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Interview: January 2011

January 2011

SEQUINS, SECRETS, AND SILVER LININGSis the first installment in a projected trilogy that follows three trendy teens who use their eye for everything glamorous to help a Ugandan refugee take her incredible story --- and her amazing dresses --- all the way to the Oscars.

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Norah Piehl, author Sophia Bennett gives the scoop on some of her own fashion secrets, elaborating on a few of her favorite designers and how she became a self-proclaimed “fashion-admirer from afar.” She also discusses why she decided to incorporate the plight of the Invisible Children of Uganda into her debut novel --- and what readers can do to help raise awareness --- reveals her plans for the rest of the series, and offers advice on everything from becoming a model to writing a book.

Teenreads.com: First of all, as you answer these questions, what --- or should we say “who” --- are you wearing?

Sophia Bennett: It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m sitting at home, surrounded by my children, in a ruffled Dior ball gown, with a Prada clutch and Louboutins…SO kidding. I’m actually wearing a raspberry pink sweater from a British “High Street” (mass market) store called Jigsaw, a short black skirt from All Saints, black tights and black ballet pumps. Nonie, my narrator, would be seriously disappointed. I actually buy most of my wardrobe to suit taking the kids to school and going to my local library to write. The fun bit is buying dresses for when I visit schools and literary festivals. Then I go a bit wild. I do have a Vivienne Westwood summer dress in my wardrobe. And my very own pair of Louboutins (yay!)…but not to write in.

TRC: What's your personal favorite fashion look, the one that makes you smile back at the mirror?

SB: It varies. That Vivienne Westwood dress usually gets me smiling. She designs for ladies with curves --- like Jenny --- and reader, I have them. However, my current favorite look is the vintage Chinese silk top (£5) and jacket that I bought over the Christmas holidays. I wrote on my blog about getting them. They’re brightly colored, slightly unusual, and they’ve had an interesting life. I like people like that, too.

TRC: Who are some of your favorite designers?

SB: How much time have we got? OK, I’ve mentioned Dame Vivienne already. John Galliano is extraordinary. I used to hate what he did for Dior in the 1990s, but I’m blown away by what he’s doing now. Watch out for the opening scene of book three of the series! I also love his history as a designer, from his very first graduate show. Nonie talks about that in the book, too. Then there’s Christian Dior himself, of course, who I love for inventing the New Look and making women look glamorous again; Madeleine Vionnet, for her inspired way of cutting in the 1920s; and Balenciaga, for his work in the 1950s and 1960s.

Right now, I love the work of Christopher Kane, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Alberta Ferretti (my wedding dress was designed by her), Erdem (can’t spell his surname, but luckily hardly anyone uses it), as well as Jason Wu and the other designers championed by Michelle Obama. Go Michelle! I love the way she’s turned herself into a style icon without going too fashion-y. Oh, and Victoria Beckham. Yes, really. I’d love to have a dress of hers one day. Those zip-ups in the back --- fabulous.

And finally (leaving out the 20 or 30 others I really love), Roland Mouret. He’s had a very tough time, and at one stage, he lost the right to use his own name on his designs. I was shocked. Needless to say, that moment made its way into a book…

TRC: Have you always had an interest in fashion?

SB: Can you tell? I was first interested in clothes because my mother used to make mine for me. I can still remember the electric blue nylon dressing gown she made for me in the 1970s. I loved it. One granny knitted and the other smocked. Very few of my baby clothes were bought in shops.

I was always fascinated by uniforms. As well as wanting to be an air hostess, as they were then called, I really wanted to design their outfits (They had such nice hats!). I imagine Crow designing cute skirts and jackets for people in an airline or a hotel business one day --- as well as designing for the ballet, which is her dream. Imagine if she did the McDonald’s uniform…

I also loved the history of costume. I still love seeing beautiful historical clothes in movies. Take the costumes Cate Blanchett wears in Elizabeth, for example, and of course, all the Pride and Prejudice dresses. And Audrey Hepburn in all her Givenchy clothes, and the ones designed by Cecil Beaton for My Fair Lady.

