“He still calls me ‘the chosen one’ to this day,” Kanika shares, remembering the day she wrote the application letter to the non-profit. “I was moving, and I had sent so many applications at that point. I really didn’t expect anything. I never would have believed that I’d be working with Alastair McKimm.” With an abundance of letters to go through, i-D’s editor-in-chief was happy to see someone request him specifically as their mentor. “It was such a good move,” he says. “That way, I immediately knew Kanika wanted to work with me. It was smart because it meant that she’s already done her own research and understands what she’d be getting into. Ask for something specific, and you’ll get help.”
Mentoring Matters was founded only two years ago by Laura Edwards and places community and equity at the centre of its work. “We are creating a network to uplift and inspire and to open the doors to as many opportunities for our candidates as we can,” she says. Laura is wearing quite a few hats herself, a design director who has worked at Christopher Kane and McQ Alexander McQueen as well as a high street and research consultant, a visiting lecturer, and a mentor at her own company.
“It was really imperative that I would find someone I could really help.” – Alastair McKimm
“We currently have mentees in locations such as Nigeria, Vietnam, India, US, Canada, France, UK, Japan and more. We are growing all the time. To date, more than 20% of our mentees have received paid work as a direct result of the scheme,” the founder shares. Alastair McKimm was contacted by Laura, asking to become a mentor in spite of his busy schedule. Eventually, he agreed to take on a mentee – under one condition. “It was really imperative that I would find someone I could really help,” he says. “It was so crucial to me to find the right fit. If you take on people who you cannot help, it’s not going to be beneficial to anybody.”
Kanika Agarwal ended up being the right fit. Born and raised in New Delhi to a mother who’s a painter and a father working in real estate due to his penchant for architecture, it’s not surprising, she’s so drawn to creativity and craftsmanship. Yet to her, it isn’t all that obvious. “I don’t really know why, but I was so set on doing design. It’s not like I learned how to sew growing up or make clothes. But I knew I wanted to do fashion. Plus, I have always been super creative, being a Fine Arts student during high school.”
“It’s not very frequent that – considering the background I am from – parents would send a girl to study design abroad. It’s more likely that one would study engineering or medical science.” – Kanika Agarwal
At 17, her pursuit of fashion brought her to New York City, where she enrolled in Pratt Institute to major in BFA Fashion Design with a minor in philosophy. However, homesickness, culture shock, and feeling like an underdog as the only Indian student in the course massively affected her. While other students had a more relaxed approach to the progress and success of their studies, she, more than anything, wanted to persevere to make her parents proud.
“You got this opportunity people would give an arm and a leg to have. It’s not very frequent either, that – considering the background I am from – parents would send a girl to study design abroad. It’s more likely that one would study engineering or medical science. Or, do your undergrad in India and go abroad for masters, come back home and get married,” Kanika says. “There’s this tension with push and pull in India and, I am sure, other modern urban cultures that are currently advancing. Part of it is very traditional, yet the other part is very modern. As kids, we knew we’d eventually study abroad, but still come back and be ‘traditionally Indian’ whilst having enjoyed an international education.”
Nevertheless, backed by her supportive parents and fuelled by the work ethic her dad had instilled in her, Kanika decided to stay in the States. At Freshman Orientation, she met her now closest friends, and soon after she attended a class by Italian-American fashion designer and conceptual artist Susan Cianciolo.
“She was the very first professor I ever had freshman year. I went to join class and there she was. Susan just saw something really bright in me that I didn’t see myself,” Kanika remembers. “At that point, I was ready to go back to India. I was that homesick. But she really took me under her wing and I got to be mentored by her.” What followed was an internship at Cianciolo’s NYC studio, which involved some copywriting and partaking in exhibitions such as Eckhaus Latta’s ‘Possessed’ at Whitney Museum of American Art.
