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DECEMBER 11, 2019

As the year winds down, I had a chance to catch up with Juliana Upton. A London designer hailing from Medillín, Colombia, she devotes her time developing her own brand and business by partnering storytelling with intricate embroidery. Wrapping up her first collection now, we chatted about the lessons and challenges that come with starting a solo business, the importance of a sharp eye for design, and even 100 lasagnas cooked in one weekend.

How have you been? Tell me a bit about yourself.

I decided to develop a design brand using my name, Juliana Upton, in 2018. I wanted to do something no one has ever seen before. Even as a graphic designer, paper wasn’t enough for me. I needed to use sparkles, use texture, and use embroidery to fully express myself. It’s been one year and three months of developing and executing. Before that, I had an entire year of investigating—because I get bored really easily with what’s already out there! All my time, I spent on Pinterest, walking around London, looking through shops.


I’m not going to lie, it has been a little tough to end the year. I had a lot of goals when I started out and I didn’t necessarily reach all of them. But, it has been a time for reflection, a time for me to reevaluate what makes me excited. What I know about myself is that I am not going to work for a company. If I do that, I will lose myself. Most people do. So right now, I’m trying to survive and start thinking about the upcoming year. I’m trying to figure out what it means to have a business, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may need to lose part of myself and my current routine to do so.

I think that makes a lot of sense. Just to get a sense of how you got here, where did you grow up, and what brought you to London?

I grew up in Medellín, Colombia. The short story is that I came to London because my husband was transferred here for work. But if you put that aside, I really wanted to be in a city where people could express themselves. Even if I’m introverted, it’s a place where I can wear sparkles on a Monday on the tube and no one will look twice. But that being said, I don’t feel like my heart belongs anywhere. I moved to London three years ago, but I think I’m a free spirit. I can be anywhere.


Could you talk a bit about what it’s like being a designer in London?


When I moved to London, I had a lot of expectations for this city. I initially thought I was coming to the paradise of design. I realized over time that it wasn’t. But London has helped me personally. I’m beginning to learn how to express myself. Everyone might think, “Oh, I need to move to the big city to make my dreams come true.” You can definitely do it in your house, or in your town. You just need to be curious; you need to be hungry for more. You have to feel bored with what you see every day. You can still be a good designer regardless of location. I think London has helped in terms of me personally… I’m able to express myself better. But as a designer, I don’t think it has improved that part.


I feel like this city can spark creativity and change within someone. What have you been up to with your brand? What are you currently working on?


It’s just so overwhelming, that question. [laughs] So I’ll just tell you randomly. The thing that comes with having your own brand is… I do everything! I do the design, the graphic design, illustration for embroidery, developing an online shop, and social media. I’m working on the online shop now. But, there’s so much preparation that goes into that, so I need to do an investigation of the brand. I do a mood board for the website to see how it looks. From photoshoots, from colors, to the copy of the website. I also do mock-ups of photoshoots. I’m trying to fix the collection I have right now, so I’m always trying to see how I can improve it. I’m also trying to make the brand quite unique. For example, I don’t want to just sell you the product. I want the cushions to have phrases—for example, a label in the back with something cute, or funny. Not everybody will appreciate the smaller details, but when you find someone who does, that is the person who understands me. I also try to read about and learn about social media, and how I can build my brand through it. I am not a social media person at all, I hate it! I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Instagram. It’s all just being started because of the brand. For me, to put myself on social media—that’s a big thing. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right.

But right now, I’m having a break, but I know that I have to fix the collection. I’m trying to show myself again why I really like this. Things as basic as, spending a lot of time on Pinterest: “Oh yes, I want to do this, or I want to do that”. The problem I’m having right now is that I don’t have a boutique to manufacture my ideas, and that’s where there is a gap in the business. Right now, I’m trying to remind myself every day why I love this.


Do you mind telling me a little bit about what your latest collection is about?


When I started the brand, I was in survival mode in London. I decided to start with a theme that I felt close to, and I decided to go with the jungle theme, because in a way, that’s how I felt: a little lost. I was first doubting myself when I selected the jungle theme, just because it can be cliché and I’m sick of seeing palms everywhere! But I wanted to show what was happening inside the jungle. It’s not just a beautiful palm. Instead, the mango is cut every morning, a mom has to carry and take care of her baby in the wild, the animals are all together during the day and at night. The cycle of it.

That’s the foundation of the brand. For me, when I work with the copy of the website, I want to share what’s on my mind and the story behind the art I create. That’s really difficult for me. For example, for the mom that is embroidered on one of the cushions, I wanted to show why she is taking so much care for the baby. I want people to understand it’s not just a cliché theme.

