Karen Millen’s creative director still gets a buzz from seeing women wearing her designs on the UK’s streets, and thanks to the retailer’s global expansion she could soon be spotting her work around the world too
Gemma Metheringham always yearned to be a fashion designer for the high street. “I wanted to see people wearing my clothes all the time. Passing women in the street wearing your stuff still gives me a huge buzz,” she says.
Karen Millen’s creative director certainly paid her dues. She joined Marks & Spencer as a garment designer after graduating from Nottingham Trent University, did a spell at high street chain Next and now-defunct womenswear retailer Richards, and then returned to Next before joining Karen Millen, which this month was bought out of administration by the management team of parent company Mosaic Fashions (now Aurora Fashions) and Icelandic bank Kaupthing.
She says: “M&S, in terms of training, was fantastic because you got to really understand the fundamentals of product design and fit. My claim to fame was that I slightly changed the neckline on a best-selling women’s lambswool sweater and I think they haven’t changed it since. At that time M&S was employing big names to come in on a freelance basis, so I had Sir Paul Smith looking at the range I was working on. As a designer you have to be able to channel your ideas and communicate them for the market and I certainly learnt how to do that at M&S.”
Then, in 1990, Metheringham jumped ship to Next. “Next was somewhere I had always wanted to work - it was probably the reason for me becoming a high street designer,” she says. “I worked on the Next Directory with an incredibly passionate team of people for about a year and a half and then went to Richards, which was when I first met Derek [Lovelock, now chief executive of Aurora Fashions, which owns Karen Millen].
“Working on something that just wasn’t working [Richards] and trying to refocus it taught me to think in a much broader way. When I returned to Next as head of design for womenswear, it was a huge concern with a really broad customer base.”
It was in 1999 that Metheringham got the call from Karen Millen. She says: “It ticked all the boxes. I don’t think you could have found a more design-centric business.” When Metheringham joined Karen Millen as design director, Karen Millen herself was still designing for the business and co-founder Kevin Stanford was running the brand.
“They were totally hands-on and we worked in a tiny design studio. Both had incredible taste and a great eye for detail.”
Stanford, Metheringham says, had real clarity about brands and building a design-centred branded business. “You can see that at [contemporary fashion retailer] All Saints [where Stanford is chairman] today. Even now when I am looking at a range, if I can see there is something wrong with it I hear his voice in my head. He always delivered a clear brief and that’s something I strive to do.”
She adds that the pair carved out a niche on the high street for a contemporary premium brand, which she maintains did not exist before and is now a busy part of the sector.
As Karen Millen grew, Metheringham’s job included setting up a design team. The business, which has 100 UK stores and concessions and 130 overseas outlets, now has a 13-strong design team. Karen Millen is still an anomaly on the high street in terms of the way it is structured: there is no buying team, as such, and instead Karen Millen has a product development team that works with its designers.
Metheringham explains: “Production development and pattern cutting is all done in-house. We create a prototype garment. The product developers work with the design team to ensure the product is made in the way it was conceived. It is an incredibly direct process and a very creative environment - almost a bit like couture in its outlook.”
Karen Millen trades in 40 countries and 50% of its sales are overseas. In Russia, consumers see it as a luxury brand and the latest store that opened in Moscow late last year sits next to Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg.
Metheringham attributes Karen Millen’s overseas success to two things. First, she says, the business has always had a European attitude. “It is glamorous and confident in a way that a lot of other British fashion wouldn’t be. It always had an international point of view,” she says. “Second, I think the management team here since it was bought by Mosaic Fashions (now Aurora Fashions) really backed the vision for it as an international business. It is incredible to think that five years ago 86% of the business was UK-based and now it’s 50/50. The fact it now has stores in places like Azerbaijan never ceases to amaze me.”
Metheringham says that as the international business grows, it is inevitable that some things will be adapted in the ranges locally, but the core of the collection will stay the same. For example, Karen Millen is already putting more coats in the collection for the Russian market.
Metheringham was made creative director in 2006. She sees her job as influencing the design process by steering the vision behind the collection and setting the parameters for the team. She says: “There is an amazing amount of love in what we do as a design team. Most of us have been here a long time and feel a part of the brand, so we have some very heated design meetings. The brand has a particular fit. I suppose I would call it sculptured. When you put on a Karen Millen coat it almost makes you stand up a little straighter.”
She says her core customer is aged 30 to 40, values quality and fit and wants to look glamorous all the time. “They’re not slavish followers of trends but they really understand fashion and want to invest in good pieces,” she says.
Now and then, Metheringham says, she gets slightly vexed about how the business is perceived in the UK. She says: “I still come across people who think Karen Millen is a one-trick pony and just does party dresses. We have a great workwear business and a strong denim range - there are 15 styles in the collection and our coat business is fantastic.
“Celebrities such as Eva Longoria wear the brand in the US, where Karen Millen is like this great fashion secret.”
Metheringham is aware that the recession is having an impact on consumer habits, despite the fact that Karen Millen had always been the strongest brand in the Mosaic Fashions portfolio. She says: “We do need to keep a very disciplined approach to things such as price. We want the business to retain a breadth of appeal. This year is going to be incredibly challenging and we are seeing consolidation in the markets that we are already in.
“But I think the danger is if we play it too safe in times like these. The strength of the brand is that it always has a really strong point of view, and although we need to be really focused on delivering what the customer needs, we can’t lose sight of that.”
Who are your fashion mentors?
I’ve been really lucky throughout my career. A lot of people have given me a lot of their time. Derek Lovelock and Meg Lustman [Aurora Fashions chief executive and chief strategy officer respectively] have both been really generous in sharing their knowledge and experience of business with me, and both Kevin Stanford and Karen Millen [co-founders of Karen Millen] were a huge inspiration to me as a designer.
Which is your favourite retailer?
Dover Street Market continually draws me in with the way everything is put together and the diversity of its brands.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
A jacket in canary yellow washed leather for Karen Millen. We made it up in beige as well and when it came to the buy we just opted for the yellow. I remember going home and thinking ‘what were we thinking?’ But it was the fastest rate of sale on a leather jacket we have ever had. It sums up what I love about Karen Millen - our customers are brave enough and fun enough to get it.
Who do you most admire in fashion?
Miuccia Prada. I love the fact that everything when you get up close is beautifully made and the fact that the Prada brand never stands still.
What would be your dream job outside of fashion?
As a child my first love was definitely fashion, but it was closely followed by history, especially Tudor history. In my dreams I’d have researched a particular piece of history and written an educated, but entertaining, book. I’d like to do an Open University degree in psychology - I’m fascinated by what makes people choose the paths they do in the world.
2006 Creative director, Karen Millen
1999 Design director, Karen Millen
1996 Design manager, Next
1992 Design manager, Richards
1990 Designer, Next Directory
1988 Graduate designer, Marks & Spencer
1984 BA Hons Knitwear Design, Nottingham Trent University