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My Fashion Life: Karen Phelps, creative director of denim brand Citizens of Humanity

Coh womens fall 2017  look 1 0193 wk3

Drapers spoke to newly appointed creative director of denim brand Citizens of Humanity to find out about her passion for denim and plans for the brand.

Karen final

Karen final

Karen Phelps

Los Angeles-based denim brand Citizens of Humanity has become known for its premium, heritage denim since it was founded in 2003. Producing and sourcing all of its denim from local, in-house laundry and manufacturing facilities, it boasts UK stockists including Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, with wholesale prices for denim ranging from £82 to £182.

Having grown up and studied in Newcastle, Karen Phelps has worked for brands including J Brand, Calvin Klein and Levi’s, and originally joined Citizens of Humanity in 2016, as creative director of sub-brands Agolde and Goldsign. In October 2017 she was announced creative director across the entire Citizens of Humanity portfolio, which includes Citizens of Humanity, Agolde, Goldsign, Fabric-Brand & Co, and Getting Back to Square One.

Fall studed 1818

Fall studed 1818

Citizens of Humanity - autumn 17 Studded capsule

What’s your background? How did you get to where you are today?

After graduating [from Northumbria University] in the UK, I moved straight to New York where I spent 10 years working for brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Gap before returning to Europe and consulting with smaller more niche brands such as Margaret Howell.

There has always been authenticity and honesty in the clothing I design and brands I have gravitated towards. I have always been incredibly detail-driven and with denim it’s important to have a good eye – a slightly off thread colour or pocket placement can break a garment.

Can you tell us a little about the brand?

Our ethos is Californian denim history, with modern sophistication. For the past 14 years, Citizens of Humanity has maintained a rigorous commitment to cutting-edge denim, while keeping close to its original touchstones. Producing everything under our own roof gives us the ability to have complete control of the quality of our product, which really sets us apart.

Besides building the product and brand, our focus is to build ourselves as a community of individuals. As a team with a variety of different perspectives and expertise, we want to continue to share stories of those that inspire us and celebrate those who are making the world a better place.

Coh womens fall 2017 look 9 1197 wk5

Coh womens fall 2017 look 9 1197 wk5

Citizens of Humanity autumn 17

What is your favourite thing about denim as a fabric?

Each season is essentially a blank canvas and there is always the excitement, anticipation and unknown [quality] of starting to work with a new fabric.

Why do you think denim has such a universal appeal?

It’s not an exclusive product. It is accessible to all, and conveys an entire attitude. As David Hockney said about his work – and I think this applies to denim – “Different people get different things out of the images. It doesn’t matter what it’s about: all that matters is how it makes you feel.”

Where do you find your inspiration when designing?

Mainly in London for its street style and LA for vintage. I also seek out markets and vintage stores when travelling to a new city.

Coh womens fall 2017  look 2 0299 wk3

Coh womens fall 2017 look 2 0299 wk3

Citizens of Humanity autumn 17

How do you keep yourself motivated and creative?

I am very hands-on and involved in all aspects of the design process, so to work within the Citizens of Humanity umbrella, where we own our own factory and laundry, has been a privilege. We have an incredible team of expert in-house sample and pattern makers, which allows us to really push the boundaries in development on a daily basis, both creatively and practically.

Is there anyone in the industry you particularly admire?

Calvin Klein.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?

“Shy bairns get nowt”, a phrase that essentially means “Never be afraid to ask.” This was advice that my professor at college, Paul Shriek, would drill into his students in his Geordie accent. It resonated with me then and has stayed with me ever since.


Snap Chat

Favourite clothing brand?


Favourite places to shop?

Dover Street market, Scout for curated vintage, Surfing Cowboys and the Santa Monica flea market for mid-century American furniture

Last fashion purchase?

A classic men’s mackintosh in a Prince of Wales check, and a statement pair of 1980s geometric earrings from Long Beach flea market

Last holiday?

Costa Rica

Last book you read?

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr, co-founder of the Smiths

Last film you watched?

Blade Runner

First job?

Assistant designer at J Crew

What would we find you doing at the weekend?

With LA’s bright blue skies and amazing weather, I spend a lot of time outside. I also visit the Santa Monica and Long Beach flea markets regularly – LA has incredible vintage.

In London, my weekends are usually spent at home with family. Columbia Road flower market on Sundays is also a frequent stop.

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