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You shall go to the ball

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Published on 26 March 2019

Kirsty Thompson with the Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Lynda Scanlan
Kirsty Thompson with the Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Lynda Scanlan

But two years ago, with the encouragement of her sisters, Kirsty Thompson took the plunge and returned to full time education – and has now been chosen to create a gown for the Mayor of Sunderland, and is on the verge of seeing her dream of making her living as a dress designer become a reality.

Kirsty, 30, from Ryhope, is in the final year of her BA Fashion Design & Promotion degree at the University of Sunderland, but until recently she was working for Virgin Money, and her dreams of becoming a designer had all but been forgotten.

She says: “Ten years ago I went to De Montfort University, in Leicester, and studied for a year and a half, but then I fell ill with IBS.  I couldn’t leave the house, and my mam and dad persuaded me to come home.

“I just left education behind, and I got a job in a bank.”

Kirsty was quite happy in her career, and then her sister, who is ten years younger than Kirsty, began apply to university. “She offered to fill in my application form for me,” says Kirsty, “and my other sister, who’s a teacher, advised me to mention the study I’d already done, and they took me straight onto the second year of the course.”

Thought Kirsty admits it has been a hard road, going back to university has changed everything – even leading to her landing a new job while she was still studying.

“Are part of the Fashion Design & Promotion degree you have to do a placement, and I did my placement at House of Mooshki in Seaham, the bridal occasional wear shop. They design the product for their customers, and I offered to work there for free for two months, just to get some experience for my CV.

“Then just before Christmas they asked me to come along to the staff Christmas party, but when I got there they offered me a job.”

Kirsty handed in her notice at the bank, and now she is covering maternity leave doing the shop’s accounts, as well as sewing two days a week.

“The dresses come in from China, and we have to take them apart and put them all together again so that they’re perfect for our clients.  That’s someone’s wedding dress, and that means so much. It’s a lot of work, but I really enjoy it.

“When I was studying years ago I was focused on pattern cutting and sewing, whereas now I am studying everything including design and promotion, which has really helped me with my future plans to go freelance.”

A further boost to her ambitions came when Kirsty volunteered to undertake a paid project to create the Mayor of Sunderland’s gown for the annual Mayor’s Ball.

Kirsty admits creating the Mayor’s gown was a tough gig – at House of Mooshki from consultation with a client to delivery of a dress takes at least six month, and she only had a month to design and create the Mayor’s gown, working nights, alongside her studies and her full time job.

“I’ve got help from Jill Kirkham (Programme Leader for Fashion Design and Promotion at the University of Sunderland) and from people at work, so I was very confident I would get it finished in time.

“Designing and creating the Mayor’s dress has really catapulted me into the real world, but thanks to my background in sewing, and my studies in design, I am really confident. “

Kirsty is now focussed on her future, and the day before the Mayor’s Ball was in London at the Drapers Sustainability conference, thanks to funding support from the University of Sunderland’s DOSH (Development Officer Scholarships) scheme.

Kirsty says: “Sustainability is so important in fashion at the moment.  Fashion is the second largest polluter in the world, and we’re not really doing anything about it.  My final project is about sustainable evening wear, I’m calling it Access Couture.

“I want to make couture fashion accessible to people to would never really consider it is for them.”

After graduation Kirsty is planning to go freelance as a dress designer.  But before that she has her graduation to look forward to – and is aiming to spend her summer in a Paris fashion house.

But Kirsty says she will always be grateful to the Mayor of Sunderland, who helped her take the next step.

“Lynda took me on faith, without seeing any of my work, and I’ll be forever grateful.

“This has given me the perfect opportunity to start my professional practice and take on more clients – and helped make my dream of becoming a designer come true.”

The Mayor of Sunderland Councillor Lynda Scanlan, said: “As Mayor of Sunderland I was keen to help promote the creative talent we have here in our city, and approached our partners at the University who were delighted to help.

“The fashion and design department is excellent and put me in touch with Kirsty who I paid to work with me on ideas for the dress. I’m proud to support local businesses such as the one Kirsty has set up, and couldn’t be more pleased with what she created for me to wear at the charity ball.

“It was a pleasure to meet Kirsty who has worked so hard to design and actually make the dress herself, and I hope it helps showcase her remarkable talent and skills.”

The Mayor added: “I’m sure that we all wish Kirsty the best of luck in her future career, her story shows what people can achieve with determination, ambition and the right kind of support.”      

Kirsty will graduate from the University of Sunderland this summer, and has just been accepted as a member of the University’s Enterprise Place to launch her new business ARUNA COUTURE. The Enterprise Place is managed by the University of Sunderland, and allows new businesses to use co-working office space for up to a year.

The University of Sunderland Development Office Scholarships (DOSH)

Every year the University of Sunderland offers tens of thousands of pounds worth of funding to current students, to help improve their studies, professional practice and employability. DOSH, the Development Office Scholarship scheme, offers students studying at Sunderland non-means test, not-repayable scholarships from £250 to £10,000.


The Enterprise Place

The Enterprise Place is managed by the University of Sunderland, and allows new businesses to use co-working office space for up to a year. Facilities are free and include: Business advice and support, a desk equipped with PC or Apple Mac, internet access, desktop printing, photocopying and use of presentation space/ meeting room.  Support is available through a team of business advisors and companies can also access external and University academics, agencies and networks.

The project is receiving up to £1,344,431 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund

Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit https://www.gov.uk/european-growth-funding.

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