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Hackney Wick: How Women Of The Wick creates places for women to be heard

Discover Sara Kärpänen’s platform for marginalised voices via podcasts, workshops and events

Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen
Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

I believe we all have a story to tell and the voice to tell it,” said Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen.

“Sometimes we need other people to provide a safe space to share our stories. Social media isn’t always the best platform to show our vulnerabilities or experiences.”

Women Of The Wick (WoW) provides that space for marginalised voices to be heard through podcasts, workshops and events.

This autumn, Sara will be bringing many of those stories together in a new magazine that will go out across the Wick.

It will be the culmination of a storytelling programme funded by Foundation For Future London.

“It came about from the need to offer alternatives to the current media platforms or institutions that exist within the area and beyond,” said Sara.

“I want to help give creative entrepreneurs storytelling tools so they can use their voices and more unconventional business methods.

“The parts of ourselves we hide are often like superpowers.

“Those are the stories that connect us with other people, and potentially help someone who’s struggling with the same thing. 

“I have realised that many professional writers still either lack the confidence or find that they need more peer-to-peer support and a safe space to share their stories, or are just generally interested in gaining insight into their writing.”

Before she moved to London, Sara had her own successful career as a cultural journalist back home in Finland.

But it left her feeling “burned out and uninspired”. It was a visit to Hackney Wick that brought her back to life.

“I walked into this warehouse space in 2013 and shouted out ‘I’ve come home’,” said the 35-year-old.

“I had such a strong feeling of belonging, from the first instant I looked around. 

“There was this sense of freedom and access to different types of spaces and support from the community.”

Sara says she has a strong attraction to Hackney Wick
Sara says she has a strong attraction to Hackney Wick – image Matt Grayson

She was only meant to be visiting London as part of an internship with The Finnish Institute.

But after wrapping up her master’s in visual culture back home, she left Finland for good and moved to her own live-work space in Hackney Wick.

At first, she worked as a freelance artist doing public works commissions with a local architects’ practice and then began writing again for an online publication, where she realised the need for more feminist spaces and media.

“I have always been someone who’s fought for equal rights and I feel very strongly about gender inequality,” she said.

“I think it is my duty to tackle the inequalities that exist in the creative industry.

“It took me quite a while to gain the type of networks that I currently have and I wanted to offer some of the skills and networks I have gained along the way to other people whose first language isn’t English or who have moved to London.

“Also, I find elevating other women’s voices and visibility helps me overcome the feeling that other women take away from what I have got.

“It’s a counterwork to that societal pressure that we should be enemies instead of sisters supporting one another.”

WoW was born in 2019 from a residency at creative space Grow Hackney during which Sara started a podcast.

“I wanted to capture, document and share beautiful stories from the women that had somehow contributed to making the creative communities that Hackney Wick and Fish Island are known for,” she said.

“I wanted to facilitate a space where individual stories could be heard but also create a strong sense of community and belonging – the kind I once felt when I moved to the area.

“Quite quickly I was commissioned by the Foundation For Future London to capture more stories from women within east London.

“I realised this work was needed – not just a podcast.

“I wanted to create other ways to facilitate spaces for women to come together, be vulnerable and talk about everything from sex to social media and the highs and lows of being an artist, mother and woman today.”

Sara runs monthly workshops with WoW
Sara runs monthly workshops with WoW – image Matt Grayson

In the first year, that mission led to a panel discussion on Art, Sex and Gender, raising money for LGBTQIA+ charity Galop UK, a queer poetry night and the two-day festival Heal Her, focused on storytelling and eco-feminism.

“I feel very strongly that feminist issues are also trans and gay rights – we’re all on the same front line against the patriarchy,” said Sara.

When lockdown hit, she began a series on Instagram Live with local artists from their studios explaining their work processes and collaborated with organisations like Grow Hackney to do a book club and talks.

Today, WoW facilitates monthly workshops for freelancers at Hackney Bridge and works with partners across London, including Foundation For Future London, Economy Of Hours (Echo), Stour Trust, BMW Foundation, and Creative Land Trust. 

The podcast How To Occupy Space continues, and sees Sara interview artists, activists and architects such as Juliet Can, founder of Stour Trust and Arab artist Tamara Al-Mashouk.

Last year Sara launched a second podcast, Girl Get A Real Job, to talk about how we can reduce the current pay gap in the creative industries and normalise conversations about money and financial resilience. 

Guests have included Selina Flavius, author of Black Girl Finance and Kaiya Shang, editor at Scribner.

In the autumn she will be launching a new programme focused on the topics discussed.

Sara also works as programme coordinator at Echo

Sara also works as programme coordinator at Echo – image Matt Grayson

“Hosting a space where experiences can be shared and people can be authentically themselves is incredibly powerful,” said Sara, whose day job is programme coordinator at Echo, where members trade the skills they have for those they need.

“The reason I find podcasting so accessible is that it’s another way to share our stories and journeys with others, as well as writing and public speaking. 

“All these things are really under the big umbrella of storytelling, which keeps coming up as a central theme for everything that we do.

“It is a key component in branding and more businesses are becoming aware that storytelling is at the core of their practice and they need to communicate that effectively to others.

“That’s led me to do workshops for businesses or entrepreneurs who want to expand their vision of what they can do with purpose-led storytelling strategies.

“Since MeToo and the so-called third wave of feminism, there has been more importance placed on personal storytelling and women’s experiences.

“But there’s still so much to do. It’s great there is interest there, but it needs to be more than just ticking a box. 

“If a voice is given to people or representative groups, then we are on the right track.”

