getting feedback from people who worked in the industry and, little by little, this community started to grow.
What is your biggest personal challenge today?
Maybe my biggest challenge is comparing myself to other brands and feeling like there's so much more I want to do that I haven't done yet. I want to run and I'm still building the infrastructure to walk. This industry makes you feel like you’ve got to go now but I need to be patient with myself.
[The stylist] Alex Carl said to me that before she takes on any new projects, even if it's a brand she's been working with for a really long time, she asks herself: “Can I do this better than I did it last time? Can I do it differently? Is this going to be impactful or am I just doing it because I always do it?”
If I don't think that it can be incredible and doing something different for my career, then I should say no. I don't think I’ve said no to one project but that's also part of growing up — knowing that you don’t have to do everything all at once.
What other advice has stayed with you as your career evolved?
The first collaboration I did was with Louise Trotter at Joseph. We did a collection together and she said, “Make sure you push our marketing team to get it in the right places. Make sure we don't let them take more than 50 percent of your profit. Make sure it goes at wholesale price.” She was on my side and teaching me how to do it.
Don’t let people make you feel like you can't be creative and a businessperson.
I've learned the hard way that you have to have contracts in place to protect yourself. In this industry, people don't like to talk about the terms or financials, so you go through all the creative stuff and then you get to the point of selling and everyone's like, wait, what’s my cut? What's your cut? Who's wholesaling this? Whose intellectual property is this?
Learn to ask those questions and do not feel afraid to ask them. In the beginning, I didn’t mind making a loss, but you can’t do that if you want to survive. Actually, growing up is about what your terms are. Take it or leave it, because this is what I'm worth.
What trait have you carried through from your first job to your career today?
I was that pesky person at work who asked too many questions because whatever I do, I want to understand the whole business. I always believe that you can do whatever you want, you can learn anything, you just have to want to learn it — and you should know every part of your business, because it's hard to trust people.
A lot of people lose money in the beginning through others offering their services, making you feel like you need an agency to do your Instagram or a sales agent to do your wholesale. Being frugal helped me as it meant I learned every single part of my business — how to do a DHL label; what it meant to send a press request; what it meant to hand-deliver something on Christmas Eve because you don't have the budget for a courier; the value of bonding with your customers and how, actually, they appreciate that more than a courier, because they know how much you care.
What are the core skills necessary for start out as a jewellery designer?
It’s about asking yourself what sort of designer you want to be. If you want to do Fine Jewellery, then you should do an apprenticeship at the bench to learn those skills. What we do is completely different, it's more conceptual.
Try hard and have realistic expectations at the beginning — take the opportunity to see how a brand works, to listen and learn. We have had some interns that expect they will be designing straight off the bat and it's not realistic. I only design 10 percent of my day; I probably pack boxes for at least another 10 percent.
You can learn anything, you just have to want to learn it.
Take the job, whatever it is, and don't think it's beneath you — just gain as much experience as you can in different parts of the industry, even if it doesn't seem applicable to what you’re doing. When I started at Mr and Mrs Smith, I didn't know anything. That's where I learned about taking clippings. I saw the other side at Harper's, calling in items and calling to get those credits. At Avenue, I learnt about buying and which brands were doing well. I don't know how I would have known otherwise. It’s good to get that 360 perspective.
What do you believe is essential to working in fashion?
Resilience and good people around you. Fashion is an emotional place to work, and if you feel down or like you're not good enough, you need good friends to support you. Having those people to soundboard off, making the people you work with like your family, allows you to get some satisfaction out of your work in different ways.
We're not saving lives and sometimes, it's easy to think, what's the point in what I'm doing? But the more we realise that we're all connected and that each thing that we do supports someone else in the industry, that's how we could make the most of it and do better work as well.