There was a moment, in the darkest days of the lockdown in London, when one of the hard-fought-for investors in Yasmin Sewell’s wellbeing start-up, Vyrao, had just told her they were pulling out. She was on the phone to her mum. ‘I felt completely lost, wondering, Can I continue to pay my mortgage? You know? I think I was crying. I didn’t know how it would work out. And my mum said, “Just go and get any job you can. Whatever you can get.” And I said, “I don’t think that is what I am going to do. I’m just going to keep going…”’
Having left her role as vice president of creative at Farfetch some months earlier, effectively calling time on a 25-year blockbuster career in fashion (a move that surprised many), this was, by no means, her first experience of crisis or loss. And nor was it the first audacious leap she has taken in a life that has spanned crashing lows, soaring highs and a relentless resilience throughout. ‘You go through those periods when things don’t work out: they don’t go to plan, they don’t work in your time frame and then, all of a sudden, it shifts,’ she says. ‘I followed that instinct, thank God, and now I feel like things are flowing much better… Like there is magic around.’
Today, Sewell, 45, greets me as she returns from a dog walk in an east London square filled with late summer hollyhocks. This is where she lives with her two sons, aged nine and six, and their curly-haired hound, ‘Pizza’. She was in the throes of divorce while she was navigating her departure from Farfetch: ‘A big time for me… it wasn’t an easy time, either.’ She’s wearing a Loewe Totoro T-shirt in zinging green, which coordinates perfectly with the intense colour scheme of the interior of the house. Her mood is relaxed and expansive as she brews me a mug of chai, while explaining that this square was the original inspiration for EastEnders, and is still used as a reference.
Born in Australia, Sewell was brought up in a close-knit community in the suburbs of Sydney. ‘We are Lebanese, so I grew up in this Arabic family life. We spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house – Arabic food, Arabic music, Arabic community.’ Her mother ran the local hairdressing salon, where young Yasmin would hang out after school, sweeping up hair and reading the gossip weeklies. It was hardly a typical breeding ground for the nascent fashionista. ‘Growing up, I didn’t have access to fashion. I wasn’t wearing my mum’s Chanel handbags. I had no awareness of creativity, it was just my family and my community. It was Australia – it was nature, beach and sports.’
Interestingly, given how potently persuasive Sewell is in the field of business, school never connected for her. She left when she was just 15, joining a real-estate company whose founder had called round the Sydney schools looking for an embryonic firecracker to hire. ‘I kind of got lucky. At that point, I wasn’t really into anything. I just wanted to run away, go work in a café on Bondi Beach, maybe smoke weed. That’s kind of where I was at.’ It was a kismet moment. Sewell thrived in the job, so much so that she ended up running the company with her boss. With her potential ignited, Sewell then set about pursuing something she felt she could be really passionate about: fashion.
Her early attempts to break in proved dispiriting – she remembers going for an assistant’s job at Marie Claire Australia and not even getting an interview. Feeling thwarted and restless to change up something in her life, she decided to shave her hair off, to a number two: ‘I had this long curly hair and I wasn’t quite the person I was with all the hair. I shaved my hair and felt like I was myself.’ Two nights later, she met a cute British actor by the name of Rufus Sewell in a bar. ‘And my life changed in that moment,’ she says.
Within a few months of meeting, madly in love and soon to marry, the pair headed to the UK. ‘I am so grateful… I didn’t know that London would be a big part of who I am.’ This being the late 1990s, Cool Britannia was in full swing and the couple was in the epicentre of it all, living together in an old piano factory in Kentish Town, where Lee [Alexander] McQueen might drop by to party. She opened a shop, Yasmin Cho – still aged just 22 at this point – on an upper floor of a building on Poland Street in London’s Soho, stocking hard-to-get emerging brands, where the likes of Courtney Love would shop up a storm. ‘She was my best client. So 1990s. I mean, seriously…’ Sewell laughs. ‘The inspiration was to create a store, a space that was about service, and create an environment that made people feel insanely welcome and that was something that hadn’t been done,’ she says, crediting her apprenticeship in real estate for instilling that hyper focus on the customer.
I ask her how she managed all that, while surviving the maelstrom of the 1990s notorious Primrose Hill moment, which – despite its rock ’n’ roll romance – had its own destructive dynamic, perhaps doubly so for the wives and girlfriends on the scene. ‘Rufus and I were around that whole world, but we were outside it, too,’ says Sewell. ‘I don’t know if I was accepted to be honest… some weird, shaved-head Aussie-Lebanese girl who wasn’t quite part of the mix.’
