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
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