Not many people can say that they make a living with embroidery, but Danielle Clough can. And a successful one to boot. It turns out that luck, love and intention played a big role in her creating a sustainable business out of her talent.
Gucci, Nike, VANS, Adobe and the UN are just some of the big brands that she’s done some cool stuff with. But none of that happened overnight. The South African embroiderer, known by her playful moniker on social media as Fiance Knowles, says that she’s been very lucky and surprised at the business that she’s been able to grow.
“I’ve been in the right place at the right time doing something that I found accidentally and a lot of doors opened up and I feel very, very fortunate for that. I remember at the end of 2015 that I had this attitude and mantra of ‘all I want to do is VJ [a live performer of visuals at events] and embroider’. If that could be my life then I would be happy, you know? So there was a very clear intention and love for it, but it never felt completely obtainable because I had never seen it before. I didn’t follow the predictable formula that we all get given of ‘go to school, study this thing, start out doing this and that’ and I very much went off course.”
Danielle says that she actually thought that she invented this new technique, only to realise that it was called “embroidery” and that it was anything but new!
“I made plush toys while studying and would stitch on details and that ‘drawing’ started to evolve. I really just love that process. I actually thought I had invented embroidery... it never clicked that stitched imagery was embroidery. It was just kind of this thing that I thought I had discovered – quite embarrassingly – and then I kept doing it and it keeps evolving. Once I understood what I was experimenting and playing with, I started to ask questions and through asking questions and trying different things I learned different techniques.”
This experimentation was initially just a hobby and something she did along with the many other creative things she did. Her process is one that happens organically and intuitively, and she’s worked in many different media and disciplines, from design to photography to live visuals (VJ’ing) and fabric and even fashion design briefly.
“I've always had a lot of things on the go at once and I’ve had my embroidery hobby alongside my jobs whether it was waitressing or working as a [graphic] designer. I had been doing a lot of things and then this one kind of clicked into place and gathered momentum and I just kept building systems around it to maintain it and then within that it kept growing.
Some of Danielle’s most well-known pieces are the embroidered tennis racquets, but she’s quick to explain that she didn’t come up with the concept. Rather, it was her drive to challenge herself after a friend sent her picture.
“I wish that I could say that I came up with this idea out of this moment of genius but that is definitely not the case! I was shown a racket with quite a simple heart wrapped around the grids to create a pixelated heart and I thought: 'I'm pretty sure I can do that, but better.' The next day I went to go to Milnerton market, and I found some secondhand rackets and some threads, and I just started playing and I figured it out.”
Success = challenging yourself
When someone such as Danielle has so many remarkable projects and collaborations in their body of work, it’s always interesting to find out which ones they consider to be key to their success. She says these are usually the ones she self-initiates.
“They're normally the most experimental ones when I have these moments of real inspiration, for lack of a better word. I’m very much following my own voice. Those are the ones where my skills improve. When I challenge myself. When I push my abilities and then clock into a new way of working – and that’s when most the progress happens. I think the success has been very much based on my progress.”
Danielle says that along with that progress, it’s also about gaining trust. “I have had a few big corporate works, which helped me gain a trust from my audience, clients and people who commissioned me. It’s a combination of progressing, working hard and then having really amazing projects where people have trusted me with their brands or their ideas.”
Even accomplished artists and professionals have moments of self-doubt, and it often changes in how it shows up at different stages of one’s life. For Danielle, this is no different and she’s mindful about these and makes a conscious effort to work through them.
“The difference between how I currently work and the doubt that settles in now compared to when I first started playing with this, is initially it was very experimental and I didn’t have an audience. My ideas didn’t have a place to live and it wasn’t going anywhere; it was really just for me. Now, this is not only my passion and my hobby, but it is also my job. And one that lives primarily on social media. I have more faith in my ability to do stuff, but doubt does set in when I start thinking about how it will be received.”
Sustain yourself – and your joy
If you’re feeling inspired to follow Danielle’s lead in pursuing a creative business, she says that one of the key factors is to find ways to protect both your ability to sustain your creative pursuits and your joy. A sure way to stop your passion is saying “yes” to everything and to things that you don’t enjoy. However, she explains that you have to understand if you’re doing work for money, you will have to make some compromises.
“This comes with listening to your gut, trusting yourself and finding clear ways to communicate with clients and lay down certain boundaries, with as much kindness and understanding. It’s also very important to be able to separate that some work is for money and some work is for love. It’s about continuously being mindful of your boundaries and taking every project on as its own thing.”
Make it a pony
If you’ve seen that meme about clients hovering around a designer asking him to ‘make it a pony’, you’ll get an idea of how bad things can get for creatives. You can avoid this by understanding and communicating what your non-negotiables are, and being willing to walk away from a project if your boundaries are not respected.
“It’s about protecting what you’re doing – and not necessarily aggressively. It’s just a matter of knowing yourself well enough to understand how something is going to pan out, creating certain boundaries and understanding what value you want to place on things, and then making sure this value gets honoured. And if not, then just kindly decline.”
Danielle suggests that you say something like: “I think that for this to go forward and for this to work for me, I require X”. And “X” can be whatever it is that you value, for instance: time to finish something at your pace, with no interference, or limited changes.
Author: Leanne Feris
Watch one of Danielle's talks on courage, failure, persistence and intent here: