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Niki Jessup: MA Footwear

Niki making leather shoes in her workshop
Niki making leather shoes in her workshop
Niki in her workshop
Written by
Chloe Dunn
Published date
18 December 2020

After taking Leatherwork classes at Centre des Métiers du Cuir de Montreal in Canada, Niki decided to move to London to enrol in the MA Footwear course at London College of Fashion. Since then, she has started her own handcrafted unisex sneakers and accessories brand, Atelier HOTELMOTEL. not just a shop is currently stocking HOTELMOTEL products, be sure to check it out! Here, Nikki shares how the UAL community continues to inspire her, and create opportunities - 5 years after graduating.

Niki in her workshop
Niki in her workshop

Can you tell us a bit about what the MA Footwear course entailed and your experience as a student?

We were 11 people in our cohort, from all corners of the world and with very different backgrounds. Some came from arts, architecture, fashion - it made for very rich discussions. I was extremely inspired by the students I met at UAL and I was able to collaborate with students across disciplines.

The course itself started off with many creative workshops and masterclasses, which allowed us all to meet each other and get our bearings on campus. Then the work really started.

The MA is an independent study program, I always looked forward to the tutorials, whether with the Course Leader, Eelko Moorer, an invited expert such as Marloes Ten Bohmer or Aki Choklat, or my colleagues.

At the end of the 15-month course, each of us presented our footwear collection (in my case it was 6 pairs of shoes, ranging from wearable to conceptual, a performance and a short film), along with a variety of MA collections from different UAL disciplines. It was an extremely rewarding experience.

The study proposal is an important part of the application for graduate study. Do you have any tips for prospective students on putting together their study proposal? How did your proposal evolve during your studies?

It’s hard to write the study proposal before really understanding what the MA experience will feel like. That said, my advice to prospective students would be to succinctly introduce your work, be as specific as possible on your intended area of focus during your MA and the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Don’t worry too much though, because your proposal will evolve during the course of your MA. You won’t be held to your original proposal.

You received a scholarship from La Fondation de la Mode de Montréal to pursue your studies at LCF. Do you have any tips for prospective fashion students in Quebec applying for this scholarship, or how Canadian students can find scholarships they might be eligible for?

I was very lucky to receive a scholarship from La Fondation de la Mode de Montréal. For the past 2 years, they’ve taken a funding break in order to explore better ways of financially helping students pursue education. For students who do need funding, I also applied to Quebec student loans and bursaries, where I had the MA Footwear course validated. I also got a student line of credit from my bank.

Niki in her workshop
Niki in her workshop

Following your studies at LCF, you moved back to Montreal and started your brand HOTELMOTEL selling handcraft unisex sneakers and accessories. Did you always plan to study in London and take your experience back to work in Canada? How did studying in London benefit you in terms of employment/creative opportunities?

I didn’t have a firm plan going into the MA, though I did imagine myself making bespoke footwear at an undescribed location. When my studies were drawing to a close, I considered looking for work in London, just because I wasn’t ready for the experience to end. That did prove to be difficult though, so as my visa expired, I returned to Montreal and I was put in touch with the owner of a company who made footwear for Le Cirque du Soleil, Disney, New York City Ballet and more.

I worked there for almost 2 years, eventually becoming Head of the Footwear Department. During this time I took up a studio space in Montreal to work on my own projects, that's where I met my business partner, Corinne. Over many discussions around the kitchen table at the studio, HOTELMOTEL was born.

Now, in parallel with the business, I teach at the Centre des métiers du cuir de Montréal and the Centre des Textiles Contemporains de Montréal. I also teach a product development course to fashion students at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

The UAL experience has had an impact on the teaching positions I currently hold, and also allows me to directly reach out to the international contacts when the need arises.

Where did you study your undergraduate degree (BA with Honours in Interdisciplinary Religious studies) and how does this background inspire your current work?

I studied my undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I was fascinated by people and culture and the option of Religious studies seemed to be the best approach to study the day to day habits and rituals of people around the world. My interest in humanities still informs my work today.  It’s like shoemaking is the medium by which I can explore identity, the individual and the individual within a community.

You also studied classes in leatherwork at the Centre des Métiers du Cuir de Montreal in Canada before you moved to London to study the MA Footwear course at LCF. As a Canadian student, what did you find the most different about studying in London?

On the educational side of things, the MA Footwear course was radically different to any of my studies in Canada. From my experience, the UK system is much tougher on students than the comforting, coddling approach I was accustomed to in Canada. For instance, it was pretty routine for students to be challenged and pushed during a tutorial or presentation. And though this may have felt uncomfortable in the moment, the realisations we made as a direct result of the constructive criticism most often led us to make interesting discoveries.

I learned at UAL that you shouldn’t stick to your initial ideas, the intention evolves through research, experimentation, trial and error.

What would your advice be to other Canadian students considering study at UAL in London? And what's your advice to prospective students for making the most of their time here?

I would say do your research first. Spend time on the UAL website, explore the outcomes of other students who have graduated from the courses that interest you.

As for making the most of your time in London, it’s impossible not to! There is so much to explore within the city, so many galleries to visit, so many sights to see, so many beautiful cycling or walking opportunities.

London is expensive but there are many free options to explore. I was part of a group called Our Parks, they offered free workouts in parks scattered across the city. I was a member of the Barbican Library, which is part of the Barbican Centre, an amazing Brutalist complex in the East of London. It’s worth taking part in pub culture too. Every Friday, my colleagues and I would head to our local pub for a few pints to debrief from our week.

Also, don’t forget that travel within Europe is easy and affordable. While I was studying my MA, I was able to visit Scotland, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

Image of HOTELMOTEL Taco Pack in orange. Credit: © Richmond Lam
Image of HOTELMOTEL Taco Pack in orange. Credit: © Richmond Lam

You're an active member of UAL's alumni community in Canada. How has this helped you to expand your network in Canada?

The day I attended my first UAL alumni networking event, I met many great people and a multitude of doors opened up. I met a CSM grad who introduced me to the Director of one of Montreal’s leading Fashion Colleges. I met 2 LCF grads who worked on the buying team at SSENSE, who were interested in stocking my product. I also met another 2 LCF grads who invited my brand to be part of a pop-up space they created a few months later.

I also met, Jess Gill, UAL's Country Manager for Canada and she is the reason I'm an active member with the alumni community in Canada.

Jess not only helps prospective students to prepare applications for their studies at UAL, but she’s also a great connector. She helps alumni all over Canada get in touch with each other and to do great things. I’m really proud to be part of this community.

You returned to the Centre des Métiers du Cuir de Montreal as a professor to teach leatherwork and shoemaking and also teach at UQAM, showing your passion for supporting the next generation of creative talent in Canada. Do you have any words of wisdom for students looking to pursue a career in the creative sectors?

You have to create the opportunity. Imagine what it is you’d love to be doing, then go after it! Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, networking is a big part of life in the creative sectors.

Your products are now sold in 'not just a shop', congratulations! What was the process like? Do you have any tips for other students and alumni looking to do the same? What pieces are available?

Yes, it's all very exciting! The process for the application was straightforward, alumni can apply by submitting a form that includes brand information and photos of a small selection of products.

For HOTELMOTEL, we've sent a selection of Taco bags, our signature fanny packs - or bum bags as you call them in the UK. To see a larger variety of our products, visit our HOTELMOTEL website.

Image of HOTELMOTEL Taco Packs. Credit: © Richmond Lam
Image of HOTELMOTEL Taco Packs. Credit: © Richmond Lam