Words by Florence Robson
Louisa Maycock is the co-founder of Girls on Tops, a 't-shirt celebration of female voices in film'. Girls on Tops sell their t-shirts nationwide and have been worn by Lynne Ramsay, Greta Gerwig, Rooney Mara, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Annie Clark and more. They have collaborated and partnered with Little White Lies, Barbican Centre, Peccadillo Pictures, Amazon Studios and put proceeds from t-shirts sales towards funding female-lead film projects and commissioning female-lead film writing.
Did starting a business come naturally to you?
Absolutely not. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ve very much stumbled my way through all the ‘business’ side of getting Girls on Tops established - it still feels a bit strange when I talk about it as ‘a brand’, as it was never the plan. I remember being in my first ever business meeting and bringing out a Kylo Ren Star Wars biro to make notes. When my partner pointed it out afterwards, I immediately went out and bought a pack of rose gold ballpoint pens. I do think, however, it’s important and very liberating to say “I have no idea what I’m doing”, as it can be comforting to all those other people who are feeling the same way.
Where did the idea for Girls on Tops come from?
It came from a conversation I had with Jake (my partner in life & work) and a few friends after going to the cinema to see Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women in early May 2017. It’s a film about the adolescence of a young boy & how he’s shaped by a selection of pivotal women, he also happens to wear the iconic Talking Heads: 77 pink & green t-shirt. When our housemate went online to buy the same t-shirt it made us think, ‘women in film should be treated like rock-stars. Annette Bening & Greta Gerwig should be on t-shirts.’
The design of your t-shirts is both pared back and bold. What was the thinking behind it?
There can’t be any item of clothing cooler or more effortless than a classic white t-shirt. Inspiration came from Jean Seberg’s New York Herald Tribune tee in Breathless and of course Katherine Hamnett’s iconic slogan t-shirts from the 80s. When the idea first came up, it went: ‘let’s put the names of our favourite women in cinema on t-shirts’, so we did just that. The power, I think, lies in the simplicity of the design - our t-shirts leave space for the wearer to project their own meanings behind why they want to wear the names of these women on their chest. I’ve also heard that they work as very effective conversation starters and ice breakers in social situations. I love that our t-shirts can start dialogues about these amazing women, and in turn, share and promote their work.
How do you choose which women to feature on your tees?
On that first evening, we passed around a notebook and pen and took turns writing down the names of our favourite women in film. There were no rules to it. Obviously we couldn’t afford to print all of them, so just decided on the few we and our friends were most passionate about - Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Andrea Arnold, Pam Grier, Sally Potter, Mia Hansen-Løve (the aesthetics of that name in particular was definitely extra motivation to print it on a t-shirt!). Since then, we’ve tried to be diverse not just across names, but also the disciplines they might represent; not just actors, but directors, writers, producers and costume designers. There’s still no real rhyme or reason behind our thinking; we go with what feels right (except that time we let Twitter decide - they chose Isabelle Huppert & we couldn’t have been happier).
The film community have embraced your t-shirts whole-heartedly. What has been the highlight of your business journey so far?
When I got an email in February from the fashion director for Stylist magazine, asking if I could supply a couple of t-shirts for their cover shoot with Greta Gerwig, I was totally floored. I remember delivering the t-shirts to Claridge's, where the shoot was happening, and having to push down the “I don’t belong here” voice in my head. I definitely had very little chill that morning. Right up until the moment I saw the photographs of Greta actually wearing our Agnes Varda tee, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I’m in the process of getting the photos printed and framed to hang in my first flat in London.
Before that, Tracy Letts wore our Greta t-shirt to TIFF 2017 for Lady Bird press - that was the moment that introduced the t-shirts to the world, I think, and was hugely exciting. Recently I found out Tracy used Carrie Coon’s Etsy account to order the tee and that he secretly planned the whole thing, which is so sweet. Oh and Laura Dern was gifted an Andrea Arnold t-shirt after wrapping Season 2 of Big Little Lies. I knew this was going to happen and sent a Laura Dern t-shirt too; apparently Reese Witherspoon wanted it, so Laura gave it to her. Just crazy.
