Learning about leather at Christian Dior taught Karen Millen’s senior accessories designer the skills to succeed.
What does your typical week involve?
There is a lot to do each week as we work on such a diverse product area, which includes bags, belts, small leather goods, watches, jewellery and sunglasses. We’re a small team of three, assisted by a protégé [a year-long placement for a fashion graduate].
Looking after the licensed products means I work with other companies to harness the latest technology and materials to create pieces such as watches and sunglasses. I have to ensure everything they create is aligned with the latest Karen Millen collection in terms of trend, colour and detailing. It is so important that detailing across all our products relates back to the main collection. So every morning you come in there is something different to tackle.
How do you feel your role is changing as the industry evolves?
It has changed considerably since I first started at Karen Millen in 2003. The range then consisted of around 15 styles, all of which were in-house. The collection has now grown to 160 options planned for our autumn 15 collection across all accessories product areas. The product mix has brought fresh challenges and I continue to learn.
Digital is something we embrace at Karen Millen and I work closely with our digital team to ensure that clients browsing and purchasing our accessories online have all the right information. I make sure I’m happy with all visual representations of styles, and I’m constantly looking for the best way to represent product and reflect our in-store environment.
How is the growing influence of social media affecting your role?
Social media is a great way to get a real read on things - and quickly. Our online gallery collating Karen Millen fans’ and clients’ photos from Instagram and Facebook is an immediate way to see people’s reactions to the pieces we’re creating.
What are the defining moments of your career?
One of the defining things has been working at Karen Millen and seeing how much the brand continues to evolve, and how exciting it has been using my experience to build a great accessories collection.
Another highlight would be getting the job working with Christian Dior, where I joined as an accessories designer in 1997. I learned a lot during my time there, from the development of monogram leathers to hardware and closures. Visiting the Dior factory in Florence to watch prototype development and see my idea become a reality was amazing.
Working at Italian fashion house Gianfranco Ferré was also quite the experience. I worked as an accessories designer from 1998 to 2002, focusing initially on belts and designing new buckles, before moving onto small leather goods and bags. I got thrown in at the deep end, so I learned very quickly and from the best.
What have you got wrong and how did you learn from it?
We all learn from making mistakes. I think in retail one of the things we can all be disappointed by is when a design doesn’t work as well as we would have liked. You can’t win them all, but this is something I strive to improve on every season. When we have a style that doesn’t work as well as we expected, we look at feedback from Karen Millen clients to get an idea of how to progress styles and optimise success.
Who in the industry do you aspire to emulate?
I love the accessories from French fashion house Chloé. One of my favourites at the moment is the Everston bag. I think the equestrian detailing, buttery leathers and colours look great.
What is your favourite piece you have designed and why?
One of my favourite bags is a black leather fringe and stud bag from autumn 08. I love the mix of soft buttery fringing with the mixed finish studding, exaggerated puller and leather tab detailing. This was one of our instant bestsellers.
Which iconic bag do you wish you had designed and why?
The Hermès Birkin has to be one of my favourite bags. The sheer simplicity of the design and equestrian-inspired construction are great. The style has certainly stood the test of time as well.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Follow your passion. I used to be quite hesitant and worry so much about things. As you progress through your career, your confidence grows a lot. So I would say follow your heart and go with what you believe in, which is what I feel like I’ve done.
For someone who wants to work in your field, what key skills are needed to keep progressing up the career ladder?
I think it’s ambition and drive. I really love what I do and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. You constantly have to be rethinking what you’re doing in this industry.
How do you see your career progressing?
There are so many exciting things happening at the moment. We’ve just embarked on wholesale at Selfridges for spring 15, I was there at the beginning of the week in the accessories lounge. We’re starting to really build the Karen Millen accessories collection in Selfridges. Wholesale is a different challenge as you need to work much earlier on the critical path and meet the needs of particular geographies. I’m sure that will keep me busy for some time.
If you could work in another sector, what would it be?
I do have quite a technical eye, so I would probably work in architecture if I wasn’t in the design area of fashion. I do the technical drawings for our bags as all the metalwork is bespoke, so there’s a kind of crossover.
2003 Accessories design manager, Karen Millen
2002 Accessories designer, Jaeger
1998-2001 Accessories designer, Gianfranco Ferre
1997-2002 Accessories designer, Christian Dior
1997 MA Fashion Design, Domus Academy, Milan
1996 BA Fashion Design, Liverpool John Moores University