Graduate success story

Name: Neely Reyes
Course: Graphic Communication
Year of Graduation: 2003
Neely Reyes has a mission to put Wolverhampton firmly on the fashion map. And with her determination and early successes, there’s no reason why this ambitious 26-year-old shouldn’t achieve her goal.
She founded Sapphires Modelling Agency with Ian Warren, a fellow graduate of the University’s School of Art & Design who studied Multimedia. Both had taken on photography and design work but found there wasn’t a huge demand. They considered moving to London but really wanted to stay in their home city.
After recognising there was a gap in the market in Wolverhampton and an opportunity to develop its style potential, Neely and Ian made a decision to start their own business.
They created a business plan and secured a grant from the Prince’s Trust which gave them the foundations for their agency.

Award-winning success story

A string of accolades has helped develop their reputation. Neely was awarded Black Country Young Entrepreneur in the 2006 Inspirational Women Awards organised by Business Link. A bronze medal in the 2007 Chamber of Commerce Business Champion Awards followed and they also won the contract for the Annual London Charity Fashion show 2007 at the Albert Hall.
Sapphires has since expanded to include an office in London but they made a decision to keep their head office in Wolverhampton.
“People don’t associate fashion with Wolverhampton but that’s something we’re hoping to change,” she says, adding she is currently in the process of organising a high-profile event for the region with celebrity hosts.
“We are now privileged enough to be in the position to provide talented people with the resources needed to get started, which we think will only help the region.”

Links with celebrities and high street chains

Her day-to-day role is a whirlwind of booking models, taking part in shoots and styling. A career highlight for Neely was a celebrity photo shoot for Comic Relief including interior designer Linda Barker, comedy duo Cannon and Ball and Ab Fab comedienne Helen Lederer.
She decided to approach celebrities for her fundraising idea and was delighted with the response, which raised £1,000.
Sapphires also ran a major model search with Vero Moda and Jack and Jones. They visited 12 cities throughout the UK and had 2,200 applicants enter. Neely says:
“You see these type of competitions run in London by top agencies all the time but you don’t see them happen outside the capital much at all especially run by new companies such as Sapphires. This was a huge achievement for us because Vero Moda and Jack and Jones are a massive company and we are currently sponsored by them until autumn this year which means we wear clothes from their brands to major events and endorse them.”

A real confidence boost

Neely says the skills she learnt at the University have been invaluable:
“We both found our courses have helped us. We created our website and branding, and we’d both taken photography modules which proved really useful,” she says. “But the main thing for me was the confidence I gained.”
She is still in touch with her tutor Julia Chidley, who is always happy to offer advice and support and is very proud of Neely’s success.
“Julia is amazing,” says Neely. “Any idea I have had she has encouraged me and told me to go for it.”
Sapphires recently teamed up with the University to give students a taste of real fashion photography. Professional models from across the UK visited the School of Art & Design as part of the scheme, helping students studying a BA (Hons) Photography develop their skills at a commercial level.
For Neely and Ian, this is a vital step towards developing regional talent to achieve their long-term ambitions.