There are those big moments that are completely amazing, but I also really love when someone emails or tweets saying they wore one of tees through a hard day and it helped them feel a bit stronger.
One of The Female Lead’s key themes is ‘find strength in setbacks’. Can you tell us about a particular obstacle that’s affected your professional journey and how you overcame it?
I’m sure with any business, especially a start-up, there are incredible highs but there are also inevitable lows. At the end of a particularly difficult day when there have been multiple problems cropping up, I do have those ‘is this really worth it’ or ‘am I strong enough for this’ or [insert any other self-doubting] thoughts - especially as I primarily work alone and there isn’t anyone in a role above me or on the desk next to me to ask what to do. Naturally, I’m also a very anxious person so that can definitely exacerbate those thoughts, which makes running everything seem even more overwhelming.
How have I overcome it? I take a low dose of the anti-anxiety medication Citalopram - I truly believe that if you need to take medication to maintain your mental health, it’s a positive thing and not a dirty secret. Combined with talking through problems with my partner and a selection of people I trust and admire, I feel supported and strong enough to get things done. Although I don’t have a boss or manager like I would if I was working in a bigger company or another business, I think it’s important to seek out advice from people who have expertise or knowledge in the areas I need help with. I always find the problem I thought was a total disaster isn’t actually that bad, once I’ve gained perspective from talking about it.
While I've been considering the answer to this question, it’s the end of a day that’s been particularly stressful, but I’ve just received a very kind message thanking me from someone who bought a t-shirt and needed it posting extra quickly in order to gift it to a friend. These kind of messages make it all worth it.
Your whole business is built around championing other women and their achievements. Which female role models or mentors have provided a support system for you?
I have to start with my mother, of course. She’s the first person I want to talk to whenever anything happens and her talent for folding t-shirts has become useful in ways I wasn’t expecting. My late grandmother was a painter & teacher and very much the matriarch of my family. When I was small, she developed glaucoma and lost her sight, but would never, ever complain about it - and somehow still did her makeup every day and always had manicured nails. Whenever I’m struggling with anything, I remind myself that I have her DNA and therefore can survive anything. My older sister is an illustrator and her work is so, so beautiful. I’ve always been in total awe of her, even more so since witnessing how she’s created a successful career completely on her own. My two best friends are a poet & a playwright and the funniest people I know - I always feel uplifted after I’ve been around them. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by strong, kind, wise, funny & very talented women.
You’ve donated sales proceeds to help fund female-fronted films and have turned your website into a platform for female-led film criticism. Why is the idea of ‘paying it forward’ so important to you?
When we put those first few t-shirts on Etsy, the plan was that hopefully we’d manage to sell the leftovers from the initial print run. Once we realised there was a demand and we didn’t want to disappoint those people who were requesting more t-shirts, the idea was that as soon as we possibly could, we’d find a way to reinvest profit somehow. The support we’ve been shown has been so kind and so overwhelming, not paying it forward didn’t even occur. I like the idea that now Girls on Tops is cyclical and working to make more than just t-shirts.
What’s next for the Girls on Tops brand?
I’m still always looking for the next film project Girls on Tops can help out with; up until this point the brand’s involvement has been mostly funding based, but I would love to also take more of an active role in the creative conception, growth and birth of a short film. At the moment I’m enjoying focusing on READ ME, the section of our new website dedicated to showcasing female-led film writing. There are so many brilliant, diverse voices in film criticism, I feel extremely lucky to be able to give them a space to be heard by more people. My background is in writing (I have an MA in Contemporary Literature, not film!) so it’s fun to get back to that in some capacity and exercise those muscles again.
And more t-shirts, of course.
What advice would you give to girls and young women who are feeling uncertain about the future?
Somewhere along the way, women were programmed to have an automatic self-deprecating response whenever they’re congratulated or complimented on anything. My advice would be that you’ve got to learn how to turn that off (I’m still learning). I’d also pass on some of my mother’s advice: you can have an idea or a picture of the future, but it will always surprise you, so be open to it - life will work out. To any young woman who’s feeling uncertain about anything, listen to Hand in My Pocket by Alanis Morissette, very loud.
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