Industry Insights: with Shakila Forbes-Bell
Shakila Forbes-Bell stands at the forefront of an intriguing intersection between fashion and psychology, having carved a niche for herself as a leading fashion psychologist. Beginning her journey with a simple blog at the age of 18, Forbes-Bell has since expanded her influence through the creation of ‘Fashion is Psychology’, authoring the thought-provoking book ‘Big Dress Energy’ while engaging audiences with her podcast and securing numerous brand partnerships. Her work offers a unique lens on the fashion industry, illuminating the subtle yet powerful ways in which our clothing choices affect our psychological state, self-concept, and the way we present ourselves to the world.
Through her work, Forbes-Bell advocates for a more informed and conscious approach to fashion, one that recognises the interplay between our psychological makeup and our sartorial decisions. Her contributions not only enrich our understanding of fashion but also encourage a more mindful, expressive, and psychologically beneficial engagement with it. Our discussion with her offered a compelling overview of how fashion psychology provides the tools to decode the complex relationship between what we wear and how we feel, think, and behave—underscoring the significant role of psychology in shaping the future of fashion.
What inspired you to get into fashion? Were you immediately intrigued by fashion psychology, or did that come at a later stage?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I think I was always interested in fashion, but initially, I saw it more as a hobby, something to entertain in my spare time. Academically, I was very much into psychology and did super well in my A levels. Watching TV on my off days, I was enamoured with Frasier and thought, “I can be like that.” Later, I realised I just liked the concept of TV. I studied psychology at UCL undergraduate and found it wasn’t what I saw on TV – it was a lot of clinical psychology, which was interesting but not my bag. Then, social psychology classes started to happen, and they were more in-depth. That was the part of psychology I liked – understanding why people do what they do, how they act differently in social environments, first impressions, and things like that. During my third year, Trayvon Martin was murdered, and the Black Lives Matter Movement began, and The million hoodie March and the dual symbolism of clothing – as a symbol of justice and a threat – fascinated me. That’s when I decided to do my own thesis on the intersection between clothing, race, and first impressions. I loved it, did well, and through that, I discovered fashion psychology was an actual domain within psychology.
So how did you find yourself applying this psychology and your thesis insights to the world?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I wanted to showcase how something seemingly frivolous, like clothing, can have a major impact. That’s why I started my blog. Clothing, like hoodies, means different things to different people. My goal was to resonate with people who didn’t have the language or research to validate their feelings about such things. I believe clothing is an underutilised tool in non-verbal communication. It highlights differences and similarities between groups, our connection, belonging, and self-expression within the cultural zeitgeist. My blog, “Fashion is Psychology,” showcases this research in understandable language. I’m passionate about democratising science – making research accessible, not hidden behind paywalls or inaccessible due to institutional barriers. That was a secondary goal, to make this research practical for everyday life, fostering a deeper relationship with clothing.
What were the first versions of your blog like?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I started it on Weebly, which I don’t think even exists anymore. It was very hacky. I wanted a mix between The Cut and Psychology Today. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped my SEO and started my journey. I wasn’t a social media person; I was a blogger. I poured my thoughts, feelings, and research into the blog. It’s much prettier today.
So, what was the journey like from starting to now? Did you always envision the podcast, the book, your website as it is today, working with the brands you work with?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I definitely did not have this in mind. It’s been a long journey; I started my blog at 18 and I’m 30 now. It didn’t happen overnight. It was out of the blue, really. I never envisioned becoming a professional psychologist in this niche – there are only a handful of us doing this full-time outside academia. It started as a passion. I wanted to get into marketing in fashion. My book wasn’t even my idea; my literary agent suggested it. The brands I’ve worked with all reached out organically. Everything stemmed from my interest and passion. That’s why I always tell people, if you love something, keep talking about it. If you’re genuinely passionate, good things will come.
What paths are available for those interested in fashion psychology who don’t want to pursue an academic route?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I get this question all the time. It’s tricky because there aren’t many people I can compare my journey with, and there aren’t many of us in this field. For me, it started with my university degree. I was the first black person to graduate from that course. Looking back, the fees have almost doubled, and even then, I struggled – I had to sell my car and take out a terrible bank loan. That’s why, in response to that question, I created my online course, accessible on my website. It’s an introduction to fashion psychology, covering the basics of what I’ve learned over the years. You don’t need a psychology degree to understand it, just a passion for learning and research. The course helps people understand the various elements of fashion psychology. We have stylists, designers, marketers, and those interested in consumer insight taking it. Fashion psychology doesn’t have a single path; it’s as diverse as fashion itself. The course is a great starting point to shape a career. I wanted to make sure everyone has an even playing field with this knowledge – it’s more affordable and accessible to anyone around the world.
So, accessibility was a crucial factor in your journey?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: Absolutely. Walking around the London College of Fashion, knowing I was wearing Primark while others wore Saint Laurent, sparked something in me. Coming from a working-class background, fashion can seem out of reach, yet you’re passionate about it and want to work in it. There’s a lack of guidance and few role models who look like you. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to pursue their passion in fashion, starting on an even playing field.
Could you introduce us to ‘Big Dress Energy’ and tell us a bit about your journey from blogging to writing your book? What can we expect from it?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: Big Dress Energy is my baby. It started when I had a blog for a few years, and a literary agent DM’d me, suggesting I could write a book. It was a tough time in my life – no job, dealing with a family loss. But the idea of a book kept me going. Around 2018, she saw potential in my blog, even though I only had about 3000 followers at that time. My first draft was dull, aimed at brands, but she advised me to write for consumers. Coming from academia, it was hard to shift to a more commercial, opinionated writing style. Then the pandemic hit, and I took the time to find my voice. I realised my writing could combine research with a fun and personal touch. Once I found that voice, publishers started showing interest. I signed a deal and was given six months to write the book. I quit my job to focus on writing, which was challenging, as the writing process had its ups and downs, but I managed to complete it. The book touches on personal aspects too, like dealing with grief through clothing. It became a bestseller, got me a spot in Sunday Times Style, and led to more brand collaborations and a segment on Women’s Hour.
You’re also now on season two of the podcast. Can you give us a taste of what to expect from the upcoming episodes?
Shakaila Forbes-Bell: I’m really excited about this season. Season one was good, but season two is even better. I have an eclectic group of guests – discussing representation in fashion, sustainability, and the behaviour-attitude gap, identity and fashion, and the pressures of branding and selling in the fashion industry. The conversations are diverse, tangible, and relatable, focusing on real stories from people in the fashion and beauty space. It’s not just about facts and figures; it’s about how these issues relate to real people.