Interview with Karen Millen
PUBLISHED: 16:58 30 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013
She's the queen of retail who shed her designer label to launch two charities and explore her fascination with interiors, but Karen Millen is about to leap into the world of fashion once again
Karen Millen, designer, entrepreneur, multi-millionairess and mum, makes such a quiet entrance into the lounge where I am sitting admiring her fabulous view that I nearly drop my coffee cup. It's typical of her - a petite 5ft 2in, with her long blonde hair, black jeans and T-shirt, she could be any yummy mummy waiting at the school gate, and is modest to a fault about her success and undeniable talents.
The OBE she received last year, for example, doesn't even get mentioned until I bring it up, and she still seems shocked to have been honoured.
"I was gobsmacked when I got the letter through - taken aback, but very honoured, too," she says. "I was just doing something I enjoyed." She even made the dress she wore on the big day. "I'd looked and looked and couldn't find anything that felt right for me. I bought a dress, then took it back and ended up making my own. At least it was comfortable and didn't fall apart!"
Ironically, that home-made dress got Karen back into sewing again and made her realise how much she'd missed fashion. Even more exciting is news that the retail queen who, in 2004 sold Karen Millen, the label she'd set up with her ex, Kevin Stanford nearly 30 years ago, is working on a new label with some of her former colleagues. "I feel like now I've gone back a full circle. I'm very much hands on again," she laughs.
It's been a life-changing five years for Karen, 48, since selling the company and splitting with her partner. "I found myself in a very new place," she admits. "I was suddenly able to do things I hadn't had time to do - the interiors side, which I've always loved, and of course your social circle changes when you are not with your partner, so I felt I had to stand on my own two feet."
The strikingly decorated house she and Kevin bought 10 years ago is testimony to her innate interior design skills. Late Georgian with 17th-century additions, the couple completely gutted and renovated it, adding great touches like the huge south-facing deck that overlooks a swimming pool and extensive gardens with a freshwater lake at the bottom.
The rolling Kentish hills make it a breathtaking view at any time of year and her three children - Josh, 18, Jordan, 17 and 12-year-old Jake - love it because there are also tennis courts, a football pitch and a gym. It's a pretty good environment, too, for their two Hungarian vizsla dogs, Charlie and Arthur.
"But there was no real love in the house," admits Karen. "We made it look beautiful, but it had no real heart, so now I've really put my heart into it and made it mine. Fashion and interiors go hand in hand really, both are about proportions and colours. And I love travelling so I like picking up things and adding them in."
Karen is also involved in doing up a house she has bought in Majorca - the family's favourite holiday destination - and renovating her apartment in London, despite confessing she has very little confidence in her abilities.
"The interiors side of things has kept me very busy and I could take further if I got an offer. But it's typical of me in lacking confidence, because I haven't studied interiors - I'd be concerned about not having the experience of operating to a budget or time scale. I've had a free hand here."
And she has loved being a much more hands-on mum, taking Jake to school in Sevenoaks "the pretty way", via Plaxtol, every morning and generally being much more involved in their lives.
But all this wasn't enough for Karen, who wanted to give something back to society. "Getting involved in charity was an obvious thing to do, I could meet new people and do good things as well," says Karen, who has worked with her close friend, Debbie Pezzani, to set up Teens Unite Fighting Cancer, dedicated to improving the lives of young people aged between 13 and 24 with life-limiting illnesses.
The charity wants to build respite homes for young people where they can come together and have the facilities they need, but the recession has changed their plans slightly.
"At the moment we are just bringing teenagers together and taking them out to things like concerts at the O2, football and rugby," explains Karen.
"And we're getting groups together and doing motivational workshops, initially in the hospitals. We're all about giving them a little bit of hope."
Out of Africa
Karen is also giving a great deal of hope through HopeHIV, based at the Gateway School of Fashion in South Africa, which aims to give fashion skills to young people affected by HIV. What's wonderful for Karen is that teachers from the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, where she studied, have been pivotal in getting it off the ground.
Her much-loved former teacher and head of fashion, Sheelagh Wright, is now project director and together they took on 22 students for the first year. Karen travels out three times a year and is delighted at the progress.
"We did a show at the end of the final year and it was wonderful to see these 'heads down' young people with their heads up at last. Ten have gone on for another year, we want to get five starting on their own projects, and we're training up two as teachers."
A self-confessed home girl, Karen was born in Maidstone, where her very first shop opened in 1983 in Pudding Lane under the name Cue, and now lives in nearby Wateringbury.
Keen on painting and decorating, school said it wasn't really a career for girls and suggested fashion instead - and the rest is history. Aged 19, fresh out of college, she went on holiday and met Kevin, who was doing a degree in engineering but interested in starting up a business with Karen.
They started off making cotton shirts, then got a loan of 100 to buy equipment and slowly built up four shops over 10 years. By 2004 there were 130 stores internationally.
"When you're a bigger company, it's very much figure led and it's hard to keep the creativity then," says Karen. "Although it was a wrench selling the business, I was actually quite happy. It was emotional, but definitely the right decision and I've never regretted it."
She certainly looks relaxed and happy and it's not hard to see why she'd really rather be behind the high walls surrounding her lovely home than almost anywhere else. "It's like being on holiday when I'm at home, and people tend to come to me," she says.
"I can't bear queuing or traffic, so we tend to stay here. It's so perfect - and incredible it's just by a main road."
Locally, she enjoys eating at The Swan in West Malling, who catered for her son's 18th birthday party, and The Chaser at Shipbourne, preferring the surrounding villages to the towns.
As for fashion, she does wear some of her own label clothes but admits to dressing quite differently from the typical Karen Millen style, which is quite structured - and she is a huge
fan of the British high street.
A lot has happened in the last five years but, as Karen says: "Great things can come out of changes, and even when bad things happen , I'll always try and put a positive spin to it."