For the first ever instalment of our new interview series 'Changing room chats' we caught up with one our newest brand partners - Karen Mabon.
Karen is a designer and illustrator based in London, but originally from Scotland as you'll read below. She launched her eponymous label in 2013 after attending London's Royal College of Art. Known for her playful and highly original signature prints on silk and cotton, in December '20 we introduced Karen's divine prints to our pyjama edit and we haven't looked back. In Summer '21 we will launch an exclusive design with Karen, so keep your eyes on our Instagram @thepantryunderwear
for a sneak peak very soon, OR pre-order via the link at the bottom of the article. We're wagging our tails with excitement ...
Thank you Karen x
What made you decide to start KM?
I have always adored pattern and felt like I was always searching for printed, colourful clothes - I suppose the fashion landscape was a bit different when I started in 2013 to what it’s like now in the sense that we were coming out of a recession. This feeling was very much reflected in the clothing available; everything felt very minimal and sombre. I was constantly trawling vintage clothing stores to try and find amazing printed pieces - I love the feeling of wearing something fabulous and conversational. I trained as a jeweller so there was a lot to learn about making garments but it means I have an eye for detail and am a perfectionist!
How many people are on your team? And how will you and the team celebrate being back together in person, when it is safe to do so?
There are three of us who work full time; myself, Laura who is my brand manager and Alannah, who is our communications manager and runs the art direction side of things. But we also work with a lot of extremely talented freelancers; Rachel, up in Scotland, works on our digital marketing and Yasemin is our graphic designer. We also work closely on product development with our manufacturers - I have worked with Mauricio in our Italian factory for years and we speak every day.
I absolutely cannot WAIT to be able to go back to the office properly! I think we are all missing the travel aspect of our job so as soon as we are allowed, we are planning to go back to New York and see all our lovely buyers there - and combine it with a bit of a holiday too!
What have been the most challenging ‘moments’ you have faced since the C-19 pandemic came about?
I think just the uncertainty of it all. We stock with a lot of bricks and mortar retailers so it’s been hard watching what they have had to go through - we have tried our best to be flexible and support them as much as we can. We stock our collections worldwide so different places were hit badly at different times. I think business wise we have just tried to be sensitive whilst also trying to think about what people need and want during this strange time. In all honesty, work has been an absolute saviour for me this past year, I have thrown myself into designing new prints and collections because it’s pure escapism from the reality of how scary the world is at the moment. I am missing my family in Scotland terribly, and have had to cancel my wedding 3 times but I feel incredibly lucky to have a job and to have been able to continue to operate when so many others have been adversely affected.
You're so well known for your playful prints - where do you start when designing a new season? incl. where do you draw inspiration from?
I used to get a lot of inspiration from travel but that’s obviously not happening at the moment! This year I’ve been relying a lot on my collection of art and design books. I normally start with an idea for a colour combination and then think about what themes could work with that. I try and build out a collection which has a mix of more timeless prints, but also novelty ones which are just fun to look at.
What has been your proudest moment since you founded your business?
So many!! I think the most incredible moment was in 2019 when I worked on a collaboration with Monoprix - I created 150 products and designed 5 shop windows across Paris. Seeing the windows on the Champs-Élysées and my name next to Chanel was just the most insane and surreal experience of my life and I couldn’t believe it.
Which other female founded brands are you loving at the moment [Insta handles please]?
Ohh wow SO many!! My best friend Rosie is a knitwear designer and makes the most beautiful cashmere socks in a mill in Scotland - I have so many of her pieces and wear my beret every day. Her insta is @rosiesugdenscottishcashmere
. I absolutely love Grainne Morton’s jewellery - she is an antique collector and has the most amazing imagination - @grainnemorton
. Another exceptionally talented is Ruth Lessly who also happens to be Scottish - @ruth_lessly
Others I love are Pampa, the Parisian florists @pampa.paris
. My friends Les Filles have an amazing boutique in Lisbon, Portugal but ship worldwide - @hi.lesfilles
Kate Sheridan makes the most beautiful leather bags and has recently expanded into womenswear - she has a lovely shop in East London and I really miss seeing her in Paris every season! @katesheridanbags
. Annie Larson makes amazing jumpers and she is based in New York - @annieleelarson
Is social media the answer to marketing in 2021 or is it a time suck for business owners too?
Oh wow this is a good question! I love instagram for business because it allows me to connect with my customers directly and chat to them about what they want to see from the collection. But I get sucked in to the trap of comparing myself to other businesses which is a terrible idea because we all know it’s just smoke and mirrors! I try and keep it at arms length and concentrate on making a product which is even more beautiful in real life and not just on instagram!
With many big retailers declining rapidly in the last few years, it has been said that more shoppers are returning to independent stores - how have *you* experienced the shift from big retail multiples to independents, through your business and / or observing the industry?
I've been thinking about this a lot recently; on a personal level, I'm definitely a lot more interested in the story behind the brands I purchase from. I'm interested in having a personal connection with the pieces I invest in- either because it's purchased from an independent store and I want to support the owner, or it's a brand I have followed for a while. My fiancé made my engagement ring with Sweet Pea, the jewellers in Primrose Hill that I used to work at on Saturdays when I was a student. I loved the ring obviously, but the sentiment behind it was equally important. I notice it with our customers too; they are so supportive and I feel like we are on a journey together! I think things are moving away from "it bags" and everyone having the same thing - clothing and accessories are an opportunity to tell your own individual narrative and I think people are starting to realise that.
The fashion industry has seen a recent surge in body positive content and collections, is it important for you to have size inclusivity within Karen Mabon?
Yes definitely. From a brand perspective, it's taken longer than we would have liked to introduce bigger sizes but I feel like we're getting there. The sad thing is that it's not as simple as just adding extra sizes - our factory were very reluctant to work with us on extended sizing as it does require more fabric and initially, we couldn't meet the minimums. But it was important to our customers therefore it was important to us, so we managed to add them in at the end of last year. It's very much a work in progress though as we are learning about the way garments fit on different bodies.
Since the public backlash against fast fashion giants like Boohoo and PLT, many companies are deciding to make their sourcing and manufacturing procedures more sustainable and transparent - is this something you have / will introduce to your business and how do you plan on doing so?
Absolutely - having an ethical and sustainable brand is really important to us and every day it informs how we grow and the decisions we make. We work with suppliers in Italy, China and Portugal. Our manufacturers in Italy and China have been with us from day one - we have a great relationship and are in constant daily contact with them. All the suppliers we work with have the required compliance certificates and uphold extremely high standards. This year we have committed to moving all our production to Europe and are starting to research and sample with more circular fabrications which we are aiming to introduce by the end of 2021.
The reality is that there is a huge contradiction between our current fashion industry which thrives off newness, and sustainability. We take the standpoint that by making limited quantities of pieces which are made to last, we are able to transcend the traditional seasonal fashion model and encourage our customers to buy less, but better.
Stay tuned for chats to come with Pant Pals connected to us in all sorts of ways, and of course if you'd like to suggest someone that we should chat to, please send through suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Miss you guys x