As the new millennium blew in, Sewell’s glittering moment in London burned out. Her mother became sick and she returned to Australia. ‘I ended up making some wrong decisions, wrong business decisions, and I ended up losing the store, which was devastating for me. Rufus and I were no longer together, and that was quite traumatic. I was broke. It was a time of big loss. But it was also a time of great healing, when I went on – dare I say it – a spiritual journey.’
Back in Sydney, Sewell, in charge of the family hair salon while her mum recuperated, started to seek out naturopaths and study reiki and energy healing in her spare time. ‘When things are bad, when you lose a lot, that’s when you start to discover things that are really healing for you,’ she says.
During her four-year hiatus in Australia – worlds away from the fizz and media glitter of the Brit pack scene – Sewell admits she never exactly knew if she would return to London. ‘I felt like I had been thrown out in a way.’ A phone call from Mrs Burstein, the doyenne of Browns boutique, at the beginning of 2004 broke the exile, inviting Sewell to return to London to run its avant garde offshoot, Browns Focus.
‘I was very nervous,’ remembers Sewell. ‘I had been gone so long and I was going to be running one of the coolest stores in the world. Did I even know what was cool any more?’ She can still picture walking into her office on the first day ‘and there being hundreds of look books piled on my desk’. She threw all but one away. The exception was Acne, whose edgy Swedish minimalism, which she went on to launch into the UK, proved a palate cleanser and game changer for the store, which had started to drown in a sea of pimped-out LA denim labels.
The business went into a sharp ascent, as did Sewell’s own career trajectory (she was now catnip to the booming street-style photography scene). Soon after, she was promoted to the head of buying for the whole Browns group, cementing her reputation as a tastemaker and merchant of exceptional ability, responsible for superpowering British brands such as Christopher Kane and Roksanda and bringing The Row to UK shores. As comebacks go, it was positively phoenix-like.
When I ask if the commercial pressure got to her, she bridles ever so slightly. ‘The process of this garment falling into someone’s shopping basket and home and becoming something that they love and treasure, that was the process I loved. Selling, moving, translating, connecting. I got off on that. I still do.’ What didn’t always feel so good, she admits, was the grind of long buying trips and brutal working hours. ‘Everything was done on a calculator and we would work until midnight, seven weeks straight, seven days a week. I was fatigued a lot of the time,’ she recalls. ‘When I was tired, on long buying trips, I really detested that. That was not how I wanted to be, not how I wanted to live. There were times when I just wanted to exit and become a Qi Gong teacher, or go off to a retreat and meditate.’
This yearning for wellbeing and more control over her life led Sewell to parlay her redoubtable retail chops into a consulting business. One of her first clients was Liberty, where she was tasked with bringing her modernising vision to the department store. I can remember being invited to one of the ‘big reveal’ presentations of the new concept, and seeing Sewell wearing a filmy, wrapped evening gown, moving about the shop floor like a ballerina. She describes what she did to the store as ‘an energetic project. I worked on changing the energy. We cleaned up the store, we opened up the light, we changed the way the store and the clothes flowed through the spaces. We got rid of people who were not happy, who felt like they were resentful in their jobs. We got rid of the stagnant energy, the energy that wasn’t right and made it new. It was an energetic project 100%, and the fashion came second.’
It’s a striking example of Sewell’s process, how she approaches a commercial entity rather like a healer might work with a person. The impact certainly revitalised the balance sheet. ‘We relaunched Liberty in the middle of the recession and we took the business into profit for the first time in 15 years.’
As Sewell points out, operating as a consultancy also gave her flexibility as a working parent. During her early years of motherhood, Sewell and her babies’ father – her second husband, Kyle Robinson, director of fashion showroom Paper Mache Tiger – would both attend the collections in Paris with their nanny and infant offspring in tow, entertaining industry friends in their apartment at night; although Sewell assures me things were not picture-perfect. ‘Believe me, it wasn’t easy with my first son, who didn’t sleep. My God that was horrendous. But it was easier than having a job.’