I adore the Golden Globes, the Oscars and anything else that requires a red carpet. Picture me over the next few weeks of awards season…Heaven! I had to get that into SEQUINS. I could listen to Joan Rivers and Kelly Osbourne discussing the latest looks for hours. I nearly put Joan in the book, too.

But I’m not a fashionista. Nonie has all the bravery and kooky stylishness that I aspired to when I was a teenager, but I’m better at doing it in books than in real life, I think. And there are lots of bits of the fashion business I’m not so keen on. The stick-thin models. The rushed deadlines. The throwaway attitude toward clothes. (Although not everyone has that --- Tom Ford is another designer I admire at the moment, particularly because he’s designed his latest line to provide classic pieces that women will wear forever.) So I’m more a fashion-admirer-from-afar. And I happen to believe that there are lots of us out there like that.

TRC: Did you ever want to be a designer yourself?

SB: Yes, of course, but like Nonie, I couldn’t draw. I know you don’t have to, but I’m sure it helps. Also, I once made a nightshirt at school, and it was pretty hopeless. I was better at poetry, for example. However, for a period of about three years in my early teens, I imagined stories in my head, and every day, I drew the outfits to go with them. Like Crow, I designed thousands of outfits altogether. Sadly, all of the drawings have been thrown away over the years. They were never very good (apart from the hair, which was excellent), but I wish I still had them.

TRC: What kinds of research on fashion did you do for SEQUINS, SECRETS, AND SILVER LININGS?

SB: I didn’t need to do a massive amount, because I’d been collecting stories about designers for years; I just had to double-check my facts. Also, occasionally I just used my imagination and cheated slightly. The textiles graduation scene at St. Martins is actually based on a fine arts graduation show of my cousin’s at a different London college. However, the one big missing thing was what a catwalk show is like. I’d never been to one. So I went to a show by one of my local boutiques, held at a local restaurant. That’s when I realized how short a small catwalk show would be --- it was only a matter of minutes, despite the weeks and weeks of work that went into preparing it. Luckily, a friend of mine is an ex-model, and I got her to read the manuscript for me. She suggested a couple of minor changes, but mostly she said it was OK, thank goodness. She was glad that the supermodel in the book turns out to be a nice person rather than a diva. (What she doesn’t know is that I partly based the character on her.)

TRC: Tell us about the story of the Invisible Children of Uganda. How did you learn about this problem, and how did you get the idea to incorporate this real-world crisis into your novel?

SB: I was in the London Underground --- the subway --- one day, and I saw a billboard about the Night Walkers of Uganda. These are the children who used to have to walk every day from their villages into the local towns so they could avoid being kidnapped by rebels at night and forced into becoming child soldiers or slaves. The Invisible Children are the children who have been ripped from their homes by war (many of them are ex-child soldiers) and are living difficult lives in refugee camps, with little healthcare, education, or normal family life. Hearing about how brave they were --- and how difficult their lives were --- made me want to do something to help them. I told my children about them, and we were all so angry that not enough was being done. Gradually, the conversations we had about them merged with the conversations we had about the story I wanted to write about the secret young designer. Crow became a refugee from Uganda. It explained why she was so quiet and reserved, and why the other girls wanted to help her.

It was, of course, crazy to try and mix high fashion with child soldiers. I knew this, but I couldn’t help myself. And it was hard to make this little girl from Uganda become friends with three chic teens from London’s posh Kensington neighborhood. But then a strange thing happened. Crow’s tough and tragic background brought out the best in Nonie, and all the other girls, and eventually even fashion itself. Fashion can be so fluffy and superficial, and yet we’re fascinated by it. When it grabs our attention and uses it to do something good, it’s wonderful. It’s like when all the Hollywood stars got together to raise money for Haiti after the earthquake. I was still convinced that runways and refugees were a strange combination and that nobody but me would want to read about them, but luckily I was wrong.

TRC: What can readers do if they want to help address this problem after learning about it in your book?

