Interview with Katherine Hooker

Fashion is notoriously fickle, today it dictates one shape or colour, tomorrow it’s completely gone, replaced by something more current. Trends come and go, but I always look back at the women in my family, both of my grandmothers ( who had style and flare, at the time when it was nearly impossible to find something in the shops ) and I look at my mother who has been and remains a huge inspiration to me. From them I know that you need to listen to your own inner voice and choose the clothes that suit you, your personality and lifestyle and not necessarily ‘follow’ what others are wearing or the fashion style mavens are trying to impose on you.

I have heard about fashion designer ( somehow calling her that already seems wrong, because her designs are timelessly elegant and not just ‘in’ today, ‘gone’ tomorrow ) Katherine Hooker a few years ago. She has a small, intimate shop in Chelsea, in Ashburnham road and makes really beautiful jackets, coats, dresses, waistcoats & skirts. A friend of mine mentioned her name in passing and one day, on a spurr of the moment I wandered in, only to be greeted by a small dog with a loud bark-later I found out that he was Katherine’s dog, called Pretzel who is a mascot and master of the shop. The shop itself looked like an atelier, where you could browse in the front of the store, with light pouring in through the large windows and sometimes even get invited into the studio at the back, to be shown the samples of the fabric-I found it all quaint and fascinating, never having been fitted for a jacket like the ones that Katherine makes, made-to-order, before. To talk about fabrics, buttons, finishes-it sounded surreal, but so much fun!

KH portrait

Since then, I have ordered a few more jackets and last year I succumbed to the beauty of one of Katherine’s new coats, called the Jackson-luxurious, cocoon like and very cosy-once I put it on, I didn’t want to take it off-feeling smart and cosy in equal measure. I walked away home and wasn’t able to get that coat out of my mind, the picture on my IPhone drawing me like a magnet to it. In the end I just couldn’t resist and tentatively ordered it. And low and behold, cocoon’s linear volume is back in fashion this year, so what Katherine envisioned last winter, is perfectly on trend now! 

I have met Katherine in person on many occasions; she took my measurements and gave me advice or fittings when I came into the shop to place an order or to browse new additions. I always found her quite striking-maybe not in the wow, model like sense of the world, but in an earthly way, with her wavy hair, her kind, piercing blue eyes and her quiet, observant personality-she always seems welcoming, almost nurturing in her attitude to her clients…..

KH black coat

We bumped into each other at fairs, where she was manning her stand, talking to customers and then one day I thought to myself, hang on, this woman is unlike anyone else, and yet, even though she has many well-known clients I haven’t read a big interview with her-why, why?

I e-mailed Katherine about it and we exchanged e-mails, but it took a little while for us to find the suitable time-either she was busy working in the shop and travelling for fairs & trunk shows, or I couldn’t come at a certain time. However stars were kind, and on a warm and sunny afternoon in July, having run like a mad rabbit around town, I came to the Katherine Hooker’s shop, which was bathed in lazy sunshine and peacefulness. I sat down with a glass of water and waited almost dreamily for Katherine, who came in shortly from the shop’s inner sanctum, sat down next to me and we started talking…..

KH baseball jacket

Both of Katherine’s parents are American, but she was born in Cyprus and raised in Africa for the first ten years of her life where her father worked for the oil giant Esso. She is also related to Thomas Hooker, a prominent  colonial leader who founded the state Connecticut in the USA. He was the one, as Katherine gently recited to me, who promoted the concept of a government that must answer to the people, stating: “They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them through the privilege of election, which belongs to the people according to the blessed will and law of God”.

 Katherine still remembers Africa fondly, but when her parents separated, Katherine’s mother moved to London, taking Katherine and her siblings with her (she has two sisters and a brother) where Katherine was sent to a boarding school. I would imagine that it must have been quite a change, going from the freedom and brightness of Africa, to the rules and restrictions of a boarding school, but Katherine shook her head, saying that as a kid you feel like you have to fit in and she felt like she was a chameleon of sorts. She seemed English and yet she didn’t feel like one.

She left school at 16, deciding against University degree and went to Paris, where she did a course at the Sorbonne. She also worked as the photographer’s assistant, following her passion for photography in general ( and it really comes across when you look at the Katherine Hooker collection catalogues-she might not be the one taking pictures, but she is very actively involved in the process, hovering in the background with her practised eyes and you feel her unmistakable imprint in each photo ) and even today she still loves taking pictures, as long as it doesn’t involve taking shots of herself.

beige KH jacket

She came back to London when she was 18, taking on waitressing and cleaning  jobs. She says that ‘cleaning for other people was great training’ and she always looked at it ‘as set decorating of sorts’.

