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Express Yourself: How This Purpose-Driven Founder is Paying Homage to Black and LGBTQI+ Club Culture

Interview with Rani Patel Williams - Founder of FANGIRL

Despite our efforts as a society to embrace one and all, there is still a lack of confidence among individuals to share themselves completely. This limited space of self-expression is what drove Rani Patel Williams to launch FANGIRL, a non-gendered accessories brand and community that celebrates self-expression without limits.

Inspired by black and LGBTQI+ club culture, influenced by her own heritage and her travels across the diaspora to even her hometown in London. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? What shaped your childhood?

Patel Williams: Growing up, I think I have always had a strong sense of self. I grew up in a single-parent household which definitely shaped my childhood. I watched my mum work two to three jobs at a time to take care of me and my brother. Like most children who grow up in that sort of environment, I was given a different perspective to life and had to grow up quicker than most.

My childhood was very much shaped by our socio-economic setup, which meant I didn’t get the same experiences as my peers. I quickly learned to be independent and self-sufficient. It’s definitely shaped who I am today in terms of my work ethic and that I am always aiming to sustain my independence, financially, as a woman.

Newnham: Can you talk us through your career?

Patel Williams: I have been in the advertising industry for twelve years — my first gig out of university was at Channel 5 on the TV trade floors which gave me a brutal intro into the world of commercials. After a couple years there, I quickly realised I wanted to get involved in creating the ads vs the media placement of them and started at my first creative agency. Since then, I have worked at various London agencies that represent the spectrum of the industry from the big groups to small independents.

The industry has definitely contributed to who I am, but also made me question who I am. I mean, a career in ad land is not easy for women, let alone a black and brown woman. The industry is not as progressive as the shop window leads you to believe, and unfortunately I’ve experienced racism and sexism in various roles throughout my career. It’s of course made me check my moral compass — am I going to contribute to an industry that clearly rejects me so much, and doesn’t really exercise the same values as me?

I guess a tipping point for me was when I was able to lead on a youth culture charity project; Coppafee!’s #TrustyourTouch campaign which opened my eyes to the fact that I can stay in the creative industry, but on different terms. I moved on to work on female-led brands in the beauty category however, although I loved the category, I realised I didn’t want to work on them within the big traditional agency setup.

I then joined the social-first youth culture agency, The Digital Fairy. Digi is a small creative agency with heart. Serving the femxle consumer as a priority, but not exclusively. The opportunity to work on such a variety of brands that speak to me as a consumer has been extremely motivating and rewarding.

Nenwham: What have been some highs of your working life and why?

Patel Williams: The creation and launch of cancer charity CoppaFeel!’s #TrustYourTouch campaign is something I will always be proud to have been part of.

I think what made that particular campaign all the more empowering was the fact that we delivered it with a team of just three women, and with such little resource (as a pro bono project, we had to take it on in addition to our day-to-day). We were so passionate about the mission to change behaviours and perceptions around checking for breast cancer that it made it feel worthwhile, even when we were powering through long nights!

We ended up delivering a TV ad and some Out-of-Home posters, with no clue where they would end up (with no media spend). The steep change in the creative process came when we decided in the editing suite to showcase a full naked breast. We felt it was essential if we were to land the message that the audience should trust their touch and validate their own breast check-ups as equal to medical scans.

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CoppaFeel! #TrustYourTouch Advert

A naked breast in a pre-watershed TV advert had never been shown before in the UK, so I knew it was going to be tough convincing ClearCast to approve the creative. Luckily, I had enough experience with ClearCast to argue the case for why showing a full naked breast was key to the campaign. Once approved, the campaign went viral, demonstrating how creative conviction can be the difference between delivering a campaign and delivering a change-making moment.

Since being at The Digital Fairy, I’ve also been especially proud of the work we did for Adidas London, championing female visibility across social media for International Women’s Month. This campaign challenged the idea of who deserves to be acknowledged in the spheres of sport, art and culture, shining a light on incredible women such as Amika George, the architect of the #FreePeriods movement.

Newnham: You recently launched FANGIRL — how did you come up with the idea and what is your mission?

Patel Williams: FANGIRL stems from my love of hand fans, they are my favourite accessory to wear when I go dancing, or to complete a cute summer outfit. However, I’d always been disappointed with the designs available. I started developing the designs over a year ago as an outlet, at a time where I was struggling with my mental health, and couldn’t really express myself. I started creating hand fan designs inspired by black and LGBTQ club culture, spaces I’ve enjoyed and felt safe to express myself.

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The name was obvious for me, playing on the idea of being a girl into hand fans, but I wanted to co-opt the term “fangirl” which we use in culture to refer to how we respond to these untouchable celebrities that inspire us, and reimagine it as a new term. A term to refer to how we celebrate everyone not just celebs; the “everyday” people, so to speak, equally doing inspiring and incredible things. I feel like we live in a society where we put such high standards on what good looks like and are always willing to be fans and cheerleaders of famous people who we don’t know or ever will. But struggle to find the same energy to celebrate and champion our peers — like our mates working two jobs to pay for their masters, or neighbour caring for their elderly parent.

It became clear to me that FANGIRL’s purpose should be to give individuals confidence to express themselves and celebrate everyone for their individuality. Today, there are still many communities which find their self-expression stifled by the mainstream media and their voices silenced. I too have found myself in a position where I’ve felt muted and my expression of self like my hair, the way I dress or even nail colour have been points of conversation and criticism.

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A still from Black & Boujee

Newnham: In a world filled with platforms that invite us to express ourselves, why do you think some self-expression is still being stifled?

Rani Patel Williams: Self-expression has always been policed throughout history — we see so many great examples of how communities were controlled by taking away their ability to express themselves. Colonisation was a big part of that. Today, yes, we have more freedom of speech but we are still seeing self expression stifled in new ways. Without getting political, for me it’s like this; the world is built on a number of systems, and these systems favour some individuals over others. So whatever platforms come about for people to share themselves, there are still parameters and systems in which self-expression is moderated. Shadow banning does exactly that, some users’ online content is partially blocked because the “system” of the platform believes it to be inappropriate. This is all fine when it is used to ban Xenophobic, or homophobic content but when it’s used to censor pro-black or LGBTQI+ positive content we have to question the motives of these platforms.

Newnham: How do you hope that will change with FANGIRL?

Patel Williams: I am very realistic about what FANGIRL’s role is in society and the change it can bring. FANGIRL will hopefully change how we see ourselves and each other — open up perspectives and encourage (even if a small number of people) to celebrate their individuality without fear that the world’s systems will reject them.

As a platform championing self-expression and individuality it’s important FANGIRL tells stories of marginalised individuals navigating that. I directed a documentary to mark the launch, the film entitled Black & Boujee is a short film that explores about what it means to be black and gay today. Featuring two friends, I wanted to understand what black identity means to them, and how they navigate the intersecting worlds of religion, sexuality and community authentically.

I hope as FANGIRL grows it can help tell more stories, I am already working on other themes around identity for a future piece.

Newnham: Finally, if you could go back to childhood Rani, what advice would you give her and why?

Patel Williams: My advice would be; Find joy in the journey. It’s just as rewarding as the destination.

Why? I think once you understand that, life as an experience becomes a whole new game.

Writer. Founder. Interviewed 300+ founders and innovators and I’m sharing their stories here. 📚 Author x 2.

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