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Sue O’Brien

Karen Millen’s fabric buyer refuses to compromise on quality, and says selecting the best fabrics and developing exclusive prints keeps the retailer ahead of the competition.

Working with fabrics and print has been a life-long ambition for Karen Millen’s fabric buyer, Sue O’Brien, and is a passion that began as a child. “My mother used to make some of my clothes, plus I’ve always liked pattern and texture, so I think it was a natural progression to work in textiles. [Today] at Karen Millen, I get to buy great fabrics and work with talented people in a really creative environment – how great is that?” she says.

O’Brien’s enthusiasm for textiles is infectious, and it’s not hard to see why as she shows Drapers around the creative hub that is Karen Millen’s headquarters at Telephone House, in Shoreditch, east London. Operating an atelier-style set-up, it is here that her fabric buying team works together with Karen Millen’s designers and in-house pattern room, consisting of pattern cutters, graders and machinists. O’Brien joined Karen Millen in 2005, bringing with her a wealth of textiles experience. She oversees a small team, managing the entire fabric buying process, from raising orders through to delivery to the garment factory, taking into consideration price points, lead times and making sure the fabric is fit for purpose. This involves working closely with the textile mills and in-house teams.

It’s some time before Drapers manages to sit down and interview O’Brien, who is busy darting about, eager to bring together all of the fabrics she wants to showcase in today’s photo shoot. However, when we do, the first thing that captures our eye is the textural-print scarf wrapped around O’Brien’s neck.

Lighting up at the mention of the scarf, O’Brien explains it was developed as part of a range to complement the prints in the retailers’ spring 12 collection, and came about following a trip to Paris-based textiles trade show Première Vision in September, where she and the design team secured an Italian printer to produce them. “We negotiated the fabric quality, quantities and prices at the show,” she says. “It was very exciting and even more exciting opening the packages to see what they looked like. That’s one thing I never tire of – seeing the first fabric developments coming through,” she says.

Signature style

Première Vision is where the fabric buying happens, and where O’Brien and the design team go for inspiration. The name Karen Millen conjures up a distinct aesthetic of structured clothes, which O’Brien and the design team must adhere to when selecting new fabrics each season. O’Brien says clean, compact and stretch cloths suit the retailer’s silhouette, and that it uses a broad range of fabrics from denim to French lace in its collections. “We like beautiful, luxurious fabrics. We look for modernity in new finishing techniques and yarns that suit our handwriting.  The fabric has to be special and have a point of difference – we don’t really do ordinary,” she says.

Intent on offering its customers designs that they can’t get anywhere else, Karen Millen works with Italian mills to design and develop its own prints and checks. Checks are developed in-house by the design team, working closely with the textile mills, which engineer the scale and rework colours and colour balance to complement the brand’s colour palette. Meanwhile, the majority of the retailer’s exclusive prints are created and designed in-house by the design team and design graduates, who are recruited from Graduate Fashion Week. The whole process from sending the artwork to the print mill to despatching bulk fabric from Italy to the garment factories takes around three months.

In between pulling out different examples of Karen Millen’s latest prints, O’Brien explains that the development time is crucial to get the right print, and says the brand is fortunate to have long-established relationships with its printers, whose attention to detail is second to none. “A large proportion of our prints are produced by an Italian printer in Como, Italy, who uses amazing screen-engraving techniques passed down over generations. This means we can obtain infinite possibilities in terms of tonalities and shadow effects that give our prints a three-dimensional feel,” she says.

O’Brien admits that volatile raw material prices have made buying a nightmare, but rather than compromising on the quality of materials, Karen Millen is instead focused on efficiencies and waste reduction to balance the books. “We are lucky to have a large in-house pattern room consisting of pattern cutters, graders and machinists. All are experts in their own field and, just like an atelier system, it means the design team can work their pattern cutter on styling, eliminating any initial fabric problems,” she says. “One of the things the graders do is make sure we don’t waste any fabric when matching checks and working on placed prints. We make sure that we try to use every metre of fabric in order to save on costs,” she says.

In a bid to reduce costs further, Karen Millen makes large bookings upfront of core fabrics that it can use over several seasons. “We buy fabric in greige form [fabric in its raw state before being dyed or printed], which gives us the flexibility to colour or print and use in different collections. This has an all-round cost saving as our suppliers are able to achieve better prices if they are ordering raw materials in larger quantities,” she says.

Echoing the sentiments of many in the fashion industry, O’Brien says it is the modern consumer’s constant demand for “newness and a point of difference” that poses the biggest challenge. “My task is to make sure there is enough time for [my team] to source, develop and create the best fabrics for the brand,” she says.

However, it’s a job O’Brien relishes.

“I think offering newness, a unique product, and something that people can’t get anywhere else is essential.

It is challenging, but that’s what makes it fun.” 


2005 Fabric buyer, Karen Millen

1990 Fabric buyer, The Windsmoor Group

1983 Textile print designer, Northern Laminators and Transfer Printers

1982 Printed Textiles graduate, Eastbourne College of Art and Design


If you could be draped in any fabric, what would it be?

Cashmere, because it’s so soft, luxurious, and light but warm.

What type of prints do you like to wear?

I’m not really a floral kind of girl. I prefer textural prints, where you can’t really make out what the print is.

Whose style do you most admire?

I like that whole 1960s Brit girl look. [Actresses] Charlotte Rampling and Julie Christie both had effortless style and they still look great today.

Where do you get your inspiration?

At Karen Millen I’m surrounded by so much creativity when I come to work every day, and I find that inspiring.

What job would you do if you weren’t in fashion?

That’s an easy one. I’d either be a detective or a journalist. If a designer has something they want to develop then I’ll do my upmost to investigate and find out the information about the fabrics that they need. I think I’d make a good journalist because working in fashion I’m used to deadlines.

Who would you most like to dress?

[Actress] Rachel Weisz (pictured) is stunning with a strong look, so I think she would look great in Karen Millen.

Exalted taste: Karen Millen uses luxurious fabrics for its products

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