Sara said the key to good storytelling was realising there was no wrong way to do it.

“Write as you would speak to your best friend, is the best advice to anyone who wants to have their voice heard,” she said.

“We all have a story within us and are powerful beyond belief.

“You need to trust in that voice. It doesn’t have to be polished.”

To give people the confidence to speak out, Sara has everyone who attends a WoW workshop or programme agree to a safe space commitment.

“Everyone agrees that there’s a non-judgmental space and we have zero tolerance of racism or misogyny,” she said.

“We are here to cheer each other on and this is a space where we can share those vulnerabilities – the highs and lows of being an artist.”

Read more: How The Shipwright offers a communal, collaborative approach to theatre

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Fish Island: How Rewritten rewrote the rules on sustainable bridesmaids’ dresses

Katie Arnott and Fran Cookson started their brand, which now offers a bridal collection too

Rewritten founders Fran and Katie
Rewritten founders Fran, left, and Katie – image Matt Grayson

The story of Rewritten has, at its heart, a friendship. Katie Arnott had been working at then emerging jewellery brand Astley Clarke for about four years when she was assigned as a buddy to incoming head of communications Fran Cookson.

Despite being in different teams, the pair worked closely, becoming good friends over the next four years when one night, over several glasses of wine, inspiration struck.

“We were both getting married and we couldn’t find nice, cool, contemporary bridesmaids’ dresses for adults,” said Fran.

“We’d asked our friends where they’d been shopping for them and were told there were only traditional, old-fashioned shops – we saw this gap in the market and decided to launch a bridesmaid’s dress brand.

“We always knew we wanted to do our own thing and between us we thought we had the right skill set. Katie understood retail and operations and I had a background in fashion design as well as marketing.

“We put a business plan together and approached Virgin for a business startup loan in 2016 and that’s how we founded Rewritten.”

startup

“We’ve nearly finished paying back that loan,” said Katie. “Applying for it was really good for us because we had no idea what we were doing at all. 

“We’d never started a business so we didn’t have a clue how to write a plan for one. Doing that really forced us to sit down and look at so many different aspects of the company. 

“We put this huge document together, applied and got accepted straight away. Virgin has been very supportive over the years. We have often gone back and done talks there because they have lots of entrepreneurs and startups going though their programme.”

Rewritten Bridesmaid
Brookyln Dress in Olive Green, £140

styles

“We started with four colours and four styles, and now we have around 14 colours and 10-12 styles,” said Fran who designs Rewritten’s products.

“We’ve grown quite a lot as a brand and we have a wholesale channel as well, so we have stockists around the UK and internationally.

“We sell mainly through our showroom appointments and we’re fully booked until August as well as selling a lot online.

“We’re quite a disruptive brand, in that we were really the first ones to do a wide range of colours and sizes and styles available digitally, which wasn’t really a thing before in this market. 

“The bridal industry is very old fashioned although it is changing. Traditionally bridesmaids’ dresses would be very generic and really expensive – £300 per dress – that’s a huge amount of money if you have eight to buy. 

“Many were prom-style – it was almost a joke category and that’s what we wanted to change.

“The question we ask is: ‘Why can’t you wear a really cool dress or a jumpsuit as a bridesmaid – something that you could potentially wear again?’. We call it sustainable bridesmaid-wear – the idea is that this no longer a ‘single use’ industry.

“Women’s fashion is one of the biggest environmental offenders and bridesmaids’ dresses are a big part of that – they’re relegated to the back of the wardrobe and we wanted to change that, making pieces you want to buy and wear, whether that’s different styles in the same colour or the same dress in a wide range of sizes. 

“When we started, this approach didn’t even exist and people really enjoyed that autonomy rather than being told they had to wear a horrible dress.”

Rewritten Bridesmaids
Rewritten can provide different dresses in identical colours

showroom

Having originally opened its doors in Tottenham, the brand has relocated to Fish Island in Hackney Wick, with premises that cater for its shipping operations and, crucially, customers who want to try dresses on.

“We make the whole thing really special with private fitting appointments and we open at the weekends too,” said Fran.

“People can come in as a group, have a glass of Prosecco and it’s a really lovely experience.

“It’s our clients with their mates having a trying on session – and our frosted glass makes it very private. Hackney Wick is such a cool area, with all the bars and restaurants around here – we have a blog on our website that tells visitors where the best places to go for brunch or a drink are and people really make a day of it.”

sustainability

Katie said: “We’re trying to change the preconception that weddings are about single-use fashion. Our brand is about rewriting the rules.

“We had to apply for our space at The Trampery in Fish Island – they were looking for sustainable fashion brands and we are one of the six founder members here. 

“We’re not saying we’re perfect but we’re really striving to make a lot of changes, using recycled fabrics and making a lot of the collection in London as well as only making dresses when people order them which is a sustainable way of manufacturing.”

Rewritten Bridal
Rewritten’s bridal collection includes Simone Dress, £575

spreading

Rewritten recently launched its first bridal collection, made entirely from organic and recycled fabrics in response to demand from fans of the pieces in its core collection.

“We’re quite a London-centric brand at present so we’d like to become a lot bigger in the UK,” said Fran. “We’ve been looking at Manchester and we also have a lot of Irish brides, so Dublin could be an option too.

“In terms of sustainability we want to have the whole collection made in recycled fabrics by the beginning of 2023 and that’s partly about changing people’s mindsets about what that means, educating our customers. Our bridal collection really shows that – it’s affordable and the dresses could really be worn again.”

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