‘It is a shitshow’: Inside the dramatic, toxic fallout from Northern Fashion Week
A bombshell email and claims of orchestrated slander. What happened to an event that promised to put Manchester’s fashion industry on the map?
“This is probably the first job ever that I’ve felt supported,” says Laurie, a fashion graduate in her early 20s.
We’re speaking via Zoom earlier this month, and on the other half of my laptop screen is her boss, Siobhan Clare O’Donnell, the 35-year-old founder of Northern Fashion Week. “I’ve suffered with my mental health and Siobhan’s been there,” Laurie continues. “There’s been times I’ve rung Siobhan at nine o’clock at night and Siobhan’s been on the phone, no problem.” While Laurie speaks, O’Donnell nods approvingly.
Laurie (which is not her real name — we’ve agreed to keep her anonymous at her request) is a model booker for Northern Fashion Week, an annual event that was founded last year by O’Donnell’s company New Talent Fashion and which this year received an in-person endorsement from Andy Burnham. Laurie started working for O’Donnell in July 2023, scouting for models who could appear on the catwalk. She prioritised looking for models who had the kinds of bodies you might not usually see on runways, like plus sized or disabled women. They were giving opportunities to people who wouldn't normally get a chance in the fashion industry.
The reason Laurie is on the Zoom call with me is that she wants to stand up for O’Donnell, who has recently faced a volley of claims about the way she runs Northern Fashion Week. An anonymous email — claiming to represent the views of “a collective of suppliers and small businesses” — was circulated amongst Manchester’s tight-knit fashion and PR industry in the days leading up to the show in July. It accused O’Donnell of not paying staff and suppliers and of behaving unethically. That anonymous email was sent to me in August and in the weeks before the Zoom call I had been trying to work out if the claims were true.
O’Donnell is adamant that they are not, and says she has been the victim of an elaborate and malicious smear campaign orchestrated by one of her former suppliers. Laurie supports that version of events, telling me on the Zoom call that O’Donnell is a kind and supportive person who is being unfairly attacked. “What they're saying is not what's happened,” Laurie says, referring to the claims against Northern Fashion Week. “That email, it actually broke my heart,” she says. “That’s why I was so like, I need to get on this call today. Because it’s inaccurate, it’s not true.”
So what, you might be wondering, on earth has been going on inside Northern Fashion Week? That’s the subject of today’s investigation, which continues below.
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Your Mill briefing
Sir Mark Elder opened his final season at The Hallé last night after almost a quarter of a century in charge. The 76-year-old, who is one of Britain’s leading conductors and has been the orchestra’s Music Director since September 2000, got a warm ovation from the audience at Bridgewater Hall after a performance of Mahler’s ninth symphony. Next Thursday, the Hallé plays Tchaikovsky in an hour-long ‘Rush Hour’ concert from 6pm.
Late night tram services will be reintroduced this month. Metrolink first introduced the later timetable in 2019, but then it was pared back due to the pandemic. From 29 September, trams will run until 1am on Friday and Saturdays.
There were protests in Wigan against the decision to house asylum seekers in a hotel in the borough. The protesters, and Wigan Council, say the Macdonald Kilhey Court Hotel has a lack of local amenities and nearby public transport.
“We’re understaffed and underpaid, and why would you want to stay in that situation?” That’s Dan Veness, a junior doctor at MRI speaking to the Guardian about the recent joint strike carried out by junior doctors and consultants.
What really happened inside Northern Fashion Week?
By Mollie Simpson
The Zoom call with Laurie and Siobhan O’Donnell earlier this month gave me pause. By that point, I had spoken to half a dozen sources provided by authors of the anonymous email, all of whom claimed they were owed thousands or tens of thousands of pounds by Northern Fashion Week, which they all agreed had been a disastrous fiasco when it took place in July. And yet here was the company’s only full time employee saying the opposite — that the event was a success and that I had been badly misled by O’Donnell’s enemies.
She described the show as lively and exciting, with a touch of chaos: her job required her to run the backstage area, liaise with designers, point out where models should go and what they should wear. She loved it.
Then, earlier this week I came back from a week of annual leave to find an email from Laurie, withdrawing everything she had said on the Zoom. “I would like to recall my statement and anything I have put forward on behalf of NFW,” she wrote. When we spoke on the phone, she said she had resigned from Northern Fashion Week and is owed £2,300 in unpaid wages.
I was staggered. Laurie is young and perhaps comes across as a little naive — but why would she join a call with a journalist to stand up for her boss if she herself hadn’t been paid? She says it’s because she had been manipulated by O’Donnell. “Siobhan asked me to just hop on this call and say you’d been paid on time,” she told me, audibly in tears. “And it was very apparent if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be paid at all. She was like ‘I really understand the pressure you’re under with not being paid, and this would really help me relieve this pressure.’”
Laurie told me she hadn’t been paid properly for three months — receiving roughly half the money she was owed — and says the saga has had a major impact on her life. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she says. “That’s how stressful it’s been.”
O’Donnell categorically denies that she did this. “I don't treat people badly. I don't blackmail people,” she says. She admits that since she started Northern Fashion Week in late 2021, the project has been beset by issues — mostly driven by not getting the financial backing she was expecting and “working with the wrong people.” She can see how it all looks (“It is a shitshow, I agree,”) but maintains that people are scheming to bring her down – and she says that she will be suing one of those people — the owner of an agency in Manchester — for defamation to clear her name.
And then one more twist: Initially, O’Donnell said Laurie’s claims about not being paid were untrue. Laurie wasn’t owed any money for past months, O’Donnell told me on Wednesday, and sent screenshots that showed the two had still been in touch this week, sharing what look like warm messages on WhatsApp. “She's a liar. That's very clear,” O’Donnell said.
But later on Wednesday, Laurie provided evidence that supported her claims — leading to a bizarre call between The Mill and O’Donnell in which she repeatedly changed her story and misled us about the terms of the young woman’s employment.
Early yesterday morning, Laurie received more than £2,000 in her bank account — almost exactly the amount she said she was owed. And O’Donnell now says others who are owed money will be paid too — which is the third time she has made such a claim during the time I have been reporting this story. “Anyone who hasn't heard from us or received payment will do so by Monday,” she said.
Is that likely? I’ll tell the story and you can be the judge.
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