Climbing the corporate ladder in London, Common People’s Jodie Calder found herself torn: continue the climb, or venture into untested waters with her own fashion label? Words Shelley Robinson
The series of one-way tickets through Europe and America was meant to bring with it an epiphany for Jodie Calder. The then 28-year-old had quit her advertising and marketing job after climbing the merciless London corporate ladder, put all her things in storage and calculated her air points.
“I was doing really well in terms of my career, but I had this burning desire to do my own thing and I was getting a bit panicky that time was moving on,” she says.
Her ‘own thing’ was what she worked on each night after work in her small West Hampstead bedroom, where there was barely enough room for a double bed. While her friends and flatmates were hitting London pubs or sleeping, she would sit on her bed with her laptop creating her own accessories brand, which would later be known in New Zealand as Common People.
At her day job, she had just finished working on a multi-million-dollar branding proposal with the London Chamber of Commerce. She loved the work, but years of intensity had taken its toll.
“I was burnt out, I think, and I thought better to leave it in the hands of someone fresh. I loved the work, but my time there was done,” she says. But doubt still clawed at her.
“Should I stay and climb the ladder for someone else or come home and start designing for my own thing? I was quite stuck; I didn’t know which way to go.” But, she bought her air tickets.
It all sounds very Eat Pray Love, she laughs down the phone from Wanaka, though it was anything but. And the epiphany she wanted proved elusive.
It finally arrived when she returned to London. On a hot and crammed-tight train, she fainted.
“They just left me on the platform at the next stop, and I remember coming to and seeing the train moving off and I thought, ‘How inhumane is that? Someone has just passed out on a train and they’ve just chucked me off at the next stop.’ And I just didn’t want to live like that,” she says.
And standing once more on the tube made up her mind for her.
“I was ready to come home. I love London, I really adore it, but I think I’m done with living there,” she says.
So, she returned home. She settled in Wanaka, about two hours from Tapanui, the small “blink and you’ll miss it” town where Jodie grew up.
It was the same home town in which her mother would find Jodie in her bedroom colour-coordinating and organising her accessories, and where a seven-year-old Jodie would sit perched on her dad’s knee, learning how to design things on the computer.
“I learned the technical aspects: how to create something rather than just draw it; all the things you have to think of from a construction perspective. It has helped me nowadays when I have to not just design something, but technically pull it together and construct it,” she says.
For three years after her return, while she worked for her parents Stephen and Lynne Calder’s construction company, Calder Developments, she resumed her work at night, this time in her living room, slowly building and designing her Common People label: an urban, edgy handbag and accessories brand.
She sketches and then moves to her computer, where she designs and works out the specifications for the manufacturer. Her scarves, created in silks, may have dinosaurs and lemons on them; Jodie says she likes to “go wild with them”.
Though her accessories are for those who are bold in their fashion choices, ready to set a trend and not follow, she admits she then pares it back and will release an elegant black bag. But she loves things that are different, and each collection invites in the new and bold.
And she has successfully found her niche. She held a pop-up at Queenstown airport in 2018, where she found that her accessories resonated with customers. Momentum kept building, and 18 months ago Jodie opened her flagship store in Wanaka. The “minimalistic” store, says Jodie, was created largely out of steel and concrete due to her family’s construction business.
“Dad said, ‘Create anything out of concrete and steel and we’ll have it made.’ I was really lucky. And that’s what we did. It took us 13 days to polish the concrete floors, and there is a big concrete unit that weighs 2.2 tonnes in the middle of it.”
Like her bag and accessories range, it is a shop that is unafraid to be different and be seen through bold design choices.
Looking back, it has been a long journey from that bedroom in Hampstead. “The learning curve was exponential,” says Jodie. And fear came knocking more than once, beckoning her back to where it was safe. But it simply was not in her nature to listen to its defeatist tone. And she held close to her the inspiration gained from watching her parents, who had worked so hard to build their own business.
“You’ve got to back yourself when you go into something like this. You have your days with little wins and you think this is fantastic, and then other days where doubt creeps in and you think, ‘Should I just be doing something a bit easier?’ But you keep going. Those little wins become more and more frequent,” she says.
“I thoroughly believe everything you do is about learning, and failure is fantastic because it teaches you what you should or shouldn’t do in the future. You believe in yourself, and certain things start aligning and falling into place. Then you know that is the path you should be on.”
March’s Covid-19 lockdown and aftermath presented its own unique challenge. She had planned a series of pop-up stores overseas this year and four smaller collections per year.
“We had to hit pause, but we have pressed play on a new collection that launches in November,” she says.
Ask Jodie what she does in her downtime, and she has to pause and think. The problem, she says, is she loves her job and her “creative mind” doesn’t stop whirring. However, it doesn’t feel like a burden.
“I can relax to a point, if I need to. I think that it’s important to go out and let your hair down. But I don’t mind continually thinking and creating.”
After all, Jodie is at her very core a creator and a person who has learned to push through fear and doubt to forge her own path.
“The world doesn’t change if you don’t have people who push past the fear, who take hold of the fear and accept it. Don’t be afraid to back yourself. I say that every day. Trust your direction.”