Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Toronto, and inspired by her time in the U.K., Thillainathan drew from these environments to influence her own style and wardrobe. After receiving countless compliments on her outfits from colleagues, she decided to launch her own blog. Today, Thillainathan is a rising stylist and brand consultant who has been featured in publications from Wedluxe, Elegant Wedding, and HuffPost Canada.Thillainathan recently spoke with TC to discuss her blog, favourite photoshoots, style inspirations, and advice she has to offer to aspiring Tamil creatives.
Tell us about where you were born, raised, and where you studied.
I was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Toronto. I did an undergrad in psych at McMaster and did my postgraduate in the U.K. I have always been interested in art. I trained in bharatanatyam, and took courses in makeup and photography in school, always having an interest in fashion.
We don’t often hear of people in the Tamil community with careers in the fashion and design industry. Can you tell us about how you became interested in this space and subsequently went on to start Prim In My Pumps?
Growing up I was always fashion observant — I didn't have all the luxury brands, in fact I remember onIy having one pair of Adidas shoes and one Tommy Hilfiger shirt, but I always watched what people wore. As I entered the workforce I paid more attention to my clothes and would get compliments on what I wore.
I ended up doing a postgrad in the U.K. and decided to start a fashion blog. I began posting some of my own photos and one day got a message from a photographer who said she loved my style and asked if I would be interested in styling a shoot with a model. Having once met an artistic director who told me to never say no to an opportunity, I said yes to the photoshoot. I googled what art direction was and created a mood board to give me ideas for clothes for the shoot. It was after this opportunity that other people in the industry began recognizing what I could do as a stylist, and photographers and vendors began reaching out asking how I could get involved.
I’ve always juggled the two worlds of academia and fashion. I actually have a full time job working for the provincial government and am studying to practice law in Canada.
Is there a story behind the name Prim In My Pumps?
Prim and proper is a popular British saying which I loved. I combined one of my favourite sayings with my favourite shoes. Ha ha!
How would you describe your aesthetic as a stylist?
I’ve always gravitated towards the clean and classic look. While my styling changes depending on the story of a shoot, the core of what I like to create is clean and classic. Sometimes people think that if you want to emphasize something it has to be extravagant, but you can tell a good story by having a clean palette in terms of accessories and clothes.
Do you have a favourite photoshoot that you’ve worked on?
I have three!
I entered a contest at the beginning of my career with an idea for a shoot that wasn’t actually picked up. The organizer of the contest said they still liked the idea however, and wanted me to do a shoot anyway. Everyone brought some of their own clothes for the shoot at Union Station in Toronto. I did a lot of research for this shoot as it told a story of Tamil immigration. In doing my own research I realized that there was a lack of archiving of Tamil fashion from the 70s and 80s because of our difficult history. It lit a fire under me to make up for the years we lost and maintain an archive of Tamil history through fashion. Last summer I met Deepa Mehta and she actually paused while looking through my work at the pages for this shoot. That moment was definitely a highlight of my career!
I did another shoot with a popular actress that taught me a lot about business. It was beautiful to see a team of women creating something for the sake of creating, seeing women supporting one another. That opportunity ended up introducing me to a lot of people in the business. People sometimes say they reached a ‘you have arrived’ moment in their career. For me this was that moment.
One of my favourite shoots was done in a chateau outside Paris. I worked with a renowned photographer who published in Elle and Vogue. For the shoot we used a dress worn by Jennifer Lopez that costed more than $40,000! I remember it rained that day but we prayed and prayed and luckily the sun came up and there was a rainbow! As a side note, this was one of my first times working outside of the Tamil community. I had to really push myself as a woman of colour to show that I could do this. I am really proud of this shoot. It got picked up and published by Elegant Wedding Magazine.
How do you navigate work-life balance?
I enjoy styling and creating stories through fashion — because i'm passionate about this it doesn’t feel like i'm working. While many creatives may feel pressure to engage, I enjoy unplugging and making time for travelling, reading, TV and movies — which are also important to the work I do. I have been recently trying meditation and bar workouts in my spare time too.
How big of a role does networking play in your work?
This is a big part of the fashion industry and I wish I would have known that earlier on. If there was something I would have told myself in the beginning it would be to network. Fashion is a small and close knit industry. The people who get picked for projects likely already know someone, but there are a lot of people willing to help. I would tell a younger me to not get disappointed if you don’t immediately hear back from people. Fashion is a bottom up industry, no one walks in becoming the Vogue editor. You have to get your foot in the door somewhere, whether it's through interning or assisting. When you do start building a network, I think it's also helpful to ask not only what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.
What is a typical work day like for you?
My 9-5 looks nothing like a typical 9-5. Days can run from 12-15 hours long, with commercial shoots taking the longest. A typical day on set consists of long hours, early starts and late nights. There’s a lot of prep work, organizing wardrobes, sorting out looks, doing final model fittings. There’s a team to go over the itinerary for the day, depending on the shoot there may also be an assistant. There’s a collaborative effort on set that requires you to be a people person in order to interact with different types of personalities. Even the wrap up process requires a lot of effort as you have to get models changed out of clothes quickly while ensuring all borrowed products are intact and organized. If you’re the type of person that likes to do your work and leave this is not the space for you. Of course, this is the complete opposite of my other job working for the government.
Who are your style inspirations?
I have four!
On a personal level I have been inspired by Jackie Kennedy. I love her style from the 70s. Secondly, I have always been fascinated by Princess Diana. She used fashion to tell a story which was innovative during her time. For example, we still talk about that time she wore a black high slit dress right after her divorce!
Citing some Asian inspirations, I have been fascinated with Rekha. She has always been unapologetic with fashion. She broke a big social norm in her era by maintaining heavy sarees and jewellery when her husband passed away, although this ran in contrast to what was expected of a widow. Another big inspiration for me was Sridevi. She influenced a whole generation by making fashion accessible with half sarees and use of chiffon material. I have seen her fashion play a role in what my own mom and aunts wore growing up.
What are some style trends that you think we'll see more of this year?
I think we’ll be seeing more of the strong shoulders from the 80s, sleek silhouettes of the 90s, suits and tailoring of the 30s — but if there is one era that will dominate this year it will be the 70s. You will see a lot of florals and funky accessories, platform heels, lots of white and neon, accessories in chain and link forms.
Any advice for Tamil creatives that are interested in a similar career path?
Follow your passion but don’t get bogged down by early successes and failures. In art, it takes a long time to reach the peak. Don’t feel discouraged. You have to be smart when you get in this field. You have to be able to balance the business aspect, as well as the creative. It’s a balance that a lot of people struggle with.
There are so many talented Tamil creatives but I feel like a lot of people can feel too comfortable within the community. While your biggest success may come from within the Tamil community, why not try to break out even further? My goal has always been to make it big and make an investment back into the community to help push future generations to even greater levels of success.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.