While the year before graduation threw major health obstacles her way, it brought Kanika closer to spirituality. “God is a jacket”, a quote by Susan Cianciolo metaphorically explaining how faith offers security in times of struggle, really stuck with the aspiring designer. So much so that it later inspired her senior thesis and helped her in her mental health journey. Another part of her recovery was following her first mentor’s recommendation to apply at Istituto Marangoni in Paris as a transfer student to complete her senior year in Europe.
“When I saw her work, I knew I could help her. It’s what translates into the industry and the clients I have worked with. Also, when we first spoke, I could just tell her determination.” – Alastair McKimm
In Paris, Kanika’s graduate collection did not only end up in the Top 10 of her year, but she also went on to be featured in Vogue Italia. After an internship at Louis Vuitton, she acted as an assistant designer at both Marine Serre and Françoise Paris. Her time in NYC may have been challenging, but Susan, in her role as a mentor, pointed the young designer the right way. “This not a coincidence,” she says, speaking about her relationship with the artist. “It made me believe in fate. We were meant to meet.”
Chatting to Kanika via Zoom, we catch her late in the evening straight after work on a Monday in her small Parisian flat. She’s part of the Ready-to-Wear Womenswear Team at Saint Laurent, where she was hired full-time after an internship. It’s as if Susan had handed the baton of mentorship right over to Alastair, since he was the one who had hooked the Indian designer up with a contact at the French maison.
“When I saw her work, I knew I could help her. It’s what translates into the industry and the clients I have worked with. Also, when we first spoke, I could just tell her determination,” he recalls. “I’m from Northern Ireland, so I always had to work in other countries. For her, it’s the same thing coming from India. If she hadn’t got a job, she would have gone back home, which she wasn’t ready for. So, I introduced her to some incredible people I know at Saint Laurent. I had a feeling they would click, you know? I also knew that she’d work hard and be reliable and passionate.”
“It’s like he’s got my back. Even if I mess up, I can go tell him about my mistake, and he wouldn’t judge.” – Kanika Agarwal
While fashion school is about community mixed with a healthy yet challenging dose of competitiveness, the industry can be quite harsh and lonely. Many graduates have gotten used to hearing sentences such as “What did you expect?” or “Fashion is hard, you just have to pull through and hustle.” Mentorship programmes such as Mentoring Matters are trying to put a halt to that ‘no one’s holding your hand’-attitude. Instead, aspiring talents are paired up with industry insiders who are unbiased supporters and with who they can have honest and even uncomfortable conversations.
Listening to Kanika speak about her relationship with her mentor quickly shows that there is no such thing as a clear hierarchy in place. Their partnership is based on mutual respect and, most importantly, trust. “It’s like he’s got my back. Even if I mess up, I can go tell him about my mistake, and he wouldn’t judge,” the designer says. “He would give me advice on what I could have done differently and how to move forward to get over it. Alastair is someone who made his career on his own. He has been where I am at, and I think he connected to that, and that is what makes our relationship so cool. There’s this level of understanding.”
“He always makes time for our sessions. If he’s in Paris, we’d make sure it’s in person. Even if his schedule is busy, and it’s fashion week, he’d make time in-between shows.” – Kanika Agarwal
In spite of being assigned her dream mentor and working at a prestigious fashion house, imposter syndrome still tends to rear its ugly head to haunt Kanika’s thoughts. Those are the moments when she turns to Alastair. “He always makes time for our sessions. If he’s in Paris, we’d make sure it’s in person. Even if his schedule is busy, and it’s fashion week, he’d make time in-between shows. Frankly, it would be easy for him not to be so committed. Especially for someone so young and unestablished as me,” she shares, adding how she can shoot him a text and get a reply almost instantly.
“What is really important with a mentor is that there should not be an agenda,” i-D’s editor-in-chief says. “For me, there is no ulterior motive apart from helping somebody who I think is really talented and deserves support. That’s the beautiful thing about mentorship – people wanting to help each other. It’s almost like passing on what has been freely given to us.” McKimm can definitely attest to that. After all, Kanika Agarwal is just the last mentee in a line of creatives before her who had the luck of being taken under someone’s guiding wing.