It was the time when the interior magazines were only emerging tentatively on the scene and that was also the time when Katherine came to work for Laura Ashley, one of the ‘cool’ shops of that time and very British in its essence. Katherine was involved with putting the catalogues together in the early 80s and her only regret now is that she wished she ‘paid more attention’.

She took her sense of family-like-business from that experience and it is an integral part of her business now. She is committed to keeping it small & personal but she gives young women, who work for her, responsibility and tries to reward their work ‘as much as I can’, adding that she thinks that she is ‘good at attracting good people’, as people who work for her tend to be ‘keepers’. 

Katherine went through a slight identity crisis in her 20s and went to search for a change of scene in New York, where she worked as a freelance stylist for interior decorating shoots and where her great affection for Ralph Lauren was born. She cites him ( and his brand ) as a big inspiration, partly because  he is known for not just selling clothes or perfumes, but a whole lifestyle, placing right people into the right jobs within his empire.

Katherine returned to London aged 31 and decided to try her hand in the film industry-in her view the film industry works around the character and the whole design process revolves around them. By the time she turned 35, she switched to working in commercials and says that Brits are great at making them, particularly as there were decent budgets that allowed creativity to flow or as she puts it ‘we didn’t have to create magic out of nothing’.

Katherine also wanted to travel to India for inspiration and when an opportunity presented itself, she took one self-made coat with her. The coat that inspired her design was bought in Jerusalem, was antique and originally made for a boy-and remember, at that time there was no ‘mass market’. Katherine perfected the design, bought six different types of tweed and went to the tailor who made twenty coats based on her idea and design.

When she returned, she called friends and asked them to tell their friends about her coats which to her surprise, all sold pretty quickly. The problem was that the tailor that she used retired and she had to hire a new pattern cutter-she says that all that upheaval forced her to learn and learn fast from the people with whom she ended up working on her production line, that culminated with her opening the Katherine Hooker shop in 2005.

Katherine smiles when admiting that initially she ‘knew nothing about fashion, but now makes conscious choices based on the results of the steps that were taken before’, creating designs that represent the best of English tradition & fashion. Listening to her is completely captivating, she talks calmly but with such inner joy and conviction that you could listen to her talk forever. Katherine seems to radiate some kind of unseen magic around her and yet is completely immune to the effect that she has on people.       

KH jacket red

She initially hired just one girl to intern, with a beautiful name Sapphire (who was recommended to her by her mother & brother) and who stayed with her for three years, as the business was slowly built. Interestingly, Sapphire’s father ( he is a naturalized American who has an interest in investing in small companies, helping to build an intangible structure without interfering with the actual ‘running’ of the project at hand, while indeed offering advice) is the chairman of Katherine Hooker’s company, so family relations and connections run through it in the best sense of this word.

At this stage Katherine has been running her business and shop for six years in London ( her current autumn/winter collection being in its tenth season ) and she also very successfully is doing trunk shows in the US ( she started with the Big Apple and then expanded into covering Boston, DC and East Coast, often following people’s request to do a trunk show for her, in their homes, even without meeting with them prior to the e-mail exchange-looking at Katherine it makes me think of a brave explorer, who goes into the unknown willingly, following her dream ). Katherine says that many people have a misconception about Americans, who are ‘enthusiastic and open’ in her view. It is also often assumed that with a ‘stylist to the stars culture’, that is very prominent in the US, American ladies will do what the stylist tells them to wear, while Katherine says that more often than not her American clients end up asking the question ‘where would I wear this jacket or coat or dress…’ before committing to a purchase, so she definitely believes in the ‘special relationship between consumers and the retailer’. Now the trunk shows are hosted in hotels, the biggest one of course taking place in New York. Katherine says that in the US she has a younger demographic and her American clients seem to possess a different work ethic to the one exercised in the UK.

