Karen Mabon/ Fashion / Edinburgh Image : Future Positive
Inspired by the popular references she imbibed when spending many rain-drenched school holidays immersed in books, films and television, Scottish designer, Karen Mabon captures “the romance of the everyday” in her luxury accessory range. Discover how she makes the mundane into the marvelous in this intriguing interview.
As beautiful as they are why scarfs? Where did your passion for these accessories stem from?
I studied Goldsmithing at the RCA in London so I’ve always been interested in accessories and the notion of wearable art. One day I went into a vintage shop in York and inside the glass cabinet next to the till, there was an old liberty scarf with delicate line drawings of mussels printed on it. The idea of something a bit filthy and grotesque printed on the more luxurious of all fabrics captured my imagination Then I discovered Hermes and I was hooked.
‘Weaving whimsical and surprising narratives throughout your work’ – would you say this is your trademark and please tell us where you find inspiration for your designs?
I suppose it has become a bit of a trademark. I’ve recently tried to develop designs which are a bit simpler but I just can’t get away from colour and maximalism. I literally find inspiration from my work from everywhere which is probably why it looks like a mashup of Where’s Wally and Hieronymus Bosch… I do love a whimsical narrative. I come from the Black Isle in Scotland and everyone there loves telling stories, probably because there’s not much to do up there. I exaggerate everything and my work grows arms and legs too.
“Leonardo DiCaprio’s mum bought one of my scarves. This means there is a slim possibility that our hands have both touched the same piece of silk. So we have essentially shaken hands.”
How do you decide what will work well for example who thought gingerbread men and poodles could look so stylish!
Ha-ha thank you! For me, I don’t think much has changed since I was a child in terms of the things I’m drawn to and the things I find deliciously appealing. Shiny plastic toys, sticky sweets, a fluffy poodle, icing dripping off the side of a cake… the things I like to depict are all quite sensory. I think colour plays quite an important role too – one of the first scarves I ever designed was a laboratory with pills and mice with ears, but because it was rendered in sugary pastels, it looked more innocent. Similarly, colour can give things an ‘edge’ too.
You have had an exciting career so far, from studying at Edinburgh College of Art, attending the prestigious Royal College of Art in London and then going on to work with many top names including Margaret Howell and set-designer Fred Butler. What has been the highlight so far?
I think travelling has been pretty great – last year I visited my agent in Tokyo and that was incredible! It was Halloween and everybody had dressed their dog up which I obviously loved. Everything was different; I remember watching the weather on telly and instead of pointing with his finger, the weatherman pointed to the map with a big long stick with a pink spongy ball on the end.
It blew my mind. Paris Fashion Week was amazing this year… seeing the collection in Liberty… but I have to say, probably the absolutely highlight was when I learned that Leonardo DiCaprio’s mum bought one of my scarves. This means there is a slim possibility that our hands have both touched the same piece of silk. So we have essentially shaken hands.
“When I’m going out to a party, Veruca Salt in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
The fashion and design industry is a highly competitive one, how do you manage to succeed and stand out from the crowd?
I try really hard not to look at what other people are doing; it’s almost impossible because I also love Instagram and am by nature a voyeur. I don’t really feel cool enough to be part of the ‘fashion’ conversation so I try to just do my own thing on the side. I’m not interested in making something which is the Zeitgeist for one season and then gets tossed aside – I want to make forever things with authenticity. I’ve started to notice that the kind of people who buy my work buy it because it resonates with them on a personal level.
Maybe it reminds them of a pet rabbit or dropping their ice cream at the beach or a holiday romance. That sense of dreamlike familiarity and nostalgia. I live in Edinburgh and sometimes feel a bit out of the loop with trends but sometimes I think that can be a positive thing. I love people operating in the fashion industry who are just getting on with making great stuff, like Rei Kawakubo. And I love Bill Cunningham, who just wears the same blue workwear jacket every day and isn’t bothered.
You work with a great range of stockists now, how did you feel when the first deal was done? Are you selective over who stocks your range and if any what criteria must they meet.
Stocking with Liberty was literally a dream come true. I felt like I was swimming through air. But then I instantly felt panicky about if I would ever be able to come up with new design ideas, and I think that’s the reality of the fashion industry – you’re only as good as your last collection. Actually make that your next collection. I try to be selective and protective about whom I work with.
Not in a vain way, although there are a few department stores internationally I would love to stock with. I think it’s about the buyer understanding the story – I’d rather supply a tiny independent boutique who loves the product and will take pride in displaying it in their store, and communicate this passion to their customers, than a huge chain where the scarves will get swallowed up by bigger brands.
You’ve worked with a few brands on commissioned pieces. Tell us more about what is involved when a client commissions a piece of work?
Generally a client will approach me with an idea or a proposal for a project and at that stage I’ll decide whether or not I’m interested. To be fair, I say yes to most things mainly due to the fear that I’m sure every self-employed person has when it comes to turning away work. But also because the sort of clients who approach me are generally into what I do and therefore tend to propose things which I find exciting. Depending on the project, we go back and forth a bit with rough sketches and talk through ideas. I want to make sure the client is happy with the way the design is going. Then I work up a finished draught and maybe make some final tweaks.
Do you enjoy commissioned work or do you prefer to free flow with your own inspiration?
I like both! Commissions are fun because it’s always nice to be presented with an idea which you would never have thought of. But I think the balance works well – after doing a few commissions, I go back to my own work bursting with energy and feel like I’ve been set free. But I’m curious about things and different environments so any commission which comes with a site visit is always a winner.
If you could create a design for any major world event what would it be and why?
Taylor Swift’s world tour. Yes I am shallow but like everybody else I am completely obsessed with her – her stylist called in a few of my scarves (The Midnight Feast one with the foxes and the Swan Lake one) but I’ve never see her wear them and it would be my absolute DREAM. I hope she is reading the Radisson RED blog. Why wouldn’t she be?
Describe your style.
Day to day, a bit of Joan Baez meets Andy Warhol. When I’m going out to a party, Veronica Salt in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
When travelling what are the three items you always take (passport and official docs aside)
A big cosy scarf – I am not even lying about this, I’ve used them as blankets in airports and balled up as pillows against train windows – my makeup bag, and business cards just in case I end up sitting next to Leo DiCaprio’s mum…
25 – 35 years
Andy Warhol, felt tips, Pet Shop Boys, Celia Birtwell, makeup, Alexa Chung
Instagrams of food, moths, real fur
Your life moto:
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