“When I was starting out on my own, Edward was helping me, as well as Terry Jones and Judy Blame, whose flat I’d go to and have coffee, and he’d make me bacon sandwiches. All these things make such a big difference in your life when you’re in your twenties.” – Alastair McKimm
“For all of us in this industry, you really need the support from people who have been there before. We sort of learn on the job, so you need someone to guide you. I certainly had that over the years,” Alastair shares, alluding to when Edward Enninful hired him straight out of college as his assistant at the age of 20. At the time of our interview, he had just been to a dinner celebrating i-D’s 40th-anniversary book, which British Vogue’s editor-in-chief had also attended.
“Literally two decades later and he’s still here supporting me. He had the same for himself, with Simon Foxton, Nick Knight, Anna Wintour and Jonathan and Ronnie Newhouse having mentored him in the past,” Alastair says. “When I was starting out on my own, Edward was helping me, as well as Terry Jones and Judy Blame, whose flat I’d go to and have coffee, and he’d make me bacon sandwiches. All these things make such a big difference in your life when you’re in your twenties.”
Before their mentoring relationship, Kanika’s sole focus was on staying in Europe, regardless of what kind of job that would have meant. Like so many other expatriates, securing a visa is a tedious endeavour and by far not the only obstacle. It’s hard staying afloat in creative industries, but for BIPoC, having to navigate through a still white-dominant culture – with plenty of room for improvement – adds another layer to the challenge.
“We all create our own creative families.” – Alastair McKimm
This is exactly why mentoring literally matters. Laura Edward’s mentorship programme may be young, yet it has already made sure that hundreds of creative voices had been heard. It’s all about utilising the power of community and joining efforts. That way, the industries these talents want to belong to and thrive in will eventually be just as culturally and ethically diverse as them.
“We all create our own creative families,” Alastair says, being able to relate to this sense of camaraderie which has also benefited his professional journey. “When I moved to London, everyone was trying to make it work in the industry and then it all kind of starts snowballing. The same happened later in New York. Everyone’s from different places all over the planet, and it’s so nice to grow together. It’s such a multicultural, diverse community in which everybody understands each other’s struggles.”
“I found strength in trying. You never know what’s going to happen. Unless you reach out to people, they’ll never know you exist.” – Kanika Agarwal
Undoubtedly, people wanting to make it in the arts are under a lot of pressure. From unpaid internships and freelance gigs, to emails that never see a reply, and family members asking when one would finally get ‘a real job’, it’s easy to lose faith. Mentorship assures that someone is there to pick up the pieces and remind one of a general rule in life – to keep on working and believing in oneself.
“Expect noes, but don’t be discouraged by them. And don’t take it personally. Everyone’s so busy, half the time it’s just circumstances that have nothing to do with the applicant.” – Kanika Agarwal
At the end of our interview, we asked Kanika what advice she’d give to aspiring creatives looking to start a career. “I found strength in trying. You never know what’s going to happen. Unless you reach out to people, they’ll never know you exist. And if they’re aware of you, they’ll probably be interested,” she shares, before adding. “Also, be able to take ‘no’ for an answer. Expect noes, but don’t be discouraged by them. And don’t take it personally. Everyone’s so busy, half the time it’s just circumstances that have nothing to do with the applicant.”
“Fear is the enemy of creativity.” – Alastair McKimm
Kanika Agarwal’s story shows what a gift true mentorship can be. It’s more than just giving guidance and passing on knowledge. It all stems from a long history of people who saw something great in others and decided to stand by their side every step of the way because they know that every little milestone, good or bad, counts.
“Fear is the enemy of creativity,” Alastair shares, about to finish our call to head into the airport. “If you’re in fear, you can’t be creative, and if you’re not creative, you can’t grow. It’s essential to have people around that have your back.”