Ann Russell - otherwise known as Fashion Spy - speaks to the brains behind luxury accessories brand Karen Mabon to find out the label's design processes, thoughts on Scottish style and everything in between.
Hi Karen, tell us about you and your work
Well I'm an accessories designer based in Edinburgh. I started my own label in 2012 after I graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. I started out literally making scarves by hand on my kitchen table. Now everything is made in Italy and although it's a small company, it's become my full-time job. The aim is to create affordable luxury. We keep things unique and special by producing limited editions and working on exclusives as opposed to things with a huge price tag. I'm a perfectionist and try to make things which are of absolutely impeccable quality, which tell a unique story and which you can treasure forever. I'm not anti fast-fashion but I think it's important to question where your clothes have come from.
Loading article content
Your work is full of imagination. What sort of things inspire and influence you?
Thanks Ann! I have quite a vivid imagination which is great for coming up with unique narratives but not great for being in my flat on my own as I'm always convinced people / ghosts are trying to break in. I think what inspires me varies but right now I'm really into reality tv from the 90s like Blind Date and Streetmate.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer? Did you ever consider an alternative career?
I always wanted to go to art school but wasn't sure what I'd do once I got there. I thought about graphic design and photography but I really love products so the notion of designing something that doesn't exist really appealed to me. When I was younger I fantasised about working for a magazine in New York in a really tall glass office and if people came to meet me for lunch they've have to sign in at reception and be issued with a lanyard. Now I secretly fantasise about writing the stories for the Daily Mail where they've papped someone getting an ice cream and try to make a whole article about it.
How do your designs become a reality? Talk us through your production process from initial sketches to final product.
With scarves, it's fairly straight forward. I draw the design in different colour separations and send them to my manufacturer in Italy. We sample back and forth until I'm happy with the size and colours and try them on a few different silks to see what works. Then we send them to print and they attach labels and swing tags. Jewellery is a little more complicated. I make models out of clay or card and draw sketches by hand of what I want to make. Then I sample with the manufacturer and develop what's called a 'spec' which is a super detailed breakdown of sizes and finishes. We'll normally sample a few times before getting it right and I like to 'road test' the pieces too and wear them out and about. I genuinely believe that's the only way to get it right. If something is uncomfortable, swivels round or hits you in the face then it's back to the drawing board! I'm literally the fussiest person ever when it comes to jewellery! I only wear my own pieces and a ring I bought from Georgia Wiseman which I literally love to death.
You've built up a great list of stockists including Liberty in London. Explain the logistics involved in presenting your designs to buyers?
I'm pretty new to it so I'm kind of learning this myself. I had no idea how to approach buyers so was incredibly lucky when Liberty approached me. Fortunately most of the stockists I work with found me which makes sense because the buyers know their customer better than anybody. This season we presented at Paris Fashion Week so overseas buyers could come and see us in person. It's so important for them to be able to see things in the flesh. I think of the big department stores like revolving doors- brands go in and out and come back around again.
Working as a designer can be unpredictable. Have you ever felt pressurised to get a 9-5 job? Explain the highs and lows of working for yourself.
When it's good, it's the best job ever. Obviously the ability to be flexible with how you spend your days and the travelling is amazing but for me you can't beat the highs of getting samples back which are better than you imagined or flipping through a magazine and seeing something you designed. But of course, there are lows too. Rejection is hard, also the logistics of shipping and production, spreadsheets and VAT can be a headache. having said that I wouldn't change a thing because I absolutely love it. Now I wonder if I could even get a 9-5 job!
Lots of young designers move to London after graduation. In your experience, what are the main benefits of being a designer in Scotland?
I lived in London for a few years after I graduated so I suppose I was one of them. I was actually speaking to an American buyer about this when we met back in February. She said that in terms of being a designer, it's better to be somewhere where you can really focus on developing your own unique style, rather than being influenced by what's current or what's on trend. I think that's the main benefit for me plus the Scottish fashion community is unreal. The support is immense and you get a true sense that everyone is in it together. It feels exciting and completely accessible if you're passionate and dedicated. Also, London is brilliant every now and then but I always feel like a sweaty nobody on the tube!
You're currently based in Edinburgh. How would you define the capital's sense of style?
I think it's quite laid back and practical. I wonder if it's something to do with having a couple of massive hills in the middle of the city or having all the weather in one day. People seem to go for timeless and well chosen pieces over throwaway ones. Well cut wool coats, flat shoes and good glasses.
Do you think you've found success yet?
Absolutely no way have I found it yet! I think I'll always be chasing something and be aiming for something more. I think success for me will be feeling like I have nothing to prove.
And finally, if you could talk to your ten year old self, what would you like her to know?
That is such a good question! I had a dream recently where I got the chance to re-live my entire life and had the option to change things. The outcome wasn't necessarily better just different. I guess you have to make mistakes in life to learn. I would say don't worry so much because life gets more complicated later on. And stop wearing cycling shorts with everything!