FOL­LOW­ING A DREAM How to take con­trol and mas­ter the mid-life ca­reer switch

High-pow­ered women are in­creas­ingly set­ting off on new ca­reer paths – in­clud­ing the founder of Lilly e Vi­o­letta, who moved from fi­nance to fash­ion

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By LY­DIA SLATER Photographs by JOSH SHINNER Styled by FLORRIE THOMAS

Grow­ing up in Bologna, Maria Mur­ray had a sin­gle over­rid­ing am­bi­tion: she longed to be a fash­ion de­signer. At the age of six, she was cro­chet­ing with her grand­mother; as she grew older, she made cush­ions for friends, and by the time she was 14, she had en­rolled her­self in a dress­mak­ing school, which she paid for with her own pocket money. Soon, she was mak­ing a name for her­self with her ex­quis­ite hand­made blouses. ‘I still re­mem­ber how I made one for my mother out of white silk with lots of pleat­ing in the front, which opened up when she put it on…’ Ev­ery­one called her ‘Mani d’Oro’ – Golden Hands. But here the fairy tale comes to a sud­den halt, for as the high-achiev­ing daugh­ter of a well-to-do structural en­gi­neer and a tax ac­coun­tant, it was in­con­ceiv­able for her fam­ily that Mur­ray would pur­sue a ca­reer in fash­ion rather than in busi­ness.

‘My par­ents had al­ways taught me that I needed to earn my own liv­ing – there wasn’t even the op­tion for me to go into a cre­ative pro­fes­sion where there would be a ques­tion mark around my abil­ity to earn enough to keep my­self,’ she says. ‘Of course, they wouldn’t have minded me be­ing cre­ative on the week­end.’ In­stead, Mur­ray took an MBA, be­came a strate­gic man­age­ment con­sul­tant, then joined Gold­man Sachs, ris­ing to the po­si­tion of direc­tor. All the while, she con­tin­ued to de­sign her own clothes, hav­ing pieces al­tered in Italy to her spec­i­fi­ca­tion, and spend­ing her spare time help­ing out un­paid in Vivi­enne West­wood’s ate­lier for fun. Her col­leagues be­gan to ask her to make clothes for them too; so in 2013, she de­cided to hold a one-day sale. ‘My idea was to in­vite all my friends, so that once and for all they got what they wanted and I didn’t have to have them call­ing me every other day.’ In four hours on a sin­gle Sun­day, she was as­ton­ished at how much she made.

‘I came home and said to my hus­band, “What shall I do? ” And he said, “You should make it into a busi­ness.” That’s when I de­cided to start out on my own.’ So af­ter two decades of cor­po­rate life, Mur­ray turned her back on the City to found her fash­ion brand Lilly e Vi­o­letta; when we meet in May­fair, she ar­rives clad in a chic pin­stripe dress of her own cre­ation, which is one of the stars of her first ready-to-wear col­lec­tion, out this au­tumn at Har­rods.

The mid-life ca­reer swap – who could call it a cri­sis when the re­sults are so pos­i­tive? – is be­com­ing

Who could call the mid-life ca­reer swap a cri­sis when the re­sults are so pos­i­tive?

more com­mon among women who have reached the top of their ca­reer lad­der. Take the colum­nist Lucy Kell­away, who left the FT this sum­mer af­ter 32 years in or­der to re­train as a maths teacher, found­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion Now Teach to en­able her fel­low mid­ca­reer pro­fes­sion­als to fol­low her ex­am­ple. She an­nounced her de­ci­sion in an ar­ti­cle – and within 24 hours, more than 100 read­ers had ap­plied to join her.

Per­haps it isn’t sur­pris­ing that so many of us seem pre­pared to aban­don sta­tus and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity in mid-life to fol­low a dream. If one has a prop­erty and a pen­sion, and chil­dren who are at least par­tially in­de­pen­dent, a salary di­min­ishes in im­por­tance; in its place comes an in­creas­ing need for a sense of fresh pur­pose, rather than coast­ing along at the top of an al­ready-mas­tered pro­fes­sion.

