I first met Ernestina at Stylist Live last November, where I was working as a Talent Assistant and she was speaking on one of our panels as well as manning her stand for her statement earring brand, Milk Tooth LDN, all weekend. As I ran around the festival making sure all the talks were running smoothly, these gorgeous earrings would call out to me every time I passed by the Milk Tooth stand until I decided on the last day that I just had to buy a pair (or two).
Ernestina is the Head of Campaigns at Virgin by day, but runs Milk Tooth with her husband on the side. Their philosophy is simple – embrace your own style, buy things you love and feel amazing. On their website you can find rare, handpicked vintage gems alongside the duo’s own original designs, including a line produced in collaboration with illustrator Maria-Ines Gul. I sat down with Ernestina to chat about launching a business in an unfamiliar industry, encouraging women to make a statement and why fashion is an excellent tool for change.
On starting her own business:
First and foremost, I wanted to start Milk Tooth because I love big jewellery, especially big earrings, and I wanted to create the things I was looking for but couldn’t find. It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning – although I knew I wanted to make these earrings because I believe people should use a bold, statement earring as a source of empowerment, I hadn’t thought about the complexities of actually doing it and even now it’s still really hard, you have to trust a lot of people.
[I asked Ernestina whether she thought starting a business in an unfamiliar industry to her was a blessing or a hindrance] In a way it was a blessing, because I come at problems differently. It also means I’m not that familiar with what else is out there, which gives me fresher eyes and more creative freedom. I also wasn’t aware of the fashion calendar and that meant I was having slightly different conversations with retailers, which again I think was another advantage. The disadvantages were mainly the admin and bureaucracy side of things – tax, trademarking, business rates and health and safety rules. I also underestimated how hard it is to get people to want to buy your stuff. Everyone talks about how you can put anything on the interment and then it’s out there to everyone, but we haven’t had any marketing budget so all our growth has been completely organic and that’s a slow burn.
When it comes to designing, I don’t know if there is necessarily a process, it’s more about gut instinct and that’s the same with anything you create, you’re putting your neck on the line and you know in your heart which ideas you get those feelings about. For me, it’s about being really clear on what the core direction is, even if I can’t articulate it in a super fancy way yet. Once we’re clear on that, we’ll start sketching and my husband will create 3D designs and then we’ll print things out and try them in different sizes. It’s quite an engineering feat with earrings, you have to think about things like balance and weight.
On making a statement:
When women start out in their careers, the go-to reaction is often to try to fit into a box by evoking the image of a man in a grey suit, so hiding piercings or dressing in black or pretending to be very formal, but it’s such an outdated way of working. It’s my less confident friends who tend to be the ones most challenged by trying to fit in, whether that’s through their clothes, jobs or having a boyfriend, but I’ve seen some of them get over that just by being bolder about who they are. When they embrace their own style or do something a bit experimental instead of trying to fit in, it actually has quite an empowering consequence. Milk Tooth is a manifestation of that idea, we’re all about encouraging a bold choice as a source of power or confidence. It’s not necessarily jewellery that is my passion, it’s more about statement pieces in general. I’d be just as likely to do a range of statement glasses or statement shoes next as I would another line of statement jewellery. It’s more about the excitement of coveting the thing than the actuality of the fact that it’s jewellery. I would love to be a destination for statement pieces that make you feel great and are for you to love and get excited about. As much as I love a really good white T-shirt, I’m not bothered about being the place you go to get a really good white T-shirt – I want to be the place you go to get your exciting, stand out, statement thing.
On fashion as a tool for change:
What we’re doing here isn’t saving lives, we’re making fashion items, but it’s not unimportant because fashion is part of culture and culture is the bedrock of society. You’re not vacuous if you’re into fashion or celebrity gossip, because it’s all part of culture and it’s things like music and fashion that have been the driving forces of societal change throughout history.
[I asked Ernestina what her thoughts were on the wearing of black dresses as a statement at the awards ceremonies earlier this year] With anything like that, I am instinctively a little bit cynical, but how can it be a bad thing? Naturally, with the case of #MeToo [and Harvey Weinstein] it’s hard not to think ‘but you all knew this was going on, yet no one said anything and only now it’s trendy to say something, you’re speaking up.’ But we all understand what it’s like to be human, to want to be successful, to have to go along with something at work that you don’t agree with. I find it hard to be fully judgmental of anyone because you don’t know their circumstances, so I think any action, as long as it’s coming from a place of wanting better equality, is a good action. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Could things be done better? Yes, but then we overthink it and never do anything, so it’s got to be somewhere between action and perfection.
Quick fire questions
Your ultimate girl power song?
Beyoncé, Crazy in Love.
Your female icon?
Ernestine Carter. She was a journalist at a time when women weren’t really journalists and was one of the first people to reposition fashion for the mainstream, laying the groundwork for high street fashion. She helped women realise they could wear what they want and that it was okay to do so.
Who inspires you who isn’t a celebrity?
This sounds cheesy, but my husband. He’s my go-to for inspiration and bouncing ideas around.
What makes you happy?
Sunshine, sleep, time with my husband, laughing with friends and, of course, statement things.
What puts fire in your belly?
I hate when there are barriers in the way of people’s potential, like when people have self-demons that hold them back or when people have unequal access to things. The way some people don’t mind that distresses me. In terms of positive fire, I just love the creative process and coming up with ideas.
This interview has been edited for clarity.