The trends and the business of Katherine’s shop tend to vary, with the busiest months falling on the the last four months of the year and also on the summer months, when Katherine’s clients are looking not just for a special coat or jacket, but for a pretty, feminine dress or skirt in one of her signature solidly vibrants colours-I have one of her cream mid-length skirts, with beautiful red flowers dotted all over it and pretty red ties that need to be wrapped around the waist, bought a a few years ago-and it always makes me feel feminine and pretty, even though I am a tomboy at heart.

buxton-jacket-and-betty-dress-flared

Katherine also notes a significant increase in her online sales, with the orders placed online last September, for example, exceeding all of her expectations. She is currently working on fulfilling her dream of allowing her customers to ‘build their own coat online’ but adds that she won’t proceed with it until everything is perfect and she knows that her and the team can do it without so much as a glitch. She also just succumbed to the demand for a traditional male country jacket, actually offering two designs, aptly called the Classic & the Douglas and something tells me that it is just the beginning of that direction, designing for male clientele, especially in Great Britain.

The first, initial Katherine Hooker collection was started with one coat ( the Braid ) and one jacket and every year Katherine adds something new, a new slightly tweaked shape, or jacket or coat or even a bag ( called the Harvey ), introduced for this autumn/winter and each one of them always looks timely, inviting, comfortable. At the moment Katherine does about 70% made-to-order and 30% ready-to-wear but trends do change, depending on her customer needs. Whether you buy one of her wares off the peg or have the luxury of having it made especially for you, you can be assured that you will wear and treasure those pieces forever, with Katherine & her loyal, family-like team, weaving their skills into the designs, letting you feel like part of her creative family, while giving you the freedom to be completely unique.

Do you want to guess how many stages the making of a jacket has? I nearly choked when Katherine said…50 and every one of those stage is individual, from the ordering of the fabric, to the manual, personal touch without ever compromising on service or quality. When a couple of years ago my made-to-measure jacket was ready for collection and I came to pick it up, one of the front panels had a little kink in it-it wasn’t that noticeable, but the girl who was helping me try it on, zeroed in on it and the jacket was re-tweaked so it was just perfect.

Katherine does have many famous clients but she never names any names or boasts about people who come to her shop. One of the reasons while I find Katherine so touchingly different, is that unlike many people working in the fashion industry, particularly in clothes design, she is not at all driven by fame or the celebrity culture or endorsements. She seems to know her own identity and place in the world so well, that she just follows her path every day. So whether you are a girl next door or a well-known actress, Katherine and her team treat you exactly the same, without batting an eyelid. Katherine does admit to one famous crush, the formidable Meryl Streep and says that she has made a couple of jackets for her because she really wanted to and it gave her a great pleasure and inner contentment to be able to do that.

Katherine sources her tweeds from English and Scottish manufacturers, which are all woven to the highest standard and tradition. For example, the Harris tweeds that she uses are completely authentic in that they are woven and dyed and the work of those people is still protected by the governmental authority.

When I ask Katherine what sells better, she pauses for a minute, deep in though and says that the jackets probably take a lead, with the Patmos being a particularly successful best-seller, closely followed by the Alexander and the Hacking. Katherine tends to keep the most successful designs in her future collections, adding about four to six new designs ( there are two collections a year, Spring/Summer & Autumn/Winter ) and new fabrics to the mix.

KH green jacket

What inspires her I ask? She says that she enjoys learning constantly, interacting with her customers ( she still does country fairs which this year have been sadly quite affected due to torrential rains and the Olympics ) and her customers imparting their own judgement and playing a part in the whole design process.

Does she relax or travel for pleasure with the shop so busy? She laughs and says that she doesn’t really switch off and goes away on a holiday once in a blue moon. Her schedule is divided into spending roughly two months a year in the US, six in the UK and three or four in Greece, where her boyfriend lives, but Katherine acknowledges that when she is in Greece, it’s not a holiday, she works actively, adding that her IPad is a great tool for Skyping with her team on a regular basis.

Being in Katherine’s company is completely and utterly fascinating and not because she is a very successful designer, but because she is so comfortable in her own skin, in her attitude to life and so in tune with the needs of her clients, that it really changes your perspective on life. Her shop is the testament that quality, fusion of tradition and dedication to the craft that is indeed timeless, without the desire to be edgy or to emulate someone else’s success-you just follow your dream, do your best every day, inspire your team and take on board what you client needs. That is probably to secret to Katherine Hooker’s success…..

http://katherinehooker.com/

p.s Katherine Hooker tenth Autumn/Winter season collection includes new additions, namely the Tallulah & Franklin coats, the Westcott & Cain jackets, the Hood & Long-washed silk-satin scarves, as well as the above mentioned the Harvey bag.

Categories: Fashion, Interviews

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