‘As a head­hunter, I spent 14 years in­ter­view­ing for se­nior posts, andI­heardthe­same­thing­con­stant­lyfro­ma­llthe­se­tal­ent­ed­peo­ple: one day, I’ll start a flower shop, or a baby-cloth­ing line…’ says the en­tre­pre­neur Krisztina van der Boom. ‘I thought, I don’t want to be like that, a per­son who looks back and says, “I wish I’d done what Iwant­edto.”’So,with­her­sis­terAnita,thenan­in­vest­ment­banker,she started up DryBy, one of the first walk-in blow-dry bars in the UK, in­spired by sa­lons they had seen in New York. ‘We both have curly, frizzy hair, so we thought it was such a good idea,’ she says, laugh­ing.

Mean­while, Whit­ney Bromberg Hawk­ings spent nearly 20 years work­ing with the de­signer Tom Ford be­fore co-found­ing Flowerbx, an on­line flo­ral-de­liv­ery com­pany. ‘I have never worked as hard in my life as I am now,’ she con­fides. ‘It’s re­lent­less but to­tally thrilling.’

The life coach Renée El­liott has ex­pe­ri­ence from both sides of the fence: she left her first job, on a mag­a­zine, to found Planet Or­ganic, and this year launched Bel­uga Bean, a busi­ness and life-skills acad­emy for women. ‘A lot of the women I coach are in the City, and they say to me, “I’m dy­ing a slow death and I have to get out,”’ she says. ‘The other ca­reer change is for women who left suc­cess­ful roles to have chil­dren, and are now re­al­is­ing that they have maybe 30 years of en­er­getic time left, and they want to do some­thing use­ful with it.’ Her ad­vice to women who feel stuck in a pro­fes­sional rut is to look back at what you en­joyed and what you were good at as a child. ‘Clar­ity of vi­sion is very pow­er­ful,’ she says.

En­cour­ag­ingly, all the women I spoke to were adamant that the skills and ex­pe­ri­ence learnt from their first ca­reers had been vi­tal to the suc­cess of their sub­se­quent projects. ‘Hav­ing been with Tom [Ford] when he started beauty and then eyewear, I think it psy­cho­log­i­cally pre­pared me to take the leap,’ says Bromberg Hawk­ings. ‘And of course, flow­ers are fash­ion cur­rency: I was al­ways send­ing bou­quets on his be­half.’ For van der Boom, head­hunt­ing taught her both how and why to do re­search, ‘and I learned an in­cred­i­ble amount about ca­reers, and what leads where’.

Mean­while, on top of an un­der­stand­ing of fi­nance, and a ready­made and af­flu­ent cus­tomer base, Mur­ray’s ex­pe­ri­ence gave her an in­nate un­der­stand­ing of how se­nior women in the City are ex­pected to dress that would never oc­cur to an out­sider. ‘I knew the code and I knew ex­actly how I wanted to feel when I was stand­ing in front of a board of trustees.’ She rat­tles through a list: a raglan sleeve, be­cause it’s less con­strict­ing; a skirt length to the knee or be­low to avoid cul­ture clashes with clients; a con­struc­tion that won’t bag or ruck even if you’re sit­ting down for 10 hours a day; a neck­line that can be ad­justed to take your out­fit smoothly from day to night, since there’s never time to go home in be­tween… Her en­thu­si­asm, as she shows me page af­ter page of el­e­gant draw­ings, is pal­pa­ble – as is that of the other women, which is per­haps why their re­spec­tive busi­nesses have all taken off.

‘Have you seen that movie Joy, where Jen­nifer Lawrence is try­ing to sell her mop ?’ asks Brom berg Ha w kings .‘ I feel like I’m do­ing that every day. I’m sell­ing this prod­uct be­cause I be­lieve in it so much.’ ‘We re­ally aren’t de­signed to sit in front of a com­puter for 12 hours a day,’ agrees van der Boom. ‘If ev­ery­one dared to step out, it would be such an en­rich­ing world of start-ups and small busi­nesses, and peo­ple would be much more ful­filled.’

The Lilly e Vi­o­letta de­signer Maria Mur­ray in her liv­ing-room, wear­ing wool dress, £995, Lilly e Vi­o­letta at Har­rods. Jew­ellery, her own

Far right: an an­tique desk with a photo of Mur­ray’s daugh­ters

Right: silk or­ganza dress, £1,450, Lilly e Vi­o­letta at Har­rods. Valentino heels and all jew­ellery, her own. Be­low right: an­tiques in the liv­ing-room

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