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Karen Millen: Behind the scenes

Karen Millen let us into its Knightsbridge pop-up atelier to follow a trench coat from sketch to store.

Premium womenswear retailer Karen Millen has operated an atelier at its Shoreditch head office for more than 10 years, consisting of a team of 34 pattern cutters, cutters, sample machinists, garment technologists and grading experts, who work across every collection. To add to this, a six-week pop-up atelier was opened at its Knightsbridge flagship from September 1 (a leather atelier also ran at the same time at Selfridges) to sell the Tailored in London capsule collection, which comprised 15 coats, waistcoats and skirts designed by the Karen Millen team and tailored by local craftsmen using luxurious Italian fabrics.

The autumn 14 Tailored in London range offered 20 to 75 of each style, from £99 for a city landscape-print T-shirt to £899 for a personalised trench coat. Drapers met the people behind the atelier, following the trench from sketch to store.

1. Nick Ross
senior designer


Having worked for Karen Millen for almost 11 years, I design a large part of the collection, focused on denim, leather, coats and dresses. There are seven designers in total, including three senior designers and four young protégés taken on every year.

We design months in advance, so we are currently working on autumn 15. From concept to store, a collection typically takes nine months.
All designs start with the fabric. We travel to Première Vision in February and September to look out for the colour stories and fabric directions. I think about how the cloth fits the silhouette I have in my head. We have partnerships dating back more than 15 years, in particular Italian mills that we work with on special developments.

For our Tailored in London atelier, we took the fabric quality up a notch from the mainline, sourcing from high-end Italian manufacturers Cangioli, Milior and Manifattura Tessile Risaliti.

I fill a scrapbook with swatches of cloth I like - it’s my bible. All the designers get together with our books and we decide what we like, before ordering five-metre samples. We refer to our colour research and images from the international catwalk shows. We also consider the range plan for the collection, which always includes staples like a trench, wool coat, jeans, knitwear, dresses and T-shirts.
Once the cloth is in, I hand-sketch designs.

I loved working on the signature trench from our Tailored in London atelier. It is a timeless piece in luxurious fabric with an expert cut. I then take the sketches over to the pattern cutters in our on-site atelier. It is a real creative collaborative process, especially regarding silhouette and proportions. Based on these discussions the pattern cutter creates the first toile or initial prototype.

This prototype garment is brought into the selection meeting, where the team looks at how to refine the design. In the pattern room a second prototype is created, which goes through another selection meeting, where another round of alterations are made before a style is selected.
Next we fit the garment on a model, analysing the cut, movement, drape and proportions. Once we are happy, the pattern, fabric and specifications are sent to the factory. The manufacturer then sends us its own prototype, which is refitted on the model to ensure it meets the brief. We then feedback to the manufacturer on any changes.

A garment can go through four to five prototypes before it hits the shops.


2. Sue O’Brien
fabric manager


I’ve been looking after the fabric buying at Karen Millen for nearly 10 years. The choice of fabric is very much design-led and I travel to Première Vision with Nick and the team to get a sense of the trends.

Most of our cloth is sourced from Italian mills. For the Tailored in London atelier, we were lucky to work with the highest echelon of international fabric that very few fashion brands globally can afford to buy, such as Cangioli, Milior and Manifattura Tessile Risaliti. For the Tailored in London signature trench we opted for a super heavyweight wool/cashmere blend cloth with individuality, quality and longevity.

Once the fabric samples have been sent through and the prototypes made up in the atelier, the design team select the fabrics they want for the different garments in the collection. I make sure the fabric is tested for pilling or bobbling on the surface, colour fastness and abrasion with the garment technicians.

Then I start to negotiate prices with the mills and purchase the quantities needed. I send sample shades to manufacturers, many of whom we work with on exclusive colours. The fabric arrives five to six months into the nine-month process from sketch to store.

3. Mike Goldstone
senior pattern cutter


When Nick brings in his first sketch, I develop a rough pattern on screen with the Gerber pattern-cutting machine. I measure by eye, print out the pattern on the plotter and cut it out to create a mock-up, using a fabric similar to that of the final garment. The pieces are pinned onto the dummy so I can look at details like pockets or buttons.

I have found in my more than 18 years at Karen Millen that the pattern-cutting process can range from a day to weeks, depending on the intricacy of the garment. The Tailored in London signature trench, for example, had more than 70 pieces.
Once the garment is pinned on the dummy, I call in the designers to look at any aspects they want to change, like extra zips or pockets. When they are happy I create a more detailed pattern.

I create markers, which are laid out like pieces of a jigsaw on a width of fabric. There is a marker for each component, such as the collar or cuff.

A computerised pattern is then sent to the cutting machine. We lay out the fabric and cut out each component, which is given to our machinists to sample, along with details like seam width.

After fittings, proportions may need to change. Once details are agreed, measurements for the second prototype are sent in a construction sheet to the manufacturer (based in London for the Tailored in London capsule, or China and Europe for other collections).

4. Tracy Sales
pattern room manager


I’ve been managing the 34 people in our on-site atelier for three years. This includes the garment technologists, who are responsible for communicating with the factory that all the elements are fit for purpose, the sample machinists and the grading teams, who ensure the garments are sized correctly.

Our attention is on fit and detail. The seven sample machinists collaborate with the pattern cutters before any pattern goes out to the factory to ensure we provide the perfect fit. The flexibility of having an on-site atelier is priceless.

For the Tailored in London atelier we worked with garment manufacturers Sel World and London Tradition, who are just 20 minutes away in east London. The close proximity meant we could guarantee a faster response and maintain close control of production. We gave them all the patterns, fabrics, grades and trims. Our quality control managers visited the factories to ensure everything was in place.

The signature trench is a standout piece from the Tailored in London collection. It has the perfect fit combined with the gravitas of a heritage piece made in London. The fabric helps to elevate the product. It is designed to make the wearer feel amazing.

The Tailored in London atelier is all about investment pieces. The collection also included a black and white reefer jacket with signature leather collar, cashmere knits and digital-print T-shirts. As a very local enterprise, Tailored in London proves manufacturing skills are still alive in the UK.

5. Fay Tear
production director

Fay Tear

Fay Tear

As production director for 19 years, I set the critical path by working back from the in-store date. I track when the designers will have their creative meetings with chief creative officer Gemma Metheringham, as well as the handover date for getting sketches to the atelier.

The production team’s key performance indicators are quality, delivery and price. We need to be agile to deal with problems without compromising quality and communicate with suppliers to ensure delivery is never delayed.

I sit down with Gemma, Tracy and the design team to look at the collection from a commercial perspective. I need to know which fabrics they want and how this will feed into our supplier base.

I visit our suppliers in China and Hong Kong twice a year and suppliers in Europe every other month.

We sourced the factories for the Tailored in London atelier in January. It was amazing to work with a manufacturer in the same time zone.

We took some junior staff members to see the manufacturing, most of whom had never been to a factory.

Likewise, representatives from Sel World and London Tradition visited our head office to find out more about us. You need to build up a relationship with the supplier to create a quality product.

6. Gemma Metheringham
chief creative officer


The Tailored in London atelier gave our customers the chance to experience the craftsmanship and strong creative spirit that lies behind everything we do at Karen Millen. Each piece was precision cut and crafted with traditional tailoring techniques, using luxurious fabrics to create a modern and highly personal garment for each customer, here in London.

The direct personal connection between our designers and pattern cutters enables us to perfect our signature tailored fit and deliver incredible quality for our customers in store.

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