Kirsty Stevens, the designer behind Scottish label Charcot, talks money, mindset and living with Multiple Sclerosis…
So Kirsty, tell us about Charcot?
Charcot is a design label inspired by Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the neurological condition where the immune system mistakes the coating that protects the nerves as a foreign body and attacks it, which causes a huge range of symptoms.
I’ve been living with MS for over ten years – although you’d never know, as MS is known as an ‘invisible illness’. I want to make it visible in an innovative way, to make people stop and think. Using the MRI scans of my brain, which were taken on the lead up to my diagnosis of MS in 2007, I use the shapes created by harmful lesions to create beautiful prints and designs on jewellery and fabric. I want to turn this ugly negative into a wearable positive and help raise MS Awareness.
Let’s rewind – what was your immediate reaction to being diagnosed with MS, and how did you process that?
Honestly? Utter devastation. I had just been told I had this incurable, debilitating disease, which I didn’t know much about apart from this misconstrued idea that I would most likely end up in a wheelchair. At first, I wasn’t coping very well with it and was so confused by what this meant for my future. But I then realised just because I had this new label attached to me – MS ‘sufferer’ (oh how I hate that term) – that my life wasn’t instantly going to go downhill. I realised that I needed to stop this negativity because that meant MS would have won, and I wasn’t going to let that happen!
How old were you at this point?
I was 22 and in my 3rd year of university studying Jewellery Design at art school in Scotland.
This was such an important stage in your life – at what point did you decide to use MS to your advantage and turn it into something that empowered you?
I chose to take a year out of my studies to come to terms with my diagnosis, and during that time I learned that living with my MS was totally manageable and that people really didn’t know much about the condition, much like me when I was diagnosed. So when I returned to uni for my final year, I decided to use my experiences with MS and my MRI scans as the inspiration for my degree show to create a bold ‘Catwalk Collection’.
I wasn’t sure how people would react to it initially, but the response was incredible. It allowed people to openly talk about MS and ask questions about the condition, which I myself had been unable to do at first! I was embarrassed to tell people I had MS, as it normally made us both feel awkward, the minute they heard MS they didn’t know what to say, so I avoided it at all costs! But now I was proud to tell people and share my story.
Were there any obstacles you met while you were trying to build a design biz?
It took me 4 years to build Charcot and figure things out. After university, I went to London to intern and stayed there for 3 years trying to build a career as a jewellery designer. When I finally returned to Scotland, it was because I had chosen to apply for a programme that helped young designers start their business. I had every intention of designing jewellery, but as time went on, I started to really just enjoy making prints out of my MS scans and that was when it clicked and I started Charcot! As a creative, figuring out what you love to do and what works for you is the biggest obstacle! If anything, my MS aided me in finding that.
Did you ever worry Charcot would deflect from the seriousness of MS at all?
Not at all! I’m using Charcot to show and explain what MS is and what it can do to the body, which people can find difficult to understand. I was more worried about what the MS community’s reaction would be, but I have been overwhelmed by the support of fellow MSers and MS charities.
The response from people that don’t have MS has also been incredible. The majority of people that I speak to know someone who has MS (there are over 100,000 people living with MS in the UK) and yet it is still so misunderstood. I’m trying to use my designs to make it accessible and talked about.
What’s a typical day for you – do you have a studio? How do you work around fatigue etc? Does having MS affect the way you work?
I have a home studio, where I work and design from, which works really well for me as I can work when ever I am feeling good and have the energy. My working day isn’t the usual 9-5, I work around the MS and when I can put my best self into my work!
Fatigue is really unpredictable and can be brought on by physical or mental exertion – it can even come from nowhere! When it hits me, I know I won’t be getting much done, as it’s an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion where I can’t think straight. I used to try and work through it but I’ve learned that there is no use in doing that, as it will just prolong it. So I take a break or however long is needed until I feel myself again. This means some tasks that I think are going to take so many hours, actually take a couple of days, so I try to factor that in when planning projects. It can be really temperamental, but I always get the work done somehow!
You’re pretty well-known within the Scottish creative scene – what steps did you take to get your name out there?
I think it’s down to having an unusual and memorable story behind my work, which helped it get out there and gain press attention. I was also selected by V&A Dundee as their first Design Champion, which really helped. As a result of that, I’m often asked to attend events that are a great opportunity to network. I try and go to as many creative events, pop-ups and launches as I can, so that I’m able to meet new people within the creative scene.
I have also been asked to talk at various MS events which has opened up a whole new audience of people, as nerve-racking as it is!
Let’s get real – what’s it like making money from a design biz? What do you do to get clients/sales and ensure they are consistent?
I’m not going to lie, making money can be hella difficult and I am still trying out what avenues work best for Charcot, but I’ve learned so much in the past year as it was the year Charcot really gained recognition. I’ve been asked to take part in not only creative events but also MS events, which has brought me a whole new audience and new opportunities. I’m now being contacted by pharmaceutical companies to lease my work for events around the world, which I would have never considered to be a viable route to market!
Commissions and collabs are a great way to allow new audiences to see and love your work. I recently collaborated with a digital imaging research group (that I met on Twitter) and through this, I’ve met so many interesting people that appreciate my work and as a result this opened more prospective collab opportunities.
I regularly attend pop-ups and craft fairs as it is so important to meet and interact with your audience and also gage what they like! I’ve really learned you have to find the right events for your business and not just go to them for the sake of it – you don’t want to put the effort in to get nothing in return!
I’m still working on the consistency aspect of it all but the more I am out there, the more opportunities seem to come my way!
What advice would you give to someone else dealing with a life-changing illness, whether mental or physical?
Ok, clichéd as it may be… you are not alone. You will have your good and bad days, but you cannot let this stop you from achieving your goals! You might have to alter how you get there, but you will do it and it will be worth it!
What’s been your biggest success to date?
It’s gotta be when I was selected by V&A Dundee to be their first Design Champion! The V&A coming to Scotland has been such a big deal for the Scottish creative scene, so when they chose to feature me it was an unbelievable honor. I didn’t even know I was on their radar, so it was a massive surprise – a very pleasant surprise!
This then led to me being asked to be the design representative for UNESCO City of Design Dundee at the first ever design week in fellow UNESCO City of Design, Shenzhen in China. This was an incredible experience, as not only was I showing my work at the main exhibition space with designers from around the world, but I was also asked to speak about my work and what my views were on Design for the Future (a topic which is what Charcot is all about!) Immediately after this, I was made an MS Champion by MS Society Scotland for my work raising MS Awareness and for raising money for the MS Society (I donate a percentage of all my profits to them). I count these 3 things as my biggest success as they all happened one after the other, and this was the momentum that allowed me to kick things off for Charcot properly. It was a moment that made realize no matter the obstacles, hard work will always pay off.
Preach! So, what are the next steps for Charcot?
I have so many ideas, but right now I’m focussing on two in particular: building a bespoke design service and a concept I like to call ‘Colour Charcot’. The bespoke service will allow people to have their own scans redesigned into a beautiful print, so they can truly own it! And ‘Colour Charcot’ is a colouring book full of patterns created from my lesion shapes to encourage relaxation and mindfulness, as well as MS awareness. I’m working on making this a digital colouring book/app as well as a physical product, which I am really excited about!
I also plan to continue raising MS Awareness so be prepared to see Charcot everywhere!
Follow Kirsty’s journey on Instagram @charcotstudio