I think one thing that I really appreciate about myself is the way I design. I spend so much time giving warmth and meaning to my creations. I feel like I’m very passionate, and I want to share that with people. The product can be beautiful, but it doesn’t say what it is. There is so much passion behind it, that’s like 80% of the beauty of the design.


I know you said you were working on cushions. Are you going to move onto something else afterwards?


I decided to start working with something I was comfortable with. A cushion is a blank canvas. Now, I feel stronger with what I can do. I’m bored of the cushions now! I can’t wait to sell these and start another thing. There are three in the collection. I’m already dreaming of what’s next: huge embroidered pieces that hang from your ceiling, so you definitely need a house with a big ceiling. [laughs] I’m dreaming with 3D shapes that you put on your dinner table. I’m dreaming with big pictures and the story of how things interact, shown across meters and meters of fabric. I dream with that. I dream with big pieces in museums. I don’t care about shops. I just hope one day someone says, “we’re going to exhibit the best 10 designs that you have done in the [last] ten years.” That is what I want.


What does the vision of your brand look like to you?


The tag of the brand is “Indulgent Design.” It’s literally that: I want to indulge you. I don’t want you to feel guilty when you buy those huge bananas that are hanging from your ceiling that are so heavy and probably no one can touch it; I don’t want you to feel ashamed that you have them at home. I want my products to help people be brave and bold, so you can turn your house into a space that you really connect with.


How did you know you wanted to pursue a career in design? You started with graphic design?


Yes. Graphic design was the base. I went to a university in Medillín, where I did an emphasis in illustration, fashion, and editorial. I mean, I always felt like it was meant to be. I never saw myself doing anything else. I knew it, you know what I mean? Since I was a kid, and at university, I knew it—I just didn’t know what design to do. I decided to go with graphic design because I thought it was very open. I enjoy expressing myself with fashion, but I don’t see myself giving something to the world of fashion. I thought that with graphic design… it’s a bucket of possibilities. You can do anything that you want. Using those three aspects of emphasis, I chose it as, “I will start here, and see how it goes”.


I love that you can trust your instincts and eye. I don’t think that comes easily for most people. What was university like for you -- do you feel like it encouraged or stifled creativity?


It was good, I just wish I enjoyed it more. I decided to work during my second semester, and in Colombia, you have 10 semesters in total over 5 years. I didn’t have a great relationship with my mom, so I decided to work on the weekends. And I did that during my whole career at university. So I was always tired, because I was working on the weekends, and going to bed late… so I think my time there was good. But I wish I could I have enjoyed it more. The memory I have of university is… surviving. Honestly, you asked me, and I had to think, “what was it like?”


Wow, so work really embedded itself during your time at university. What did you do? Odd jobs or more career focused?


I did so many things. I started working in a pizza place, and then worked at a martini bar. I found a job at a lingerie company later on, doing textiles and design, but was also still working at the bar. Later, I moved to a larger mall in Medellín for an internship, and I was helping a team on a fashion magazine with graphics—what is new in the shops, the trends, all that. They really trusted my eye. That’s my asset. I know that my eye for visuals and design can give me a future. I’ve helped design a Christmas light festival in Medellín, I helped my cousin with her baby in Bermuda for a few years, I worked for a swimwear company doing illustrations, research, and design for collections, I’ve done freelance work in Bogotá—wedding invitations, stuff like that—and I even made over 100 lasagnas one weekend to sell that helped fund a trip I took to the US. [laughs] Yes, I took orders, and made them all in the kitchen, and then got in my car and delivered them. Over those years I met Will, my husband.


Where/what do you draw inspiration from? You can say Pinterest!


You know, I was going to say that! [laughs] Pinterest, only because it is anonymous. I know I sound horrible. I like that it shows me one thing in different ways, but it shows you one type of handbag, but in thousands of shapes and cultures. It’s like my intimate space, and it gives me freedom.


Do you have any role models or idols that you—?


Beyoncé! [laughs] Have you seen Homecoming? I have seen that thousands of times. Every time that I’m sad, I’ll listen to her on Spotify. She makes me feel alive, like I’m not scared of my voice, I’m not scared to be brave. If I have to do something out of my comfort zone, I think about what she would do. She says “fuck off," then fuck off.


With 2019 coming to a close, what did you learn the most from this year? I feel like it was a great learning year—a lot has happened for you internally and externally.


I have learned that if it’s not right, it’s not right. Trust it. Don’t try to sell yourself an idea that you’re not completely engaged in; don’t let the problem advance, even if you’re just starting out. I will not doubt my instinct again.


Do you have anything else to add?


I’m very cool! [laughs] Are you writing that? Oh my god! Will always says to me, “If you say you are cool, then you are not.” But I genuinely am!

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