Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder of two children’s charities, The Place 2 Be and Kids Company, where she currently works with some of the most traumatised young people living in London. Kids Company was set up in 1996. It employs more than 600 staff, benefits from some 11,000 volunteers annually and reaches 36,000 children a year with therapeutic care in London and Bristol. Batmanghelidjh trained as a psychotherapist and worked in psychoanalysis for 20 years and has become an advocate for vulnerable children. She was named Business Woman of the Year by the Dods and Scottish Widows Public Life Awards; received Ernst and Young’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Lifetime Achievement award from the Centre of Social Justice. Kids Company has been awarded the Human Rights Award by Liberty & Justice, and the Award for Innovative Excellence by Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Now. Kids Company currently has a partnership with the University of Cambridge and UCL involving research into neurodevelopmental trauma.
Portrait courtesy of Kids Company
How closely do you follow fashion?
I absolutely love fashion. I love what other people wear, both men and women. I like it when people create their own styles provided it's authentic. I don't buy any fashion magazines but if they are around I definitely want to look at them. However, I've got some 600 staff working at Kids Company and they are all unique as well as extraordinary individuals with their own styles, so every day for me is a fashion treat.
Do you consult fashion blogs?
When did you become aware of fashion?
When I was about seven/eight I used to cut the curtains in our house and pin them with safety pins to wear. My mother was a cross between Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, she was a very classical dresser, but I'd noticed the poor women in the mountains of Iran - they just wore layers of multicoloured fabrics. And I thought, their outfits were much more fun.
How would you describe your relationship with clothes?
My relationship with clothes is joyful and fun. What I wear reflects the energy I have. I don't worry about what people think of what I'm wearing - I'm aware that some people like it and some can't stand it, but I don't give two hoots. It takes me two minutes to get dressed and it's my moment of creating a new canvas every morning.
When did you develop your own ‘style’ - do you feel that you have one - what is your basic 'look'?
My basic look is a portable curtain, wallpaper, furniture shop, art house, ramshackle, second hand outlet. No matter what I wear it's suitable for the crack den or the palace. I never have to change outfits from one destination to the other, from morning to night. Even when I have surgery I refuse to wear the ugly hospital robes and I delight the operating theatre team with my avant-garde pyjamas.
Do you have a preference for particular shapes, colours, fabrics or textures?
Oh My God. Do not put me in sepia, vomit-coloured chalk-shaded outfits. I look like the Ghost of Christmas Past. So all my colours are intense pinks, purples, reds, grass green and my favourite is turquoise.
Who are your favourite designers and why (historical and contemporary)?
I don't follow any particular designer, but Anna Scholz and Mary Katrantzou have amazing designs. Paul Smith for men's clothes, Ralph Lauren's bright jumpers and rugby shirts.
Do you use a personal shopper?
I don't buy my clothes from shops or use a personal shopper. I design them by collaging on the floor and I have a wonderful lady called Bule and her niece Njomza who between them sew them for me. The staff and the kids and Kids Company bring me all sorts of bits of fabric from everywhere. One of them brought the most amazing fabric from a skip. And then I cut them all up and with Bule we piece them together. Because I have a pituitary disorder I change size daily. Some days I am about 10kgs heavier than other days. So my dresses have to allow for me swelling. My earrings and headscarves come from Julietta, who is another staff member, and Fatmeh makes my fingerless gloves, so does Azam. I am very lucky, at least once a week someone surprises me with a lovely fabric gift.
How much do you involve your partner in clothes buying?
I don't involve anyone in buying clothes. It's my own private religious experience!
What percentage of your income goes on clothes purchases annually?
How many pairs of shoes or handbags do you have?
I can't stand handbags. When you work in the ghettoes they are a liability. So I carry around a fabric bag that I can put around my neck and run after a berserk teenager if necessary. Shoes, I wear Crocs with Disney figures sticking out of them. They are just fun, and toddlers love them and start talking to my shoes before they talk to me.
How important is hair and make-up to you?
I'm only interested in make-up so I look less sick. But I do love a luscious lipstick. I screamed for joy when I arrived in the office and the lipstick people had sent me a whole range as a present. I don't have to worry too much about my hair, I tie it up and wear turbans made up of two or three scarves tied together.
Do you buy seasonally or when the need or mood dictates?
The only time I buy clothes is for the children of Kids Company - many of them don't have any parents or family members. I like to buy personally for them for Christmas and their birthdays. I also buy stuff if I see something that would suit them. They can't get over how mad my clothing style is, but how appropriately I buy for them. Christmas Eve, I am usually between John Lewis and Selfridges buying everything that's in the sales because on Christmas Day we have some 4,000 children, young people and vulnerable adults coming to us for lunch, and I like to give all the ones who don't have family a big bag of clothes as presents. They get so excited when they open them, it always brings tears to my eyes.
Is there a difference between your public and private wardrobe - if so, what are the reasons behind this?
No. What you see is what you get. In the house, out of the house.
How do you view fashion and clothes in relation to your professional standing, and to what extent does your professional role inform your fashion choices?
There is a discrepancy between the madness of my outfits and the rigour of my brain. Fools think I'm a fruitcake, the smart ones realise I'm just having a bit of fun.
To what extent does your professional role inform your fashion choices?
The children of Kids Company have been trying to get me into a pair of trainers for the last eighteen years. I told them I don't want to be seen in those oversized, ugly boats. Because that's what they look like to me.
Does fashion empower you? What outfit would most empower you and why?
I love tartan. When I wear it it feels like my head has gone to the office without compromising the creative bursts of colour.
What does fashion in the future need to do to help women / to empower them?
Save us, please, from monochrome shops that have exactly the same dull neutral outfits, on which you cannot feast the eye, in which you look like dried up rice pudding.