Sewell more or less vowed that she would never take another big role again, but the one that reeled her in was huge stakes – overseeing the transformation of the Condé Nast site Style.com as it made its high-profile and ultimately ill-fated pivot to e-commerce. ‘It is unfortunate being the face of something. If it is a success, great; but if it’s a failure you are the face of that and I was at that time.’ Even though it didn’t work out, Sewell remains proud of the fact that eight months after its launch, in 2017, the Style.com e-tail business was sold to Farfetch. ‘The right decision,’ she says. ‘It was a learning experience.’ And while she is philosophical now, she admits the ending was ‘a bit raw’.
After the Style.com chapter, Sewell took a job at Farfetch, and ‘it was lovely to be involved in a company which was just going up, up, up, up’. But something was gnawing at her, that familiar yearning for freedom to branch out on her own. ‘I remember Natalie Massenet [the Net-a-Porter founder, who had joined Farfetch as co-chairman] saying, “I think you should do your own brand.” She gave me a wink,’ Sewell smiles. ‘She saw into my soul.’
She is clear about the mental health impact of some of the more gnarly periods in her career journey: ‘When things have failed, when I lost the shop, even through those
last two roles, [there has been this sense of] being overwhelmed.’ Certainly, there was no real plan, no blueprint for entrepreneurial reinvention in her top drawer when she walked away from Farfetch. ‘There was a lot of What do I really want to do now? Do I want to take time out with the boys? Do I want to be in a big role? What is right for me? Who am I really at this point?’
And so, she decided just to sit for a while. She reflected. She redid her house (upping the vibrational levels of her colour scheme to the max by painting her living room a wild, lush green which became both an agent and symbol of her reinvention). She worked through her divorce. And she consulted the people whom she counts as her spirit guides, her psychic Katt Hall and her healer Louise Mita (who practises something known as Quantum Energy Medicine). And the idea for Vyrao started to form: a wellbeing brand, whose first product would be a suite of energy-raising scents designed to connect the olfactory with the emotional.
Mita was enlisted to bring ‘vibrational energy’ to the scent-making process (a ‘Herkimer diamond’ – an energetically charged quartz crystal – is dropped into every bottle), while Sewell sought the skills of master perfumer Lyn Harris to make the juice. It’s a measure of how committed Sewell is to building the structure of Vyrao in line with the enlightened and empowering values it espouses that both Mita and Sewell’s psychic are now founding partners of the business (‘I gave them equity’).
The perfumes have names like ‘Witchy Woo’ and ‘I Am Verdant’ that are witty, cool and unapologetically woo-woo. They come in chunky, coloured glass bottles that look like retro-modern paperweights (candles and sensual, sculptural incense holders incoming). ‘I’m kind of in love with Vyrao, I’ve got a crush on it,’ smiles Sewell. ‘It wasn’t easy, because I couldn’t fund it all myself. Raising just enough to get it off the ground and launch it wasn’t easy through Covid. But I did it. I can’t believe I actually managed to pull it off.’
Despite the struggles, what she actually describes is a sense of ease: ‘I feel better in myself than I have done my whole life, probably, now. I feel more in my body. I know who I am more. I know what I love more, I tend to avoid what I don’t. I feel clearer about where I am going and love the path I am on with this business. And I don’t want to do anything else and I am really, really grateful for that.’
Our time together is nearly over and we chat about how it feels to disembark from the gilded hamster wheel of fashion shows, dinners and constant travel. ‘I spent my whole adult life going to fashion shows, which is sort of mental if you think about it,’ she laughs. Of course, if an old friend like JW Anderson were to invite her to a Loewe show, once Covid restrictions are over, she would always attend, as their lives have been entwined for so long. ‘I don’t feel I am not in fashion, because I feel like Vyrao is really creative and all the creative stuff we are doing floats my boat.’
How does she dress for this new era of selfhood? ‘I love going to dinner and putting on a gown. I am known for turning up in a gown to the local Dalston taco place,’ she grins. This is why she loves London, she says: ‘You can be anything, wear anything.’ Being a free spirit has always been the spur. ‘My approach [to my wardrobe] was never about the brand. I have definitely loved beautiful things, but what [fashion] was about was freedom.’ This lightness, this commitment to freedom is what propels her; and what makes her high-wire career moves – the stumbles and the recovery – so utterly magnetic. ‘Vyrao is part of a healing journey for me as well,’ she says, smiling. Watch her fly.
This article appears in the 2021 September issue of ELLE UK.
You Might Also Like