SB: There is always something you can do. I think the best thing is to support the people who are supporting the children and who know the best way of going about it. Thanks to the Invisible Children campaign (http://www.invisiblechildren.com), I think more teens are aware of the issue in the US than in the UK, which is where I first heard about it. They raise money and have people working in Uganda. So does Oxfam (http://www.oxfam.org/en). I suggest going to their websites and seeing how you can raise money and awareness. I love the idea of the bracelet campaign (http://www.invisiblechildren.com/bracelet-campaign), for example.

TRC: Of the main characters --- Nonie, Jenny and Edie --- which one is most like you were when you were a teenager?

SB: Oh, that’s easy: I was an Edie. I wasn’t as well-rounded, though. During games (in phys. ed. and gym class), I was the one in the back, trying not to be picked for the team. But I was good in class. I worked hard. I read lots of newspapers and knew what was happening in the world. I wanted to go to Oxford University to study English, and I did everything I could to make sure my application would look good. (It didn’t happen in the end, but much later I ended up supervising students at Cambridge University, so sometimes you just have to wait for what you wish for.) I also had Edie’s ability to say the wrong thing and embarrass people without meaning to. I still do.

TRC: You seemed to have a lot of fun describing Nonie’s and Crow’s eclectic outfits. Were you an unconventional dresser when you were a teenager?

SB: A bit unconventional. Not enough, though, looking back. But then, it was the ’80s, and the ’80s were BAD. They were the decade that fashion forgot. I wore knee-length velvet pants, with a white frilly shirt and a velvet shoelace necktie. And also an electric blue corduroy miniskirt and a black batwing sweater. I once saw an Astroturf skirt in a shop in New York and thought Wow, THAT’S different. I wish I’d had the courage to buy it, but I knew I’d never wear it. Nonie, of course, would. I think she’ll be a very stylish dresser when she’s older because she’ll have tried every experiment, made every mistake, and she’ll know what suits her. She’ll be super-confident and a bit unusual, and will constantly be photographed by street-style bloggers for her chic look.

When I was describing Nonie’s outfits, I used to think Oh no! What am I going to come up with today? I had to work really hard to invent something original that I hadn’t already seen in a magazine. And then, sure enough, as the months went by after I’d finished the book, I saw pretty much every outfit being worn by some rock-star celeb or other. But Nonie wore them first!

TRC: SEQUINS, SECRETS, AND SILVER LININGS was originally published in the UK in 2009. What kind of response has it received from readers there?

SB: It’s been unbelievable. My absolute dream for the book was that I’d see two or three copies on a shelf in a bookshop, and one day a girl (or boy) who I didn’t know would read the story and be touched by it. I sort of hoped that maybe one person might apply to design school who otherwise might not have thought of it, and that one might decide to help war victims in Africa. But within weeks, people were writing to me on an almost daily basis to tell me how they’d taken up sewing, or that they’d raised money for charity, or that they were planning to do these amazing things. It’s been so wonderful to share their stories with them. I feel as if I have hundreds of new friends and that we know each other strangely well, because we have these friends in common: Nonie, Edie, Jenny and Crow.

TRC: What's your favorite piece of fan mail that you've received?

SB: They’re all wonderful. But perhaps the ones that have brought a tear to my eye are from the girls who tell me they never wanted to read a book before SEQUINS, and that it’s the first book they ever read from cover to cover, and that now they love reading. I never imagined that that would happen, and for a writer who’s always loved reading with a passion, that’s very special.

There was also a girl who told me her dad worked with children like Crow’s family in Africa, and that she’d never really understood what he did, but now she was extra proud of him. How could I not cry just a little bit at that?

TRC: There's such a huge interest in fashion now, thanks to the popularity of shows like “America's Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.” What advice would you have for girls who long to break into that industry?

SB: Well, it’s tricky. So tricky, in fact, that the book I’m currently writing is all about exactly that! I often get asked for tips on how to be a designer by fans, so I’ve put up my tips on thewww.threadsthebook.com website. Both writing and designing are very competitive, so you have to want it very badly and be prepared to work hard for a long time, without making much money. That’s before you even start thinking about the particular skills you need… My biggest tip is: Just do it. Start by designing for your Barbie dolls and work your way up from there.

