I was the kid who found just as much awe in the pages of my schoolbooks as I did with creating makeshift dolls houses out of cardboard boxes. Trigonometry classes equally stimulated me, just as much as my summer holiday arts and crafts clubs. Including the endless hours of sticking glittery cord to plastic straws. I was both fascinated with the world of academics and creative activities.
One of the earliest and most pronounced manifestations of my strong creative flair was my interest in clothes. I have vivid memories of my father being exquisitely dressed in three-piece suits that he ironed with such concentration and care. My mother, equally glamorous, often found me raiding her wardrobe and trying on her pristine shirts and jackets.
I picked up a needle and thread as young as nine or ten years old, creating clothes for my dolls and I quickly graduated to altering my own clothes. This developed into making pieces from scratch. I remember with delight, during my second year of university spent studying Law, my best friend gifting me with a Janome sewing machine and urging me to stop sewing everything with a needle and thread. The sewing machine was a catalyst to the realisation of my childhood dream to own my own fashion brand. However, the journey through the remainder of my higher education and early professional life was fraught with inner turmoil that tiptoed around the act of ‘choosing’.
Despite being a law student, I found ways to express my love for design and was often asked why I hadn’t studied Fashion at university. The truth was that it wasn’t a decision that I felt would have been met with much approval, or one that I had even really considered. I was from a cultural and educational background that had placed emphasis on choosing – one thing, a ‘serious thing’.
I felt a pressure to conform my professional goals to a sole job or career path.
It took several years of inner conflict until I could no longer suffocate my dreams. I officially released my first fashion collection in 2016 after slogging away to set up my fashion brand LALI London. The business has flourished and has also served as a joyous avenue for me to explore photography and graphic design. After setting up Aya’s Garden I have continued to write and explore storytelling. My passion for leadership and youth are realised in my work as a BAME Youth Mentor.
Last year I gave a talk to some Sixth Form students and was asked how I managed to do all that I do. By no means is having a full time job, managing a business, writing and mentoring an easy task. My response was that at times it takes sacrifice. It takes diligent time management and it takes an equal dedication to monitoring my own mental and physical health. However, the things I do rarely feel at war with each other but are more so different expressions of the many things that I passionately enjoy.
I believe that children’s interests are naturally vast but become gradually whittled down as they churn through the different stages of the educational system. Dominant cultural and social norms convince children or teenagers that they must eventually choose ‘one thing’. Study it. Get good at it. And get a job in it. Whilst this is relatively good advice, it’s not necessarily the best advice.
The human mind is a universe of inquiry and it thrives from constant stimulation, learning, exploration and adventure. We are all familiar with famed Renaissance individuals whose mastery spanned many different fields.
And yet today, I think of the plethora of young millennials who are managing full time ‘traditional’ careers, with equally demanding (and lucrative) Youtube careers, all whilst fighting for social justice issues and Snapchat-documenting as they go along.
I’m thankful that this diverse and highly talented bunch is creating a wonderful counter-narrative to the one that crippled and confused me for many years. We are presenting the normalcy of having multiple interests and expertise in both ‘traditional’ academics whilst a flair for creative skills and entrepreneurship.
I remember a job interview I attended not long after I graduated from my master’s degree. I won’t go so far as to name the organisation but it was in the international development sector. By this time I was in the very early stages of setting up my business and had mentioned design as one of my interests. Sat in the middle of a three-person panel, the director asked me in a half-patronising and half-mocking tone how I would expect to succeed in a career in international development whilst also remaining interested in fashion design. I remember his words, said almost laughed out; ‘You’ll be running back and forth from the law courts to the warehouse’, he said.
I walked out of the interview onto the streets of central London. The sun was shining. And I felt a strange surge of determination to do - both. The organisation didn’t employ me, thankfully so. I look at what my life has become today, thriving in a role that fuses so many of my academic passions in development, law, politics and advocacy – all from the heart of Westminster. To my conscious fashion brand that is in the midst of releasing a third collection. And I can’t help but wonder about the narrative and very real pressure that convinced so many that they had to choose one.
So I write. As one of many ambidextrous millennials. Balancing ‘traditional’ careers with entrepreneurship and a flurry of other things that make me both deeply happy and constantly stimulated. I write to encourage others that it’s not impossible to live and work at the fullness of all the things that you are passionate about. So do both – or all. Let your own passions and schedules be the remit of what endeavours you pursue, as opposed to narrow doctrine about what an orthodox career path or millennial life should look like.
As always, do share your thoughts and experiences.