If you want to be a model, I think it’s trickier still. Some girls and boys have a great life as a result. They travel. They earn money. They see lots of different sights. Others, many others, have their lives ruined by people who prey on them, ruin their confidence, take their money, and worse. The new book I’m writing now is my answer to a girl who wrote to me asking if she should try modeling. Having been thinking about it for the last nine months, I’d say: Possibly, but only if you’ve thought about it VERY HARD and you know what the pitfalls are, and if you’ve got great people in your life to support you through it. For every Kate Moss there are millions, literally millions, of girls who don’t make it. And there are other things to do that will give you lots of satisfaction. I always think the photographer probably has more fun than the model, for example. He gets to decide how the shoot looks, after all. And the writer who writes about the shoot? She has the best fun of all.

TRC: How about girls who are interested in becoming novelists? What advice would you have for them?

SB: It’s all on my website! Try looking here:http://sophiabennett.com/writing/writing-tips/. I get asked all the time, so I’ve pulled lots of tips together. And good luck! If you make it, you’ll have the most wonderful life. You won’t have a Ferrari, necessarily, but it’s a great life anyway.

TRC: I adored Noel Streatfeild's Shoes books when I was younger, so I was pleased to see you cite her character Posy, from BALLET SHOES, as one of your inspirations for writing a novel about girls pursuing career goals from a young age. What other novels would you recommend for girls who enjoy your book?

SB: I know girls and boys who love to read classic literature, and others who prefer to stick to contemporary books. For those who don’t mind the classics, I recommend FLOWERS FOR MRS. HARRIS by Paul Gallico. It’s a very short book about a London char lady (cleaner) who saves up enough money to buy a Dior ball gown from Paris. An absolutely magical story. Also, DADDY-LONG-LEGS by Jean Webster. It’s written in the form of a letter by a very feisty orphan girl to her mysterious benefactor, with a love story twist. And there’s PARTY FROCK --- another book by Noel Streatfeild. It’s the first story I read that was inspired by a dress. My publisher gave me an early edition when my book was first published, and it’s very special. My favorite series was probably Veronica at the Wells, which is about a girl who became a ballet dancer. It’s very dated by now, but so exciting.

Among more modern books, I’m a big fan of STARGIRL by Jerry Spinelli. I adore the story, and the pink cover is my favorite ever. And of course, there’s Meg Cabot. I’m thrilled she agreed to write something for the cover of SEQUINS, SECRETS, AND SILVER LININGS. She’s my favorite author for writing about funny, smart girls, and I’ve admired her for years. And in the UK, there’s also Cathy Cassidy. Her new Chocolate Box series for girls is great. Finally, lots of girls who like my books also love Eva Ibbotson, who recently died after a long and happy life as a writer. JOURNEY TO THE RIVER SEA is spectacular. Maia and Miss Minton are fabulous, strong characters. And you’ll never think the same way about the Amazon again!

TRC: I know that SEQUINS, SECRETS, AND SILVER LININGS is the first book in a projected trilogy about these friends' adventures in the fashion world. Do you have plans to explore other industries or careers once this trilogy is finished?

SB: I really enjoy writing about creative young people who are starting to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and finding the inspiration that will lead them to amazing careers. The next book will be about modeling. After that, I’m interested in writing about a boy poet with dreams of being an artist. And then, who knows? I love it when fans suggest ideas. Send them over!

TRC: The next book in the trilogy, BEADS, BOYS, AND BANGLES, will be published in the U.S. in the spring of 2012. Any hints about what readers can expect in that volume?

SB: Yes --- and there’s even a bonus chapter from it at the end of SEQUINS, by the way. Crow is lucky enough to be asked to design a mainstream collection for a big retail chain. But how does the company manage to make the clothes so beautifully and so cheaply? There are rumors that child slave labor in India has been used. Everyone tells the girls that this isn’t true, but really there’s only one way to find out --- and that’s to go to Mumbai and see for themselves…